Planet Alaska: 13 ways of looking at goose tongue

By Vivian Faith Prescott

For the Capital City Weekly

1. Talking story: My daughter Yeilk’ and I walk the beach among clumps of goose tongue in Keishangita.aan (Red Alder Head Village), looking for the smaller tender plants. Yan uwaláa, the tide is low. We sit down surrounded by goose tongue and I remember, as a teenage mother, I allowed my daughter to experience Tlingit Aaní with her whole self, letting her get wet and sandy, and taste all the edible plants. Her small hand reached for the plants, imitating me, and she picked a leaf and put it in her mouth. She chewed and swallowed the heritage of 10,000 years of Tlingit ancestors harvesting and from Tlingit Aaní.

2. Tide and Time: Memories move like tidal fluxes — my sister and I would drag a log from the tideline and float it. We would sit on the log until our legs were numb, then it was time to get out. The outgoing tide exposed goose tongue plants, and we’d picked them. We loved the taste, especially after the salty sea had risen and fallen and washed them with nutrients from the ocean.

3 Goose tongue palate: Tzatziki: Greek cucumber sauce made with goose tongue, spruce tips and sea lettuce. Goose tongue sauteed with black olives, yellow cherry tomatoes, garlic and spruce tips, and topped with feta. Goose tongue salsa for your king salmon tacos. Goose tongue in your salmon spring rolls. Chopped goose tongue in tartar sauce, in potato salad and in macaroni salad. Goose tongue in halibut and salmon patties.

4. Nourish and flourish: My Grandma Ruth taught me to eat goose tongue. She loved the wilderness and our island’s beaches. She showed my sister and I all the beach plants and allowed us to try our first piece of goose tongue. Today, whenever I eat goose tongue, I remember my childhood: the beach scent, rain, wet seaweed. These ways-of-knowing are what I’ve given my children and now my grandchildren. Eat and remember; nourish and flourish.

5. Passing on traditions: I have four children and when each child was old enough to toddle on the beach, I introduced them to goose tongue. Though I’m sure they ate it when they were even younger whenever I brought some home. The scientific name for goose tongue is Plantango maritima and it’s commonly called sea plantain. Goose tongue is called suktéitl’ in my children’s Lingít language.

6. Good food, good values: The Tlingit saying “When the tide is out, the table is set” means there are many wonderful things to eat on the beach. Passing on the tradition of goose tongue harvesting is a highlight of summer subsistence harvesting. My children and grandchildren learned not to take too much from each plant or take too much from each location, and most important, to share with elders and people who can’t get out.

7. Know your plants: Everyone needs to know the difference between poisonous arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima) and goose tongue. On several occasions, my Grandson Jonah and I have searched for both plants along the beach. Arrowgrass, though not as abundant, often grows near or alongside goose tongue. We got down on our knees and examined each plant. Goose tongue is flat and wide and arrowgrass is round and resembles grass. They grow in clumps that are very similar at first glance and have similar looking flowerings. It’s best to go with an experienced harvester so you don’t make the mistake of harvesting a poisonous plant. I’ve instructed Jonah to hold a blade of goose tongue in one hand and blade of arrowgrass in another and repeat: Goose tongue is good, arrowgrass is poison.

This photo shows an arrowgrass and goose tongue comparison. Arrowgrass is on the left. Goose Tongue on the right. ((Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

This photo shows an arrowgrass and goose tongue comparison. Arrowgrass is on the left. Goose Tongue on the right. ((Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

8. Gathering recipes: Goose tongue chopped in vegetable dips, goose tongue avocado dressing, goose tongue in smoked coho macaroni salad, goose tongue chopped in deviled eggs, goose tongue sauteed with shrimp, beach asparagus, and seaweed, and goose tongue in rice noodles. You can harvest goose tongue nearly all summer, from when it’s young and tender until it gets tougher at the end of summer. Some harvesters don’t pick it after the plant flowers. Climate affects goose tongue’s flavor — hotter years with warmer ocean temperatures make goose tongue less salty and less palatable.

9. Teaching grandchildren: A few years ago, Grandsons Chatham and Owen visited the island and I took them out harvesting goose tongue. They’ve probably tried goose tongue

Owen Mork tastes goose tongue in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Owen Mork tastes goose tongue in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

with their dad and mom while out hiking Sitka’s beaches. Buckets in hand, we walked through a big patch of goose tongue. “Goose tongue is not a bird’s tongue, but that’s what we call the plant.” They’re amazed they can eat grass. My grandsons were staying with their other set of grandparents so we picked enough for them to share. “Always share your harvest,” I instructed.

10. Language of the land: Grandson Timothy repeated the word for goose tongue: Suktéitl’. “Gunalchéesh suktéitl’, thank-you goose tongue, we echoed together as we harvested. I brought scissors, but showed Timothy how to use his fingers to pinch off the blades. We practiced other Lingít words: Yéil tx’áaxu (raven’s hat): limpet; s’ook, barnacle, and ax dachxán, my grandchild, as we walked through a large patch of goose tongue.

11. Speaking with goose tongue: On the beach, in a meditative mood, my memories uncovered like lifting popweed to reveal a gumboot on a rock: I attended a Lingít language immersion camp sponsored by Sealaska. Myself and my fellow participants were staying in Angoon at Albert and Sally Kookesh’s Kootznahoo Inlet Lodge. Kaashán, Albert Kookesh, maneuvered the skiff into a narrow channel between the islands. Elders sat beside me speaking in Lingít, their words mixed with the wind and the sound of the outboard motor.

Us younger people got out of the skiff and helped the elders onto the sand. We searched for goose tongue and beach asparagus. It didn’t take us long to spot the plants because they were everywhere. We spent the next couple of hours talking in Lingít. I sat next to the elders, trimming beach greens. The words they were teaching us were once forbidden. These elders were punished for speaking their language.

We cooked the greens back at the lodge and served them up with other traditional foods: halibut, herring eggs, beach asparagus, salmon. An elder made us bannock bread. We listened patiently as the elders helped us pronounce the words for the food on our plates: cháatl, gáax’w, suxkáadzi, t’á. Each word sat in our mouths as rich as the delicious food in our bellies.

12. Stewards of the land: When my daughter Nikka, Cháas Koowu Tláa, was 9 months pregnant with her second child we went down on the beach to harvest goose tongue. Nikka placed the goose tongue on her belly so the baby would know the land and the warm day, and the traditions we’re practicing. It’s important to pass on these traditions and someday I’ll teach this grandchild the word for goose tongue: suktéitl’.

13. Share: Fresh goose tongue fills my cloth bag and my daughter Yeilk’ and I walk back home chewing on goose tongue. I give a handful of goose tongue to my dad. It’s one of his favorite greens. You can dry goose tongue in the sun if you’re having a stretch of hot weather or in a food dehydrator, or in an oven on low. Pickling is another way to preserve it. It doesn’t freeze well. You can chop it up when it’s dry and add it to your special homemade seasonings. Tonight, we’re sauteing goose tongue with Wrangell shrimp. I’m sure it’ll be delicious, as sure as I am that when I’m long gone, my children and grandchildren will pick goose tongue, brush sand from their sleeves, inhale the salty air, and think of me.

• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *