Making Bone Grease or Puiñiq

Processing and Storage

Processing marrow bones for their grease was a long and tedious job that took many hours.  This was true even after the introduction of copper and brass kettles, which allowed the cooks to boil water directly over an open fire, as is shown in this photograph on the right.

Before then, the work was done with wooden buckets that were filled with water and brought to a boil by adding hot fist-sized rocks.  In preparation for boiling with hot rocks, the cook had to gather and stockpile armloads of firewood and dozens of pounds of rocks, in addition to crushing the bones, tending the fire, controlling the boiling of the water, and skimming off the grease that was rose to the top of the bucket.

The amount of effort involved can perhaps best be appreciated by the following example.  In 1971, a visiting anthropologist arranged for Nunamiut villagers to make a quantity of puiñiq using the old fire heated rock method.

The anthropologist observed a single five-gallon kettle full of crushed marrow bones processed. This required more than 60 pounds of stones (see the figure to the right) and three backloads of firewood. It took two hours to boil the bones, and the final yield, was a lone seven ounce cake of grease (Binford, 1978:157).

The process began by cleaning the bones of all traces of meat, tendons, and tissue.  After cracking them open to remove the edible bone marrow (patiq) the preparer stockpiled them to await crushing.

The actual crushing was done by placing the bone on a flat anvil stone (like the one in the photograph on the left) and hitting it repeatedly with a stone hammer until the bones were pulverized into small chunks called kaukkat.

While the bones were being crushed, lots of fist-sized rocks were heating in the flames of a nearby fire.  When they glowed red hot, they were raked from the fire and transferred to a water-filled bucket or pot using a small shovel fashioned from the palm of a caribou antler.

Once the water was carefully brought to a boil, the cook added the kaukkat. She closely watched and controlled the fire to avoid accidentally boiling the grease away.  As the boiling began and the water was at its hottest, a bubbly brown froth formed on the surface of the water.  This froth, called qapukłuk, was a favorite of both children and elders.  It was only they who were given the privilege of snacking on this treat by licking from the sheep horn ladle that was used to skim it off.  Apart from this, no other snacking was allowed by anyone while the bones were being processed.

The cook kept the water at a slow boil while occasionally stirring the mixture with a stick. She periodically added handfuls of snow to control the water temperature, which allowed the surface grease to congeal. This made it easier to collect and ladle off the fat. After the fat was skimmed off, the remaining mixture of watery grease and small floating bits of marrow, called uniŋu, was skimmed off and eaten by anyone who wanted some, as was the imiġaq or broth that resulted from this process.  Finally, the exhausted bone fragments and water were dumped out, and the entire process was repeated again and again, after which the kaugaq (bone fragments) were fed to the sled dogs to keep them free from worms.

Storage

The most common traditional method of storing freshly made puiñiq was to ladle it into a skin bag, puuq, created from the stomach or qisaguaq of a freshly killed caribou.  Once the stomach was removed from the dead animal, it was turned inside out, emptied, and cleaned by hand.  Elders stressed that no water was used in the cleaning because they wanted some of the flavor of the nigukkaq, the digested rumen or stomach contents, to remain.  They like the taste it would give to the puiñiq.  After it was cleaned, the stomach was turned right side out again, inflated with air and hung inside the tent to partially dry.  Care was taken to prevent the stomach from completely drying out, since if that happened it would harden, crack and become totally useless.  Once it was half dry, the air was let out, it was collapsed flat, and the stomach was ready for use.  As the puiñiq was ladled carefully into the puuq, the preparers pushed out all trapped air bubbles so the flavor of the bone grease would not be affected.  Once filled, the puuq was stored in a cool place until needed.