The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm in Dawson City were big winners at this year’s Arctic Inspiration Prize (AIP) ceremony, receiving a combined $1 million for their proposed project to build an extended-season cold-climate greenhouse. The $500K AIP award was matched on the spot by the federal government, with Yukon MP Larry Bagnell making the surprise announcement at the ceremony in Whitehorse on February 12th.
Currently, the northern growing season is constrained to a five-month period from May to September. The funding will enable TH Farm, who partnered with Yukon College for the project, to construct an innovative greenhouse, the first of its kind in the Yukon. that will allow the farm to produce food and to teach growers for up to 10 months of the year, including during some of the coldest periods of winter.
The final greenhouse design and the lessons learned from the project could also be of use to other Yukon First Nations and northern communities seeking to solve their own food security challenges.
TH Farm is currently engaged in an ongoing project to help with the revival of northern farming, improve food security in the North, and develop a viable and productive First Nations working farm north of the 60th parallel in Canada.
According to TH Farm manager Derrick Hastings, the new greenhouse will allow the farm to grow select vegetables well into the fall and winter months. This produce, including pak choi, bok choi, spinaches, microgreens, sunflower sprouts, pea shoots, Chinese cabbage, green onions and various herbs, can grow densely, and does not require warm temperatures but, Hastings adds, the farm team will also be experimenting to see what else can be easily grown in the facility.
Indigenous households across Canada experience food insecurity at a rate nearly twice that of non-Indigenous households. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph says the entire TH Farm project is vital to the First Nation’s future. “There’s been a great decline in Chinook salmon, one of our main food sources, the Porcupine caribou (herd) has a different migration … We have a lot of traditional foods that are no longer fully accessible, the way we used to be able to harvest without limitations,” she said in a recent interview. “Not only will [the greenhouse] provide food security, it’s also an opportunity for our citizens and others to learn how to develop and manage a greenhouse.”
In this small territory, it’s sometimes surprising how much we don’t know about what’s going on. A case in point: farmers and food businesses. There are 145 farms in the Yukon, but many of the territory’s chefs, caterers, retailers and distributors aren’t tuned in to who the farmers are or what they’re growing. The same is true of the farmers — they know those chefs, caterers and retailers are out there, but they don’t know who’s interested in local food or what products they’re after.
All this not-knowing leads to lost opportunity — the opportunity to feature Yukon foods on local menus, in retail outlets and farmers’ markets, and on our tables, and to build lasting relationships that benefit everyone in the local food chain, including we who want to eat more of that food.
Over the past several years Yukon farmers and food businesses have started to find each other, with great results, but there’s more work to be done. The good news is the Yukon Agricultural Association (YAA) and the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon (TIAY) are on it. For the second year running, the two organizations co-hosted the Meet Your Maker event, held this year on Monday January 14 at the Gold Rush Inn in Whitehorse, bringing farmers and food businesses together.
Imagine the scene: Yukon farmers, producers, chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, distributors and a Who’s Who of agriculture and food sector representatives, including Minister of Tourism Jeanie Dendys and Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Ranj Pillai, all in one big room, cooking, eating, talking, making new friends and business connections, sharing recipes, tips, and growing techniques.
“Farmers and producers were thrilled with Monday’s Meet Your Maker event,” said Jennifer Hall, executive director at YAA. Hall noted there were 100 attendees, evenly split between farmer/producers and buyers, including two large food distributors and a representative from a company that supplies groceries for mining camps in the Yukon.
There were product samples and tasters at each of the 20 booths in the room, as well as two cooking demonstration stations where local chefs transformed home-grown products into dishes such as hollandaise sauce, ceviche, gravlax, cranberry fudge and mini, coffee-spiced burgers. Chef Robert Brouillette of the Gold Panner restaurant and his team produced a selection of appetizers made with products from eight local suppliers, proving that not only is local food abundant, it is delicious.
This year’s event was fifty percent bigger than last year’s, and the number of buyers more than tripled. Next year, look out, said Jennifer Hall: “Several farmers/producers said that they wanted a booth next year so we will have to get a bigger room!”
Katie English recently posted on the Dawson Community Garden Facebook page reminding us that it’s time for planning the coming season’s planting.
As January is upon us, so too is the gardening season. The New Year marks the time for getting your plans and dreams in order. Seeds are selected and ordered, gardens get planned and it is even the month for some of our earliest starters.
If you are anything like Katie, then seed variety and quality is of utmost importance. For a seed is where it all begins …. Seeds can be the carrier of many of the diseases we find later on our grown plants or starters, furthermore poor quality seeds can mean poor quality germination, so quality is important. Katie is big on heritage and heirloom seeds. She looks for high quality organic seeds so she can later save the seeds she obtains from her own growing for the future.
Katie likes to know the long history of the seed and how it was saved over generations, and looks for interesting varieties that you can’t find in the grocery store. She also supports the small companies that are working hard to save our heirloom varieties and to produce organic seeds. She points out that 60 per cent of the world’s seeds are owned by big chemical companies and avoids those seeds makes sure she does not support those corporations.
Monsanto, and a handful of other corporate biotech giants, such as Pioneer and Syngenta, have been using their profits to buy up small seed companies, acquiring more than 200 over the past 15 years or so.
They are doing so to dominate the seed market, not just by owning the source, but also to acquire the DNA of heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties for use in their future GMO products. Most of the advantageous plant traits that megacorporations like Monsanto boast about bioengineering, such as drought tolerance, higher yields, or resistance to insects, are in fact the result of traditional breeding over many generations to produce superior seeds. Once the acquisitions are finalized, however, these biotech corporations can splice in their own modified proprietary genes, and patent the resulting seeds.
For those looking for organic or non-GMO seeds, here is a list of seed companies who have taken the safe seed pledge as presented by the Council for Responsible Genetics. Scroll down to see the list of Canadian companies.
There is nothing that provokes more sadness or anxiety in the kitchen than wasting good food. Even putting that wilted lettuce or mouldy tomato into the compost doesn’t make up for the feeling of loss — the loss of the farmer’s hard work, the loss of the energy it took to grow the food, the loss of the energy it took, if it comes from the store, to drive that tomato up the highway or fly it up at great cost.
Nobody likes wasting food. And yet it happens. A lot.
The amount of food that goes to waste in Canada and the world is staggering — worldwide, about one-third of the food that’s produced for human consumption, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And the National Zero Waste Council of Canada estimates that 47% of the value of food waste in Canada can be attributed to households, at a cost of more than $1,100 per year per household. That’s each of us, in our little homes, forgetting what’s in that container in the back of the fridge, or digging into the new bundle of kale before we’ve finished the old.
Happily, there are many, many resources available to help us reduce food waste at home. See Love Food Hate Waste for ideas that range from fridge and freezer storage management to menu planning to smart shopping. And, after every major holiday, Canadian magazines like Chatelaine or Canadian Living, among others, provide tips on what to do with the leftovers.
Our fellow householders often have great ideas as well. A chef friend of mine keeps a bag for vegetable scraps in the freezer — onion ends, wilted lettuce, carrot tops, the green parts of leeks — and when it’s full she makes vegetable stock. There are more drastic measures. When my husband was growing up in Scotland after the Second World War, there was often a “mandatory plate” on the table: last night’s leftovers.
Soups are a really good way to turn leftovers into something new and delicious. (But that old Yukon cabin recipe of adding new ingredients to the bubbling pot on the wood stove every day is probably not the most food-safe approach. At a certain point those original ingredients just plain go bad.)
The most notable thing about this photo is not that the pepper plant is dying – this is not an uncommon occurrence with houseplants under my care. And it is December, the month of low light in the North.
The most notable thing about this photo is that there is a pepper! In December, in the Yukon!
And this pepper was grown from a local seed!
As I ate local farmer, Grant Dowdell’s, delicious red peppers way back in the summer of 2017, I saved some of the seeds and stored them in an envelope over the winter. I didn’t get around to planting them until midsummer 2018, so the pepper plant was just starting to flower in the Fall when it was time to shut down the greenhouse. Rather than give up, I moved the pepper plant indoors. And, low and behold, a pepper grew!
I was inspired by Dawsonite, Meg Walker, who last winter managed to get a pepper plant to flower and produce little peppers in her windowsill – quite a feat this far North.
I am very proud of this little red pepper. It reminds me of both the resilience and the importance of a simple seed – the starting point in the food chain.
There are many aspects to becoming more food self-sufficient in our own communities. The cornerstone is our ability to save and re-grow our own seeds.
In an era where technology is considering the production of ‘sterile seeds,’ my red pepper reminds me how devastating that concept would be. If we can’t save our own seed, what hope is there for global food security?
On a recent trip to Portugal my companions and I discovered vegetable jams; they played a role on every breakfast buffet table at our hotels and B&Bs, and sometimes at dinner too. The morning offerings almost always included tomato jam, or carrot jam, or interesting (and delicious) combinations like zucchini and walnut jam. At our first dinner at a tiny restaurant in Porto we enjoyed an appetizer of a deep-fried cheese croquette drizzled with warm pumpkin jam. It was divine.
In winter, when fresh tomatoes in season are no longer available, canned, whole plum tomatoes are the best possible substitute. Fine Cooking explains why.
For a person like our friend Suzanne Crocker, who canned a whole lotta tomatoes last year and is now looking at a pantry of several dozen one-litre jars and wondering just how much spaghetti sauce the family will stand, tomato jam suddenly looks very appealing.
We have always heard that tomatoes are not really vegetables, but fruits. Well it turns out that tomatoes are actually berries, as are peppers, kiwis, eggplants, bananas and watermelons. So, if your cranberry yield was small in this poor berry year, consider the tomato as a substitute in your favourite berry-based jam.
For future reference and in anticipation of a great tomato harvest next year, the recipe for tomato jam includes amounts for both fresh and canned tomatoes. I like this recipe, adapted from portugueserecipes.ca, because it’s so simple and most closely replicates the jam we enjoyed in Portugal. But if you’re interested in something more complex, there are many recipes to explore among the usual channels that use cumin, hot peppers, lemon juice and other ingredients.
Serve tomato jam on toast or a locally-made bagel with cream cheese or butter, with scrambled eggs, on charcuterie plates, on moose burgers or to accompany roasted meats. The jam is so versatile it flits back and forth between sweet and savoury with ease.
With global populations and the effects of climate change on the rise, many people are sounding the alarm about potential threats to the world’s food supply. At the same time, the production of food has become a multinational corporate endeavour, often criticized for its negative impacts on people’s health, the environment, and the well-being of family farmers.
One solution being proposed is agroecology, a movement whose key aspect is nurturing the land where food is grown, striving for a healthy and balanced ecosystem. And it is a movement that is gaining momentum globally. Agroecology is being touted as both a mitigation and adaptation strategy for climate change, and meets the concerns of consumers who are increasingly demanding healthier food and a closer connection to food producers. Agroecology also dovetails with social movements around the globe – many with significant leadership by women’s and indigenous organizations – that are demanding a healthy food system built on both environmental and human rights.
The agroecology approach centers around small farmers with an ethical approach to their growing, rooted in an understanding that this strategy protects their livelihood. While this has echoes of a throwback to historical growing practices, it is in fact a future-looking strategy that includes applied research and policies centered around small farmers. According to the Agroecology Fund, a non-profit dedicated to fostering the movement, across the planet scientists, grassroots organizations, NGOs, consumers, universities, and public agencies are working with farmers to construct sustainable and nutritious food systems based in agroecology.
Agroecology seems well-suited to the North. Although the short growing season and harsh climate can be challenges for farmers, there are also the perils of a food system where 97 per cent of consumables are trucked in over long distances along a handful of vulnerable highways. Northerners are also, of necessity, resourceful, cooperative, and independent-thinking, and as a result very willing to support local enterprises.
Suzanne would not have been able to successfully complete her year of eating locally without the help and guidance of local growers. While these individuals avoid labels, it is safe to say their philosophical approach is an agroecological one — and perhaps serve as a model for the rest of the world.
One of Suzanne’s greatest challenges early in her year of eating locally was the problem of grain and flour. Farmers Otto Muelbach and Connie Handwerk of Kokopellie Farm had earmarked rye and barley for Suzanne’s use. But the moose got to the barley first, and weather, busted machinery and road closures almost did in the rye.
Happily, the rye was saved and Otto surprised Suzanne with a secret planting of Red Fife wheat. Baked goods were once again a possibility and so were healthy, whole grains for breakfast and dinner. But the barley was just a fond memory.
This year Suzanne planted several rows of hull-less barley from seeds ordered from Salt Spring Seeds, and farmer Grant Dowdell planted some too. Suzanne’s personal stock is about three bushels of seed heads, according to Gerrard; they don’t yet know how much grain that will translate into until they get around to threshing.
But once the threshing is done, a delicious world of barley-based recipes awaits, like this blissful wild mushroom risotto. Mmm, barley!
Oh, the joy of making sourdough bread at home—building a starter, making a sponge, kneading the dough, shaping a loaf, waiting for it rise, baking it, letting it cool and finally, biting into a slice of freshly made bread slathered with good butter—ooh la la. But one of the special joys is the intimate and complicated relationship sourdough bakers develop with their starters.
It’s like having a pet, bakers say, and indeed, they invent names for their starters, they check their starters into sourdough hotels when they travel, or leave strict instructions for house sitters NOT TO THROW IT OUT. They fret when the starter seems sluggish, they call their fellow bakers for sympathy and advice, they wake up in the middle of the night thinking oh no, I forgot to save a half-cup from the starter before I mixed the sponge!
And they engage in endless debate about the strange and magical organisms living in a jar in their fridge. That wild yeast—is it present in the air, free floating or hanging out on the skin of fruits and vegetables, biding its time until the medium of flour and water comes out of the fridge and then diving in to start feeding? Or is that all a myth, and the yeasts are simply present in the flour? And what of the friendly bacteria, the strains of lactobacillus that enter into a symbiotic relationship with the yeast in the medium of flour and water, creating an acid environment inhospitable to bad bacteria that might spoil it—where does it come from?
The other thing Dunn’s team discovered was that the baker’s hands looked very much like sourdough starter, that is, up to sixty percent of the microbes on the hands of the bakers were the same bacteria and yeasts found in sourdough starter, compared to three percent on the average human hand. As Dunn said, “…the bakers did influence their starters, but the other way around was true too. The life of baking seems to influence the bakers.” How cool is that? And if the baker’s hands look like sourdough, what do the cheesemaker’s hands look like? The farmer’s? The beekeeper’s?
Across the planet — from Australia to the Faroe Islands — the culinary world is rediscovering a very old idea, foraging for food. In a heavily mechanized global food system with a very large carbon footprint, where households regularly consume food from continents away, the idea of eating locally and in a wholesome, sustainable fashion, is starting to catch on, especially at the highest levels of haute cuisine. And wild foods are front and centre in this trend.
Foraged foods are not altogether a new idea for restaurants. Truffles, for example, can only be found in the wild, usually with the help of specially-trained animals who sniff them out. High-end chefs have long been in love with the truffle’s unique flavour, and have been known to pay $1,200 a pound for the specialty item. Fiddlehead ferns and wild mushrooms also make the culinary most-wanted list.
Not surprisingly, indigenous peoples are at the heart of the modern foraged food movement. A new generation of chefs from indigenous backgrounds are bringing their age-old culture to modern restaurants. Chef Rayleen Brown of Kungkas Can Cook in Australia is of aboriginal descent, and many of her flavors come from her nomadic upbringing. For her business, she sources 100 percent of her bush foods from local women foragers. Brown’s menus vary based on the foraged products that come in, “riding rhythms of the land and seasons.” Similar stories emerge from places as diverse as Brazil, the American Southwest, and throughout Canada (read our piece on Canada’s indigenous cuisine).
As foraging emerges from the fringes, the mainstream is taking note. We wrote previously about renowned chef Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. In addition to growing his own ingredients at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns farm, Barber and his chefs also forage the nearby woods for nuts and herbs. In Japan, chef Hisoto Nakahigashi of the Michelin-starred Miyamasou restaurant combs the nearby forest and river for fresh ingredients, which he uses to create the evening “kaiseki” meal, comprising many small courses. At Attica Restaurant in Ripponlea, Australia, a suburb of Melbourne, every member of the staff forages for food each day, sometimes bringing back finds just 15 minutes before service begins, and thereby assuring maximum freshness.
Foraging can be a bit of an art, so it’s not surprising that many busy chefs employ experienced foragers to bring them their ingredients. For example. Chef Eddy Leroux of New York’s Restaurant Daniel, collaborates with expert forager Tama Matsuoka Wong, and the two have even co-authored a book, Foraged Flavor. Slovenian chef Ana Roš of Hiša Franko (who was named World’s Best Female Chef in 2017 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards), believes in a “zero kilometre” approach. She has a team of 10 foragers who harvest nearby mushrooms, berries, wild herbs and plants, many not traditionally used in cooking. Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz of Central restaurant in Peru sends a team of seven people out four times per month, foraging from the sea to the Amazon and the Andes for indigenous ingredients. Véliz also runs a research centre called Mater Iniciativa, where researchers record the flavor profiles and properties of wild ingredients before they enter the kitchen. In the Faroe Islands, a popular scuba diving destination, chef Poul Andrias Ziska of Koks restaurant encourages divers to collect mahogany clams, sea urchins, and horse mussels and submerge them in a fjord near the restaurant until it is time to cook.
Nature’s gifts are seasonal, so not surprisingly the use of foraged and wild ingredients often vary depending on the time of year. Rene Redzepi of the Noma 2.0 Restaurant in Denmark varies their menu seasonally, focusing on seafood in winter, fresh vegetables in summer, and wild game and forest finds in fall. Poland’s Atelier Amaro restaurant goes one better. Chef Wojciech Modest Amaro divides his menu into 52 calendar weeks so that he can incorporate the freshest foraged ingredients from the countryside and his garden.
As Suzanne learned during her year of eating only food local to Dawson City, Yukon, edible wild plants abound, even in urban areas, where they are often considered to be weeds, especially if they are prolific growers. Dandelions, wild sage (a.k.a. stinkweed), stinging nettle, and chickweed are just some of the plants that frustrate Canadian lawn owners, but are in fact delicious ingredients, especially when picked while they are young. Some urban restaurants, such as in Iceland, Camissa Brasserie, in Capetown, South Africa, and Masque, in Mumbai, India, may pick up ingredients from among their city’s sidewalks and empty lots.
Rhubarb flourishes in the alleys of downtown Whitehorse; big, healthy plants with spreading leaves and thick green and red stalks. It springs up along fences and behind garages and belongs to no one and everyone. All summer long I roam the laneways of my neighbourhood, knife in hand, returning to gather again and again. At home I wash the foraged harvest extra well (dogs, dust), dry the stalks thoroughly, chop them into half-inch pieces, and freeze them in 1-L portions.
Sometimes I go overboard, and then there’s way more rhubarb than anything else in the freezer. The bags slither and slip and obscure what’s underneath them, they fall out on the floor when I open the freezer door. This becomes annoying, and so I make rhubarb syrup.
I love rhubarb syrup; it’s tart and sour and refreshing, great in cocktails and mocktails or simply stirred into a glass of sparkling water. In our house we pretty much always have a jar at the ready in the fridge door. Each batch of syrup uses up one litre of fruit, so it’s an ideal solution for the rhubarb-overwhelmed.
If I get a bit rhubarb crazy, I’ve got nothing on Suzanne. During her year of eating locally, raw rhubarb juice stood in for the vinegars and lemons that were no longer allowed in her kitchen; she used rhubarb juice in salad dressings, in hollandaise and bearnaise sauces, in pie crusts and even in sweet pickles. Her harvest in the summer of 2017 was driven by fear, the fear of running out. She gathered rhubarb so ferociously that she ended up with 200 pounds. When the year ended and she inventoried her remaining stock, there were still had 95 pounds of frozen, chopped rhubarb distributed amongst her several freezers. That’s a lot of rhubarb.
A major fire this week that completely destroyed one of Iqaluit ‘s two grocery stores has reignited concerns about food insecurity in the North. Our thoughts go out to the entire population of Iqaluit at this difficult time. The blaze at the Northmart store not only destroyed the food on the shelves, but also an adjoining warehouse where a large cache of dry goods was being stored. Most of these goods, including stocks for Christmas and Easter, were brought in by barge while sea lanes were open during the summer, and now concerns have been raised about possible food shortages and escalating prices.
Food costs are already an issue throughout Nunavut, where 55 per cent of the population is living with food insecurity, according to Statistics Canada, and the issue has been getting worse since monitoring began in 2005. (StatsCan defines food insecurity as occurring when one or more household members do not have access to an acceptable amount of quality healthy food, usually because of financial constraints).
The entire issue of food security also falls across racial lines. A recent report found the average cost of groceries for a family of four in Nunavut is $19,760 per year while almost half of Inuit adults earn less than $20,000 annually. This is in contrast to annual salaries for the non-indigenous population averaging over $72,000 in Iqaluit.
It’s worth thinking of the food security in your own community. No matter where you live, grocery stores only carry 3-4 days worth of perishable food. This is not such a big deal if one store shuts down in, say, Toronto, but in our current system your access to food is more fragile than you might imagine. If there is a disruption of the distribution chain (due to an internet black-out, for example, or natural disaster) food shortages could occur in a matter of days.
Supporting and enhancing local food systems in our own communities remains a critical piece in food security.
A tomato still warm from the sun and just plucked from the vine, eaten in the hand without salt or basil or any other addition, is one of the gardener’s greatest seasonal pleasures. At the first bite you understand that yes, this is more fruit than vegetable; a ripe tomato is as sweet and juicy as any peach or plum.
Now, in early November, it’s hard to find such a tomato in these latitudes. But until very recently the next best thing, a local, greenhouse-grown tomato from Yukon Gardens, was available at Wyke’s Independent Grocer in Whitehorse, around the corner from where I live.
In the second week of October I had just arrived back from Portugal with tomatoes on my mind. In Portugal in September the tomatoes were ripe and plentiful, so plentiful they cooked them down for hours into a sweet, spicy jam we ate at breakfast with fresh bread and creamy butter. We ate fresh tomatoes in our picnic lunches with hard cheeses and dry salamis, and at dinner we had cooked tomatoes in fish stew and in one of the many variations of Carne de Porco a Alentejana (Traditional Pork and Clams from Alentejo) we relished in taverns along the Fisherman’s Way.
On our first shopping trip back in Whitehorse there were the Yukon Garden tomatoes, so ripe they were almost bursting their skins. We came home with a few kilos because I really wanted to try that jam, and I really wanted a bread and tomato salad, whose origins are not Portuguese but Tuscan. I had a large bag of sourdough croutons in the freezer leftover from a catering job, and I had visions of chunks of toasted bread soaked in tomato juice and the rich, green olive oil given to us in Portugal by Maria, a family friend. Maria’s oil is pressed from her own olives, and over the years she has brought members of my family many bottles, and we love it. She decanted ours into an empty cognac bottle and we carried it home wrapped in a beach towel and stuffed into one of our knapsacks. It survived the journey.
We ate bread and tomato salad the first night at home. It was everything I had anticipated-the bread both soft and crunchy in its bath of oil and and tomato juices, the tomatoes bright and sweet, the onion sharp, and the cilantro fresh and cool.
The reason I’m allowed to share the recipe here, with First We Eaters, is because every salad ingredient, if not local in October (except the tomatoes), was available in August at the Fireweed Market—tomatoes, cilantro, purple onion. The bread we make at home from a starter brought to Alaska by a German family 100 years ago.
Now that Suzanne’s year of eating only locally has ended, and a few items from abroad are creeping into her diet, we agreed that the olive oil got special dispensation. It was local to us when we were staying in Maria’s house and besides, I’ve known Maria since I was 12 and she was 21, and so what’s local to her is local to me, by association. That’s sound logic, right?
Suzanne will be speaking at the Food Secure Canada National Assembly, which runs from Nov. 1 to 4 in Montreal. Called, Resetting the Table, the gathering is billed as Canada’s largest and most vibrant food gathering.
At the event, hundreds of Canada’s brightest food thinkers and most innovative organizations will discuss how to get to better food policies. Practical solutions to pressing food system failures – such as skyrocketing levels of diet-related disease, climate breakdown, and food poverty – will be shared and developed.
The Assembly brings together farmers and foodies, chefs and Indigenous leaders, activists and businesses, seeding a wealth of new ideas and connections. More than 100 expert and activist speakers will be engaging with attendees.
Resetting the Table includes both a Northern and an Indigenous stream. The Northern stream is based on the theme of Rebuilding Northern Food Systems with speakers from across Northern Canada, including Suzanne. She will be speaking about her experience spending a year of eating 100% local to Dawson City and profiling where her food came from – both the people and the land.
Special thanks to the Yukon Agriculture Association, the Yukon Agriculture Branch, and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) for supporting Suzanne’s attendance to speak at the conference.
Devour combines two of my favourite things: films and food. And not just any food. Devour celebrates local, sustainable, gourmet food – bringing amazing chefs, both from Nova Scotia and from all over North America, to cook for its patrons. Even Sam Kass, the chef for the Obamas during their terms in the White House, was in attendance. No living off bags of popcorn at this film festival! Films, gourmet dinners, foraging tours, culinary workshops and wine tasting are all part of Devour.
I had the pleasure of spending a windy afternoon on the shores of the Minas Basin foraging for periwinkles during low tide with local chef Sean Laughey who was accompanied by From the Wild filmmaker Kevin Kossowan and Chef Blair Lebsack of RGE RD restaurant in Edmonton. Chef Blair sources all his meat from local farmers and incorporates locally foraged foods into his dishes.
I learned how to cook an amazing spiralized celeriac pasta with a goat’s cheese, onion and wild mushroom sauce from Chef Chris Pyne of Founders House in Nova Scotia, .
And from Chef Louis Bouchard Trudeau of The Charcuterie of Québec, named one of the Top 10 new restaurants in Canada by EnRoute Magazine in 2016, I learned the wide range of possibilities for blood terrine.
Locally sourced food was a very common theme amongst the gourmet chefs at Devour.
Being in Nova Scotia’s wine country, I have become familiar with the term “terroir” – a recognition that the characteristics of a wine are not simply influenced by a particular type of grape but by the natural environment in which the grape is produced. Everything from the soil to the topography, from the climate to the culture of a particular area influences the grape, and therefore the wine.
Clearly ‘terroir’ extends beyond grapes. The concept applies equally well to local food. Certainly my taste palate has come to appreciate the terroir of Dawson City.
The terroir of local food is something every community should be proud of.
If you want to take part in a fantastic gourmet film festival during a glorious East Coast Fall, you should keep Devour! on your radar for next year.
In Canada’s North, where food is regularly trucked in thousands of kilometres to remote communities, and where you can still find unspoiled wilderness, wild food has always been a viable option for many households. But beyond the economic and health aspects of harvesting wild foods, more and more people are finding the idea of eating locally and in a wholesome, sustainable fashion, appealing in other ways as well.
For Miche Genest, author of the cookbooks The Boreal Gourmet and The Boreal Feast, and who regularly pens a The Boreal Chef magazine column, what collecting wild foods has done is give her a feeling of connection to the land, and to the people who live there. “When I first moved to the Yukon I got to know my new and somewhat intimidating landscape by going into the forest with friends looking for berries,” Genest recalls. “I feel really lucky to live here, where Indigenous people have lived and gathered knowledge for thousands of years.”
“The food I gather in the forest has special meaning,” says Genest. Not to mention special flavour — the berries and mushrooms you find in the Boreal forest are like nothing I’ve ever tasted before, anywhere. Shaggy mane mushrooms are as deep and pungent as truffles, to my mind they are the northern truffle, and I used them, dried, in everything from risotto to braises to omelettes. High bush cranberries are a flavour that can’t be described, only experienced.”
One of the downsides of relying on foraged foods is that harvests can sometimes be uncertain, especially in an age of climate change. “I get panicky when the stock of wild berries in the freezer starts to go down,” admits Genest. “But the great thing is, we all trade and barter. I missed the cranberry season this year, and it wasn’t a very good one, by all accounts, but happily I met a woman … who had lots of cranberries from the year before. So she offered me all the cranberries she picked this year—five pounds—in exchange for black currants, of which I had lots. That’s one of the great things that can happen when you live in a place where foraging is second nature.”
But, as humanity has hopefully learned by now, Nature’s bounty is not endless and must be carefully managed. Foraging of wild foods is no exception, and there are many cautionary tales, even in the sparsely-populated North, where foragers have done damage to a wild crop by over-harvesting.
You will recall that I went on my first ever moose hunt in early October. It turned out to be a beautiful clear-skied, seven-day river trip – without the moose – and so I prefer to think of it as a moose conservation trip.
One day, while drifting down the river, we could see smoke emanating from above the river bank in the distance. It looked like a campfire – but there was no boat.
It was an ominous sign that was, in fact, an ominous situation.
A small forest fire had developed on the bank of the Stewart River, just downstream from Scroggie Creek. It was clear that it had started from a campfire. The bank was high, about ten feet up from the river. A beautiful vantage point to call for moose and boil up some tea. But not such a great spot for a campfire. The ground was covered in a thick layer of old spruce needles and moss and the spruce trees were densely packed.
It looked like the campfire had been buried, rather than doused. Which might be understandable considering you would have had to haul water up that steep ten foot high bank. But making it, fundamentally, not a great spot for an open fire.
The campfire, which had not been properly extinguished, had spread. When we arrived, a ground cover of about 20 x 30 feet was burning – many areas hot and smoking, some areas open flame. Tree roots and the bases of tree trunks were charred.
It took us two to three hours of hard work to contain that fire. We made a fire break around the edge, digging with our boots down through the moss to dirt level, pushing the combustibles towards the centre of the burn and away from tree trunks and roots. Gerard chain-sawed and removed a dozen trees, many standing dead, from the burning area so that they wouldn’t burn through and fall, adding fuel to the fire.
The crashing of trees seemed to have caught the attention of a bull moose on the other side of the river who started banging on trees himself. Unfortunately, it never lured him out of the cover of the forest. He must have thought we were quite the mighty bull and chose to stay away.
We emptied a plastic tub that held our food and hauled tub after tub of water up the 10 foot bank to douse the perimeter , the base of the trees and the areas still smoking.
That night we camped upstream and the next morning we checked on it again. A few warm areas continued to smolder, so we hauled up more tubs of water until the ground was no longer hot to the touch.
It seems we succeeded.
It was a good reminder of the camping axiom from my youth: the campfire’s not out till it’s cold and out.
We may not have bagged a moose, but we did help prevent a forest fire.
In the words of the forest fire prevention folk, the best way to make sure your campfire doesn’t spread, even if you think it has died down completely:
Soak It. Stir It. Soak It Again.
Let the fire burn down before you plan on putting it out. Spread the embers within the fire pit, then add water or loose dirt, and stir.
Expose any material still burning. Add more water and stir again until you can no longer see smoke or steam. Do not bury your fire as the embers may continue to smoulder and can re-emerge as a wildfire.
Repeat until your campfire is cool to the touch.
If your fire is out, you should not be able to feel any heat from the ashes.
Throughout Canada, indigenous cuisine is having a renaissance. Part reconciliation, part ethnic food experience, one of the ways the reemerging native voice is expressing itself is in a return to the foods traditionally consumed by Canada’s First Nations.
While multicultural Canada boasts thousands of restaurants serving food styles from virtually every country of the planet, indigenous cuisine is a relative newcomer with only a handful of venues across the nation — which seems odd, given that indigenous peoples were here long before the arrival of Europeans, and almost 5 per cent of Canada’s population identify themselves as indigenous.
“People understand what Thai food is, what Italian food is, what Chinese food is, what Ethiopian food is,” Shawn Adler, the chef behind Toronto’s Pow Wow Cafe, said in a recent interview. “But people don’t really understand what indigenous cuisine is.”
Part of the explanation lies in the shameful chapter of Canadian history where assimilation of the First Nations was the official government practice, and all indigenous culture, including language as well as traditional foods, was forbidden. In fact, from the outset of colonial expansion, food and food sovereignty were used as a weapon against indigenous peoples. The current generation, many of whose parents were victims of Canada’s Residential School system, are the first to be able to openly embrace their heritage and culture. And it is this generation that is spearheading the emerging indigenous food scene.
In the process, the definition of the term “indigenous food” is itself evolving, not surprising given Canada’s wide expanse and the number of individual first nations – 634, speaking more than 50 distinct languages, according to Statistics Canada. The predominant foods consumed vary significantly with geography, from salmon on the coasts, bison on the plains, and moose and deer throughout. However, the wild game that makes up the traditional native diet poses a challenge for restaurants, as most provinces have regulations meat that has been hunted cannot be served to patrons in restaurants.
Even where meat from a wild harvest can be served, obstacles exist, especially the sensibilities of non-native urbanites. Last year animal activists launched a petition demanding that Toronto’s Kūkŭm Kitchen and Chef Joseph Shawana remove seal meat from its menu. Fortunately, a groundswell of opposing support sprang up, accusing activists of seeking to impose their values on indigenous practices, especially given the sustainable and humane nature of the seal meat harvest. Not only has Kūkŭm weathered the protest, it has emerged even stronger, and business is booming.
In addition to Kūkŭm and Pow Wow Cafe, another notable Toronto indigenous restaurants is NishDish, started by Johl Whiteduck Ringuette, which celebrates Anishinaabe and other indigenous cultures. In addiiton to the restaurant and a related catering operation, Ringuette sees his space as “a food-oriented educational hub,” starting with a course he helped develop and is teaching for Native Child and Family Services of Toronto on indigenous cuisine.
In downtown Vancouver, Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro has become known for its authentic Indigenous experience. In addition to Indigenous cuisine using fresh and certified organic ingredients, offering a modern vision of traditional fare, the bistro provides art and music. It is staffed by members of the Nupalk, Haida Gwaii, Blackfoot and Wet’suwet’en nations.
Elsewhere around British Columbia, Lelem’ Arts and Cultural Cafe is located in Fort Langley, as well as a satellite location, Lelem’ at the Fort, at the Fort Langley National Historic Site. Kekuli Café has locations in the towns of Merritt (on Nlaka’pa’mux First Nation territory) and Westbank, in the Okanagan Valley. There is also Indigenous World Winery’s Red Fox Club, which is part of the Westbank First Nation, while Victoria’s Kitchens of Distinction offers an indigenous culinary tours of Vancouver Island, including a traditional Coast Salish feast, culminating with a dance ceremony, and a forest hike with an ethnologist who explains about edible and medicinal plants used by Indigenous communities.
I have just returned from my first ever moose hunt.
Never before have I been even remotely inclined to take part in the annual moose hunt that has provided meat for our family year after year. But something has changed in me. I have transformed from the woman who didn’t like handling meat and couldn’t even manage to successfully roast a chicken.
Spending the past year connecting with my food has been revolutionary for me. I have spent time with the chickens and pigs during their life on the farm. And I have been there during their quick and stress-free harvest. I have been there as salmon are pulled from the river, as rabbits are snared, and caribou are harvested. I have witnessed the care and respect the farmers show their livestock both during their life and at the time of their dispatch. I have participated in the transformation from animal to the cuts of meat that are neatly packaged for us, disconnecting us from their original form. And after a year of wasting no morsel of precious food, I have learned that there are many more parts of the animal that are edible beyond the steaks and roasts. Animal-based protein is essential to food security in the North. The alternatives just don’t grow here.
This year, as moose hunting season approached, I had a great desire to make a similar connection with the moose that year after year provides the staple meat for our family. So I volunteered to accompany Gerard on his week-long, river based moose hunt.
I now have a new respect for the moose hunt. It’s not as simple as I thought it was — Gerard going for a week long camping trip with the guys and coming home with a year’s worth of meat. In fact it’s amazing to me that anyone ever gets a moose at all!
First of all you have to actually see a moose. There are more moose than people in the Yukon, but with a territory larger than California and only 35,000 people, there is a lot of wilderness for those 65,000 moose to wander through. It’s not like 65,000 moose are standing on the river bank just waiting to feed your family.
The moose along the river were not coming to the call, so luring them out of the wilderness was not an option.
If you are lucky enough to see a moose, then you have to be close enough to determine whether it is a cow moose or a bull moose. Only bull moose can be hunted in the Yukon.
And it is amazing how a 1000-pound animal can simply vanish into the willows completely silently. Whereas I, a 130 pound woman, can’t seem to step into the forest without snapping branches under my feet.
If you are lucky enough to see a bull moose that waits by the river bank long enough for you to be in range to take a shot, you’ve got just a couple of seconds to shoot before he bolts. Add one more challenge: you are shooting from a moving boat in a river with a 6-knot current.
Seven days we searched and called – the majority of which we saw zero moose and zero fresh tracks.
In the end I find it best to consider our week on the river a moose conservation trip. All points for the moose. Zero points for us. Plus one forest fire staunched (more on this in the next post).
We stayed on the river until the boat’s steering cable froze up from the cold weather and then reluctantly came home. For the first time ever, there will be no moose in our freezer. But we do have lots of local pork, chicken, turkey, and chum salmon, so we will be okay. And Gerard now has his sights on February’s buffalo season.
All I can say is, thank goodness it’s not last year! And well done moose!
Geographically, historically, and culturally, Iceland is unique. Nevertheless, this island country located just below the Arctic Circle has many lessons to offer in Northern food security, striving for balance between self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Not surprisingly, in the government’s own words, “the fishing industry is one of the main pillars of the Icelandic economy.” A responsible, sustainable fishery is official policy, and includes a structured fisheries management system, including catch limits and ongoing stock assessments.
Arable land is limited in Iceland (less than 1 per cent). The island’s volcanic soils are thin and much of the interior is covered by lava fields, mountains, and glaciers. But while only a tiny fraction of the land is therefore under cultivation, a preference for and tradition of locally-obtained food means the produce from farms (which are generally small and family-run) finds a ready market. Not only are there hearty vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots, kale, cabbage, and rhubarb, but thanks to an abundance of geothermal energy, a cornucopia of greenhouse crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers – and even bananas. Although less than 10 percent of Icelandic farms are certified organic, most conventional farms do not use pesticides either, since there are few crop-devouring insects to contend with on the island.
Iceland’s main agricultural activity is sheep ranching, with island sheep far outnumbering human inhabitants. Government regulations mandate that the sheep spend their summers outdoors, requiring them to be freely grazing for a minimum of two months. Dairy farming also flourishes, thanks in part to strict breeding regulations that serve to keep the 1,000-year-old Icelandic cow breed free of disease. More importantly, a farmer-owned co-operative – MS Dairies – collects 98 per cent of the milk produced in the country, and helps to ensure sustainable prices for the dairy farmers. The co-op is also fostering an export industry for Skyr, Iceland’s unique yogurt-like dairy product.
A relative newcomer to the food scene is foraging, brought about in part by Iceland’s recent financial crisis, but also spurred by a growing interest in natural foods. There are two types of foraging activities in Iceland – land and seaside. Surrounded by pristine waters, the island’s beaches are a bounty of edible offerings, including mussels, clams, seagull eggs (which many consider superior to chicken eggs), and also kelp and seaweed. Moving inland, the best time for foraging plants in Iceland is during the short summer, basically late May to late July, when berries (blueberries and crowberries are common) and wild herbs abound. But the most popular foraged food is mushrooms. It is estimated Iceland has over 100 varieties of edible fungi.
In fact, foraging in Iceland has not only become common, but trendy too, popularized in part by a new generation of local chefs who feature wild, local ingredients. Iceland’s foremost restaurant, Dill, (its first and only Michelin-starred eatery), highlights foraged offerings, several of them actually obtained within the city limits of the capital Reykjavik itself. Looking to the future, the government is moving to set aside wilderness areas specifically for foraging.
Admittedly, Iceland’s current focus on sustainability was borne from hard lessons. At the time of the Viking settlement (1150 years ago), around a third of the island was covered with trees. Human expansion resulted in rampant deforestation, and sheep grazing inhibited regeneration. Over 95 per cent of the original forest cover is gone, so, not surprisingly, today Icelanders are careful to maintain an ecological balance, with tight government regulations and policies on land use and agricultural practices, as well as sustainable fishing.
No visit to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, would be complete without a side trip to the renowned Bullocks Bistro restaurant. Located in a historic building, site of the original Weaver and Devore Trading Post built in 1936, Bullocks is famous — some would say legendary — for its fish and chips.
But if you’re expecting seafood imported from some distant ocean, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Given that Yellowknife sits on the shore of Great Slave Lake, all the fish served at Bullocks are local fare. And since Great Slave is the deepest lake in North America at 614 metres, and the tenth-largest lake in the world, that means variety as well as quality.
“They’re all coldwater fish, and some of the best fish in the world,” explains Jo-Ann Martin, the bistro’s co-owner. “It’s real cool to serve a local product. We do trout, whitefish, inconnu, pickerel, and burbot … which the local fishers call ‘mariah’. And there’s a Catch of the Day, so the menu is always changing.” Those who don’t like fish can always enjoy a bison rib eye steak. All ingredients are prepared from scratch, and the bread is also baked fresh daily on the premises.
While a traditional fish-and-chip recipe means battering and deep frying, Bullocks delivers its own stamp there as well. “Our fish is pan fried, grilled, and broiled too.”
Jo-Ann and her husband Mark Elson bought the eatery 2½ years ago from the original founders, Sam and Renata Bullock, who started the operation back in the 1980s. The new owners were fortunate to have a transition period. Not only did they acquire Renata’s home recipes for staples like the teriyaki sauce, tartar sauce, feta dressing, and herb and garlic dressing, but they were taught Sam’s unique bone-out filleting technique — developed to process fish that would be suitable to be served in a restaurant — which is important, given the 150 to 250 lbs of fish the restaurant can go through daily.
One of the biggest challenges of running Bullocks is ensuring a continuing supply of fish for the patrons during the spring and fall, when commercial fishers are not able to get onto the Lake. This resulted in the technique of freezing fresh fish whole — between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds — to get Bullocks through the shoulder seasons.
And how is Jo-Ann enjoying the experience now that they have a few years under their belts? “I like it even more now. It’s part of living off the land and water.”
This is an Autumn Delight apple tree growing in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada at 68 degrees North, well north of the Arctic Circle.
To our knowledge (please correct us if we’re wrong) this is the most northern apple tree in Canada!
This particular apple tree survived an Inuvik winter in the unheated Inuvik Community Greenhouse, blossomed this spring and is now producing fruit!
Autumn Delight was developed at the University of Saskatchewan and was supplied by John Lenart and Kim Melton of the Klondike Valley Nursery in Dawson City, Yukon. John and Kim also sent a Trailman and a Rescue apple tree to Inuvik whose blossoms would have pollinated the Autumn Delight.
John Lenart has spent the past thirty years studying and grafting apple trees in order to cultivate varieties that can withstand the climate of the north. Their nursery now has around 65 cultivars. Check out the Klondike Valley Nursery the most northerly nursery in Canada.
Imagine it’s your turn to cook supper. And this is what the larder holds: pigs lungs, heart, liver, cheeks, feet, a tail, two ears, jowls, lacey caul fat that was once connected to the intestine, pork belly, beef tongue and several litres of pigs blood. All from Yukon raised pork and beef. Odd bits or special bits?
This was the challenge that four adventuresome Whitehorse chefs faced. Each had drawn three random ‘odd bits’ to turn into delicious appetizers for sixty paying customers. They did not disappoint!
Photos by Walter Streit and Suzanne Crocker
I have just returned from three fantastic days at Food Talks in Whitehorse, Yukon celebrating local food and hosted by the Growers of Organic Food Yukon (or GoOFY, as they are affectionately known.)
The theme of Food Talks was “All the Bits” – reminding us to value every morsel of our food and to waste less. Especially when it comes to meat. Using all parts of the animals we harvest, from head to tail to hoof, is a concept that is not unfamiliar in many cultures past and present. Beyond making nutritional and economic sense, it also offers both gratitude and respect for the animal’s sacrifice to nourish us.
Special guest, renowned chef and cookbook author, Jennifer McLagan, travelled from Toronto to attend Food Talks and address the guests.
Jennifer reminds us that what we now call the ‘odd bits’, and often toss in the scrap pile, were once the prized bits – parts of the animal that are packed with both nutrition and taste. Why are we more squeamish about eating heart than we are about eating rump roast – both being working muscles? Bone marrow is packed with iron. Blood can be substituted for egg. Jennifer says the combination of blood and milk is the perfect food – containing all the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that we require.
I had a taste of the ‘perfect food’ at the Odd Bits Tasting Event when chef Jason McRobb created a delicious chocolate blood pudding desert topped with whipped cream, candied blood orange peel and a strip of cinnamon-sugar-roasted pig skin. It was an inspiration to me to start experimenting with the many ways to cook with blood beyond blood sausage.
Even if you are feeling squeamish at the thought of eating the unfamiliar, you would have found yourself drooling at the Odd Bits Tasting Event. The flavour combinations were out of this world! Four amazing chefs, Eglé Zalodkas- Barnes, Karina LaPointe, Jason McRobb and Micheal Roberts served up tastes such as lung dumplings, breaded sweet breads with aioli sauce, pigs’ feet sweet and sour soup, pork belly on a rhubarb compote, honey glazed pig skin, beef tongue tacos… just to name a few. I tried everything and if I was blessed with more than one stomach I would have returned for seconds of it all!
I have eaten many ‘odd bits’ during the past year of eating local to Dawson. Stuffed moose heart is one of my family’s favourite meals. But I am now inspired to expand even further. The pig harvest and the moose hunt are coming soon and I will be ready to gather and make use of even more parts of the animal than before. (Hard to believe I was once vegetarian.)
If you need some tips or inspiration, check out Jennifer McLagan’s books: Odd Bits, Bones and Fat and be prepared to be inspired!
Suzanne and her year-long First We Eat experience are in the current issue of Up Here Magazine, available at news stands now.
In the piece, written by Miche Genest, and featured on the magazine’s cover, Suzanne chronicles the ups and downs, and the lessons learned from her year of feeding her family only food 100% local to Dawson City.
This coming weekend (Sep. 13-15) in Whitehorse, Growers of Organic Food Yukon will host the second in their series of Food Talks, titled All the Bits. As part of the activities, Suzanne will be on hand Saturday afternoon at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre (KDCC) from 1 to 5 p.m. at a special Open House to talk about the First We Eat project and her experiences from her family’s year of eating locally. Suzanne will be joined in the Open House by Canadian author and chef Jennifer McLagan.
All the Bits kicks off on Thursday night with film screening of Modified, a first-person feature documentary that questions why genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not labeled on food products in the United States and Canada, despite being labeled in 64 countries around the world.
Friday morning will see an inspected slaughter at Naturally Northern Meats, , while on Friday night four local chefs will join at Takhini Hot Springs to put on an Odd Bits Taste Fest.
All the Bits concludes on Saturday night with a pig roast at the KDCC.
Growers of Organic Food Yukon (GoOFY) is a Yukon association that promotes organic practices and provides support, education, and advocacy about organic growing and processing.
Fall in the Yukon is just one of the million reasons I love living here. The spectacular undulating carpet of yellows and reds and greens takes my breath away every year.
And it’s cranberry season!
High bush cranberries for juicing and low bush cranberries, also known as lingonberries, for almost anything else – pies, muffins, scones, pancakes, jam, jelly, chutney, and delicious cranberry sauce. I became addicted to the low bush cranberry when I lived in Newfoundland where they are known as partridge berries. They are excellent keepers for the winter as they sweeten, not soften, with freezing.
Last year was a very poor wild berry season. Thanks to the generosity of many Dawson berry pickers and some careful rationing I had just enough cranberries to get us through. This year is better and I am rejoicing in the ability to pick buckets full of cranberries once again.
Eating local is often associated with a desire for produce that is organic, meaning it is grown on a sustainable scale without the use of non-chemical fertilizers. In many ways this is a direct reaction to the perceived negative effects of the large-scale, industrialized agriculture that has become the norm for North America’s food industry. Consumers have learned to look for products that are certified organic, but for farmers looking to join this rapidly-growing market, there have been many obstacles to successfully achieving certification.
So what’s holding them back? According to the study, there are several factors, including the bureaucratic need for new record keeping, lack of experience with organic techniques for weed management and increasing yields, and an inability to tap into the supply chain for the new markets.
Of particular interest for Canada’s North, the report recommends that small-scale farmers join together to tackle processing infrastructure and joint marketing efforts. Such market development efforts could exploit greater local organic production in areas with lower population density. Supply-chain development could also be advanced by developing infrastructure needed for processing of organic food, including small abattoirs, feed mills, or organic fruit processing facilities.
My tentative and gradual re-introduction to store-bought food switched to full-on immersion two weeks ago when we left the Yukon and headed to a cottage in southern Canada.
The transition was not easy.
First, there is the psychological component. For one year I quite successfully convinced my brain that food from afar is off limits. This remains my knee-jerk reaction and it has been difficult to give myself permission to try it.
I expected the re-introduction to a wide variety of new foods would be a taste explosion. But it hasn’t been. Things taste exactly how I remember them, and it’s not all that satisfying. Maybe it’s a sign that my local food is pretty darn flavourful in its own right! Smells are tantalizing, but the tastes often don’t live up to the smell.
Sugar has been the craziest phenomenon. Things I used to love, now taste sickly sweet. I get the same ‘I don’t feel so good’ feeling after one bite of a chocolate chip peanut butter cookie that I used to get overindulging on six of them. It astounds me that, once upon a time, my body felt that six cookies worth of sugar consumption was totally reasonable.
Salt creeps up on me in surprising places. Store bought bread is too salty, as is butter and cheese. But a nacho chip tastes like it should.
Despite the saltiness, bread products taste incredibly bland.
It hasn’t all been disappointing. I reclaimed a love for the avocado. I was able to indulge in sushi again, which is as delicious as it used to be. Fresh local southern fruit such as peaches and concord grapes were definitely a treat and fresh-from-the-field Ontario corn is as sweet as candy.
However, on the ‘grocery store food diet,’ I was often hungry and never quite satisfied. I found myself longing for some of my old staples. I started poaching myself eggs for breakfast so I didn’t have to suffer through a bowl of cereal or another baked good. One sip of wine literally went straight to my head. Water and milk were really the only drinks I could tolerate. The once-loved Sanpellegrino tasted way too sweet. Dilution became my friend. A couple of tablespoons of the Sanpellegrino added to a tall glass of sparkling water felt like a reasonable treat.
Gradually my tolerance for sugar and carbs started to increase. Popsicles didn’t seem to bother me and two pieces of chocolate no longer made me feel sickly. I couldn’t handle a butter tart but a Tim Horton’s old fashioned plain donut was going down quite easily and left me craving another.
Before my body adjusts back to old habits, I want to put on the brakes. I’ve just returned home and am looking forward to eating local foods again. I believe my body is telling me something when half a cookie makes me feel sick. Surely it can’t be good to consume as much sugar and carbs as I once did.
Today I stood on the scale. No change in my weight, but there is a new roll around my middle that I’m not so happy with. So don’t get too used to sugar, oh pancreas of mine – we’re going back to local Dawson food!
Game meats are high in protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Seal meat is especially lean with less than two per cent fat (compared to 12 to 27 per cent fat in other store-bought meats). It’s also rich in iron, zinc, vitamins A, D, B and C, and Omega 3 fatty acids. Through initiatives like community kitchens and cooking classes, hunter coops, and communal freezers, efforts are being made to help far Northern communities expand local access to country foods. Southerners are discovering seal meat too, and some chefs, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, are bravely adding the dish to their menus, including Chef Eric Pateman’s Edible Canada in Vancouver, and chef Joseph Shawana’s Toronto restaurant, Kū-Kŭm Kitchen.
The move can be a controversial one, because the harvesting of seals continues to be a touchy topic for some animal rights activists. For several decades opposition to seal products by global animal rights groups has impacted the ability of Inuit communities to sell their seal products. Seal skin products used for waterproof, biodegradable clothing such as boots, mittens and hats, have long been a vital source of cash to purchase items such as the boats/snowmobiles, gasoline, and ammunition used by hunters.
The Inuit are fighting to change public opinion. Most notably, Iqaluit film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of the documentary Angry Inuk, has started to alter outisder perceptions. The Canadian government is also trying to get the message across that the harvest is humane and sustainable. But for many northern Canadians it’s much more basic. They simply consider seal comfort food.
I now add a new exotic flavour that can be grown in the North – shiso leaves!
Until this year I had never even heard of shiso. I am now a huge fan, thanks to Carol Ann Gingras of Whitehorse, who introduced me to this herb and sent me some of her Yukon-grown plants.
One thing that I missed early on during my of eating local were spices from the Far East – cinnamon, cumin, cloves, nutmeg …
Birch syrup and ground juniper berries helped to fill that void, but now I have a new favourite – shiso – to add some Asian spice to a Yukon local diet.
Shiso leaves taste exotic! To me, it is the taste of cumin combined with a hint of cardomon. For others it has been described as a combination of spearmint, basil, anise and cinnamon.
Shiso (pronounced she-so), Perillafrutescens, is an Asian herb – used commonly in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and China – and a member of the mint family. It was introduced to North America in the late 1800’s but only introduced to me in 2018! Although it flourishes in the southeaster USA, I would never have guessed how well it thrives during a Yukon summer.
Its large leaves can be used to scoop up food or as a wrap for fish, meat and sushi. The fresh leaves, sliced in thin strips to bring out the flavour, can be added to soups, stir-fry, rice, scrambled eggs, salads, even fruit – almost anything, really. The leaves can be air-dried or frozen to use during the winter. Dried, the leaves can also be used as a flavourful tea. The leaves are high in calcium and iron.
Apparently shiso buds and sprouts are also delicious and the seeds can be toasted and crushed and sprinkled on fish.
If you plant shiso in pots, let the plants go to seed and bring them inside before the first frost, then the plants will self-seed for spring.
Here’s hoping my shiso plants will self-seed so they can become a regular part of my on-going Dawson local diet!
Their exploits have produced a cookbook that features recipes and stories collected on the road, from home cooks to seasoned professionals alike, including our own Miche Genest. They not only celebrate Canada’s culinary diversity, but also note how important it is to look at where our food comes from and what we can do to get involved.
We had a chance to ask them some questions about their project.
How did the idea originate for your project? What sparked the whole thing for you?
When we were camping this one time we had a long conversation about food and culture, Canadian food culture, and how we had both travelled across the country (we both grew up in different parts of the country) and it turned into a talk about what we point to as Canadian food and we didn’t quite know the answer. We thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a project where we went around for a certain amount of months to specifically talk to people in different regions and see what people were making and what they were eating. And we thought the most efficient way to do it would be on a road trip.
What makes Canadian food Canadian?
Canadians tend to think that we don’t have a distinctive culinary culture, it is interesting because there is this mentality that we are an immigrant nation and that the foods we consume are imported from other cultures, but it is in the mixing of those influences that you can find it. There are all these dishes that maybe come from somewhere else, but they are transformed by Canadian-specific ingredients and they become a whole new thing.
And there is this feeling of “oh, this is just what we eat. This isn’t Canadian food”, as if we are reluctant to claim a food culture, and the wider sentiment is that we don’t have one. It is almost like the cliché of Canadians, that we are always apologizing for everything, and we are also apologetic for our own culinary culture.
What kind of dishes or cooking techniques that you had never heard of before did you discover on your roadtrip? Did any of them make their way into your everyday cooking?
There were almost daily discoveries. One of the coolest discoveries of a cooking technique was when we were on Spring Island on the northwest coast of Vancouver island and we were on a kayak expedition, and cooks from the Kyuquot first nation showed us this traditional cooking method for fish in which they butterfly the salmon and weave it through cedar slats and they roast it vertically over the fire. And it was the best roasted salmon I‘ve ever had, but it also felt like a whole experience, not just a meal.
The trip and the process of writing the cookbook completely opened us up to new cooking techniques and ingredients, like for example I had never cooked wild boar before, and we got this recipe from a Saskatchewan chef for wild boar meatballs and then we started seeing that you could actually get these ingredients around our area. Learning to cook different types of wild game and realizing how different all the flavors are, and that there really is so much variety out there. We definitely expanded our kitchens
In P.E.I. a chef gave us a recipe for scallops that combined them with a pear and currant salsa, a combination that you normally wouldn’t think of but they are all super Canadian ingredients that were locally sourced from the area. All the recipes in our cookbook feel Canadian for different reasons, either ingredient based or culturally based. Perhaps a recipe just happens to be really popular in a specific region, or the reason is because of the ingredients that are found there.
What are your thoughts on the issue of food security?
It is interesting for people who want to change the way they eat and be more aware of what they consume, I think this is such a much easier time to do so. Food is a topic that has been exploding for the last 10 years or so, the local food movement has expanded so much. In my experience, the best way to get involved is to reach out and talk to different people, ask more questions, ask what everyone is eating and where it comes from. Also we have to think on practical terms, not everyone has the economic means to start spending more money on organic food at farmer’s market or the time to grow their own food all of the sudden, but the fact that things are shifting is very important. Making an effort to be part of the conversation is important. A good way to do this is sharing meals together.
Dana and Lindsay's Yukon visit included a tour of Klondike Valley Nursery and a special dinner at Miche Genest's house - Photos by FEAST
Salmon roasting with cedar slats, Kyuquot stye - Photo by FEAST
Ione Christensen, an 84-year-old baker (and former Senator) in the Yukon, is using a sourdough starter that her great-grandfather carried over the Chilkoot Pass on his way to Dawson City during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. Now 120 years old, the venerable sourdough is continuing to attract a lot of attention.
CBC’s The Doc Project did an article and podcast about the iconic Yukon sourdough. That piece caught the attention of Karl De Smedt — Earth’s sourdough librarian. De Smedt collects samples of sourdough from around the world and studies them. The samples are then stored in the refrigerated Puratos Sourdough Library in eastern Belgium for the future.
Excited to hear of the historical specimen, De Smedt and a documentary crew travelled to the Yukon to meet Christensen (who cooked her Belgian guests sourdough waffles) and arrange for a sample of the starter to be shipped to Europe and stored in the Library. A sample will also be sent to a university in Italy, where the micro-organisms living in the bread will be analyzed and studied.
The same sourdough starter was in Christensen’s household when she was growing up in Fort Selkirk, Yukon, where her father was an RCMP officer. Christensen’s mother used it regularly to make bread and flapjacks.
Sourdough has a special place in Yukon history, and was a staple for many of those who flocked to the region during the Klondike Gold Rush. The nickname “sourdough” still applies to anyone who manages to survive a Yukon winter.
During her year of eating locally, Suzanne even managed to produce her own sourdough starter using only local ingredients. Perhaps this will be the start of its own new centuries-old tradition.
Free Willy is on my mind. Listening to the turmoil in my guts is bringing back to my consciousness all the sounds of the poor whale in distress. In fact, it even feels as if Willy is inside of me, searching for escape, pounding against the delicate lining of my intestines.
It’s been almost two weeks off “The Program.” I’ve been bathing my body in unrestraint. Eating without thought. See-food diet, some might call it. Cherries, oranges, kiwis, bananas, sweetened yogurt, ice-cream, bread and bagels and cake. And then, more bread. And literally, testing the waters with coffee, beer and wine.
And according to the weight scale and belt, my body has been sucking in the calories with all the haste of a bear anticipating an early winter. Eight pounds in thirteen days. Not bad, if only one was a bear.
But, aside from the weight, this new experiment with consumption has had other notable effects. I’m feeling pushed and pulled, chemically altered. Instantly, the effect of caffeine hits my head, creating urgency where none is required, disrupting the calm. After three or four cups, my heart races and my pulse skips. My stomach bloats, twists and groans. My intestines are rushed and my prostate feels like a single sandbag against the relentless floodwaters of a Red River spring. Yesterday, I had to run to the washroom and then passed water for so long that I could have squeezed in a decent nap.
And I have zero tolerance for alcohol. It too, goes straight to my head, sending it in a spin, making me feel otherworldly, strange and unfamiliar.
And while I feel pushed by caffeine and alcohol, I am more notably pulled by sugar. For this “honeymoon” phase at least, sugar owns me. I can eat a sweet, feel full, and then have absolutely no inclination to stop eating. How’s that for successful marketing! And the same holds for wheat and pastry products, all of which my body seems to recognize as recent deprivations in disguise.
It has been nice to spice things up with a little salt and pepper. And we have eaten a few restaurant meals, giving us all a break from the domestic routine. But the new tastes are not what I thought. They are not better, and in many cases, they are significantly worse; just coated with spice and sugar and fat. The new diet admittedly offers more variety and complexity, but these tastes are also more confusing. It is difficult to identify what I am ingesting, and all too often something that is really inferior is hiding under the sauce. I guess, through all this, we have discovered the origin of the phrase, “sugar-coated.”
So, perhaps the takeaways are to become a more discerning eater, to become alert to the sugar-coating, to be aware of the empty calories which are most appropriate for the pre-hibernation phase of a bear’s life, to learn to enjoy the simplicity of high value and nutrient rich foods, and to maintain variety and occasional liberties. And remember to listen when your body talks back to you, because under no circumstances should there be a whale living in your intestines!
What does a family buy during their first trip to the grocery store after a year of eating local in the North?
I just so happen to have some first-hand experience in this.
The items that flew off the grocery store shelves had one theme in common – breakfast.
Six different types of cereal
Yogurt (Yogurt? Yes, the super thick and sweet kind. That would be Gerard.)
Coffee (Gerard again)
And all manner of exotic fruit – oranges, kiwis, pineapple, cherries
Did I mention cereal?
And what did I choose? Vegetable oil.
Seems like my family didn’t want another breakfast of fried eggs and potato cakes for a very long time.
There is one positive thing about my family having these long-coveted breakfast items in the house again. It has got me off the hook for cooking breakfast.
Prior to a year ago, I was the sort of person who didn’t eat breakfast. My hunger sense didn’t kick in until at least 10 am. So getting up at 6:30 every morning to deal with food definitely didn’t come easily to me. But I did it. For one year, I cooked breakfast every morning. It probably did me a world of good to start my day with a protein rich, healthy meal. But since bagels and cereal have re-invaded the cupboard space, I no longer feel the need to rise early. I’ve gone back to old habits. Almost. Instead of a cup of tea to get me through my morning, I am still enjoying a big mug of hot frothed local milk. Guess I’m getting a protein rich breakfast after all. And I can sleep in. Bonus. Let them eat bagels!
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Feasting together on an amazing spread of local food
Photos by Mackenzie Pardy.
What better way to celebrate one year of eating local in the far north, than feasting on local food with some of the folks who were so important to the year’s success.
This time it was my turn to feed others!
A smorgasbord of delicious tastes spotlighted the wide variety of food that can be harvested in the North. An incredible assortment of local cheese from Jen Sadlier of Klondike Valley Creamery – Camembert to die for, Jaques LaRouge, Gouda, Black Jack , Labneh, and garlic chèvre. Pork porchetta and pastrami from Shelby Jordan of Bon Ton Chacuterie. Rye crackers and sourdough pumpernickel bread. Baked salmon. Roast chicken. Crustless spinach and bacon quiche. Potato salad with homemade mayonnaise. Green salads with Saskatoon berry dressing. And for desert – seven tubs of homemade birch syrup ice cream!
And we danced the Bhangra!
Bhangra is actually a farmers’ dance – many of the movements have to do with planting, harvesting and celebrating a successful crop. So it seemed only fitting that we would dance in celebration of a successful year of eating local by dancing bhangra in a farmer’s field.
Thanks to the patient teaching of Gurdeep Pandher from Whitehorse, we managed to pull off a semblance of bhangra. Smiling is an important factor in bhangra dancing. And there is no problem remembering to smile when you are already laughing at yourself!
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Dancing the bhangra, a farmers’ dance
Photos by Mackenzie Pardy.
The fields and the forests of Dawson were desperate for rain and on the day of the celebration it was raining steady. There was no visible end to the dark clouds… until the first guest arrived. Then, miraculously, the rain paused and didn’t start again until we were packing up the last box and heading home. I attribute this wondrous phenomenon to farmers’ optimism. During the past two years I have had the privilege to hang out with farmers. I have witnessed how undaunted they are by the weather. With almost all the farmers gathered together in one field, how could the clouds not pause in awe!
Not everyone who helped make this past year so successful was able to attend. Nonetheless we were still a gathering of about 60 people – farmers and food producers, gardeners who had shared their garden space or their produce, folks who had shared their precious supply of wild berries during a very poor berry season, folks who taught me how to fish, those who taught me how to cook, folks who taught me to forage, people who shared recipes and all manner of local knowledge. We were honoured to have Miche Genest, the culinary genius and author of The Boreal Gourmet, paddle to Dawson to join the celebration. Miche has been instrumental in teaching me ways to cook with only local ingredients this past year for which I and my family are forever grateful! Those who were unable to attend were still at the forefront of my thoughts during the celebration.
Many thanks to Cindy Breitkreutz, Miche Genest, Arno Springer and Hector Mackenzie who helped so greatly in preparing the feast; to Megan and Jake of LaStraw Ranch for hosting us in their field and to Gurdeep Pandher for travelling to Dawson from Whitehorse to teach us Bhangra.
And of course a huge thank you to the many, many folks who helped make this year of eating 100% local in the Far North so successful!
The year of feeding my family 100% local food at 64 degrees north has come to an end.
I am very proud of my family. They didn’t join this venture willingly. Gerard made it through an entire year, only ‘cheating’ when he left town. The kids joined in to the best of their abilities – respecting the ban on all grocery store food from our house, including salt. Adapting to strange new foods, not all of which have been palatable!
The family is ecstatic to have ‘normal’ food, previously considered contraband, back in the house again. Tess is throwing a party for her friends – complete with junk food. Kate is looking forward “to being able to cook again”. Sam can once again indulge in instantly grab-able late night calories. Gerard is looking forward to his first beer.
For myself, the grocery store food holds no allure. I remember the taste of an orange out of season and grocery store bread. Even chocolate does not beckon. Give me a Saskatoon berry plucked from the bush or a cherry tomato fresh off the vine any day!
For the past year I have known where every single ingredient on my plate has come from. It has been both an amazing and a humbling experience to be so connected with my food and with the people and the land that helped put it on my plate.
Check out some of the many, many people who helped make this year so successful:
Photo by Cathie Archbould, Archbould Photography.
Photo by Cathie Archbould, Archbould Photography.
Photo by Cathie Archbould, Archbould Photography.
Photo by Cathie Archbould, Archbould Photography.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it takes a community to feed a family.
If I had to choose the place in the world where I would want to be if a major disaster struck, it would be Dawson City. We have food, we have water, we have wood for heat and cooking. And, most importantly, we have resourcefulness, knowledge and ingenuity in spades!
For tens of thousands of years prior to colonization, the land was both the grocery store and the pharmacy for indigenous people of the North. Since colonization, we have gradually moved away from sourcing and producing our food locally. In 2018 we find ourselves dependent on one road to truck 97% of our food from thousands of kilometers away. With this dependence, comes vulnerability.
So, in 2018, it is reassuring to know that there is a bounty of food that the land and the people of the North can provide.
Thank you Dawson City – I am so fortunate to call this remarkable community my home!
(Actually of our year plus one day – seemed to make sense to end on the same day we started. Or was that just me never wanting it to be over!)
It has come to an end all too fast from my perspective.
I’m enjoying my morning mug of hot, frothed milk and about to head out to pick Saskatoon berries. I have some butter culturing and a new batch of kefir on the counter. The fridge is full of fresh veggies, yogurt, goat’s cheese, eggs and milk. There are rye crackers on the counter and pumpkin Saskatoon berry muffins in the freezer. Our meat and fish stocks are low – but there are still a few meals left to sustain us until salmon fishing and moose hunting seasons begin again. Grayling is in the river and fresh local chicken is now available again. Just as we finish up last year’s potatoes, new potatoes are being harvested.
The cycle of life has a whole new meaning to me.
My feelings are a mixture of sadness, knowing that grocery store food will inevitably return to the house tomorrow, and celebration at how far I’ve come in the past year.
I certainly did not accomplish this on my own. It takes a community to feed a family! Amazing farmers, the boreal forest and northern rivers, all the people of Dawson who were lending me gardening space, sharing berries, knowledge, recipes and cheering us on.
The time for reflection will be tomorrow. Today there are berries to be picked! And for the rest of today I’m just going to bask in the joy of another day eating 100% local.
Just a couple of days left on “The Program.” Regardless, I expect that much of our diet will remain unchanged: we will continue to support local agriculture as much as we can, not only because the quality and nutritional value is superior, but also as a means of economic support for those locals who are making the effort, despite the unlikely odds.
But there is still this unshakable craving for convenience and sugar and salt. I can’t recall whether this preceded “The Program” or not, but I have taken to late night cravings. I find myself drawn to the kitchen, looking for that little something to cap the day off. Something that says, “Well done, now enjoy this!” A treat.
And usually, a quick survey of the fridge immediately discloses to me those food items of low interest. Sometimes I just can’t place that unmet desire, and I then go through the process of elimination, trying one thing at a time in a desperate attempt to hit the nail on the head.
And it is clear to me that we are not all wired the same. Last night, as I stood forlorn in front of the open fridge, all I could hear was the quipping of Suzanne, “why don’t you have some of that moose liver pate? It goes really well on that bread I made.” (The bread is hard, dark, flat, dry and about 2 weeks old.) Then, without losing breath, she lists off my options in a speedy staccato: “Go down to the pantry and get some bottled moose meat so you can boil up a soup. There are chicken carcases in the freezer that you can boil up to make a nice broth. Try a mug of hot water; maybe you’re just thirsty. There is some kefir in the fridge. Have you given any thought to the possibility that your late-night cravings might actually be the body’s misrepresentation of just being tired? Why don’t you heat up some milk and froth it? I don’t understand why you don’t like frothed milk when you readily eat cheese, yogurt and ice-cream by the gallon, and they all come from the same cow. Why don’t you like frothed milk? Why don’t you learn to like it? I don’t understand!”
Meanwhile, I’m still transfixed in front of the open fridge, looking deep for dietary inspiration. All I can see are various mason jars of partially decipherable identities and dates. Many seem to contain whey, while some have meat products in them. Others have floating berries in a cloudy fermenting solution, the only thing lacking being the skull and crossbones identifier. There is something wrapped in cheese cloth, and intuitively, I highly suspect that I will not quench my craving by indulging in the contents within. There are two jars of promising-looking cream but unfortunately, both are labelled, “SAVE!” Two large gallon jars are filled with milk, clearly needing to be skimmed before being subjected to late-night culinary impulse. There is a whole chum salmon thawing on a cookie sheet. There is fresh Market Garden produce galore, including onions, zucchinis, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, radish and lettuce.
And in the deeper recesses of the fridge, there are the really dangerous things; the things that were failed experiments, still awaiting their final opportunity for recognition as potential marvels. These nearly-missed-miracles-of-creation are obviously too precious to toss, regardless of their age. Why, everyone knows that one more day of fermentation might be all that is required…
These are the items my eyes are casting over, while my ears are being assaulted by Suzanne’s diatribe about the easy access to perfectly valid snack material, all just at my misguided fingertips. There is clearly a perceptional disconnect at play here. It became poignantly obvious when, just as I thought these very same words, they were uttered by Suzanne: “I don’t understand!”
I can tell because it no longer phases me to have a two-gallon batch of yogurt on the go while simultaneously making chevre (goat’s cheese). I can whip up a triple batch of rye waffles to stack in the freezer so the kids have an easy ‘toast and go’ breakfast before they head to their summer jobs.
Mostly, I can tell I’m in my groove because I just came back from four days of camping in the Tombstone Mountains and I did it 100% local.
Last year, I would not have been able to pull this off. I would not have been able to contemplate camping without the usual campfire staples of Kraft Dinner, instant oatmeal, pancake mix, bannock and marshmallows.
This year – no big deal. I prepped intermittently a few days in advance – probably no longer than it would have taken me to go grocery shopping and then return again to the store for the things I forgot the first time. And because I pre-made most of the food, cooking while camping was both easy and delicious. Roasted moose sausages and moose stew were the supper staples – accompanied by a fresh salad with saskatoon berry dressing. Lunches were a smorgasbord of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, rye crackers, garlic chevre and smoked cranberry birch moose sticks. For breakfast we grilled pre-made waffles over the fire or fried up eggs with potato cakes. Dry meat was the trail mix during the day hikes. I snacked on birch syrup-pumpkin seed brittle instead of roasted marshmallows. I even successfully made a batch of local popcorn popped in pig lard over the open fire!
I am definitely in my groove. Seems a shame to realize I finally have it figured it out two days before the family will bring grocery store food back into the larder. Sigh!
I counted them! Crazy, I know, but it goes to show the depths of madness that one can descend into, given the right circumstances. It was the dishes, I counted.
With my own silly encouragement, the family headed off to the Dempster to do a few days of hiking. I needed everyone out of the house so that I could wash and re-surface the sad and neglected wooden floors of our home. With all the domestic industry over the past year, the floor of the kitchen was worn right down to the bare wood. In front of the tired old stove the floor was scalloped from the friction of our children’s feet, a consequence of enslaved hours in the name of processing local food. A sort of work-to-eat program for them. Which, in turn, resulted in a varathane-to-eat program for me. I think all the money we saved on food went directly to the suppliers of floor repair products.
So, back to the count. When the early morning mayhem ended and the family was happily on the road, I settled down to tidy up the kitchen. Having finished a huge stack of dishes the previous evening I was comforted with the expectation that, since breakfast was the only interim meal, there would be a modicum of toil ahead of me. I was never more wrong!
A quick glance at the clock showed that it was only 7:30 am. A glance at the kitchen revealed a culinary apocalypse. There were 2 frying pans, 4 pots, 3 cookie sheets, 6 dehydrator foils, 4 zip-lock bags, 3 mason jars, 2 one-gallon milk jugs, 1 ice-cream maker, 2 cutting boards, 1 blender, 3 chopping knives, 2 metal spatulas, 3 wooden stirring spoons, 2 rubber scrapers, 1 potato masher, 1 cheese cloth, 1 garlic press, and for some unexplainable reason, each and every one of our complete set of measuring cups! And, as for my expectation of breakfast dishes, there were only 4 plates and 4 forks…
I still don’t know how this happened. Everyone was up till midnight. I slept till 7:00 am. Did anyone else sleep or was this all Suzanne, fueled by summer and a pressing deadline? Was she up all night, making ice-cream, dehydrating food, cooking for the trip? Was she simply experimenting with each and every one of our cooking utensils, searching for their individual pros and cons? Or did she just want to leave a lasting impression of her industry in this year-long pursuit, something that perhaps, I might write about?
Sister Island, a 42-acre property located just a couple of kilometers down river from Dawson City, has a long tradition of growing. Given to the Sisters of St. Ann in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, the nuns used the island to grow vegetables famous for their quality, and raised cows, chickens and pigs to feed a hospital and orphanage in Dawson.
Sister Island has a long-standing reputation for growing great veggies. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
The island was purchased a few years ago by Lou Tyacke and Gary Masters, and the couple are keeping the island’s growing tradition very much alive. Visitors are also able to come and stay on the island.
Lou and Gary are originally from the U.K., and while the sub-arctic climate and short growing season they deal with is about as un-English as you can get, they are trying some new cultivars and livestock not typical to the Klondike. Among the fowl they are raising are some species more common to the British Isles than the Yukon. This year they are raising quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks as well.
Lou and Gary are trying some exotic species more familiar to the U.K. like quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
There are also Tamworth pigs, a well-known species in the U.K. The animals seem well-adapted to their home, and when they are not chasing the farmers’ quad, love to take mud baths.
Lou and Gary have been growing turnips to help feed the pigs, but they are growing so well, the farmers are thinking they’ll be keeping some of the vegetables for themselves.
Louise Piché, one of Dawson’s great home gardeners, continues to defy expectations about what can be grown at 64 degrees north. Recently, she managed to grow an artichoke — perhaps the first ever raised in the Klondike.
If you’re inspired and want to try following in Louise’s footsteps, the cultivar is the Green Globe Artichoke, and the seeds came from Best Cool Seeds, the online store for the Denali Seed Company, a Michigan-based firm that specializes in cold-weather gardening.
It only took 30 hours. An overnight trip to Whitehorse, medicinally supplemented with a few coffees and Monster drinks to maintain energy and alertness, and then back on “The Program.” And the price has been two days of caffeine withdrawal headaches.
It seems that our bodies adapt more readily to the intake of nutrients and chemicals than it does to their removal. How unfortunate. Simplistically, it helps one understand addiction and the inherent struggles with recovery. It took my body only 30 hours to adapt to, and depend on, the regular consumption of coffee. Meanwhile, it took months for this same body to accept even a diminished intake of sugar and grains. So much for mind over matter.
I’ve mentioned before that one of my ambivalences about coming off “The Program” is the potential for loss of thought about food choices. On the one hand, I look forward to the ease of eating indiscriminately. On the other, I worry about the loss of taste discrimination and the loss of altruistic thoughts about food security.
It was nice to be able to eat at a restaurant in Whitehorse. But, the barbequed ribs were not barbequed at all. They were simply bathed in barbeque sauce, which on first bite, tasted bold and delicious to my virgin taste buds. Scrapping away the sauce revealed overcooked and tasteless pork, much worse than the “happy meat,” to which I have become accustomed. The fries tasted like a crusty conduit for bad grease, hidden beneath a generous dousing of salt, the ubiquitous masquerader. The small piece of corn-on-the-cob was tough and tasteless, suggesting that the chef decided it was best to pawn off the remnants of last year’s stock, before the fresh, delicious, new stuff arrives…
Makes one think that taking control of one’s dietary intake does have its merits.
Another distinction of eating conveniently from stores, and one that is also worthy of reiteration, is the production of garbage that this entails. With virtually every individual item coming in its own designated package of single-use plastic or Styrofoam or tin or paper or cardboard, this rapidly adds up. Again, I had generated an embarrassingly notable bag of garbage by the end of my short trip, about the same as our whole family now produces in a week. And while eating conveniently on the run feels decadent on the one hand, there is the undeniable lingering question about the wisdom of our course. Sure, we all want to do less dishes: washing out zip lock bags, jars, and plastic containers for repurposing, is neither convenient or fun. Just ask my kids. But, aside from the individual desire to minimize effort, it is time to re-evaluate the sustainability of the current retail business.
Hey, my headache is gone! Perhaps, just perhaps, there was more to it than caffeine withdrawal, after all…
Domestic haskap berries are ripe in gardens and the wild strawberries are now ripe in the fields.
The sweet taste of a fresh, in season, strawberry is divine. In the North, wild strawberries are very small – but their taste is the sweetest of all – making them worth the effort of picking.
Haskaps, Lonicera caerulea, are a blue honeysuckle. Native to Russia, they withstand frost and the minus forty cold winters of the North quite well. They are currently flourishing in gardens around Dawson City.
Also native to Japan, ‘haskap’ is an ancient Japanese name which translates to ‘berry of long life and good vision.’ Haskaps are packed with Vitamin C and contain more anti-oxidants than any other berry.
The haskap berry is grape sized. They are perfectly ripe when they are dark blue in colour with an obvious dimple in the bottom of the berry. The taste of a haskap is a combination of sweet blueberry with tart cranberry.
At Tundarose Garden in Dawson City, a bird found a well-protected area for nesting in the interior of the a thick row of haskap bushes. Not wanting to disturb, Suzanne and Mary Ann snuck a very quick peek at the eggs and were surprised to find two had just hatched. They backed off quickly so that mama could attend to her young in peace.
There is nothing quite like the taste of the first cherry tomato, picked straight off the vine. Especially after 10 months without! It popped into my mouth with a burst of intense tomato flavour complimented by a long missed combination of sweet, salty and juicy.
And the taste explosion continued with the first freshly-picked cucumber from the greenhouse and the first fresh zucchini from the local Farmers Market. It is with great excitement that every Saturday morning I head to our local Farmers Market to discover which new summer vegetable will appear.
I find myself grazing on both spinach leaves and chickweed from the garden.
And then there is the lettuce! I used to think of lettuce as a vehicle for salad dressing. But this year, I can happily munch away on the leafy green all by itself.
I am sure that the fresh vegetables of summer have always tasted this good, but the flavours seem more intensely delicious to me this year. Perhaps it is simply the ten month absence of fresh greens from my diet. Perhaps it is an increased sensitivity of my taste buds, after a year without salt and pepper.
Whatever the reason, eating seasonally brings with it gastronomical joy!
With the first taste of lettuce, my desire for root vegetables instantly diminished. The potato, which has been our best friend and staple all winter, has been replaced with salad.
And salad has never been so gourmet: wild sheep and warm vegetable salad, smoked salmon salad, the sky is the limit!
Thanks to Dawsonite, Kirsten Lorenz, I have even found a salad dressing recipe that rivals anything I ever made or bought in the past. It is a flavourful combination of berries, garlic, birch syrup and rhubarb juice.
Yesterday, I ate a tomato. And today I ate a radish. While I was luxuriating in the taste, it dawned on me that for the majority of the local population, this would not necessarily be a treat; that most people would not have gone many months without those foods. Most people use stores. And stores facilitate the access of foods from all over the world, regardless of the season.
I have to admit that eating local brings with it the excitement of renewed tastes as we immerse ourselves into the summer. It is great to have fresh haskaps again. And salad greens. And the steamed turnip tops are to die for. And each day unleashes a fresh supply of abundance and variety. It feels magical and decadent after a winter of waiting for the onions to run out.
Strange, but I’m starting to feel that my appreciation for food might suffer when we return to the non-local diet. Maybe it will all seem too easy, too undeserving. Will I really savor the taste and value the opportunity to eat fresh strawberries in February? Coconuts and pineapples in Dawson? Or will the process of shopping and eating become mechanized, without much deliberation or thought? Will thoughts of local opportunity, unnecessary transportation, food storage and seasonal limitations all be forgotten?
I did not enjoy using my living space as a storage silo, so that I won’t miss. But maybe I will miss a part of what comes with living with your food supply: the awareness of knowing exactly what you must make do with, the appreciation of limitations, the necessity to find creativity within those limitations. Everyone who enjoys camping and backpacking is essentially enjoying exactly that: a time when you must persevere with what you have, a time of restraint, and a time of discipline.
The coffers have food aplenty with only three weeks to go on “the Diet.” And with the forest and gardens producing, there is no anxiety about scurvy or beri-beri. We will make it. I expect there will be a shock effect from that cold beer on a hot afternoon, or with the dough that has yeast added to it, or with that salt brine lathered on top of a roast. It will seem weird to eat in public or go to a restaurant. But this will pass. I remember that when we returned from our winter in the bush there was a similar transient sense of disbelief and undeserving, when a simple twist of the tap produced hot running water.
I am looking forward to the ease of eating and the convenience of unrestricted access. I am ready to not talk about food, or to think about it. I’m really looking forward to a glass of wine and a banana, for some reason. It feels like I have no memory of ever having experienced the taste of an orange. So, there is always room for reflection, but for now, it’s almost time to bring out the coffee!
The Amazing Race Canada episode shot in Dawson City aired last night on CTV. Part of the series coverage includes follow-up See It All webisodes, where former contestants, now hosts, Andrea and Adam take a more in-depth look at the community where the racers competed.
The brother-and-sister duo visited Tombstone Provincial Park, panned for gold at Discovery Claim No. 6, visited with members of the local First Nations community, and did the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail at the Downtown Hotel. But for their culinary component, they turned to Suzanne for a truly unique experience — a meal with 100% local ingredients, including a foraging expedition to pick up some wild vegetables for the menu.
My experience last Fall taught me that hulling grain is no easy feat. In fact sometimes, as is the case for oats and buckwheat, it is virtually impossible for a home gardener. Therefore I was thrilled that Salt Spring Seeds carries hulless varieties of grain. After consulting owner Dan Jason, I decided to try Faust Barley (hulless) and Streaker Hulless Oats.
And look how well they are doing!
Gardening has never come easily to me. I struggle to grow brassicas while the local farmers produce them in abundance.
This year I decided to try my luck growing edibles that are not so easily found at our local Farmers Market. My raised beds are hosting oats, barley, amaranth, Tom Thumb popping corn and onions. The onions are not looking so good but, so far, the rest seem to be growing well.
With the idiosyncrasies of our short growing season, grains have often been difficult to grow in the North. Perhaps as a result of climate change, perhaps due to hardier cultivars, it seems that in the past few years growing grain is becoming more feasible.
So it is a good time test out the possibilities of back yard grain growing in the Yukon!
Fingers crossed that local barley and local breakfast oats will be on the menu in our house next year.
I am now in the last month of a full year of eating 100% local to Dawson City.
At this point, I would have expected to be sprinting towards the finish line – a piece of chocolate, a cup of strong black tea and plateful of sushi temptingly waiting for me on the other side.
But rather than sprinting, I want to put on the brakes. I want this last month to stretch out as long as possible.
It is with trepidation and some sadness that I think of Cheerios, bagels, coconuts and all manor of exotic and processed non-local foods re-entering our kitchen. Items which are now fully engrained in my psychie as ‘contraband’.
After we returned from living in the bush, I was determined to continue making my own yogurt, my own crackers, my own bread. But gradually, despite my initial resolve, convenience overcame my intentions. Ritz and Triscuits became mainstays in the cupboard, yogurt once again came from the store, packages of bagels lined our counter. Will the same thing happen this time or will my resolve prevail?
When it comes to cooking, I do better with boundaries. Limitless choice handcuffs me. I have evidence of this from my past. In university I became paralyzed in the cafeteria line up when I was asked “cheddar or mozzarella?” I avoid restaurants with six-page menus. It’s also one of the reasons I live remotely. When you go to the store for a new toaster, you buy the only toaster on the shelf – no decisions to be made.
The constraint of cooking with only local ingredients has done wonders for my previously non-existent culinary talents!
I might just continue to avoid grocery shopping. If my family wants it, let them go to the store and buy it. I suspect the novelty of shopping might quickly dissipate after their August 1st shopping spree. But then again, baking powder would be nice.
One month to go, then back to normal. Or, have I got that wrong? This “local” diet has been the mainstay of human sustenance since the first green shoots erupted in the Fertile Crescent? That which we now consider normal, is in reality, a modern expectation that stems from a cheap and well-organized transport system. It begs the question as to whether this current food delivery style is either normal or sustainable.
The beginning of each month heralds “weigh-in day.” Suzanne has been logging the entries dutifully. Once a scientist, always a scientist. Looking for logic in numbers, searching for correlations. The weigh-in day is a reminder to me that this is, after all, just an experiment. It too, shall pass.
A glimpse at the numbers reveals that in the second half of this “game,” the male members have steadily gained weight. The women have either lost or held steady. So what can be deduced?
As for my son, well, he is in that teenage anabolic stage of life, when the simple act of looking at a calorie equates to muscle growth. How unfair, I say to him, that at his age he only needs to sleep and eat to get better at everything he does, while those of us from the older generation can only measure success by the slowness with which we deteriorate.
During the first three to four months of the program, my weight dropped like gold in a sluice box. About 10 pounds per month. The wasting was so profound that if it wasn’t for my insatiable appetite and for my increased vigor, I would have worried more about some sinister disease lurking in my inner depths. Still, the thought did cross my mind.
As winter encroached, the lack of body fat became a problem: I simply could not stay warm. With virtually no grains in my diet, I turned to fat, sugar and starch. The hunger stopped, the cold intolerance disappeared, and the weight returned. My skin-folds became thicker than that on the back of my hand. My ribs, once again hid from view. My pants and underwear resisted the embarrassing pull of gravity. The beard was no longer essential to hide the hollow in my cheeks.
There has always been an abundance of animal fat in this relatively protein-rich diet. I increased on this by upping the amount of ingested cream: homemade ice-cream, berries with cream, anything with cream. The sugar came primarily from birch syrup. Added to cream, added to sauces, added to waffles and increasing doses of breakfast clafouti. The main contributor of starch was the potato. It became a winter staple, a daily part of supper and a frequent part of the fried breakfast concoction. My potato dependence has given new appreciation to the profound devastation of the blight of Ireland in the mid 1800’s.
So, to those of you wanting to gain weight, my advice is simple: either increase your intake of sugar and starch, or revert to adolescence.
Achilles was dipped in a vat of yarrow tea as a young child, to protect him from the dangers of war. As the story from Greek mythology goes, only his heel was left unprotected as that was where his mother held him when she dipped him into the vat. Achilles’ heel turned out to be his demise when it was pierced by an arrow.
Yarrow flowers are now in bloom around Dawson City and this is the best time to harvest.
Yarrow is well known for its many medicinal values as well as being an effective mosquito repellent.
However, dried yarrow also has benefits as an edible plant. It is full of minerals such as calcium, potassium and sodium as well as vitamins A, C and thiamine.
The dried flowers make an excellent and aromatic tea. Try a tea blend of yarrow, juniper, mint and lemon balm.
Infuse birch syrup with dried yarrow flowers, rosehips and rose petals.
The dried leaves make an excellent herb. Try grinding dried yarrow leaves with wild sage, nasturtium seed pod, spruce tip, nettle and celery leaf to make a herbed butter or a chicken seasoning.
The best way to harvest yarrow is to cut it at the base of the stem, and then bunch the stems together and hang upside down to dry.
Thanks to Bev Gray’s “Boreal Herbal” and to ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph for the knowledge that has been summarized in this post.
There’s one tool that’s proving to be indispensable on this diet program. And, I’m happy, even proud, to say that it was my foresight that brought said tool into our house.
A few years ago I went through a stage of craving smoothies. And our ancient Value Village blender was not making the task of home-made smoothie production either easy or fun. The ice cubes would not shred and there would be surprise clumps of fruit obstructing the straws and gagging the palate.
A detailed online research repeatedly directed me to the Vitamix, so to heck with the expense, off to the store I went. It was one of those purchases that I felt required no justification or explanation: the best is the best.
My wife thought the expense was extravagant and needless. I battled her taunting by immersing the family in offerings of smoothies. Smoothies for breakfast, smoothies for desert, smoothies on hot afternoons. Smoothies on winter movie nights and smoothies as a way of disguising leftovers. Smoothies, I learned, could be the vector for injecting green vegetables into a sweet snack. Smoothies, in short, were the embodiment of dietary excellence, wrapped in a package of convenience and decadence.
Perhaps I overdid it. Soon, I couldn’t pay enough for the kids to accept a smoothie of questionable content. Perhaps, I had taken the nutritional thing a step too far. Too many green smoothies. Too many dried bagels dissolved and disguised in the body of a smoothie.
So, the blender took a rest. It started to live the life that Suzanne had predicted from the beginning. It became a red and black decorative piece on a counter that was designed for function, not fashion. It was in the way.
But then … then came “The Diet!” And this new sugarless life was fertile ground for a yearning for something sweet, something different than another baked potato. And so, the blender has throttled back into action. Gentlemen, fire up your engines!
Now, the blender is a daily contributor to our nutrient load. We still have berries from last Fall in our freezers, and we have access to yogurt and milk, and birch syrup is our sweetener. So, smoothies are back! And not only that, the blender is now used to make butter. You can tell that we have entered the world of mechanization by our forearms, which are shriveling back to normal human size.
So, we have come full circle. Nothing like a little winter of deprivation to teach the masses about the benefits of a great blender. And, in the process I feel vindicated for that extravagant purchase so many years ago, clearly now a harbinger in disguise.
I’m awake early. Sounds of ocean waves crashing against stubborn granite fill the air. I’m at home, in the Yukon, far from the ocean. I pinch myself; yes, I am awake.
It’s the new thing, apparently: sound recordings to lull babies to sleep. My daughter is here visiting with her baby daughter, so the ocean is pounding through the night at our house. I wonder if this is not so much about sleep as it is my daughter’s subliminal desire to firmly entrench our Newfoundland heritage into the makeup of the next generation. Lest we forget… Perhaps my daughter secretly wanted a mermaid. Or a fish? In any event, if there is a remote chance that sound can influence the genetic composition of the young, then I expect any day now to see scales.
But more than anything, the sound is filling me with a yearning. I’m missing the water. My boat is in the repair shop and so my Spring fix is being agonizingly postponed. And, I think this feeling of incompletion is worsened because of the withdrawal from my daily sojourns to the river over the winter. I hadn’t realized the paradox, that by fishing for burbot in the winter, I too was being hooked, lured back into distant familiarities. To fish is to be fished.
One notable thing about the Yukon is the dramatic seasonal changes. And with that comes new perspectives, new activities and new recreational pursuits. It’s time to put burbot thoughts aside. Time for trout and grayling. Time for fresh greens and asparagus and radishes and tomatoes and strawberries. Time again to roam the forest and munch on spruce trees!
And maybe, when my daughter is unsuspecting, I can expose the next generation to enough Yukon delights such that this too, will forever be as entrenched within her as the sounds of the ocean.
Check out the menu from this 100% Yukon local feast served in 1912! Courtesy of Kathy Gates.
From The Dawson Daily News — Friday August 2nd, 1912
YUKON PRODUCE AFFORDS A SWELL DINNER
One of the most unique dinners ever held in the North was given Tuesday evening at “Messieur Pete’s” Merchants’ Café by Peter Rost, the Dominion operator, in honour of Rev. Father Vaughn.
Every article on the menu was a Yukon product. Nothing but Yukon grown vegetables, Yukon meats or game and Yukon beverages and berries were placed before the feasters. The dinner was termed a ‘potlatch’ and the menu included cream of tomato soup, from Yukon’s own love apples; combination salad, Yukon vegetables, Yukon salmon and other fishes; Yukon grizzly bear, and other big game entrees; stuffed Yukon chicken, and Yukon birds. Dawson grown native strawberries; wild Yukon blueberries and raspberries; ice cream from Yukon dairy; Yukon milk, and Yukon’s peerless sparkling water. Yukon brewed amber drinks might have been provided also were it not the crowd comprised tee-totalers.
Those at the table were: Peter Rost, host; Father Vaughn, Father Bunoz and B. L. Jelich. A magnificent menu in many colours was printed by the News as a souvenir. Father Vaughn said he will have London newspapers write up the feast, and give wide publicity to what Yukon can produce in foodstuffs.
Bet your local coffee shop doesn’t have this nutritious, delicious latté flavour on its menu — at least not yet!
Right now, stinging nettle is at its prime for harvesting (although you’ll want to wear gloves!) Far from being an annoying weed, stinging nettle is rich in calcium, Vitamin A and C, and plant protein.
To dry it, cut at the base of the stem, bundle several stems together, and hang upside down. When dry, remove the leaves into a mason jar. They can be crushed later or ground into a powder in a coffee grinder.
Stinging nettle is best picked when under a foot high and there is still a purplish tinge to the leaves. Definitely pick before it flowers.
Rice Root bulb with nodding onions on skunk cabbage leaf.
“Our people look after what we take, we don’t take too much, we leave something, we don’t go back to that same place, and we go gather elsewhere. All the harvesting is done to take what you need and not take everything. You need to leave something for other people and leave something so that the plant can continue to live. You’ve got to take care of those things.”
~ Chief Floyd Joseph, Squamish First Nation
I have grown up with the belief that plants are our relatives. Connected to this belief are plant harvesting and cultivation practices that are rooted in respect and reciprocity. For each plant food or medicine there were, and are, sustainable practices employed to ensure the long-term health and productivity of plants in particular harvesting areas.
When settlers arrived in Canada there was a misconception that the landscapes they encountered were untouched and unused. In reality, the landscapes were intensively managed and cultivated to maximize productivity of foods with the understanding that future generations would also carry out these practices and rely on these foods.
There are many well-known examples now of ecosystems that were shaped by millennia of cultural practices and Indigenous knowledge aimed at building sustainable and bountiful food sources. These practices centered on the understanding that harvesting has impacts and in order to balance out these impacts there must be reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of giving back for mutual benefit. A plant-harvesting example of this would be replanting a section of root when you are harvesting roots for food to ensure the plant you are harvesting from returns and thrives. There is often a spiritual aspect to this type of reciprocity as well, in the form of a prayer or offering to the plant.
Sustainability has been built into indigenous plant management practices since time before memory. People were taught to manage root vegetables through replanting and cultivation. They knew that harvesting too many leaf buds from a tree or shrub would stunt new growth. They knew that to harvest entire flowers meant that pollinators and animals would lose a food source and fruit would not develop.
Two examples of Indigenous plant cultivation are camas meadows and estuary root gardens.
Camas is a traditional root food that was grown in family managed gardens. Camas gardens were found in open meadows that were maintained through fire management. Burning the meadow would bring nutrients into the soil, remove grasses and provide open habitat for camas to thrive.
Estuary Root Gardens were also family managed gardens in estuaries. Management of these gardens included weeding, tilling, replanting and rotating harvest to ensure the productivity and sustainability of the gardens.
The relatively new popularization of wild foraging is leading to overharvesting and can be seen as another form of ‘taking’ from the land. I share in the excitement of harvesting but I ask you to please educate yourself and consider the impact you may have. Ask yourself: “Is this a plant I should be harvesting?” “Who else might be relying on these plant foods?” “Where am I harvesting? Is this a culturally or ecologically sensitive area?” “What is my intention with harvesting? How much do I take and what do I give back?” “How do I harvest and give back in a way that will sustain these plant foods for generations to come?”
If you don’t know the answers to these questions I urge you to seek out training or contact your local Indigenous community to ensure that you are practicing in a respectful way. Purchasing plants from a native plant nursery or transplanting into a garden setting are two great ways to have less of an impact on the wild plant populations.
Here are some great books if you are interested in further learning.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Kimmerer
Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask
by Mary Siisip Geniusz
As We Have Always Done Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance
by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
Only two months left in my year of eating 100% local to Dawson. And it is not joy nor eager anticipation that I feel as the end approaches, but a sense of melancholy. I don’t want to stop. I loathe the day that packaged and processed foods re-enter the fridge and the cupboards and I know that I will be powerless to stop it. My family has put up with this experiment for almost a year, and they are very much looking forward to the shopping spree on August 1st.
Tess misses salt and the ability to pour herself a bowl of Cheerios in the morning. Kate misses baking – the fluffy sort that comes with white flour, baking powder and white sugar. Sam misses grab and go filler food – bagels, crackers, a limitless supply of apples all year round. Gerard misses big tubs of unrationed ice-cream.
And what do I miss?
Surprisingly almost nothing. Except a hot mug of strong black tea – which I am loathe to return to after ten months of being caffeine free. I expected I would miss chocolate, avocados, oranges, sushi, nutritional yeast on butter slathered popcorn…
But it is not these things that I miss.
I miss salad dressing! Vegetable oil and balsamic vinegar salad dressing!
Fresh greens are back on the menu and I now realize just how much I miss salad dressing. Lettuce, on its own, just doesn’t cut it for me. Ghee (clarified butter) and melted animal fat do not make good vegetable oil alternatives for salad. Rhubarb juice (my vinegar) doesn’t have enough punch on its own. I have tried making a ranch style dressing with yogurt, herbs, garlic and honey but it is still missing something.
So, with 2 months left to go, and fresh greens popping out of the ground, I am determined to crack this case. There must be a 100% local salad dressing option that can rival vegetable oil & balsamic vinegar. Help? If you have any suggestions, please let me know!!
I’ve been away for a bit. Living the life of the normal mass of humanity. Eating salt and sugar and chocolate and coffee and bread. Lots of bread and pastry. Relishing in croissants, light and fluffy, laced in butter (the salted type please!). Cereals for breakfast. Taking full advantage of the utility of commercial stores, buying food and consuming food while on the move. Rediscovering the sheer decadence of grabbing an ice-cream bar when a bit peckish on the road, marveling at not having to peel a potato and watch it boil as the stomach growls in wanton anticipation.
Sometimes we wonder about human progress. We wonder about the cost of convenience, about skills that have been abandoned, then lost. We marvel at the rise of dough in a pan or the conversion of agitated milk into butter. We love to see fresh garden shoots, sprouting from inert seed to vibrant life, made possible with the magical combination of dirt, sun, soil and water. It is easy to sentimentally linger in the past, easy to feel that we have become disconnected from the entanglement of chemistry which defines life.
But the human quest for convenience is not a recent event. We have always strived to make life more comfortable, to anticipate future needs and to mitigate risks. Thus, societies were born, and dependence on agriculture offered more predictability than the nomadic life of the hunter/gatherer. To grow, harvest and store food with increasing efficiency is to be human.
So, it is no surprise that we have evolved into our current state, where food is processed, packaged and shipped prodigiously. And while we can all agree that this process allows for some nutrient loss as well as the addition of some unwanted preservatives and additives, we cannot deny the necessity. We can’t all go shoot a moose. Nor can most of us grow and store our own food, regardless of how good it tastes or how nutritious it might be.
So, modern life must be about compromise. Be attentive to our food and make the most practical and healthy choices we can. Enjoy our indulgences but try to keep them infrequent enough such that we do not suffer from the health consequences that so often accompany them.
And did I mention that adding a few spruce tips to a mug of boiled water is a pleasant drink with which to start the day?
Wild sage is out in abundance now around Dawson City. There are two kinds of wild sage, one you may be more familiar with and one less familiar with. For both, the leaves can be dried and used as a herb.
The more familiar wild sage is artemisia frigida — which is distinctive by its sage green colour. Its scent is a delicate with that aromatic sweet sage smell. It is most often found in alpine areas and outcroppings.
You may be less familiar with artemisia tilesii, commonly referred to as stinkweed. This is a misnomer. There is nothing stinky about the aromatic smell of sage! Artemisia tilesii is prolific – especially along road sides, and it looks very much like an inedible weed. But that is just a ruse. You can identify it by rubbing the leaf to smell its distinctive sage smell. As it is quite plentiful, you can cut it at the base of the stalk and hang it to dry. The dried leaves keep well in a mason jar throughout the year. Crush the dried leaves or grind them in a coffee grinder before adding as a seasoning.
In case mosquitos are bothering you while you forage, the leaves of wild sage, along with yarrow, also acts as a mosquito repellent if you rub the leaves on your skin.
And here is a tip from Bev Gray’s The Boreal Herbal, if you have sore feet while you are hiking or foraging, line the soles of your boots or shoes with artemisia tilesii leaves!
The buds are appearing on the trees, there’s new growth on the ground, and across the territory farmers, gardeners and consumers are gearing up for market season. In Dawson the first outdoor market took place on May 13, Mother’s Day; in Whitehorse the Fireweed Community Market officially opens May 17; and the Stewart Valley Community Market (SVCM) will rev up on May 26th. “Keep your friends close and your farmers closer,” says a poster on the SCVM Facebook page, which pretty much sums up the idea behind local markets: farmers and community.
Joella Hogan is one of the SCVM organizers, along with Sandy Washburn and Susan Stanley. “We usually try to have five or six markets a year,” she says. “Usually the first one in spring so people can get bedding plants and visit, and celebrate spring.
“When we started, our whole point was about connecting farms to local people, because lots of people couldn’t get out to the farms,” she continues. “We had no idea that it would become this huge social thing.”
The market started up about seven years ago, with the help of funding from the Community Climate Change Adaptation Project at Yukon College, which enabled organizers to invest in tables, tents, a barbecue and a cooler. Now the market is totally self-sufficient, deriving revenue from table rentals at $10 a shot and a $25 buy-in fee for food vendors.
Farmers Ralph and Norma Meese from Minto Bridge Farm are market regulars, and so are Adam and Danica Wrench from North Wind farm, a small family operation just up the road from the Meeses. “The Meeses sell mostly vegetables and eggs, whereas Adam and Danica are getting into pigs and chickens,” says Hogan. “There’s even a local lady selling eating rabbits.”
The farmers are joined by a good handful of local food producers, artists and artisans. Sometimes jeweller Esther Winter of Winterchild Jewellery takes a table, especially when she’s testing new designs. “She’ll say, ‘These are three new designs; pick your favourite and there will be a draw.’ I love it!” says Hogan.
This year market organizers are hoping to get more kids interested in participating, whether to sell lemonade or hold a bake sale. “We want to encourage entrepreneurship and small business, so we want to get the kids involved in the market so they understand more.”
The other group in the community the organizers have their sights on is the seniors and Elders. “They’re our biggest fans; they love getting out and visiting. Our thinking is, let’s engage them to have more ownership — phoning their friends to remind them there’s a market and putting up posters, so that it becomes more of a community-wide thing.”
Hogan recently attended the Zero Waste Conference in Whitehorse. “I said to Sandy, ‘We have to get on Zero Waste!’” Now, like the Fireweed Community Market and other markets across the country, SVCM is grappling with how to reduce garbage. “How do you do that? Do you offer incentives to the vendor? Do you, as the market, supply all the dishes and utensils so it meets your values? At what expense?”
Already, SVCM uses compostable cups, and Susan Stanley has made felt holders that will go around mason jars, which Hogan then takes home and washes after the market.
That is, if folks will allow her to take their coffee cups. Hogan says, “People don’t want to go home at the end of the day. We’re packing up and they’re like, ‘I just want one more cup of coffee!’”
One of my favourite edible leaves, lungwort (commonly known as blue bell) is now out and about around Dawson City. The young leaves are very tasty raw and can be added to salad, steamed or added to soups and stews. The early flower buds are also quite tasty – (although I always feels a bit guilty eating them before they have a chance to flower).
Important rule of thumb: In general, blue and purple flowering plants are NOT edible. Lungwort is the exception. Don’t eat lupine or delphinium or Jacob’s ladder which are also starting to appear around the same time (but the leaves look very different from lupin).
Spruce tips are a versatile ingredient in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes and can be frozen or dried for use throughout the year.
Photos by Cathie Archbould, Archbould Photography.
A candy, a spice, a tea, and great to snack on fresh — all this in the spruce tip!
Pick some now and enjoy them all year long.
At this time of year throughout the North the spruce trees are starting to put on their new growth. The dark green of the existing branches is highlighted by the bright green of new tips. These emerging spruce tips are a delicious and versatile wild food and high in Vitamin C.
Spruce tips have a distinct taste — citrus with a hint of resin. You can snack on them fresh or or add them to salads.
Candied spruce tips make a delicious snack and they store well in the fridge in a mason jar. The remaining birch syrup infused with spruce tips makes a wonderful coniferous-deciduous syrup blend that can then be used to make Spruce Tip Spritzers.
To enjoy spruce tips all year long, store them in the freezer. Or dry some to grind for a spice later in the year.
You’ll know the spruce tips are ready to pick when they are bright green with a small brown husk at the end. Knock off the husk before using. Remember that this is the tree’s new growth, so pick sparingly from any single tree before moving on. It’s a good idea to pick a good distance from any roadway to make sure they’re free of airborne toxins.
Enjoy this versatile burst of Vitamin C from the forest!
Those of us craving fresh local greens at the end of the long winter need look no further than our own backyards. The dandelions are coming up, folks! They’re fresh and tender now, before the flowers come into bloom; a good time to enjoy them in salads. If you like arugula, you will like dandelion leaves.!
Later the leaves increase in bitterness, and are best in cooked dishes—try sautéing dandelion leaves with morel mushrooms and garlic scapes. Throw in a few flowers as well!
Dandelions are legendary for their health benefits–the leaves are packed with Vitamins K and A, contain substantial amounts of C and B6, as well as thiamine, riboflavin, calcium and iron, among other nutrients, and are high in fibre. Current research suggests that extract of dandelion root may be helpful in the treatment of leukemia.
Some tips for picking: grasp the leaves where they meet in a crown near the root, pull slightly and cut just underneath the crown, keeping the plant in one piece. Sometimes several plants are packed tightly together; then you’ll need to dig with your fingers to discover where each crown emerges from the root. Sometimes you can free a number of plants with one cut.
Do the first cleaning outside, removing grass and other leaves. Use your knife to scrape away the sticky, dark skin at the base of the stem. Cut the stems off at the ends.
Remember old recipes that direct you to wash something “in several waters”? This is very important with dandelions. A gritty salad is no fun. Wash and wash again, lifting the leaves from the water into the strainer each time, leaving the dirt behind. When the water is clear, you’re good to go.
Remember to pick only in those places you know haven’t been sprayed, and avoid roadside ditches. Now, get out there with your trusty knife and have fun!
The foraging season is now in full force! New edible plants are popping up daily. Many of them are only edible when they are young, so the window for a tasting opportunity is short!
Horsetail, equisetum arvense, is one such example. Horsetail is a relative of a prehistoric plant that grew to over 15 meters high 400 million years ago.
Horsetail is eaten by caribou, moose, sheep and bears and, when young, can be eaten by humans too. The young, male horsetail shoots are edible when the fronds are pointing up. When the fronds start to point outwards or downwards, then they should no longer be eaten as oxalate crystals will be building up inside the stem.
If you catch them early, the young shoots can be eaten raw or steamed as a wild vegetable. Or they can be dried and used as a tea. They are rich in antioxidants and high in minerals including calcium, magnesium.
Of note – long-term regular ingestion or horsetail can deplete thiamine levels (Vitamin B1). Also to be avoided in folks with edema, gout, heart and kidney disease.
If you don’t catch them young, horsetail make good pot scrubbers while camping. Horsetail is high in silica and when dried and steeped in hot water apparently makes a great foot soak or hair rinse.
Look for horsetail in damp open woods, meadows, dry sandy soil and disturbed areas.
As part of the Dawson Youth Fiddlers entourage, I have just returned from Vadzaih Choo Drin, Caribou Days, in Old Crow, Yukon – four days of celebrating the Spring migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd en route to their Northern calving grounds and feasting on food from the land!
Caribou Days is a wonderful four day celebration of feasts, games and music, with jigging and dancing that continue to the wee hours of the morning. Everyone takes part, young and old, men and women. One of the Dawson contingent coined a new slogan for Old Crow: “Old Crow – where men dance!”
Much of the feasting celebrates food from the land. The caribou, vadzaih, features front and centre, but also rabbit, muskrat, whitefish, salmon, duck and beaver. For me, it was my first taste of muskrat! (Although I took my tub of Dawson local food with me, I also treated myself to some tastes of local Old Crow food while I was in Old Crow!)
There is a wonderful synergism to the games and feasting at Caribou Days. The log sawing competition and the kindling competition help keep the outdoor fire going for the huge grill that cooks the food from the land. The rabbit skinning contest and the muskrat skinning contest are perfectly timed before the meat hits the grill!
Muskrat meat ready for the grill, and fur ready for use. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Muskrat tails on the grill. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Beaver was also on the menu. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Prepared caribou heads ready to go in the pot. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Whitefish being cleaned for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Vuntut Gwitchin citizen, Stan Njootli Sr. demonstrates how to skin a muskrat. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Crow River ice after break-up. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The outdoor grill being prepared for the Caribou Days feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Almost ready. Checking on the caribou. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Food from the land ready for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The caribou are vitally important to the Vuntut Gwitchin who have relied on the caribou for tens of thousands of years for food and for clothing. All parts of the harvested caribou continue to be used from the head to the hoof to the hide. The Vuntut Gwitchin and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, with the support of many Canadians and Americans, continue to fight for the protection of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds, wintering grounds and migration routes from oil and gas exploration.
Massi Cho Old Crow for welcoming the Dawson Youth Fiddlers so warmly to Caribou Days with amazing Old Crow hospitality. We had a fantastic time!
One of my foraging and chef friends in Whitehorse goes over to Haines, Alaska a few times every year to enjoy the sea and the salt air and do some wild harvesting. She might come back with bags of lambs quarters, she might score a clutch of chanterelle mushrooms or a kilo of spot prawns.
The other day, just back from one of her excursions, she texted me, “Want some fresh eulachon for supper?” She was lucky enough to have been there for the weekend of May 5th, when the eulachon were running. I texted back, “Wow! I’m really not sure. Do I?”
The reason for my hesitation was I’d heard that eulachon oil, a delicacy to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest from California to BC to Alaska, can be really strong for the uninitiated. I’d also heard that the fish are so oily that when dried, they can reportedly be lit to burn like a candle. I’d smelled the eulachon being processed beside the Chilkat River last spring. The aroma was powerful. But I’d never tasted the oil, or the fish.
In many parts of the formerly eulachon-rich Pacific Northwest, this small, smelt-like staple of the Indigenous diet has disappeared. Happily, the run is still strong in Haines. My friend said that the Chilkoot River ran black in places, there were so many fish. She tried catching them in a collapsible camping colander, but they were too quick, so she just plunged her hand in and grabbed them, two or three at a time, stuffed them into a pot on shore, slammed the lid on and waded back into the river to grab some more — bouquets of eulachon, the gift of spring.
Back in Whitehorse, after our text exchange, my friend came over with a baby cooler. In it were a baggie-full of eulachon and two good handfuls of devil’s club sprouts. (The only time I’ve ever tasted those sprouts is when she has brought them back for my husband and me. ) She just happened to be in the forest at the right time; one day later and the sprouts would’ve been too big, the prickles starting to harden.
That night we feasted on these two presents from Alaska, kindness of my friend. On her advice, we lightly smoked the eulachon whole, then coated them, still whole, in flour. My husband had just returned from a hike with beautiful ripe juniper berries; I crushed those and added them to the flour, which was local; the last of my supply of triticale flour from Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley.
We fried the fish quickly in butter, and the devil’s club sprouts in butter and garlic. We ate both sprouts and eulachon with our fingers. We peeled the backbone, organs attached, from the fish, split the head to remove the brains and crunched the crispy skulls in our teeth. The flesh was sweet, mild, and silky, not oily at all. The devil’s club sprouts tasted, as my friend’s partner often says, like pure life. Strong, conifer-like, bracing, almost medicinal.
I said to my husband, “We have to really pay attention because we’re not going to taste these flavours again until next spring.” The bonus of eating seasonally, and locally, is that you can savour these experiences for the special treat that they are.
Last year’s grass is long, yellow and plentiful in our Whitehorse backyard, and the new green shoots are already showing underneath. It really is time to rake away the old and prepare for the new. But I’m getting ready for a trip overseas, there’s so much to do, and the inevitable looms — I will not get to the raking.
Every year it’s the same — we have great plans for the yard. We’ll build a food forest! Sow some grains! Cause passersby to stare in wonder at the glory of our garden!
And every year, I might manage, latterly, to stuff armfuls of old grass into the compost bucket, fill a few pots with edible flowers, and maybe cut down last year’s stalks of Artemesia tilesii in the otherwise empty garden boxes. Then it’s time for the trip to Scotland, or the long hike, or the paddling trip. And instead of staring in wonder, passersby shake their heads.
My husband offers words of comfort: “We’re not gardeners. We’re gatherers.”
Right. So, we’ll gather.
By the time we get back from Scotland, the dandelions that have colonised the yard will be in flower, smiling brightly between leaves of grass. We’ll have dandelion fritters for dessert. The spruce tips will be young and green in the higher altitudes, and this year we’ll make a special day trip just for picking. I’ll make spruce tip and juniper butter, spread it on freshly baked bread and pile hot-smoked salmon on top.
And, you heard it here, I will roto-till the garden box outside the fence, dig in a whack of compost, and plant the rye I’ve ordered from Salt Spring Seeds. If all goes well, we could be gathering grain in the fall.
Gathering has to be my kind of gardening — for now.
Spruce Tip and Juniper Butter
2 oz (56 gr) butter, softened
1 Tbsp (15 mL) fresh spruce tips, finely chopped
1 tsp (5 mL) juniper berries, crushed
1 Tbsp (15 mL) garlic scapes, finely chopped
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. Spread on fresh bread and top with smoked salmon and sliced red onion.
Finding nutrient-rich soil in the far North can be tricky, but as Old Crow demonstrates, it’s not impossible.
Old Crow, home to the Vuntut Gwitchin, is the most northerly community in the Yukon, located 128 km (80 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.
A fly-in community of approximately 300 people, Old Crow rests at the confluence of Crow River and the Porcupine River. Vuntut Gwitchin means “People of the Lakes”, named after the many lakes at Crow Flats, the second largest wetland in North America, and the main hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering area for the Vuntut Gwitchin.
With no road access, grocery store prices in Old Crow are very high.
Old Crow has seen detrimental effects from climate change over the past decades. The permafrost is melting. Water levels and subsequently salmon stocks are declining. Lakes are drying up.
In adapting to climate change, more folks in Old Crow are growing vegetable gardens.
One couple, in the 1990’s, planted their vegetable garden about two miles upriver from Old Crow on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 50 feet back from the edge of the riverbank, in front of a drained out lake. The soil must have been nutrient rich as the garden produced an abundant crop of carrots and giant cabbages that Old Crow resident, Mary Jane Moses, still remembers well.
Take 26 minutes to watch “Our Changing Homelands, Our Changing Lives” to hear from Vuntut Gwitchin about climate change and food security in Old Crow
To learn more about Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation check out www.oldcrow.ca
And don’t forget to check out the Old Crow Recipe Page for delicious caribou, muskrat, rabbit, duck, ptarmigan and whitefish egg recipes!
Fireweed shoots are the asparagus of the North and our first vegetable of Spring!
The tender shoots are now poking up around the Yukon. They can be eaten raw, sauteed or steamed. The best part is, that even though they are being snipped, they will grow right back! Harvesting the shoots doesn’t damage the plant, so you can harvest some now for eating and then let them grow back to enjoy the flowers later in the season. The sweetest fireweed shoots are those cut when the leaves are still reddish. They are a good source of Vitamin C and Vitamin A
Fireweed is the official flower of the Yukon and its eye-catching fuchsia blossoms add an extra layer of beauty to the Yukon landscape.
But it is not just another pretty flower, all parts of the fireweed are edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or sautéed in a stir fry or with other greens. The flowers and buds make a beautiful garnish and can be used to make fireweed jelly.
Fireweed grows rapidly during a typical Northern summer, as the hours of daylight extend to more than 18 hs a day. As a result, the season for harvesting the shoots is very short, and you better get them fast before they grow too tall and become bitter.
If you live in the North, have a look in your yard or your garden and have a taste of a young fireweed shoot.
The buds on the birch trees are just starting to turn green, which means it’s coming to the end of birch sap season. For the past few weeks you could spot a birch tree being tapped in many Dawson City backyards.
Most of us have been tapping a tree in order to drink the cold, refreshing and nutrient rich birch water – loaded with thiamine (one of the Vitamin B’s) and manganese, as well as some Vitamin C, iron, riboflavin, zinc, calcium and potassium. Birch water tastes like a super fresh and delicious glass of crystal clear water with only a rare hint of sweet if you look for it.
When the sap is running, the tree is actually pulling the sap from its roots all the way up to the top of the tree to feed its leaf buds which is an amazing anti-gravitational feat in itself.
Birch water goes bad within a couple of days, even in the fridge, so it needs to be consumed fresh. Alternatively, you can freeze it (even in ice cube trays) and save some frozen birch water to consume later in the year. The tapping of one tree will produce a lot of birch water, so be careful not to tap more than you can consume.
Very few of us will boil down the sap we collect to make birch syrup. We leave that to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and their crew who are currently very busy, working around the clock, collecting sap from about 1500 trees and preparing Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup to supply us all with the sweet stuff for the upcoming year.
My birch syrup supply is down to the last cupful. We are consuming about 1 litre of birch syrup per week! So I decided to boil down some sap and see if I could supplement our supply until the end of syrup season when we can get our next 12 L bucket from Sylvia and Berwyn’s birch camp.
Birch syrup and maple syrup, although both sweet, are quite different in both taste and components. Birch syrup contains fructose, the sugar in fruit, and it does not crystallize like maple syrup does. Maple syrup contains sucrose, the sugar in table sugar. One of the major differences between the two is the sugar content of the sap. It takes twice as much birch sap to make a litre of birch syrup, compared to making maple syrup. In fact the ration of birch sap to syrup is an astounding 80:1!
What does that look like in real life? I took my two largest pots and boiled down 14 litres of birch water. All that sap produced a scant ¾ cup of syrup!
A big thank you to the birch trees for sharing some your sap and to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and crew for all the hard work that goes into turning it into syrup!
If you haven’t yet tasted birch syrup, you really must. It is delicious! When using birch syrup in recipes, I find I don’t miss the absence of other spices such as cinnamon or allspice. Check out the many recipes using birch syrup on our Recipe Page.
As the leaf buds start to turn green, the sap will take on a bitter taste, marking the end of the tapping season for another year.
The Yukon River ice broke yesterday around 1:30 p.m. officially marking Dawson’s transition into Spring!
Every year the The Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (IODE) hold an ice pool in Dawson to guess the exact date and time that the ice will break up. The charity splits the proceeds of the pool 50/50 with the winner. And there is almost always someone who guesses it to the minute!
Once the ice clears (usually in about a week) the George Black Ferry will be launched and folks will once again be able to cross the river in their vehicles.
Good news for me as it means I can re-stock my dwindling potato supply from the root cellar at Kokopellie Farm on the far side of the Yukon River!
It is ‘break up’ time in Dawson City. Break up as in the river, not as in divorce!
The ice is breaking up, the rivers are not crossable and my milk supply is on the other side of the Klondike River.
In anticipation, I froze 12 gallons of milk in advance. Throughout the winter, they easily remained frozen on our verandah. However, Spring has now arrived and the great outdoor deep freeze is no more. Twelve gallons of milk would take up too much room in the freezer so I have been trying to keep them frozen in an ever-shrinking snow bank – the last of the winter snow around our house.
Unlike my children, Sadie, the family dog, desperately wishes she had been included in the local diet this year.
We found out the hard way that she was lactose intolerant, after letting her lap up some whey — a by product of yogurt and cheese making. Sadie loved it, but was quickly cut off when her intestines revolted. She steals whatever bit of local food she can get her paws on. Rock hard sourdough bread, that my family can’t chew, is better than dog biscuits according to Sadie. If you accidentally drop a carrot on the floor, you had better be quick to pick it up before Sadie devours it.
Recently Sadie struck it rich when she realized she could chew the caps of the milk jugs in the snow bank!
Despite the fact that it snowed yesterday in Dawson City and there is still ice on the river, Spring has, in fact, arrived. As announced by the blooming of the wild crocus, the first wildflower of Spring!
No, it’s not edible, but it is a harbinger of edible plants to come. In one week the fireweed shoots, nature’s version of asparagus, should begin poking their heads out of the ground.
I marvel at nature. While I have been busy ordering, planting, watering, fertilizing and tending to my fragile seedlings in preparation for transplanting the end of May, nature has been quietly taking care of all this without any human intervention at all — year after year producing successful crops of wild edible plants that help sustain both animals and humans.
Welcome to the wild crocus and all the wonders of Spring that will soon appear!
In bygone days, when folks weren’t relying on freshly stocked grocery store shelves, the months of March, April and May were known as ‘The Hungry Gap”. The time of year when much of the winter’s store of food had run out and the potential of a new crop still awaited planting season.
We ate the last of our lettuce in September. Our last squash was consumed in February. We are close to finishing off the last of the carrots. And now we have no more onions.
In this new reality, where our consumption is almost entirely based on what we have stored away for the winter, I would have thought that consuming the last taste of onion would cause me anxiety. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as I had thought it would.
Perhaps it is because we are far from hungry. My worry last summer about not having enough seems to have resulted in over stocking. I think I have put away enough tomatoes for two years!
Perhaps it is because of our new reality of eating with the season.
Perhaps it stems from the challenge of cooking well with what we have instead of pining away for what we don’t have.
So we have run out of onions. But I still have garlic. I have one jar of dried chives. And I still have lots of dried herbs.
No more onions, no big deal.
Come July, the first taste of a fresh onion will be all the more delicious!
It’s something Dawson City hasn’t seen since the 1930’s — local dairy products for sale. Klondike Valley Creamery, a dairy farm in Rock Creek, on the far side of the Klondike River, has been raising the first dairy cows the region has seen in almost 80 years. And now the Creamery’s first dairy products have just arrived on grocery store shelves in Dawson.
Products for sale at the Dawson City General Store include a delicious onion-and-dill cheese spread and, for those with a sweet tooth, Mocha Labneh — the nutella of dairy products. Each container is labelled with the names of the cows who donated their milk for the cause!
The Creamery is planning to have more local Dawson dairy products after this year’s river break-up.
As the swans return and the Yukon River breaks up, the longed-for foraging season inches ever closer. This waiting-for-spring seems endless now, but we know from experience that once the new plants start to appear it’s all going to happen really fast. First the dandelions and the spruce tips will appear, then the wild roses and the plantain and lamb’s quarters, then the Labrador tea and then the berries, the rapid succession of beautiful berries.
Now, as we lounge in spring’s waiting room, it’s a good time to reflect and prepare for the foraging season ahead. As our love of wild foods grows, there are more and more of us out there, and it becomes crucial to practice ethical harvesting, doing our part to protect and conserve, so we, the animals and the birds can continue to enjoy the wild harvest for generations.
The north is a big place, and sparsely populated, but even so the forager’s effect on the environment, especially sensitive environments, can be devastating. One Dawson resident said recently, “Indiscriminate harvesting concerns me as our population grows and more people are interested in the wild things.” When we’re out in number, our cumulative effect is far greater than we might think.
Stories from the forests of Quebec provide a cautionary tale. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum, also known as ramps, wild onion or wild garlic), once abundant in the wild, was so over-harvested for commercial and personal use that it became endangered. Urban sprawl and habitat destruction also played a part. Since 1995, by Quebec law, the only wild leek harvest permitted is 50 bulbs or plants for personal use. Today, though commercial harvesting and sales of wild leeks have been banned, the species is still listed as endangered.
Chef Nancy Hinton and her partner, the legendary Quebec forager Francois Brouillard, own Les Jardins Sauvages, a restaurant and small wild-food condiment business in Saint-Roch de l’Achigan just outside Montreal. Brouillard grew up spending summers in the woods near his grandmother’s cottage, now the restaurant, and was foraging for wild foods long before they became de rigueur on restaurant menus and at farmer’s market stalls.
Now, says Hinton, though she and Brouillard are very happy people have learned about wild foods, the downside is the woods are becoming overcrowded and habitat is threatened. “There’s a lot of people going out, and they’re going too fast, they don’t have the knowledge and the patience or the experience necessary, even if they care about sustainability.”
Worse, continues Hinton, the demand for wild food is so great it has spawned a flourishing black market. “There’s tons of people, and they sell to chefs, or to other people that sell.” This causes a number of concerns. “First, there’s no traceability, so if there’s a problem you don’t know where it came from or how it was picked. Second, these people are not people who are so concerned about sustainability.”
Hinton and Brouillard now sit on a committee that’s trying to develop guidelines for this burgeoning industry, but it’s complicated. How do you monitor compliance? How do you monitor the woods? In the case of wild ginseng, an endangered species in Ontario that brings high prices on the black market, Environment Canada is using video surveillance cameras on known patches.
In the meantime, wild ginger and crinkle root, plants that Brouillard has been gathering for years, and which still thrive on his family’s property because of careful harvesting, are listed as “at risk” in Quebec and their harvest subject to regulation. Hinton says that while she doesn’t want to dampen enthusiasm for beginners interested in wild harvesting, and understands that mistakes are made innocently, it’s frustrating to be denied access to much-loved plants because of others’ ignorance or willful negligence.
We might think it can’t happen in the Yukon. But in Whitehorse low bush cranberry pickers have already noticed that they have to go farther and farther afield to find berries, even in a good berry year. There are simply more of us out there. The way foraging works, one friend brings another, who then goes back to the same place with a new friend, who then returns with one of her friends, and so on, until the small patch of wild berries that might once have supported one person’s family with a few cups of berries for the winter is now under an enormous amount of pressure.
Last year at an area in BC famous for its wild watercress and its beautiful, extremely sensitive Karst landscape, my husband and I came across a Whitehorse family in the midst of harvesting wild watercress. They already had three large garbage bags full, and they were filling a fourth. “We do it for all of our family,” they said.
Well, okay. But surely we have to think beyond our own families. What if we all filled several large garbage bags every spring?
Amber Westfall, herbalist and wild food educator from the Ottawa area, has compiled a short list of helpful reminders on how to forage with care. It’s not a bad idea to review her guidelines while the season is not yet upon us.
Guidelines for Ethical Foraging
Composed by Amber Westfall, herbalist and proprietor of The Wild Garden, in Ottawa, Ontario. Amber says, “Please practice good stewardship and take care of the plants that take care of us!”
Make sure you have a one hundred percent positive ID. Ideally, reference more than one field guide, or go out with an experienced forager or wildcrafter.
Do not over-harvest. Be mindful of how many remaining plants are needed to ensure the stand will continue to flourish and thrive. Learn about how the plant reproduces. By seed? Rhizomes? Slow growing bulbs? Think about what other animals, insects and people might be using those plants.
Know the poisonous plants in your area and what to avoid.
Be aware that anyone can have an allergic reaction to any plant. Eat a small amount and wait 24 hour to see if you have a reaction.
Harvest away from busy roads and rail lines. Avoid contaminated areas and areas that have been sprayed with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The edges of farm fields, unless organic, are not appropriate for harvesting for this reason.
Know the history of the area you are harvesting from. Be wary of empty lots and avoid ‘brownfield’ land.
Do not harvest on private property without permission.
Do not harvest on protected land, fragile or at-risk environments or in provincial or national parks.
Learn which plants are threatened or at-risk and do not harvest them.
Learn which plants are prolific and which plants are invasive. These are ideal for harvesting.
Only harvest the appropriate part of the plant at the proper time of day and/or in the proper season.
Use clean, appropriate tools to reduce the spread of disease. Make neat, clean cuts at growing nodes to allow the plant to heal well and continue growing.
Leave some of the best specimens to go to seed and reproduce. If we take all the best plants and leave behind weak or diseased specimens, we are selecting for future plants that will be weak and subject to disease.
Have as little impact on the surrounding area as possible. Fill in any holes, re-cover bare dirt with leaf litter and try to leave the area better than you found it.
Don’t waste the plants that you harvest. Use and process them promptly while still fresh and compost any parts that are not used.
If you are in the Toronto area or have friends or family in Toronto, Suzanne’s award winning documentary film All The Time In The World is returning to the Hot Docs Film Festival tomorrow, Saturday 28 April at 12:30 pm as part of Hot Docs 25th Anniversary Redux Programme celebrating great Canadian films. Suzanne will be answering questions via Skype after the film. Advance tickets have been sold out for weeks, but rush seating is still available.
All The Time In the World is a family-friendly documentary that has screened in 25 countries around the world winning 22 awards, including 9 Audience Choice Awards, 4 Best Picture Awards, and 6 Youth Jury Awards. It has been translated into 12 languages.
David Suzuki described it as: “A magnificent film. It is an amazing idea, a remarkable family and a film with a powerful message to those of us who live busy urban lives. Anyone watching this will have to ask, what is life all about, why am I in such a hurry, what is it that gives us true happiness. Thank you for making a film that demands that we answer those questions.”
All The Time In The World features Suzanne and her family as they took their 3 kids (then aged 10,8 and 4) into the Yukon wilderness to live for one year with no electricity, no digital technology, and not a single clock or watch.
What are the chances that the burbot are concerned for my welfare? They’ve been offering themselves up with some regularity over the past month or two. Graeme Gibson, in his book, The Bedside Book of Beasts, refers to the fact that amongst many species, one individual will sometimes offer itself for the slaughter when there is an obvious threat to the group. And all of us who have hunted can recall at least one incident when something other than our hunting prowess accounted for our success. Luck? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was that particular animal’s chosen destiny.
So, do you think the word is out amongst the burbot and they are worried about our extinction, a painful and slow starvation on this local diet? Is that why they have been generous with their personal sacrifices? Or perhaps they’ve gotten wind of the fact that they contain more mercury than most fish and are compensating for their shortfall by way of this generosity. After all, it wouldn’t demand much research on their part to learn that humans are not in the least deterred from eating foods which contain a multitude of toxins! So what’s a little mercury? Or, possibly the mercury has gotten to them, affecting their higher cognitive functions, and they know not what they do, for they are all buzzing about, literally as mad as a burbot!
The burbot meat, by the way, is delicious. It is white, flaky and light, with minimal smell. It’s great when fried or added to stews or soups. The fried liver is reminiscent of a lightly cooked scallop. It is a very easy fish to eat, preferable to most other fish. It is unfortunate that the mercury intake recommendations suggest eating no more than one serving per week.
Success at the fishing holes has recently fallen off. Is it the fact that there is competing food available for them? (Still, their stomachs are usually empty, despite the fact that the water is now teeming with larvae). Or could the new water turbidity be affecting their desire to take the lure? Or the change of light? Temperature? Increasing current? Just plain tired of the same kind of bait, day after day, with no change in the menu? Or, could it be that they are avoiding my hooks because they know that break-up looms and they feel it is high time to get off the ice? You see, my hunch was right, they are concerned for my welfare after all…
Yesterday, it felt like being at the fishing holes was the best possible place on earth. The sun burned on the skin. There was a free display of ice in all its forms, something unappreciable in low light and deep cold. Crystal ice, as clear and transparent as glass, jumped out for recognition. There was ice impregnated with sticks and debris, bringing new appreciation to its depth and genesis. And the recent surface water was freshly frozen, splintering like broken glass in all directions as I walked; a cosmetic distraction from the treacherousness of spring travel. There was no wind and all was quiet except for the gentle swishing from yet another burbot on my line.
By my definition, we are now in the third and final stage of winter. This is the time when I do not want winter to end. We still have enough snow and ice to allow efficient travel. We have intensity of light paired with ever lengthening days. It is cold enough to keep the bugs at bay. It is warm enough to encourage outside work but not so warm as to make it insufferable. And all is clean, the inevitable mud still biding its time.
I consider the fall months to be our introduction to winter. It is the time when the bulk of snow accumulates and our bodies adapt to the increasing cold. It is a time when the concept of winter is still novel and we preoccupy ourselves with new recreational opportunities. And we are distracted from the progressive darkness by the imminence of Christmas.
The second phase of winter is heralded by the dark, cold months. The euphoria of the Holiday Season has ended, and we gauge the progression of our lives by how long we have endured the most recent cold snap. We worry about how much wood our stoves are gobbling up, doing the mental math of consumption rate versus supply every time we fill the wheelbarrow at the woodshed. We wander through our houses, taking note of the drafty spots, making the familiar false promises to ourselves that, come this summer, we will most definitely rectify the situation. We forget to shave and cut our hair. We confuse night with day. Those that can, are off to exotic lands….unless they particularly enjoy despondency and morbid introspection.
But then, our “spring winter” is suddenly upon us and the melancholia melts away. We forget about the empty woodshed and mounting fuel bills. We toss the parka and walk with a spring. We speak in full sentences again. We plan for summer. When asked by the returning folks how our winter was, we minimalistically respond, “great, just great!” And off we go to soak up the beauty at the burbot holes …
Welcome, nine new lambs to Peter Dunbar’s sheep herd, on the banks of the Yukon River, about 5 kilometers downstream from Dawson City. There were two sets of triplets, one set of twins and one singleton.
It is still cold in the Yukon so the newborns get sweaters to help keep them warm for their first few days of life.
I know that fish tend to accumulate toxins from our water systems, especially predatory fish. So I wondered, since I am consuming a fair amount of burbot liver this winter, do I need to worry about mercury levels and other contaminants such as PCB’s and DDT?
To my surprise I learned that, in fish, mercury accumulates in the muscle in levels much higher than in the liver. This is the exact opposite of terrestrial animals such as caribou where mercury levels are higher in the liver compared to the meat.
Mercury levels in fish vary depending on the location but, in general, predatory fish (lake trout, burbot) have higher levels of contaminants than non-predatory fish (whitefish, grayling, salmon) and larger (older) fish have lower levels of contaminants than smaller (younger) fish.
According the limited burbot data we have available in the Yukon, the mercury levels in burbot muscle are five times higher than in the burbot liver. However burbot muscle has the highest mercury levels of all the freshwater fish we catch in these parts. Chum salmon has the lowest mercury levels (less than a tenth that of burbot).
Based on Health Canada’s tolerable daily mercury limit is 0.47 ug/kg/day (for adult men and adult women who are not of child bearing age), my daily limit of burbot would be maxed out at 45 grams (1.5 oz) per day! And my daily limit of burbot liver would be a whopping 225 grams (8 oz) per day.
So my Vitamin D needs of 10 grams of burbot liver per day are no big deal.
But a daily limit of 45 grams of burbot muscle is a really small portion! Of course, I am not eating burbot every day, so it still averages out ok – but it was a good reminder to limit my consumption of burbot.
So my take home message: Burbot liver is a great source of local Vitamin D. By consuming sautéed burbot liver one can get enough Vitamin D without too much mercury. Burbot flesh should be considered a winter treat and if one is going to eat a lot of local fish, grayling and salmon would be better choices.
Want the stats?
Here are the statistics from fish in Old Crow from a study by Yukon Research Scientist, Mary Gamberg
Mercury per gram of fresh fish:
Burbot : 0.62 ug/g
Pike: 0.17 ug/g
Burbot liver: 0.124 ug/g
Grayling: 0.06 ug/g
Chum Salmon: 0.04 ug/g
(Based on a sample size of 14 burbot, 11 pike and 12 chum salmon from Old Crow and grayling from other Yukon locations.)
For adults, the tolerable daily mercury limit is 0.47 ug/kg/day (Health Canada) (less for women of child bearing age)
This translates to a tolerable daily limit in grams of fish for an adult woman of my size:
Burbot : 45 g (1.5 oz)
Pike: 164 g
Burbot liver: 225 g
Grayling: 466 g
Chum Salmon: 700 g
As mercury levels differ from one water system to another, I was curious as to what the levels would be in the burbot living in the Yukon River at Dawson City. I sent in one 4 pound, 11 year old burbot for testing and levels came back as 0.23 ug/g mercury in the muscle and 0.04 ug/g in the liver. The mercury levels from the Old Crow burbot are 2.5 times higher than the levels in the one fish tested from the Yukon River. One sample only, but it suggests that the mercury levels in the Yukon River near Dawson are less than the levels around Old Crow.
For PCB’s and DDT, the amount found in 10 grams of burbot liver from the Old Crow study was quite low, one tenth of the tolerable daily intake for PCB’s and one twentieth for DDT.
Alan and Cathy Stannard of Mandalay Farm have been raising free-range chickens for the last nine years on their acreage off the Burma Road near Whitehorse. For eight of those years theirs was a small, family-run business with a flock of about 100 birds. They sold the eggs through neighbourhood buying groups, who knew the Stannards well enough that they invited them to community brunches. Today, the egg business is still family-run but you wouldn’t call it small.
Under the brand name Little Red Hen Eggs, the Stannard’s brown free-range eggs are sold in four supermarkets and one variety store in Whitehorse, plus a grocery store in Haines Junction. Their other commercial customers include Air North, two local coffee shops and two large downtown hotels.
In 2017 the Stannards upped their egg ante considerably — they built a large barn, brought in 2,000 chicks and invested in a commercial grader that can grade 7,000 eggs in an hour. In the spring of 2017 Al Stannard told the Yukon News, “Our goal is to provide a brown, free-range egg for the Yukon.”
There’s no shortage of eggs in the Yukon — consumers across the territory have some access to eggs sold over the farm gate to buying clubs or through private arrangements. And local, graded eggs are available for sale at Farmer Roberts grocery store in Whitehorse. But the difference here is one of scale. Since the Partridge Creek Farm stopped egg production in the mid-2000s there has not been a large-scale egg producer in the Yukon; there’s never been a large-scale free-range brown egg producer.
There is a market, or several. Jonah Tredger, executive chef at the Westmark Whitehorse, has been a customer since late January. He currently buys 8 to 10 cases of 15 dozen eggs a week, and that’s in the slow season. Wykes Independent Grocer purchases 500 dozen a week; the owner reports they’re the best-selling brown egg in the store. Consumers want to buy local free-range eggs, and they’re willing to pay extra for them.
That the birds are free-range is key to the Stannard’s success, and to their own job satisfaction. “We love those birds,” says Al Stannard. “We want [them] to have a good life.” It’s hard to imagine 2,000 birds being able to range freely. But the Stannards make it work.
Inside the barn, “the girls” have a 10 by 90-foot patch of gravel, six inches deep, for scratching and digging, two essential chicken needs. “They like to dig foxholes, and lie in there and dust themselves,” says Stannard. “It’s like walking through a field full of gopher holes.”
In winter, as long is the temperature is -10C or above, the birds go outside into a fenced-in enclosure to catch some rays. They’re given feed that has not been genetically modified. “We do our utmost at all times to make sure our feed is GMO-free,” says Stannard. This is for customer satisfaction as much as bird health.
By all accounts, customers are satisfied. They send thank you cards to the Stannards. One long-time Whitehorse resident wrote, “I’ve been waiting for 60 years for something like this to come along.”
Chef Tredger of the Westmark is satisfied too. His goal had always been to serve local food at the hotel, and a recent change in hotel ownership made that possible. So he went out in search of consistent sources of local product. He met the Stannards at Meet Your Maker, an event connecting farmers and buyers co-hosted by TIA Yukon and the Yukon Agricultural Association in Whitehorse last January. “My biggest concern was trying to keep up volume,” he says. “It’s really reassuring to know, and exciting to know, that they can.”
“What I really like about being able to use [Little Red Hen Eggs] is there’s a high demand.” Any egg on the breakfast menu is a Little Red Hen Egg, and that has been good for business. “Every time we tell a customer [the eggs are local] they get pretty excited, and they tell their friends, and we see a lot of repeat business that way.”
“One of the best things is the money stays in the community. We’re supporting a local business and in turn they support us.”
The Stannards plan to build a second barn in 2018 and purchase another 1000 birds. “That way, we will not have a lack of eggs when the birds change out.” He’s referring to when the first set of birds wind down, or become “spent”, as they do after 18 months to two years of laying. The calcium in the egg shells comes from the chicken’s bodies, and their bones eventually become brittle and vulnerable to injury. At that stage, Stannard says, “we put them down quickly and quietly.” Stannard shares this aspect of egg production frankly, saying, “It’s part of the process, and it’s important that people know.”
He would like to see the spent birds be consumed as food, and has recently spoken with a local chef and café owner about giving cooking lessons on how to make soup and cook chicken feet, a classic dim sum item that’s now gaining traction in mainstream cuisine as chefs and consumers become more sensitive to eating the whole bird or animal.
In the meantime there are the eggs: free range, brown, and commercially available in Yukon markets and restaurants. If all goes as planned, Little Red Hen Eggs will soon be in a store near you.
Setting rabbit snares was a common adolescent pursuit when I grew up in rural Newfoundland. We often set our “slips” as a side interest when fishing for trout. It was the era of self-created recreation.
And my mother was totally supportive. She would regularly buy rabbits from whomever came to the door with them for sale. “Two dollars a brace.” I still have memories from my pre-school years, holding rabbits up by their hind legs while mom skinned and gutted them. It was an intimate time, each of us tugging against the other, laughing at the foulness of the smell. And at supper time, mom would relish in the repulsion of others as she picked at the cooked heads on her plate of stew.
I thought it would be an easy and natural transition to set snares here in the Yukon during this winter of eating local. It was, after all, a skill I had not totally let lapse. When I worked in Northern Saskatchewan as a young doctor I often set slips. I would check them before work in the early mornings with a flashlight, as headlamps were yet to become the normal northern winter adornment that they have now become. It was an opportunity to endear myself with the older generation who were familiar with subsistence eating. It gave us common ground, an opportunity to lighten the conversation before launching into the drama of their personal illnesses.
Back then, as if living in a remote northern community wasn’t rustic enough, I liked to “get away from it all” by going on short bush stints. I developed a proficiency in building quincys and “bow-whiffets.” I would go with whomever I could convince, on a weekend excursion of cold, physical exhaustion, disrupted sleep, meager food intake and uncertainty. Of course, success with the rabbit snares was part of the calibrated need. My buddy Bob, some thirty years later, still laments the time that we were on one such trip. It was -43 and we were hungry and cold, sleeping in a tiny quincy that was too shallow to even allow us to turn on our sides. Checkers, the dog that was with us, later succumbed to pneumonia. We set a number of snares and had only one rabbit. As we hungrily approached the last snare, we realized that there was a living rabbit, loosely caught. In my effort to dispatch the critter, I accidently cut the wire, giving us the dubious satisfaction of watching the happy rabbit lope away. So impacted by the event, Bob reminds me of these details on each of our reunions.
So, I had full expectations of providing the family with wild rabbit this winter. But all I have to show for my efforts is the loss of my good ox-head axe. Not a single rabbit. Not even a slip that was brushed aside. Seems that these rabbits were not interested in using runs predictably; they kept slipping the slips. It became laborious and tedious to do the daily checks without reward, so I accepted defeat, haunted by the scorn of my friend, Bob.
But, “what goes around, comes around.” We were rewarded for catching no rabbits. After expecting nothing from the Easter Bunny during this year of sugar deprivation, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he made an exceptional effort for our household. I was awaken on Easter Day by the sounds of glee from my youngest. There were hidden treats throughout the house: birch syrup toffee, dehydrated berry packages, and carrots galore! And, I appreciate the carrots the most, since I know that they represent the greatest personal sacrifice from the perspective of The Bunny. All things happen for a reason…
Living in the far North, I usually take Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, during the winter months (1000 IU/day). This year I wanted to see if a local diet alone would keep my Vitamin D levels stable. Not unexpectedly, my levels dropped below normal as the days became shorter.
But, thanks to local Dawsonite and ice fisher, Jim Leary, I was introduced to burbot and it saved the day!
Burbot is an amazing fish. It is a freshwater, carnivorous, bottom feeder that thrives at the coldest times of the year under the ice of the Yukon River. In fact, it has chosen January as its favourite spawning month. Burbot live to be decades old. They have no scales and some folks find them a bit ugly and eel like. I think they have beautiful eyes. A survivor if ever I saw one. Which leaves me with some ambiguity about catching them. But their flesh is a thick and delicious white fish and their livers are especially nutritious.
Burbot liver is huge – six times larger than the livers of other freshwater fish of the same size, and comprising about 10% of their body weight! And their liver is packed with Vitamin D and Vitamin A, in fact 4 times the potency of the Vitamin D and A found in cod liver.
Turns out that a mere 10 grams of burbot liver per day would supply me with the equivalent of 1000 IU of Vitamin D. Chopped into chunks and sautéed in butter, burbot liver tastes similar to scallops. So consuming 150 grams of burbot liver every couple of weeks was no hardship on the palate.
And it worked! Thanks to the burbot, my Vitamin D levels returned to normal.
Fish tend to accumulate toxins from our water systems, especially carnivorous bottom feeding fish. I will share my findings on mercury levels in burbot and some other Yukon fish in the next blog.
If you’ve ever wondered about the nutrients in wild meat and fish harvested from the land, check out this comprehensive table of data compiled by Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at the University of McGill:
When chef Joseph Shawana was growing up on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron, and he wanted to eat morel mushrooms, he just went outside and picked some. “I didn’t even know how much morels cost until I moved to Toronto and people were talking about morels for 50 or 60 bucks a pound, and that was quite a steal,” he says. “And here I am at home just frying them in a little bit of garlic and butter.”
Cedar, juniper, partridge, the white-tailed deer and a “huge abundance” of morels are just some of the wild flora and fauna found in Shawana’s traditional territory on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve. Along with cultivated foods sourced from small, local producers, wild foods form the backbone of the menu at Shawana’s Toronto restaurant, Kū-Kŭm Kitchen.
The seasonal menu reflects Shawana’s heritage and his training—he attended culinary school in Toronto and worked in several restaurants there, most recently at Snakes and Lattes, where in 2016 he featured a special Aboriginal Day menu that quickly sold out, eventually inspiring him and partner Ben Castanie to start up Kū-Kŭm.
Shawana’s 27-seat spot, opened barely a year ago in an older mid-town neighbourhood, is one of four Indigenous restaurants in Toronto, and his work is emblematic of a new wave of Indigenous chefs across Canada who are wowing diners by combining traditional ingredients with contemporary cooking techniques.
“It’s a really good opportunity to showcase Indigenous cuisine,” says Shawana. In the spirit of collaboration and mentorship, each chef will work with a Yukon First Nations chef or culinary student to produce dishes that celebrate Indigenous cuisine.
Shawana will bring a few different Indigenous traditions with him, starting off the multi-course meal with a squash, corn and bean soup that honours the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois nations of southern Ontario and the north-eastern United States. Squash, corn and beans are known as the Three Sisters in that tradition; they are companion plants that help each other in the growing phase. Corn stalks support the bean runners, the bean plants fix nitrogen, and squash provides ground cover, moisture retention and protection against rodents.
As a tribute to the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, Shawana will serve seal loin, seared in a pan over the fire and accompanied by sautéed sea asparagus from the West Coast, some wild onions and wild garlic, and fire-roasted Yukon beets.
Shawana took some flak when he introduced seal meat at Kū-Kŭm in October 2017. A petition with more than 3,000 signatures circulated online, demanding he remove seal from the menu. That sparked a counter-petition from a Toronto Indigenous artist, who was frustrated at the bad press Shawana was getting, and with a more general misunderstanding of Indigenous culture and traditions.
Shawana was aware he might be headed for controversy. “We were hesitant to have [seal] on the menu here at first, just because we knew we’d get a little bit of backlash for it,” he says. But, as he told CBC in an earlier interview, “…it’s part of the northern community’s culture. So we’re trying to pay homage to them, as we do with everything else.… It’s all dietary needs of the Indigenous communities from east to west.” Seal meat is still on the menu at Kū-Kŭm, and Shawana says it’s doing very well. Not long ago he served his seal to a party of Inuit diners. “It was their first time of having seal the way we serve it here,” he says. “They loved it.”
Shawana learned to love cooking at his grandmother’s side; she cooked for the family and for the community. “My grandmother played a huge role in all of our lives growing up. That’s part of the reason I named my restaurant Kū-Kŭm. Another reason is my wife is Cree and Kū-Kŭm means grandmother in Northern Cree—so it’s a way of paying tribute to my wife [too], who is a huge part of who I am today.” A mural of his grandmother, his mother and his mother-in-law graces one wall of the restaurant.
Dinner at Kū-Kŭm might include main courses of pulled caribou wrapped in caul fat, goose with puff pastry, or bouillabase of mixed Canadian fishes and seafoods in a cedar and anise broth. Dessert could be a pot of rich chocolate mousse lightly flavoured with lavender. But the meal always ends with a cup of cedar tea. In winter, passersby can drop in, even if the restaurant isn’t open, to warm up with a cup of that same tea.
“My grandmother always taught us to keep the door open, because you never know who’s going to want to come in and get fed, or just keep warm,” says Shawana. “
That simple, human hospitality goes hand in hand with Shawana’s philosophy of respect for whole ingredients and for bringing community together over food. “We deal with smaller businesses that actually know their products and know their farmers and their families, and know how everything is harvested.” Shawana sources wild ingredients from Forbes Wild Foods, who work with several Indigenous communities in Ontario. “So we’re helping that business out, which in turn helps out a lot of First Nations communities.”
Before Shawana was approached by organizers to take part in the First Nations Fire Feast, he wasn’t aware there was a food scene happening in the Yukon. “It doesn’t surprise me, just considering that everybody is starting to go back to the roots of where food actually comes from.”
“It doesn’t come from the grocery store, it comes from [outside] our back doors.”
To purchase tickets for the First Nations Fire Feast, visit here.
Yeah for the Easter Bunny who recognized that, this year, our house was Dawson local food only!
The kids were a bit worried that they would be sent on a hunt for hard boiled eggs. But, instead the Easter Bunny hid local carrots (fresh, sweet & crunchy), fruit leather (in flavours of wild strawberry, raspberry, haskap and saskatoon berry) as well as birch syrup toffee.
Guess the neighbourhood kids got extra chocolate eggs this year.
It’s planting time once again. For best times to plant seedlings in the North, check out Grant Dowdell’s Seed Guide. Grant is a long time farmer in Dawson with over forty years of market gardening experience in the North. He has generously shared both his favourite cultivars and the best time to start them indoors for a Yukon growing season.
I used to think you needed a prairie to grow grains, or at least a big field. Then I met Dan Jason, farmer, gardener, author, cook, and owner of the seed company Salt Spring Seeds. His dearest wish is that we all become grain growers, whether we have a plot of land, a box in a community garden or a backyard of clayey soil in downtown Whitehorse.
Jason lives and gardens on Salt Spring Island, and he is a legend in British Columbia. For the past 30 years, he has been finding, cultivating and saving the seeds from ancient varieties of grain; grain that has grown in different parts of the world for thousands of years, providing sustenance and a way of life for numerous peoples.
Jason is passionate about the beauty of these grains, in the field and on the plate; he loves the way they look and the way they taste, their grace and their nutritional benefits. In 2017, introduced by our mutual publisher, we collaborated on writing Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds, a garden-to-table book with growing information and recipes for grains from amaranth to rye. Now he has me convinced that not only can I cook with grains, I can grow them too. “Growing grains is a lot easier than just about anything else,” he says. “It’s like planting grass.”
Despite our short growing season and cold winters, farmers have been growing grain for animal feed and green manure in the Yukon since the Gold Rush era. But we have a history of growing grain for human consumption too. Hudson’s Bay Company trader Robert Campbell harvested a “keg” (about seven and a half gallons) of barley at Fort Selkirk in 1848. In 1901, the Pelly Farm produced wheat and sold it, ground into flour, in Dawson City. Oats, wheat and barely were successfully grown at the federal experimental sub-station at the J.R. Farr farm on Swede Creek, 10 kilometres south of Dawson, in 1917.
In the present day, Otto Muehlbach and Connie Handwerk at Kokopellie Farm near Dawson have grown and harvested rye, barley and even wheat, keeping Suzanne Crocker and her family well-supplied with grain to grind into flour for baked goods in this year of eating locally.
In 2016 Krista and Jason Roske harvested 40 kilos of triticale, a rye and wheat hybrid, at Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley near Whitehorse. I worked with their grain and flour all year long. Several years ago Tom and Simone Rudge of Aurora Mountain Farm on the Takhini River Road harvested rye and ground it into bread flour; it made beautiful bread.
But this is all grain grown on a larger scale, with the expectation of a fairly substantial yield–if not enough for the commercial market, then at least enough to contribute to the grain and flour needs of a small household. It’s unlikely that backyard grain growers will feed the family more than a few meals with their crop.
Their yield will be of a different sort—fun, satisfaction, and beauty in the garden at every stage of growth. And maybe a celebration or two.
This sesaon Randy Lamb, Yukon agrologist and chair of the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society (DUGS), which runs the Whitehorse Community Garden, plans to plant a 4 x 20-foot bed with barley from local farms, a hull-less barely from Salt Spring Seeds, and Red Fife wheat. “I should have enough to make bannock or pancakes for one of our season-end potluck socials at the Whitehorse community garden this year,” he says.
He plans to thresh and mill the grain himself, make hot cakes, and serve them with raspberry jam made with honey and berries from the garden. “My goal is to present it as “100-metre hotcakes”, based on the 100-mile diet theme.” That’s a pretty great incentive to grow some grain. Dan Jason would add, remember to eat your backyard grains whole, too. Or sprout them. “You get a lot back, sprouting your grains,” he says.
Jason thinks hull-less barley is a great idea, because it’s pretty tricky for the home gardener to remove the hulls from other varieties. He suggests rye, too, for the Yukon climate. “Rye is super-hardy. It can go to -40°C easily. And it’s easy to harvest, because the hulls are really loose-fitting. You just rub them and they come apart.” Flax and buckwheat are also good possibilities for the northern backyard grain grower. They’re hardy, adaptable and produce beautiful flowers.
Those who grew up in the Whitehorse suburb of Riverdale will remember oats and wheat growing in their midst, in the front yard of the Cable family’s house. Jack Cable planted the grains as green manure. “I was brought up in market garden country, so I knew that soil needed amendment, up here. It wasn’t a grain harvesting exercise, it was a soil-amendment exercise.” Urban grain-growing was so unusual (and still is!) that the 15 x 5–foot plot in the Cable front yard became a local attraction.
Cable’s intention was to grow a lawn once the soil had been amended. In my downtown Whitehorse backyard there is no lawn, but there is grass. Long, wild, tenacious grass. My intention is to replace some of that grass with grain. Jason suggests roto-tilling a few times first to dislodge the grass. He thinks I might even be able to grow amaranth—it’s worth a try. I’m hoping that raising grain turns out to be as low-intervention as raising the wild grasses, lambsquarters and dandelions currently holding dominion in my yard.
Would it not be the coolest thing, to walk through a Yukon community and see not mown lawns, but waving seas of grain growing in all the backyards? That would be some local attraction. As Randy Lamb says, “The locavore movement has been growing for years up here. Every season I’ve been adding something extra to my local diet. Veggies and berries are easy. Fruit, eggs, and honey take a little more effort. Grain is the logical next step.”
I once read that a significant contributor to the modern day North American obesity epidemic is genetic memory from the years of starvation during the American Civil War. Essentially then, we have been on the rebound for a couple of hundred years, pouncing on the bountiful availability of food. And by all physical appearances, we are well along the path of annihilation of that genetic memory, hell-bent on the creation of genetic bliss.
But what if our genes also have a short term memory? What if this dietary experimentation of Suzanne’s has the same rebound potential?
I have been out of Dawson for more than a week now, taking in the Arctic Winter Games. I’m off the diet, grazing as I go on whatever seems edible. I’m amazed by the ease of eating without consciousness, of eating whatever is accessible, of eating without deliberation. And there is the re-found convenience of packaging: I am able to carry food with me now, whether that is a package of muffins, or a bag of chips, or a can of root beer, or a handful of chocolate bars. Because of packaging, I find myself always with food, no longer having to cope with a begging tummy that somehow feels forgotten and abandoned in the melee of life. My tummy and my genes are happy.
I was sitting with my son the other day, watching the gold medal table tennis match, when I noticed a wrapped sandwich in his hand. I said rather unconvincingly that it was nice of him to bring his starving father some food from the athlete’s cafeteria. He responded that he is experiencing the compulsion of grabbing food whenever he sees it, regardless of the need, and regardless of hunger. I said that I also, was succumbing to a “see-food” diet. Seems that we are both on the rebound. And I somehow doubt that this new shared phenomenon of food hoarding has much to do with the American Civil War!
And all would be fine if my food selection was reasonably healthy. But what I’m noticing is that my temptations are unabashedly succumbing to the lure of empty calories. For three days in a row, I found myself choosing from the “sale” bin of chocolate bars at the Northern Store. Similarly, I was magnetically attracted to the pastry section, where I could buy muffins by the six-pack. I found myself mesmerized in the chip and Dorito section, internally debating the flavors and prices, deluded by the prospect that there might be any true “value” in the purchase. And after an eight month abstinence, and perhaps as a way of assuaging my growing guilt about poor food choices, I could not seem to get enough bananas.
I’ve noticed that my waistline is expanding, despite increasing my exercise. And I’ve noticed that I experience no real hunger with these foods of high glycemic index. Contrastingly, in the Fall, when my diet contained no sugar and no grains, I felt constantly chilled and hungry, and the fat melted off my bones.
So, my take-home message? Enjoy feeling hungry. Not necessarily constantly, but for some portion of every day I will tolerate the awareness of an emptiness within. And if nothing else, it will bring a closer connection to my famine-suffered ancestors of old.
Guild is an old word denoting an association of like-minded people engaged in a common pursuit — armorers, cobblers, or weavers, for example. In Whitehorse weavers, sewers and felters have organized themselves into a Fibres Guild, and theatre-goers attend plays at the Guild Theatre.
On a small homestead on the Annie Lake Road, there’s a different sort of guild at work, involving players of another kind. They are plants; all kinds of plants from herbs to berry bushes to fruit trees, and they work together in a “food forest” planted and maintained by Agnes Seitz and her partner Gertie.
For the past several years Seitz has been slowly building what has become known in permaculture circles as a food forest, but is actually, she says, “comparable to a really extensive home garden.” This kind of home garden has been grown in tropical climates from the Amazon to India for thousands of years; such gardens are a low-intervention way of ensuring food security. In the mid-1980s, British gardener Robert Hart began experimenting with “forest gardening” in Shropshire, England, bringing those techniques into a more temperate climate.
In the Yukon several gardeners and homesteaders are experimenting with building food forests in a much colder environment, Seitz among them. “The idea is that a young woodland is the most perfect natural system and the most prolific one,” she says. “And that’s what we’re trying to copy, a young woodland.” A young woodland occurring naturally is basically self-sustaining. While a planted food forest is not entirely self-sustaining, it can come close.
Planting in guilds is a cornerstone in the building of a food forest. “You plant in such a way that throughout the season [the plants] support each other,” says Seitz. “There are nitrogen fixers in there, there are attractants that bring in the bees for pollination, there are plants that bring up minerals from the soil. You bring all these players together in a system that makes it so much easier on us.”
When she was starting out, “because we don’t have soil here,” Seitz brought in a truckload of compost from the City of Whitehorse dump. Five or six years later, now that the system is up and running, Seitz’s interventions are low-tech and low-key. She fertilizes with wood ash and human urine. “Humans are one more part of the habitat we are building there,” she says. “An apple tree needs about five pees a year to get all the nitrogen it needs.”
Seitz also uses “green manure,” turning plants into fertilizer using a technique called “chop and drop.” After harvesting, “you just cut the plants and let them fall, and they feed the micro-organisms and that’s how you build the soil.”
Seitz also grows a huge annual garden of organic vegetables, which she says requires lots of controls and lots of work. Square foot for square foot, the annual garden uses nearly twice the mount of fertilizer of the perennial food forest.
She estimates there are about 80 species of herbaceous plants in her 4,000 square-foot food forest, most of them edible, like sorrel, burdock, mint, lovage, a wide variety of chives and onions, and Old World plants like sweet cicely and Good King Henry. Mixed amongst these plants are nettles, fireweed, lambs quarters and dandelions. “Wild foods, what we call weeds, are an essential part of the system,” she says.
The next layer up is composed of berry bushes such as Saskatoons, gooseberries, red, white and black currants, haskaps and raspberries. Among the next layer, the fruit trees, are hawthorns, sour cherries, pin cherries, several species of apple, Siberian pear, Manchurian plum, Manchurian apricot, Siberian pine (there may be pine nuts in 12 or 15 years) and even hazelnuts.
The more exotic species are still “kind of a research project,” says Seitz. Though the hazelnuts are not yet fruiting, they have lasted three years. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they did with this really cold winter.”
Seitz has not planted low-bush cranberries, a favourite Yukon berry, because she can easily walk into the surrounding boreal forest to find them. “They’re right around the corner.”
But for just about every other kind of herb, plant, berry or tree fruit, she says, all she has to do is walk into her backyard food forest and “kind of like just – forage.”
Five days a week for 7½ months translates into 150 breakfasts of eggs and mashed potato cakes. My family has reached their limit. Gerard can’t seem to swallow another egg. Sam is done on mashed potato cakes.
Breakfast clafouti and crepes are reserved for weekends because they require extra time. So that leaves smoothies or cooked rye grains as my breakfast alternatives.
That is until now….
Kate and Sam are away, competing at the Arctic Winter Games. In their absence, there have been fewer dishes to wash which has translated into more time to experiment. So I thought I would try waffles. I was not optimistic as I was missing one of the key ingredients – baking powder – and, of course, salt.
But what did I have to lose (other than some precious Red Fife wheat flour).
So I pulled out my 1969 Farmers Journal Homemade Bread recipe book and a General Electric waffle maker of about the same vintage (thank you Evelyn Dubois) and gave it a go.
Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. Smothered in homemade butter and birch syrup. Didn’t seem to miss the baking powder, or the salt, in the least.
I will have a welcome breakfast surprise for Kate and Sam when they return!
Next challenge will be to try them with rye flour, as the wheat flour is in short supply.
Two of the many awesome women farmers in Dawson are Diana McCready of Emu Creek Farms and Maryanne Davis of Tundarose Garden. Both produce succulent crops of delicious berries – saskatoons, haskaps, raspberries and black currents. Emu Creek Farms even grows some northern cherries! Diana and Ron McCready have the added challenge of having no road access to their farm, it is only accessible by boat.
Northern Cherries and domestic Haskap berries at Emu Creek Farm. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
A late June frost wiped out many of the wild berries that we normally count on. We will be forever grateful to the many Dawsonites who donated some of their precious wild berry stock to help supplement our year. Wild low bush cranberries are a family favourite!
Fortunately, although the wild berry crop was meek, domestic berries thrived!
A three-page article about the First We Eat project, written by Suzanne, is appearing in the Spring issue of Harrowsmith magazine. The issue is available on newsstands now.
Harrowsmith’s tagline is: “Make. Grow. Sustain. Share.” It’s therefore not surprising that Suzanne’s message of sustainability and Northern food security is a perfect fit for the publication. Harrowsmith has been spreading its message for over four decades, and was the first Canadian magazine to focus on organic living, alternative energy sources, and a country lifestyle.
There are times when I wonder about this project. Like when there is an event involving food or drink. Which seems to be continuously, in Dawson. So, I find myself in a constant state of wonder and doubt.
Obviously, the festive holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving pose a problem, not so much in the hampered ability to celebrate in our own home, but in the ability to eat outside the home. And I was surprisingly blindsided during the last hockey tournament when, after looking forward to the banquet, it suddenly dawned on me that there was absolutely no point in attending a banquet without being able to either eat or drink. So home I went. And likewise, during the day of games as hunger was entrenching, I was unable to just pop out to the concession for a quick bite. So, hunger I endured.
Of course, these examples are all surmountable; with a little preparation and foresight, I could pack lunches and pre-empt such pitiful notions of deprivation. But, I don’t. No good reason, I just don’t. So, I am left to wallow in a state of self-imposed social isolation, for I am more aware now than ever, that almost all social functions eventually involve food and drink.
For many months I was enjoying the novelty of letting my beard grow thick and wild. I had not realized that this was made possible because of the lack of social eating. It simply did not matter that, through the mass of fur, food could not find its way to my mouth! Nor would there be risk of embarrassment because of food debris being trapped in the facial fuzz. Just another benefit directly attributable to “The Program.”
I miss chocolate and so does Suzanne. It was only fitting therefore, that on Valentine’s Day, I gave her an “up-cycled” tin that once was the bearer of chocolate. In it were colorful candy wrappers, each containing pieces of dried zucchini and meat jerky. This whole thing was her idea after all!
Suzanne, along with the Yellowknife Farmer’s Market and Food Charter Coalition will be guest presenter for a webinar this coming Monday 12 March 2018 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. PST on what sustainable food means in the North.
The Northern Food Network (NFN) is co-hosted by the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research (AICBR) and Food Secure Canada (FSC) as a space for people working in and interested in northern food security to share, learn about best practices across the North and advance collective action on food security. They co-facilitate bi-monthly webinars and teleconferences with focused presentations and discussion around 4 core themes: environment, health, agriculture, and food security.
When Art Napoleon found he had to cook a selection of wild and cultivated ingredients from a local food “mystery box” over a campfire with three Indigenous Yukon Elders, he said, “Oh no! You’re going to gang up on me.” He had reason to be fearful—Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Jane Moses, Teetl’it Gwich’in Elder Dorothy Alexie, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormandy are all experienced campfire cooks with many years of cooking on the land behind them.
But as participants at “Our Camp is our Kitchen” learned, when it comes to campfire cooking Napoleon is no slouch. He and the ladies transformed the ptarmigan, rabbit, caribou guts, caribou meat, sheep ribs, wild rhubarb, cranberries, birch syrup and a host of other delicacies into soup, stew, fricassee, viande grillée and pudding that fed anywhere from 75 to 100 people. Their cooking fire burned in an galvanized metal drum with a grill set over top; their camp was a wall tent and a tarp shelter in the parking lot beside the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Community Hall.
The event was part of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Myth and Medium Conference, held from February 19 to 23 in Dawson City. Napoleon was a special guest at the conference, and the organizers worked him from morning till night, calling several of his skills into play. He arrived Monday afternoon, gave the opening keynote address that evening, cooked all day Tuesday, performed a concert Tuesday evening, gave a talk on food and nutrition Wednesday morning and flew out Wednesday afternoon.
As Napoleon told the audience Monday night, he juggles several careers–singer-songwriter, educator, conservationist, naturalist. He holds an MA in Language Revitalization from the University of Victoria and is a former Chief of the Saulteau First Nation in north-eastern BC. Most recently, he’s co-host of APTN’s Moosemeat and Marmalade with British chef Dan Hayes — an exploration of two very different approaches to cooking wild game, the Indigenous and the classically trained.
Food and cooking are the sinews that tie much of Napoleon’s life and work together. He first learned how to cook on open fires and woodstoves as a child living in Peace River country, and later grew comfortable in modern cooking facilities. He has always loved cooking for people, and one of his approaches to cooking traditional food is to “gourmet it up.”
“It’s given me great pleasure to serve good food to people, especially if I can present traditional food in ways that people haven’t tasted,” he said. “If you want to show the beauty of your culture, food is one way to do that.”
Napoleon said that at heart he’s an educator, and cultural revitalization is a cornerstone of his life philosophy. “So food is something that fits in there nicely. Food and philosophy and cultural teachings—I don’t really see much difference between those.”
Napoleon, who lives in Victoria, advised people on how to “Indigenize their diet” in an urban context. In his talk on food, nutrition and planning on Wednesday morning he reminded the audience, “If you live in the city there’s lots of ways you can still access your traditional resources.” He goes back to his traditional territory to hunt; he receives packages of wild food from his family; he learns what wild foods grow in his area and goes out foraging. “I can still be an Indian down there, I don’t have to be a Victorian.”
Napoleon also suggested ways of incorporating better nutrition into modern diets, noting that on the land, “People ate clean and they were very active. They were in great shape. Our meats were the original free range organic meats.” Today, he said, “The food industry sucks. It’s all about the money. You’ve got to make it all about health, and make your own choices.”
The reality is that Indigenous people live in two worlds, he added, and even hunters supplement their traditional diet with store-bought foods. “They’ve just become part of the culture.” He laughed. “Red Rose tea is part of the culture!”
He admires Suzanne for her efforts to eat only local food for a year, calling her endeavour “either crazy or brave, and maybe a little bit of both. I think it’s a lot of work, and would take great, great discipline.”
But he shares one of Suzanne’s concerns, mentioned in her presentation on Tuesday evening: how sustainable is her diet? Napoleon asked, “If everybody wanted to do it…would things get over-harvested? What kind of impact would it have on the land? Long ago people managed it in a way that was sustainable, but now there are bigger populations.”
These are questions shared and pondered across Canada and around the world: how do we feed ourselves in a sustainable manner? When the population will potentially reach 9.7 billion by 2050?
As Indigenous people who live in two cultures, Napoleon said, “There’s no way we can survive as an island. That’s the great thing about the Yukon–the divide is not so wide as it is in Souther Canada.” He ended his Wednesday morning talk on an emotional note. “You guys are lucky,” he said, near tears. “You guys who are living in territories that are bringing [the traditions] back.”
Napoleon said he always likes to contribute food for thought in his work. Asked what he would like people to take away from his participation at Myth and Medium, he reflected for a minute and said, “The need for balance. Always remembering that we walk in two worlds, and there’s ways to return to your cultural integrity while still living in these modern times.”
My daughter, Tess, was having a craving – for poutine.
It was then I realized that I could actually make a totally northern, totally local poutine! And so I did.
Dawson potatoes, Dawson cheese curds, and moose gravy!
Norland potatoes grown at Kokopellie Farm are stored fresh all winter in their root cellar. With a skidoo or a four-wheel-drive truck I can brave this year’s long and bumpy ice road on the Yukon River and head to Kokopellie Farm on Saturdays between 2 and 5 pm to buy them direct from Otto’s root cellar.
The potatoes were oiled with rendered beef tallow from the Klondike Valley Creamery and then baked into scrumptious fries.
I made the cheese curds with milk from the Klondike Valley Creamery with the help of rhubarb juice (instead of vinegar).
If only humans were part burbot. With our current medical knowledge, we might live forever if we were fortunate enough to have appropriate additions of burbot DNA. And I have little doubt that burbot DNA infusions would be a sure-fire way of toughening up the human species. One would, of course, have to exercise due precaution in the dosing: too much infusing might not only disqualify one from the category of “human,” but could also contribute to deleterious effects such as growing barbels where once there were beards, or preferring to mate in the darkest, muddiest, coldest confines. Hmm, come to think of it, based on some visible human behaviour and phenotypes, perhaps there have already been some surreptitious burbot-to-human genetic transplantations …
You see, burbot do not like to die. Obviously, they are tough, thriving in the coldest of silty waters, enduring months of minimal food, living under ice in the darkest of conditions, only then to survive the relentless grinding of house-sized ice floes and spring floods, protected only by a slimy skin and a solitary barbel. Clearly, the burbot is the quintessential survivalist.
You can bonk a burbot with a wooden mallet till its eyes bulge. You can dislocate its neck and break its back. You can stick a knife into its heart. Then, hours later, there might still be a twitch of the tail. Or, a slow contraction of the excised heart. I have even felt the contraction of a fresh fillet in my hands, minutes after its removal from the skeleton.
As a child in Newfoundland, my mother would pay the boys 10 cents per eel. They caught them under our wharf and would deliver her a bucket of slithering, reptilian-like creatures, much to Mom’s delight. It was a win-win arrangement: the money was well appreciated by those kids in rural Newfoundland in the 60’s where fishing was one of the main forms of recreation for youth, and mom, although she liked to eat eel, certainly did not like swimming with the teeming hoards that seemed to reside under our wharf!
I have emotionless memories of mom dumping the eels in a sink-full of water, grabbing one at a time, chopping off their heads, cutting them into inch-long segments, and squeezing out the offal. She would matter-of-factly place the offal and gasping-mouthed heads back in the bucket so they could later be fed to the remaining eels under the wharf. A reward for their troubles, I suppose. Perhaps a deposit, expecting growth with interest.
She would then wash the segments more thoroughly and toss them into the hot buttered frying pan. During the entire operation, the eel pieces would be squirming. They would be wriggling in the sink, flailing on the chopping board, twisting in her hands and twitching in the pan. And through all this my mom might be dispassionately talking about the weather or asking us questions about school. Any exclamation or indication of alarm from us was met with the same pragmatic response, “My mother used to always say that eels don’t die till after sundown.”
And that was that. She grew up on a farm.
She was equally dispassionate about boiling live lobsters. We ate a lot of lobster, since at that time in rural Newfoundland there was minimal commercial market for lobster and much of it was used for garden fertilizer and bait for marketable fish. My mom seemed to have endless seasonal access to lobster. As they were plopped head-first into the pot of boiling water, lid held tight against the thrashing tail, the usual stoic utterances could be heard as we waited for the silence. “Reflexes.” “Nerves.” “Death throes.” My dad, on the other hand, was more skeptical about the humanity of this, preferring to err on the side of caution by bonking each lobster behind the eyes immediately before pot insertion. Later, he developed the technique of “hypnotizing” the lobsters by balancing them on their heads and stroking their backs until they found their equilibrium. On lobster night, one would have to tread carefully in our kitchen because at any one time there might be a half-dozen lobsters on the floor, all asleep on their heads, tails arched backwards, oblivious to what was awaiting them.
So, the fundamental question is whether or not this can somehow be translated into a debate about the definition of life, consciousness, pain perception and morality. Or is it just impossible to extrapolate our sensibilities to other animals? Obviously, it sits best with all of us to assume that pain perception and the definition of life is somehow inferior in those species that we eat. It is our way of remaining carnivorous. It helps with our relentless expansionistic existence, where the needs of any other species are deemed less important. Truth be dammed.
How can it be that humans are so fragile when compared to many other species? And even more puzzling is our lack of humility in the midst of this knowledge. For instance, a quick internet search suggests that the “zombie bug” or tree weta, is capable of surviving after being completely frozen; the lung fish can recover after months without air or moisture; the decapitated head of a snake will still strike at prey; the frog can continue to hop without its head; the headless male fruit fly is an effective courter (apparently because he is easily outwitted by the female!).
We have much to learn and there is much to marvel at. The question is whether we choose to continue on the path of convenience or whether we embrace the uniqueness of living organisms, learning as much as we can along the way. In the meantime, I’ll still eat burbot. I admire the resilience of their reptilian brain and I am increasingly humbled in its presence. And maybe, if I eat enough, some of that burbot fortitude might just rub off!
It is the middle of winter and in my hand I hold a crunchy, juicy, sweet, locally-grown apple. Yes, that’s right, locally grown – in Dawson City, Yukon – 64 degrees north. Further north than Iqualuit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
It is all thanks to the ingenuity of John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery, Canada’s northernmost nursery. John has spent the last thirty years studying and grafting apple trees in order to cultivate varieties that can withstand the climate of the north. The nursery now has 65 cultivars and some of those varieties are ‘winter apples’ – meaning that they keep well in cold storage throughout the winter.
2017 was a tough season on the apple trees due to a late frost in the middle ofJune. But Klondike Valley Nursery has generously been sharing some of their personal apple supply with me for this year of eating local. And I can tell you that a crunchy locally-grown apple in the middle of winter is a treat beyond all measure!
All manner of foods were celebrated at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in biannual Myth and Medium conference during the week of February 19, 2018, from whole grains to healing herbal concoctions to wild game. Not surprisingly, animal guts played a significant role, not just in cooking, but also in presentations and demonstrations, and in conversations among Elders and cooks from several Indigenous nations.
Vuntut Gwitchin hunter Stanley Njootli Senior told the audience on Wednesday night that the bag carried by The Boy in the Moon in the traditional story shared by many northern Indigenous peoples was filled with–caribou guts. Elizabeth Kyikavichik remembers that the first thing her family ate after a successful caribou hunt was the guts. Elizabeth, who is Teetl’it Gwich’in, grew up on the land near Fort MacPherson and was an avid student of her parents’ traditional hunting and cooking methods.
In traditional Indigenous cooking the whole animal is consumed, from antler to hoof, and guts are a highly valued source of nutrition. In fact, the same is true of pretty much every culture worldwide — traditionally, guts have been eaten with pleasure and gusto. Think of blood pudding, or liver paté, or steak and kidney pie, or the Greek kokoresti, or the Costa Rican sopa de mondongo.
In North America it’s only since the Second World War that we’ve turned our backs on guts, or offal — we’ve grown accustomed to the relatively inexpensive, choice cuts made available through the large-scale industrial raising and harvesting of animals, and by the supermarket retail model of selling food. The smaller butcher shops that typically carried offal have become harder to find. Now we tend to be squeamish about what we perceive as the stronger flavours of animal guts, and their different look and texture.
In recent years Indigenous hunters in the Porcupine Caribou range have noticed that some hunters were leaving gut piles and heads behind in the field when they harvested caribou. The Van Tat Gwich’in Government and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board collaborated on the publication of Vadzaih, Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof in part to encourage a return to traditional hunting practices. The book is both a field guide and cookbook, designed to appeal to hunters and cooks of all ages, pairing old and new ways of preparing caribou heads, shins and offal, as well as other parts of the animal.
When I worked on developing the contemporary recipes for Vadzaih with the community cooks of Old Crow, I grew accustomed to eating, and enjoying, kidney, heart, liver, tongue and brain. But I shied away from the intestines and the stomach. I don’t know why, since one of my favourite dishes as a teenager dining out with my parents was sweetbreads (pancreas) in Madeira sauce. Why was pancreas okay and not stomach? I don’t have an answer.
At Myth and Medium, those who attended the “Our Camp is Our Kitchen” cooking fire during the Shì Lëkąy Food Tastes Good Knowledge Fair were lucky enough to sample two different kinds of caribou stomach, prepared by Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Jane Moses, Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Dorothy Alexie, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormendy and visiting cook, hunter, musician and TV producer Art Napolean, of the Beaver people in Peace River country in northern BC. I screwed up my courage and tried a piece of tripe. It was mild, sweet and chewy, and I would try it again without hesitation.
I’m not alone. Among the Canadian settler population, due to the resurgence of interest in eating local food and the growing concern about food waste, guts are making it back onto the menu. International celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall are serving tripe in their restaurants. Canadian chef and author Jennifer McLagan has published Odd Bits, How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, a cookbook devoted to cooking the head, feet and guts of domestic animals. (We relied heavily on Odd Bits when putting together Vadzaih.) And small butcher shops are making a comeback not only in big urban centres, but, luckily for us, in Whitehorse and Dawson City.
At Myth and Medium we learned that Suzanne had taken to eating burbot liver in order to replenish her internal stock of Vitamin D. Suzanne offered samples of the liver during her workshop on Wednesday afternoon. We also ate caribou tripe and caribou head cheese and several different kinds of pemmican cooked by several different Indigenous people. And the Moosemeat Men served moose nose at Thursday evening’s feast.
I went home to Whitehorse with a few pounds of charcuterie made by Shelby Jordan of BonTon Butcherie and Charcuterie, and a surprise bonus. This was haggis, also made by Shelby, from pork liver, pork and wild boar tongues, boar head, boar kidneys and beef suet, all from locally raised animals, mixed with the requisite toasted stone-ground oatmeal and a flavourful blend of warm spices, the whole thing stuffed into beef bung, or appendix, which is in modern times the typical haggis casing.
Haggis, as we know, is the classic Scottish way of eating the whole animal, a traditional dish cooked right after the hunt and now most often served on poet Robert Burns’s birthday. I brought my BonTon haggis to a potluck dinner party on Sunday after the conference, where it was enjoyed by 14 people, some of whom had never eaten haggis or offal before. My husband, who is a Scot, said it was the best haggis he’s ever had.
Converting the masses to offal one caribou stomach, one haggis, at a time.
“Enny meeny minny chum, Catch a burbot with my thumb, If I holler, let me run, Back to home where fishing’s done!”
Today was a re-baiting day at the burbot holes. Being relatively “warm” at 15 below, I felt that I could easily change the bait on site. So, off I went with my bag of freezer-burned chum slices.
Shortly after arrival, the slight breeze was notable on the wet, exposed fingers. Nevertheless, I persevered through the several hooks that required removal of the old bait and reapplication of the new.
It wasn’t till my thawing fingers were back home that I noticed the multiple red dots on the tips of my thumbs and index fingers. A gentle squeeze revealed the tell-tale ooze of blood from each dot and alas, the mystery was solved!
Apart from the obvious benefit of catching burbot, this “dietary program” (which Suzanne now simply refers to as a “shopping choice”), has reminded me of the origin of the medical use of the word “freezing.” For generations, cold has been effectively utilized in the medical arena for the purpose of diminishing pain. The analgesic effect of a mouth-full of ice chips was well known to the earliest dental surgeons. Similarly, many a limb was amputated under the chilling bite of a cold pack, when there was an absence of either whiskey to be drunk or poppy leaves to be chewed.
I’m feeling quite thrilled by the realization of the absolute analgesia I experienced with my frozen fingers. The next time my hands get that cold, I will glance at the filleting knife and then give serious attention to that cyst on my knuckle, thinking, “could this be the right time?”