Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Eskimo Pie Day

It has always been my intentions to include American statehood celebrations @ Months of Edible Celebrations.
Perhaps, I'll begin with A for Alaska or just Eskimo Pie Day.

"Between 25,000 and 35,000 Alaskan Inuit inhabit the west, southwest, and the far north and northwest of Alaska. Other smaller groups live in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. The name Eskimo was given to these people by neighboring Abnaki Indians and means "eaters of raw flesh." The name they call themselves is Inuit, or "the people." Culturally and linguistically distinct from Native Americans of the lower 48 states, as well as from the Athabaskan people of Alaska, the Inuit are closely related to the Mongoloid peoples of eastern Asia. It is estimated that the Inuit arrived some 4,000 years ago on the North American continent, thus coming much later than other indigenous peoples...Throughout their long history and vast migrations, the Inuit have not been greatly influenced by other Indian cultures. Their use and array of tools, their spoken language, and their physical type have changed little..."source

Eskimo Pie, is an ice cream confection. It is a brand name for a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar wrapped in foil, the first such dessert sold in the United States. The Eskimo Pie was invented by a high school teacher by the name of Christian Kent Nelson. An Eskimo Pie is a type of foil wrapped dessert that's made with vanilla ice cream and covered in hard chocolate. The sweet confection is skewered onto a thin wooden stick, which is used as a handle. Although, today is not the day Christian K. Nelson was granted his patent, that was on January 24, 1922, it is the day the Danish immigrant was born (in 1893).

How to celebrate Eskimo Pie Day instantly flashed in my mind when I was reminded by T.W. @ Culinary Types that today is Eskimo Pie Day. My first instinct was to give a brief run down of Christian Nelson's life. Then, I would hit my database and see what came up for Eskimo Pie Day. Finally, I would hit the books and then google. Not really sure what I wanted do, I hit google first. Well, of course Christian Kent Nelson popped up @ wiki. That was good enough for me. I somehow became driven to find out why the I-Scream-Bar was renamed the Eskimo Pie.

Why? Why? Eskimo Pie!

According to legend, Nelson pursued the idea for a chocolate coated ice cream bar in Onawa, Iowa in 1920. "After experimenting with different ways to adhere melted chocolate to blocks of ice cream, Nelson began selling his invention under the name "I-Scream Bars." Now, I don't know how it was then, but, to me, it sounds like he had an established catchy name already, why choose a new one? In 1921, he filed for a patent which was issued on January 24, 1922. The I-Scream-Bar was an immediate success. It seems, somewhere along the way, Christian Kent Nelson partnered up with chocolate manufacturer Russell Stover to mass-produce the I-Scream-Bar under the new trademarked name "Eskimo Pie" (a name suggested by Clara Stover, Russell Stover's wife.) Okay, so Mrs. Stover dreamt up the name "Eskimo Pie" but what propelled her to come up with that name in particular? Let's recap. It's 1922 in Iowa. The Cracker Jack Company is in full swing and The Ice Cream Song isn't popular yet. You know, that song we all know the most popular words to; I scream, you scream, we all scream, for ice cream It was sung by Walter Williams, the members of Waring's Pennsylvanians and recorded in Camden, New Jersey on Novemeber 30, 1927. FYI: namesake band of Fred Waring, as in the blender. The Russell Stover Company did not start with candy. It actually began with the partnership of Christian K. Nelson and his I-Scream-Bar. So, here they all are sitting at a dinner party and out pops Mrs. Stover, "Let's call it the Eskimo Bar!" Had she seen the granddaddy of documentaries, the groundbreaking film Nanook of the North, which was released in 1922? 

Nanook of the North

To many Americans of the time, Nanook, the Eskimo hunter, had become a beloved character. Director Robert Flaherty had brought attention to the Alaskan territory and the Inuit the likes that had never been seen before. Perhaps, Mrs. Stover empathized with the "everyday people doing everyday things, being themselves." Perhaps, Nanook and the toil of his family planted the seeds of resourcefulness, creativity, adaptability and yes, even a bit of humor into the soul of Mrs. Stover. Nanook became an international icon. The film inspired a worldwide "Eskimo" craze. In today's jargon, Nanookmania took to the streets.

Two years later Nanook was dead- as so many of his people die- of starvation. Storm-bound while hunting in the interior, he had not been able to reach the coast and its life-giving seals in time. But by that time Nanook, the film, had gone around the world, and Nanook, the Eskimo hunter, had become a world character, world-beloved. News of his death came out in the press as far away as China and Japan. In Malaya there was a new word for "strong man," and it was "Nanuk." Ten years later in Berlin, in the Tiergarten, I bought an Eskimo pie. It was called a "Nanuk," and Nanook's face smiled up at me from the wrapper...Such was the impact of this first film of its kind, made without actors, without studio, story, or stars, just of everyday people doing everyday things, being themselves. source

Was Nanook of the North a commercial success? Yes. Was the now named Eskimo Pie a commercial success? Yes. The partners sold their manufacturing rights to a number of different companies, and collected royalties from their sales. By 1922, a million Eskimo Pies were being sold every day. Reportedly, the success of the Eskimo Pie caused cocoa bean prices to increase by 50%. Nelson became independently wealthy off the royalties. By 1924, Nelson sold the business to the United States Foil Company, the company that made the foil wrappers that covered the Eskimo Pie treats. In 1935, Nelson returned to the foil company as an executive and invented new ways of manufacturing and shipping Eskimo Pies until his retirement in 1961. When Christian Kent Nelson died in 1992, (at the age of 99,) the Eskimo Pie Corporation was formed as an alternative to an acquisition that Nestlé had proposed in 1991. To this day, the Inuit add an integral fabric to the Alaskan frontier.

Foods of the Inuit

While reading about Nanook of the North, it occurred to me that Clarence Birdseye had also been influenced by the diet and preservation techniques of the Inuit. As a matter of fact, March is also National Frozen Food Month and March 6, 1930 is the confirmed date of "The birth of retail frozen foods" in Springfield, Massachusetts. A source of inspiration for Birdseye's experimentations hit him like a block of ice while he was trapping Caribou in the Arctic. He butchered some steaks and stuck them in the ice as he had seen the Eskimos do. He found they were quite pleasant when thawed and cooked. His keen observations led him to continue his experiments with other precious harvests of the seasons and the eventual belief that fast freezing in temperatures well below zero was the solution to good tasting, frozen food. The "father" of the frozen food industry was reborn.

I also discovered some of the food that was included on the film's expedition. The director Robert Flaherty had frozen canvas bags of pre-cooked pork and beans, dried fruit, sea biscuits and tea. Nanook and his companions' diet was comprised of seal and walrus. The tea, they drank was "borrowed" from Flaherty. The Inuit have traditionally been hunters and fishers. To this day, they still hunt, whales, walruses, caribou, seals, and at times other less commonly eaten animals. Their traditional winter diet does not contain plant matter. But, depending on the season, Grasses, tubers, roots, stems, berries, and edible seaweed are collected and preserved.

The Inuit pride themselves on being great hunters. The Inuit had lots of sea and land animals to hunt. The most important of these were the caribou and the seal. These two animals provided the Inuit with food. Their skin was used for clothing, blankets, tents and boats and their oil was used for cooking and lamps. Bones, ivory and wood were used to make tools. Other animals the Inuit hunted were the walrus, whale, polar bear, musk ox, fox and wolf. source

An interesting Inuit delicacy is Muktuk. Muktuk "is the English word for the traditional Inuit/Eskimo meal of frozen whale skin and blubber. It is most often made from the skin and blubber of the Bowhead Whale, although the beluga and the narwhal are also used. The Inuit treat has its own unique flavor and tender-crisp texture. Some say it tastes like fresh coconut. It is usually sliced thin, sprinkled with salt and eaten raw. Occasionally, it is finely diced, breaded, deep fried and served with soy sauce. It is also sometimes pickled." It is a subsistance food for Alaskan Natives. Seal meat and seal fat which are high in omega-3 oils, are also staples of the Inuit diet. I suppose, I found the Inuit recipe diet worthy of a place on my computer because, although I don't have the recipe book published by the American Gas Company here with me in New York, I do have the recipe for Muktuk in my computer database. It may even be possible that at one time I found it online, I'm really not sure. In any case, here is the recipe from the database.

Muktuk is the outer covering of the whale. It includes the white skin, approximately 1-2 inches thick, plus a thin pinkish layer immediately underneath. After taking blocks from the whale, leave 2 days hanging to dry. Cut into pieces 6 x 6 inches (15x15cm). Have water ready to boil. Cook until it tests tender when pierced with a fork. Keep in oil in a 45 gallon (206 litre) drum after it is cooled. Store in a cool place.

There aren't many places to find traditional Inuit recipes on the internet but, I did manage to find a list of Eskimo recipes which I have provided below. This recipe for Eskimo Ice Cream was harvested from a website which appears to be used as a teaching curriculum. Some of the links don't work but it was a useful resource. You may also be interested in a recipe for Inuit Tortillas and Eskimo Fry Bread. I've also posted a quite a few Arctic recipes for seal, walrus and Polar bear recently. Follow the Arctic link.

Eskimo Ice Cream
Grate reindeer tallow into small pieces. Add seal oil slowly while beating with hand. After some seal oil has been used, add a little water while whipping. Continue adding seal oil and water until white and fluffy. Any berries may be added to it.

1. Christian Kent Nelson @ foodreference.com
2. The Chipwich Story
3. Why Eskimo Pie?
4. How I Filmed Nanook of the North
5. Alaska Eskimos in the Movies (University of Washington Press)
6. Eskimo Recipes


  1. I know I'm late, but I finally made it to the celebration! I think I would opt for the vanilla ices cream with chocolate candy coating over the traditional Eskimo Ice Cream if I were planning a party ...

  2. Hi T.W.
    Glad you could make it. I must say, I'm with you, I'm not quite ready for reindeer tallow & seal oil either.

  3. Hi, according to publications of the time, the Eskimo Pie was already a big success in 1921, in fact almost immediately (an "overnight success") and the name was already being used before Nanook of the North was first released in New York in the Summer of 1922. However the name originated (and there are several stories), it seems unlikely that they came up with the name because of the movie. However, I will certainly agree that the movie probably served as a huge commercial for Eskimo Pies, which really took off that same year.

  4. I cannot attest, by the way, as to exactly the time the name was agreed upon, but it was definitely being used, nationally, by June 1922, before the movie was released, and had probably been agreed upon by the end of 1921.


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