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?”
Every second year, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Dawson City, Yukon, hosts a colloquium/conference entitled Myth and Medium. The theme in 2018 was Food, Culture, and Identity, so not surprisingly, given her First We Eat project, Suzanne was asked to be one of the contributors to the event.
The week-long celebration kicked off on Monday with a potluck dinner, where attendees were invited to bring a dish that helped denote their heritage or identity. (Suzanne’s contribution to the potluck was her 100% locally-sourced garlic chevre on rye crackers.) But the evening’s main course was the collection of food-centered stories that followed by various guest speakers, including Suzanne and her husband Gerard.
The next day the official presentations began, given by a collection of notable speakers, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, including luminaries like Art Napoleon and Lawrence Hill, to name just a couple. Participating in a session entitled The Land Sustains Us, Suzanne paid tribute to those in the local community whose wisdom and aid have made her local-only experience possible. The audience was also treated to a preview snippet from Suzanne’s film, with very favourable crowd reaction.
Other Myth and Medium 2018 sessions touched on a wide variety of subjects, as one would expect from something as fundamental and far-reaching as food. From looking at wild plants for food and medicine — and a way to reconnect with traditional values — to finding what ancient stories can teach us about our food, the speakers were diverse, knowledgeable, and thought-provoking.
The next two afternoons saw Suzanne at a booth and doing hands-on cooking demonstrations and tastings of some of the things she has learned during her journey — from using colts foot ash as a salt substitute, to frying up burbot liver to help boost her Vitamin D levels.
Myth and Medium wasn’t all business. The event, which told attendees to: “Bring your dancing shoes and your appetites,” included lots of feasting, music, laughter, and activities. One of the highlights was the outdoor campfire, where there was cooking of all manner of wild local meat, including some rarer fare, such as moose nose, lynx, and a local ‘haggis’ made by stuffing a caribou stomach.
Ultimately though, the conference proved the old adage (although perhaps on several new levels as well), that we are what we eat.
I continue to search for a local option for salt in my community of Dawson which is nowhere near the sea. I haven’t yet had to resort to collecting the sweat off Gerard’s back as he chops wood.
So far coltsfoot ash has been the most surprising result – a wild plant whose bland tasting leaves magically transform into a salty ash after they are dried and burned. Dried celery leaves have been my go-to salt substitute – adding a mineral rich flavour to all things savoury.
Coltsfoot ash (left), and celery leaves. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
I am still researching the possibility of harvesting salt from local animal mineral licks. In the meantime, the Takhini Salt Flats came onto my radar – an endangered ecosystem that occurs in a small pocket of the Yukon a short drive from Whitehorse. This ecosystem is so unique that it is not even found in nearby Alaska. The Flats are not close enough to Dawson to be considered an option for my year of eating local. But it did inspire me to question if the salt from Takhini Salt Flats would be suitable for human consumption. I contacted Bruce Bennett, Coordinator of the Yukon Conservation Data Centre, at Environment Yukon to find out more.
And the more I learned about the Takhini Salt Flats, the more fascinated I became – unique plants that can be watered with salt water, ancient arctic ground squirrel cloaks from the Beringia Era, and inland ponds of shrimp! Read on and I will share some of the fascinating information I have learned about the Takhini Salt Flats.
Takhini Salt Flats is considered an athalassic salt flat which means the salt does not come from the sea. Instead, with a mountain range close by, the salt comes from silt from glacial lakes. Areas of permafrost prevent the water from soaking into the ground and there are no outlets to take the water to nearby rivers. So the water gradually evaporates leaving salt crystals on its surface.
Besides being very salty, the ground at Takhini Salt Flats is also very alkaline with pH values between 8.5 to 9.5. For both these reasons, most plants will not grow there. However there are some unique salt and alkali loving plants that flourish, many of which give the salt flats its distinctive red hue. And some of these plants are also edible.
One such edible red plant, that does not grow elsewhere in the Yukon, is Sea Asparagus or Arctic Glasswort (of the Salicornia family). Too bad it doesn’t grow near Dawson. Apparently, the young shoots taste salty and are rich in calcium, iron, Vitamin B and C and are exceptionally high in Vitamin A.
Another fascinating edible plant at Takhini Salt Flats is Salt Water Cress (Arabidopsis salsuginea) part of the mustard family and a relative of canola. Salt Water Cress, is a ‘super plant’ – you could water it with sea water and it would grow! And it will survive freezing, drought and nitrogen deficiency! It used to be common throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan but is now virtually non-existent in those areas due to agriculture and housing developments.
Chenopodium (the Goosefoot family) is related to quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa). The two most common Chenopodium in the Yukon are Lamb’s Quarter (Chenopodium album) and Strawberry Blite (Chenopodiumcapitatum) – both edible. (I ate a lot of both while foraging last summer and Fall!) However there is a rare Chenopodium, Chenopodiumsalinium, that dates back to the Beringia Era, that can still be found at Takhini Salt Flats. Chenopodium salinium pollen, which is preserved by freezing, helps archeologists date artifacts uncovered by melting permafrost in the North.
The remains of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi , Long Ago Person Found, was discovered in 1999 by sheep hunters on Champagne and Aishihik First Nations territory in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park in British Columbia near Haines Junction, Yukon. His remains were found as well as his walking stick, a spruce root hat, a small bag made of beaver skins and a fur cloak made out of arctic ground squirrel pelts. A high portion of preserved Chenopodium salinium pollen was found on the fur of the cloak and that clue showed that he had visited alkaline flats and helped date Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi to around 1700 AD.
Arctic ground squirrel cloaks were worn ceremonially by indigenous people long ago and traditional trails can still be found in the Takhini Salt Flats which would have been used by indigenous hunters over 700 years ago. The Takhini Salt Flats were a natural grassland for arctic ground squirrels because the high salinity of the soil prevents forests from taking over. Although, for unknown reasons they died out for a time, Arctic ground squirrels are now starting to return to the Takhini Salt Flats.
One would expect to have to go to the ocean to find shrimp. Not so! Several varieties of shrimp live in the inland ponds of the Takhini Salt Flats. One such variety is the Fairy Shrimp. Fairy Shrimp are the Sea Monkeys that many of us remember from our childhood! Many migratory shore birds come to the Takhini Salt Flats for a shrimp feast.
But I digress. What about the salt?
The salt itself is mainly in the form of mirabilite (Na2SO4·10H2O – also known as Glauber’s salt) and thenardite (Na2SO4). There is about 5% sodium chloride (NaCl) which is what we eat as table salt, but there is no easy way to separate out the NaCl from the mirabilite and thenardite. Mirabilite and thenardite are used by the chemical industry to make soda and also used in glass making. Mirabilite is also used in Chinese medicine and thernardite is also used in the paper industry.
My conclusion? Even if I did live closer to the Takhini Salt Flats, I’m not sure it would be safe to be sprinkling this salt on my food. Although I would certainly be taste testing the edible plants that grow there.
Kate, 15 years old, made a delicious supper of moose steak with Béarnaise sauce and roasted vegetables using only ingredients local to Dawson.
The Béarnaise sauce tasted very lemony despite having no lemon juice in it. Kate substituted rhubarb juice for both the vinegar and the lemon juice. And she used ground nasturtium seed pods in place of pepper.
Tastes like cod, looks like eel. We’ve added the burbot to our diet. Not the same as ling cod, I am told. This is a different species, Lota lota, isolated to cold fresh waters. It goes by many monikers, including the Inuktitut word, Tiktaalik and my favorite, for this bottom-feeder, “the lawyer.”
The Yukon River is home to the burbot and catching them has added a new distractor to the winter. My very first hole yielded nothing other than dirt, as my auger plunged through the three feet of ice! Hard on the blades and all the more reason to not borrow an auger from your best friend!
But once you get out of the dirt, there is much to discover. Water depth, hole location, current tolerance, inside or beyond the “mud line.” Bait. Keeping the lines from freezing in. Daily checking. Chiseling. Filleting.
Then there is the human factor, chiefly, keeping ones fingers attached and functional. Protecting the ears and nose, although less critical to the task at hand, is another desirable objective. The cold has been relentless, and at -35 I pulled the lines. Retreated like a whipped dog to the comforts of home, nursing the scabs of flesh on my cheek. Surprised by that “beat up” feeling. Surprised to be content to add another log to the fire and monitoring the weather from the inside of a window. Surprised at the length and depth of cold this winter.
But it has been worth it to have burbot in the diet. Very tasty, and the “cod-ness” brings me back to my childhood on the east coast. And we have been frying up the livers for vitamin D. Even tried some raw! And raw burbot liver is not offensive like the cod liver oil of my childhood memories. It is rather bland, but still, unmistakably like raw liver…
As soon as temperatures allow, I’ll be back at the burbot holes. Its funny that eating “the lawyer” might be the very action that brings added justice to our diet!
That seems to be the sentiment of the week, the question most posed during this time of Suzanne’s absence.
But fear not, for we are living in a state of self-imposed restraint. We are now so deeply entrenched in “The Program” that we no longer depend on the wrath of Suzanne to sustain our momentum. The brainwashing has reaped its yield, the temptations are squashed, the longings are suppressed, the wistful explorations of taste are on the shelf of life.
Throw me into a vat of salted caramels, plunk a cappuccino in my hands, and observe personal restraint in action! Work me into a sweating lather on a hot summer afternoon, then offer me a cold beer in a frosted mug, and watch me, unfazed and resilient as I let it turn to vinegar.
My mother used to describe me as stubborn. Suzanne labels me as obstinate-defiant. I found it best not to ask what my employees and patients thought. Better to imagine only the most complimentary adjectives.
Although I don’t really want my tombstone to read: “Here lies one stubborn man,” I have to admit that there are benefits to having the trait. Like now. When getting through the tough. When there is a principle to uphold, when only perseverance will do.
My main assistant is Tess. She is all over the dairy products: skimming the cream, making the yogurt, shaking for butter, creating chevre. And I have found that a successful way to maintain my poundage has been to assume the duty of ice-cream making!
We have been eating well. Roasts and vegetables every evening. Potato cakes, eggs and sausages every morning. Lots of protein, dairy and complex carbohydrates. Little sugar. We are 6 months into “The Diet,” holding strong (possibly stubborn!) and firm in the resolve that sugar is the nemesis in the human diet.
Corn is notoriously difficult to grow in the North. Even with nearly 24 hours of sunlight in June and July, our growing season is just not hot enough for long enough. Last summer, Dawson had only 66 consecutive frost-free growing days.
When I was thinking about eating local to Dawson for one year, my mind went immediately to what I would miss. Popcorn was right up there! I know it is not an essential food item. But a large bowl of popcorn smothered in melted butter and nutritional yeast has, for years, been one of my favourite snacks and one of my comfort foods. Call me a ‘popcorn geek’ – since high school, I have carted my hot air popcorn maker around the country – to various universities and job sites. In fact, I still have it. And Friday Night Family Movie Night has always been accompanied by several large bowls of popcorn.
Grant Dowdell, who has been farming on an island up river from Dawson City for over 30 years, has the best luck growing corn in this area – in part due to his farming skills and in part thanks to the unique microclimate on his island. Grant has tried many varieties over the years and Earlivee (71 days to maturity) is the only one that has ever been successful.
That is until last year.
Last year, I asked Grant to grow Tom Thumb popping corn for me. With the shortest maturity date of any corn I know – only 60 days – Grant agreed.
I let the cobs dry for a month and then crossed my fingers and tried to pop them.
The kernels cracked, but didn’t actually pop. Having never popped popcorn that didn’t come from a store, I wasn’t sure if they were too dry or not dry enough. Distraction intervened and I let them hang for another month before I had a chance to think about them again.
This time they did pop! And they popped really well, with very few kernels leftover. The popcorn is small, but very tasty. So good the kids say it doesn’t even need butter! My winter is saved. Bring on Friday night movie night!
When most Dawsonites make the 550 km trip to Whitehorse, they head down the highway with an empty vehicle and come back loaded with goodies from the city – including groceries from the big box stores. Today I find myself in the opposite situation.
I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be travelling at all during this year of eating 100% local – mainly because of the daunting task of bringing all my food with me. But, with February comes the Available Light Film Festival and Industry Conference in Whitehorse. And I found myself itching to attend. So I am going. For one week. And I’m not driving. I’m flying.
One week’s worth of Dawson local food on its way to Whitehorse as luggage on a plane. Just how much is one week’s worth of food for one person? Sixty pounds worth it turns out. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve got. I once again am having ‘range anxiety’ over food. Having all my food in one tub feels very finite. Will it be enough? What did I forget? I guess I’ll find out. While the other industry guests graze on appy’s and oysters, I will be pulling out cheese, dry meat, carrots and toasted pumpkin seeds from my parka pockets. While they sip on a cold beer or a glass of red wine, I will pull out a thermos of hot milk. One thing is for sure, there will be no shortage of conversation starters!
Inuk chef and cooking show host Ooleepeeka (Rebecca) Veevee, The Laughing Chef, is a familiar and beloved face in Nunavut. Armed with her ulu, her infectious smile and her sense of humour, Ooleepeeka is the driving force behind the Inuit Broadcasting Company’s popular TV show “Niqitsiat” (which means “Good Food Ideas”) – a cooking show that profiles Northern dishes made with traditional Inuit food from the land or “country food”.
Caribou pizza, goose soup, char casserole, seal pie, beluga muktuk stir-fry are just some of the dishes that Ooleepeeka Veevee cooks up on her show. Ooleepeeka often brings guests on her show including NHL hockey star Jordin Tootoo (first Inuk to play in the NHL). No one is too famous to learn from Ooleepeeka!
In 2015 Ooleepeeka Veevee received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Award for her work promoting traditional Inuit foods. In awarding her the honour, the government cited how her TV program has been recognized for combating a growing epidemic of diseases related to poor nutrition in northern communities.
Ooleepeeka has shared her variation of a Traditional Seal Meat Recipe (link) with First We Eat.
“Niqitsiat” has been broadcast in Inuktitut on the Inuit Broadcasting Company since 2009 and can be viewed on APTN . Check out an episode of Niqitsiat, Ooleepeeka Veevee teaching how to cook BBQ arctic char and caribou head.
The onions have returned to the living space of our house. For a few pleasant weeks over Christmas they were relegated to boxes in one of the cooler, yet accessible places in the house, under Kate’s bed. Not good enough. When the precious onions began to sprout, it was time to spread them out and keep them dry. So, back came the drying rack, a lovely addition to the room decor.
You can hardly blame the poor onions. They like to grow in the dirt and clearly, they agree with me that there is plenty of that in my daughter’s bedroom! I’m hoping that the incident will help with my daughter’s adolescence-induced blindness.
I’m also thinking about patent options: maybe I could market something called, “the dirt detector.” All I’d need is a few onions in a box, and people could place them strategically around their homes to locate the dirt. They could be positioned in those places not readily seen or reached, like under beds, in closets, on the top shelves, etc.
They could be marketed as a house-cleaning time saver, such that one would only need to clean those areas where onions sprouted. What child would complain about checking to see on the growth of an onion? They would become eager participants in the search for domestic dirt. And in so doing, their intrinsic adolescent blindness would be cured! Who would have guessed that the tear-inducing onion would prove therapeutic for teenaged eyes?
I definitely did not have a green thumb prior to starting this project. Never ask me to take care of your house plant. I’m not sure my thumb is yet brilliant green, but it is several shades closer than it used to be.
So this year I am excited to pull out the seed catalogues and decide what to order for the upcoming growing season. In the North, tomato seeds are started indoors the end of February and most everything else gets started indoors in March and April.
As you get ready to dog-ear pages in your seed catalogues, check out the seeds that have proven themselves to grow well for other Northerners on the First We Eat Seeds page. And if you have some favourites that grow well in your part of the North, let us know (there’s a contribution form on the page) and we will share it .
Here are my seed ordering tips for 2018:
Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach. Spinach is notoriously difficult to grow in Dawson. Sure we have a short season. But our short summers are really hot! And regular spinach just bolts up here. Both New Zealand Spinach and Fothergill’s Perpetual Spinach grow well in Dawson and do not bolt. I tried them both last year, but preferred the texture of Fothergills.
My favourite tomato last year was Black Prince.
And while you’re at it, consider growing some GMO-free sugar beets. They grew well in several locations in Dawson last year. They are a delicious white beet to eat and the pot liquor you cook them in can be boiled down to make a sweet syrup!
Salt Spring Seeds, based on Vancouver Island, only carries organic, non-GMO seeds and is your one-stop shop for Fothergills Perpetual Spinach, Black Prince tomatoes, and non-GMO sugar beet seeds!
Precious, precious grains of wheat and rye. This is how I think of them now. Every food has become more precious to me since starting this project of eating only food that can be hunted, foraged, fished, grown, or raised in Dawson City, Yukon.
Just prior to the ‘freeze-up’, that time of year in October and November when the Yukon River is too full of ice to boat across, but not yet frozen enough to cross by foot or by snowmobile, Otto at Kokopellie Farm handed me a 25 kg bag of wheat grain and a 25 kg bag of rye grain. The wheat grain has been disappearing all too quickly thanks to sourdough bread and Christmas baking experimentation. So I now am turning my attention to rye flour and saving the wheat for special occasions.
I carefully consider how much flour a recipe calls for. Two cups or less and I’m in. More than 2 cups and it’s usually out. There hasn’t been much sourdough bread recently in our household for just that reason. I also carefully consider if rye flour could be substituted for wheat flour and in many cases it can.
Thus far in my experimentation it seems that rye flour makes dough stickier. But it easily works in many recipes including this delicious Saskatoon Berry Beet Cake, by Miche Genest. It makes a great 9×9-inch ‘spice cake’ or muffins. The grated beets make the cake moist and add a charming pink colour to the batter. The birch syrup adds sweetness as well as a cinnamon/allspice flavour. Although any berry would do, Saskatoon berries and birch syrup just taste like they were made for each other!
Do you have a recipe that uses rye flour (but not more than 2 cups!) – let us know.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir
New York chef, Dan Barber, likes to tell how he experienced an epiphany a decade ago watching his chefs constantly dipping into the flour bin located outside his office. He realized that he knew nothing — where it came from, or how it was grown — about this ubiquitous, and somewhat tasteless ingredient, which was pretty much in everything the restaurant prepared. He set out to find a healthy, holistic flour alternative, but what started simply as a search for organic, locally-sourced grains, led to a broader understanding of sustainable agricultural methods. He realized there were many secondary crops being planted by the farmer to nurture and protect the soil and yield, but not necessarily contributing to the farm’s bottom line. That’s when Barber realized he needed to integrate his culinary methods and list of ingredients to include all those being used by the grower.
Barber has long been a champion of the local, organic food movement. But his interest goes beyond just serving this type of fare in his pioneering farm-to-table Blue Hill restaurant. Now, with a new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes for the Future of Food, Barber is striving to change not only the way food is grown, but the consumption habits of Americans as well.
Barber’s relates how his pursuit of intense flavor repeatedly forced him to look beyond individual ingredients at a region’s broader story. In The Third Plate he draws on the wisdom and experience of chefs, farmers, and seed breeders around the world, and proposes a new definition for ethical and delicious eating. He charts a bright path forward for eaters and chefs alike, daring everyone to imagine a future cuisine that is as sustainable as it is delicious.
In Barber’s view, modern industrial food systems are actually disconnected from the whole because of their large-scale specialization and centralization of food products. For organic farm-to-table agriculture to be truly sustainable, the whole process, including those preparing and consuming the food, need to be treated as parts of an interconnected, holistic fabric.
Barber has now opened a second restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a working farm and celebrated educational center in the Hudson Valley region of New York, where he both practices and preaches his philosophy. And the world is taking notice. He has received several accolades and awards for both his cuisine and his crusading efforts. In 2009, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
In an article in The Atlantic magazine, Barber describes how one of his inspirations is John Muir, (a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States), who wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
The relaxation phase of my retirement is being disrupted this morning by the jarring sound of dueling coffee grinders.
For Christmas, Suzanne gave me a T-shirt that said, “Retired, now I chop vegetables.” But, the reality is that I don’t generally get to my “second calling” until some time in the afternoons. I like to reserve the mornings for luxurious non-productivity, lounging in the dawn darkness, awed by the masses of productive workers, awed that it was not so long ago that mornings were my most productive time.
But this morning things are different around here; my harmony is shattered. Suzanne and Leigh are concocting in the kitchen. They are gathering samplings of the omnipresent hanging herbs and plants that adorn our home, grinding them up, and test-running various combinations. So, the re-purposed coffee grinders are in action, as is the blender, and the steamer. The noise is intrusive.
I’m learning that one of my main roles in this experimental year is to embrace tolerance. Eating entirely local was not my idea of a year well spent. It is something to engage in when there are no other options. Sort of like the glib answers I used to get when asking patients about their exercise habits: “sure, I walk… when my car is broke down,” or “I would run… if something was chasing me,” or “the only reason to swim is to get yourself out of a pickle when your boat sinks.”
So, through tolerance, I must accept and appreciate that Suzanne feels that this project is critical in highlighting the issues of food security in the North. Tolerance does not demand that I agree with her. Nor does it necessarily demand that I participate. But, for now at least, I appreciate that her success in this endeavor is more certain if all the family members participate. So we will.
Now, I’ll head downstairs and see whether the inspirational drinks the girls just created are capable of converting my thoughts ….
My three kids have been desperately missing bagels. And toast.
You might recall that last winter, in anticipation of this, I experimented with sourdough rye and barley bread – with mixed results.
Our first three months of eating local were entirely grain free. Then, against many odds, a successful crop of wheat and rye was harvested just as winter started to blanket Dawson with snow. Shortly thereafter I found a way to grind the grains and the miracle of flour re-entered our diet.
I have no yeast. But sourdough starter has been around the Dawson area for over one hundred years – introduced during the Klondike Gold Rush. In fact, there are Yukoners who continue to feed sourdough starter from the Gold Rush days. With regular feeding, you can keep it indefinitely. Therefore, I decided to classify it as a ‘local’ ingredient.
But I wondered – could you actually make a sourdough starter from scratch, from 100% local Dawson fare? Bev Gray’s “The Boreal Herbal” held a clue – juniper berries. I thought I would give it a try.
I started with 1 tbsp of flour from wheat grown at Kokopellie Farm, added to that 1 tbsp of Klondike River water and about 5 dried juniper berries that I had picked in the Fall. I mixed them all in a small clear glass – so that I could easily see any remote chance of bubbling– a successful sign of fermentation. I covered the glass loosely and let it sit in a warm place. I wasn’t very optimistic. When I checked on it later I was rather shocked to see those wonderful bubbles appearing within the mixture! Now sourdough starter truly is a local ingredient!
I continued to feed the starter for a few days until it seemed quite active and then proceeded to make a loaf of sourdough bread. For my first attempt, I decided to be decadent and use only freshly ground wheat flour – no rye. And it worked! Beginner’s luck perhaps, as it was the best batch I have made to date. Subsequent batches have varied between bricks requiring chainsaws to slice them and slightly more palatable varieties.
Bread dough is like a living organism and sourdough bread even more so. Every time I make it, it comes out differently. It has become a luxury (depending if it is a good batch or a brick batch), not a staple. But great to know that, even starting the sourdough starter from scratch – a 100 % local Dawson bread is possible!
My memory of last night’s hockey game was that my stick felt like a noodle in my hands. Every shot was wide. There was no power. Passes felt soft and uncertain, even indifferent. It was as if my stick had an alter ego, as if it did not want to be a hockey stick last night.
How does a hockey stick get an alter ego, anyway? What would inspire it to have another personality? Since this is the “dark” month, the month of cabin fever, it would not be outrageous for me to go downstairs and have a heart-to-heart with my stick. Or would it?
Instead of talking to my stick, I took on the equally concerning tact of examining other influences that might have caused the noodle-like behavior of my stick. That brought to mind, my hands. Now, that sounds more logical. Yes, obviously the noodle intrusion was hand-induced.
Yesterday, was a day of sadness. Rotting squash were discovered in the cold room. Not so much rot, as soft. One gentle squeeze from Suzanne (when I wasn’t the recipient), and she proclaimed, “freeze spots.” As with the pumpkins, we had run the temperature too close to the freeze mark during this last cold snap. And now we were witnessing the price.
So, to the cutting board and kitchen I went. Cutting and scooping. Cooking the salvageable parts.
It was the spaghetti squash that were most affected. The ones closest to the cold air intake. So, I spent a portion of the afternoon chopping and cooking and scooping the noodle-like squash.
And recalling that afternoon activity, was my Eureka! moment. Clearly, my hands had adopted their “noodleness” from the spaghetti squash! There was a transference of energy during the handling / cooking process, something that seems entirely plausible in January, in Dawson City, in the Yukon, just after a long dark cold snap, when one is feeling a little down, a little needy, a little trapped, and when one is looking for an excuse for poor hockey performance!
But, now having re-read the above, I find myself searching… Clearly, my hands are controlled by my brain. Could it be that the problem did not lie with my hands, but that my brain ….
New kids Freddie, Fiona, and Freda. Photos by Suzaane Crocker.
There are 3 new kids in town! Welcome to Freddie, Fiona, and Freda, born 10 days ago at Sun North Ventures in Rock Creek, outside Dawson City, Yukon.
Goats are a marvellous addition to food security in the North.
According to the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, NWT, one person needs approximately 1 million calories per year. The milk from just one goat provides 600,000 calories per year, more than half our calorie needs! In contrast, the meat from one goat would only provide 40,000 calories.
Goats are multipurpose. Female goats will provide milk as long as they are breeding and reproducing. Goat manure can be added directly to a vegetable garden as fertilizer – it doesn’t need to compost first as does horse, cow and chicken manure. And goats not capable of milk production or not required for breeding can become a local source of meat.
Becky and Paul Sadlier are two of many farmers who are successfully raising livestock in the North, despite the challenges of overwintering, feeding and breeding.
Larger animals, like goats, pigs and cows are able to produce enough body heat to keep their barns warm without needing any external heat – even at minus 40° C. Finding local feed is important, as shipping costs are expensive to bring feed from down south. And then there is the breeding – keeping variety in the gene pool to keep the stock healthy without having to import animals from down south.
Congratulations to the Northern farmers who are finding ways to make it work.
Do you know of other goats being raised further North than Dawson? Let us know.
Sean Sherman is known as the Sioux Chef and he is on a mission to revitalize indigenous cuisine across North America.
Sean and his indigenous Sioux Chef team create delicious meals using local indigenous ingredients — game meat, foraged plants, and wild grains. They exclude ingredients introduced since colonization such as dairy products, wheat flour, processed sugar, beef, chicken and pork. No bannock or fry bread! The traditional native foods are low glycemic, contain healthy fats and great proteins. Amaranth, quinoa, wild rice, vegetable flour, cedar, juniper, sage, bergamot, squash, corn, maple syrup …. these are just some of the staple ingredients in the Sioux Chef pantry.
The result, says Sean, is “vibrant, beautiful and healthy. It is a way to preserve and revitalize indigenous culture through food.”
As a chef, Sean found he could easily find food from all over the world but he had difficulty finding foods that were representative of his indigenous culture. So he began researching what his Lakota ancestors were eating in times past. His research took him into the foundations of indigenous food systems including Native American farming techniques, wild food usage and harvesting, land stewardship, salt and sugar making, hunting and fishing, food preservation, Native American migration histories, elemental cooking techniques, and Native culture and history.
Sean and the Sioux Chef team take knowledge from the past, apply it to modern day and create something new from it.
They have just released a fantastic cookbook “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen” complete with award winning recipes and teaming with knowledge. This is Sean’s version of ‘The Joy of Native American Cooking’!
Through the non-profit organization NATIFS, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, the Sioux Chef team have a dream to increase access to local indigenous food across North America. They plan to help set up Food Hubs across the USA, Canada and Mexico, each consisting of a restaurant and a training centre that focuses on local indigenous foods of the area.
It is -42°C in Dawson City, Yukon. At 4 p.m. the sun sets, transforming the sky into rich hues of pink and orange.
It is the depths of winter. The time for comfort food.
Brian Phelan, Dawson City chef, shared Rappie Pie with us, a comfort food dish from his Acadian Roots. Miche Genest, Yukon chef and cookbook author, shared Pork Hock and Rye Casserole another great comfort food.
Here is one more wonderful winter comfort food, thanks to Alfred Von Mirbach of Perth, Ontario, who has shared his mother’s Warm Potato Salad recipe.
And, of course, with every recipe comes a story. This recipe is from Alfred’s German ancestry. When he was a child it was served every Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve with sausage, mustard and pickles. Alfred and his brothers continue the tradition today. Yet another example of how food connects us with family, tradition, ancestry and, of course, memories.
I have two precious jars of dill pickles successfully fermented, without salt, in celery juice and decided to use half a jar to make an adaptation of Marianne’s Warm Potato Salad. It was so delicious that the rest of the dill pickles have now been relegated to three more repeat performances. I will definitely be fermenting more dill pickles in celery juice next year!
My day started auspiciously with a double dose of sweetener. First, in my sleepy state, I grabbed the near-empty container of cranberry sauce, boiled some water, and proceeded to stir and slurp. A spoon was helpful to capture the swirling bottom-lurking lumps. This was followed by my lucky strike into the empty honey (yes, local!) jar. Honey is a particularly valuable asset, as the adhesive qualities mean that an empty jar is never really empty. I added hot water and drank greedily, rapturing in the wealth in remnants. I’ve since hidden the jar for an afternoon pick-me-up.
So, my day was off to a wondrous start. And, my actions translated into fewer breakfast dishes, a job that most often falls on my list of responsibilities. I call these win-win situations, double benefits.
But, not everyone understands the life efficiencies that are intrinsic to double benefit opportunities. Take, for example, my children. They walk to school, love sports, and devote significant time and effort to improve their athleticism. But when it comes to my helpful suggestions about the double benefit potential of the wood pile or of the snow-shoveling, they then become miraculously deaf. Selective hearing, it seems, is not an affliction of married men only.
Over the holiday season, Suzanne immersed herself into cooking and baking, taking on that responsibility with all the precision of a scientist on the verge of a world-changing breakthrough. Science, it turns out, is a gold-mine for double benefits. Each day, there seemed to be burned sugar beet syrup, or soft muffins, or cookies that just didn’t work with pumpkin seeds and cauliflower as their main ingredients. I readily adopted the double benefit role of consuming all these experimental failures. And, to keep them coming, I offered my purely scientific observations as fuel for initiative.
And through all this, there were some diamonds in the rough. For example, I found a lovely wine-substitute for Christmas dinner in the pot liquor of boiled vegetables. Nothing drained, nothing gained. And the double benefits! I no longer have that empty belly feeling, or the perpetual chill, or the problem of my underwear slipping over my absent buttocks. Science has been good to me. Now, where did I put that honey jar?
On the last day of 2017, I’m looking back on a year of cooking with local foods and reflecting on the highlights. I was lucky enough to spend much of 2017 cooking and baking with a locally grown grain: triticale from Krista and Jason Roske’s Sunnyside Farm, located in the Ibex Valley close to Whitehorse. The Roskes acquired some seed from Yukon Grain Farm in the fall of 2015 and planted it on a portion of their land, intending to plow the plants back under to enrich the soil. But 2016 was such a good growing year that the plant actually matured, a rarity for grain in the Whitehorse area.
From that planting the Roskes harvested about 40 kilos of grain, by hand, and sold small quantities of whole grains, bread flour and pastry flour to customers in and around Whitehorse. I learned about their grain and flour from Jennifer Hall, executive director of the Yukon Agricultural Association, and a great champion of local farmers and their products.
The Roskes delivered one kilo each of grain, bread flour and cake and pastry flour to my house in early 2017. I was in the midst of developing recipes for a cookbook celebrating ancient grains, written in partnership with Dan Jason, a passionate organic farmer and owner of Salt Spring Seeds, and experimenting with all kinds of grains. (Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will be released by Douglas and McIntyre in early 2018. Stay tuned for Whitehorse and Dawson launch details!)
The Roskes’s bread flour made a beautiful sourdough pumpernickel-style bread, and the pastry flour produced gorgeous muffins, excellent quick bread, delicious beet gnocchi and most recently, lovely birch syrup shortbread cookies for Christmas.
That triticale got around in 2017. Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage and Timber Restaurants in Vancouver made tiny mushroom tartlets with the pastry flour at a Travel Yukon dinner last February, and in June, chef Carson Schiffkorn and I served whole triticale grain with a morel mushroom-miso butter to guests at Air North and Edible Canada’s Across the Top of Canada dinner at Marsh Lake. I served the very last of the whole grain, with more miso butter, for a media dinner hosted by Travel Yukon on November 26. Everybody loved the story of the accidental success of this beautiful, locally grown grain.
Triticale is not an ancient grain, but a hybrid of wheat and rye first developed in the late 1800s in Scotland and Germany, combining the grain quality of wheat with the hardiness of rye. In 1954 the University of Manitoba experimented with the viability of spring triticale as a commercial crop, and in 1974 the University of Guelph did the same with winter triticale. Winter triticale varieties are particularly good for short-season areas like the Yukon.
For the Roskes, hand-harvesting triticale grain “quickly lost its charm,” reported Krista. However, the success of growing triticale has whetted their appetites for more grain experiments, and Krista said they’re planting spring wheat in 2018. “Fingers crossed we will have wheat for flour by next September. I’ll definitely let you know if it works out!” Last time we spoke, the Roskes were contemplating buying more machinery — perhaps a small combine and a small grain cleaner. “It’s farm evolution,” said Krista.
I’m sad to say goodbye to the last of the whole triticale grains, but very happy that I will be returning from Christmas holidays in Ontario to a few cups more of triticale flour in my pantry at home. Birch syrup shortbreads anyone?
Local eco-chef and self-proclaimed foodie Benjamin l. Vidmar, has a dream. He wants to make the remote northern Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, Svalbard more sustainable, and to produce locally-grown food. Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The latitude of the islands range from 74° to 81° North, making them some of the most northerly inhabited places on Earth.
Like many communities north of the arctic circle, there is no viable soil in Svalbard. How does one grow local food if there is no local soil?
In 2015 Chef Vidmar started a company called Polar Permaculture Solutions, whose goal is to apply permaculture principles and ecological design to create a circular economy in Longyearbyen, and “to connect people back to their food.”
Working at the time as head chef at the Svalbar Pub, he noticed how all the food was being flown or shipped to the island. However, in the past food had been grown on Svalbard, and Vidmar wanted to return to that tradition — but with some modern enhancements and without having to ship in soil.
Vidmar started with hydroponic systems using commercial fertilizer, but felt he could do better. Why ship fertilizer up to the island, he reasoned, when there is so much food waste available to compost and produce biogas? Food waste in his town is dumped into the sea, and he took up the challenge to grow locally-grown food making use of available resources on the island.
Polar Permaculture researched what others were doing around the Arctic, and opted to go with composting worms, specifically red worms, which excel at producing a natural fertlizer from food waste. He got permission from the government to bring worms up to the island, which took a year and a half, but “was worth the wait.”
Vidmar’s company is now growing microgreens for the hotels and restaurants on the island. Fine dining chefs use microgreens to enhance the attractiveness and taste of their dishes with their delicate textures and distinctive flavors. During the growing process, worm castings are produced, and this natural fertilizer that can be used to grown more food.
In addition to composting with worms, Polar Permaculture has started hatching quails from eggs and is now delivering fresh locally produced quail eggs to local restaurants and hotels. Their next step will be to get a bio-digestor setup and to produce biogas with it. The worms are mostly vegetarian, but with a digestor, the operation will be able to utilize manure from the birds, as well as food waste that would normally be dumped into the sea. This will also allow them to produce heat for their greenhouse, as well as produce electricity that can run generators to power the lights. A natural fertilizer also comes out of the digestor, which will then be used to grow more food for the town.
What started as one chef’s personal journey has become a local permaculture operation that is reshaping the nature of the local food economy, and providing an inspiration for other Northern communities interested in food sustainability.
By the year 2050, the world’s population is expected to be 10 billion people. How will we be able to feed 10 billion people?
Valentin Thurn’s documentary “10 Billion: What’s on Your Plate?” takes the viewer across the world to examine possible solutions to this question – from insects to artificial meat, from industrial farms to micro-farms. If you eat food, this documentary is a ‘must see.’ And, although the feature length version is difficult to view from Canada, until Jan 21, 2018 you can watch the 53-minute version for free online thanks to TVO. Ontario’s educational TV network.
Gerard has been suspiciously silent in his blogs over the past three weeks. I’m not sure if this is because he is taking a holiday from the computer, or because he has lately been so well fed that he has had nothing to complain about. I suspect it is the former, although I will choose to believe it is the latter. If any of you have been worried that his silence has been due to weakness from starvation, fear not. We have been feasting well over the Christmas season!
Our family tradition is to cook up Christmas dinner on Boxing Day. That way, we can stay in our P.J.’s all day on Christmas Day and hang out together with no time pressures. (In previous years, we have even been known to have Kraft Dinner on Christmas Day. This year we had smoked salmon, marinated in birch syrup, and left-over moose ribs).
On Boxing Day, our Christmas dinner feast was complete with all the trimmings! And it was wonderful to share this 100% local Christmas feast with friends.
Our turkey was raised by Megan Waterman at LaStraw Ranch. The stuffing was made with celery grown by Becky Sadlier with onion, sage, parsley and cooked whole rye grains grown by Otto at Kokopellie Farm and apples grown by John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery. We had delicious mashed potatoes grown by Otto and seasoned with butter and milk thanks to Jen Sadlier and her dairy cows at Klondike Valley Creamery. Carrots and rutabagas grown by Lucy Vogt were mixed with parsnips grown by Grant Dowdell. The gravy was thickened with home-made potato starch. The cranberry sauce was made from low bush cranberries from the boreal forest (thanks to the wonderful Dawsonites who have shared some of their precious wild cranberries with us during this very poor year for wild berries) and sweetened with birch syrup thanks to Berwyn and Sylvia.
During this year of eating local, I often find myself discovering gems of knowledge from times past, when food was perceived as a precious commodity — perhaps due to rationing or economic hard times, or just the plain hard work of growing your own. But, whatever the reason, I am struck by the difference in our perception of food today, at least in Canada, where the bounty of food stocked on grocery store shelves appears to have no limits in either quantity or variety.
One of the English traditions that stems from times past and has been passed down in my family is my grandmother’s steamed Christmas pudding with hard sauce. What better year than this to pull out her recipe. In the past, when I have decided to re-live my childhood by making Christmas pudding, I have had to search in the far corners of the grocery store freezers for the key ingredient – suet. This year, animal fat is a staple in my own freezer so, thanks to some beef tallow from Klondike Valley Creamery, I didn’t need to search far for a local suet! Christmas pudding adapted itself well to local ingredients and the result was eagerly devoured, despite the fact that I burned the bottom of it by accidentally letting the pot run dry.
As a child, I remember the small dollop of hard sauce allocated to each of us and the way it slowly melted on top of our small portion of warm steamed pudding. Its melt-in-your-mouth sweetness always lured us back to the bowl for extra hard sauce, knowing that we would regret it later for its richness. My local hard sauce adaptation this year was partially melt in your mouth – other than the lumps which I optimistically referred to as sugar beet gummies, from sugar beet sugar that wasn’t quite dry enough and clumped together irreconcilably. But even the sugar beet gummies found fans and were consumed with gusto!
Using all parts of the moose or caribou is important when you are harvesting food from the land. This is one of the many lessons I have been learning during my year of eating local. For Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elders, the delicacies are not the moose steaks or the moose roasts, but the often-overlooked parts of the moose: moose nose, moose tongue, moose head soup, moose heart, moose liver, kidneys, and bum guts. Yup, I said bum guts. Part of the large intestine (cleaned well!) and cooked. I am venturing into the world of moose delicacies. Stay tuned… Victor and his Moosemeat Men will be cooking up a feast for the upcoming Myth and Medium conference, organized by the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin Heritage Department, and taking place in Dawson City, Yukon from February 19 to 22, 2018.
Happy Solstice everyone – the shortest day of the year a.k.a. the longest night. It only gets brighter from here!
Suzanne made another one of her regular appearances recently on CBC Yukon Radio’s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman on the Yu-Kon Grow It segment to talk about the latest happenings on the First We Eat project.
I cooked a steak! This may not seem like such a big deal, but it is the first time I have ever successfully cooked a steak. For many years, I was a vegetarian. Actually this only changed when I hitched up with a moose hunter who liked to cook. I am probably the only person on the planet who has difficulty roasting a chicken. Steak, has also been a mystery to me. How to cook it so that it is tender and not over done. Not my forté. Moose steak is particularly daunting, as it is not the tenderest of meats, requiring long, slow cooking or marinating. So I have always opted to leave the moose steak cooking to Gerard. He manages to cook it, thanks to marinades and the BBQ (a cooking device that I have also never mastered).
Ah, the marinade. Let’s see – no soy sauce, no vinegar, no wine. So how to marinade? Gerard tried marinating in rhubarb juice, but it wasn’t very successful. Perhaps it just needed more time. Dawn Dyce of Dawson City to the rescue! Dawn marinades her moose (and any wild game) in milk. I had heard tales of Dawn’s most tender moose roasts, so I decided to give it a try. In my case I had just made some chevre, so I had whey on hand and decided to marinade the moose steaks in whey. At Dawn’s suggestion, I put the thawed steaks in a ziplock bag, added some whey, removed the air and set the bag in the fridge for 24 hours, turning it over now and again when I noticed it.
Hoping that the whey would impart tenderness to the moose steak, I still had the dilemma of flavour and how to actually cook the darn thing. Enter Whitehorse chef Miche Genest! One of the many lessons I had from Miche’s week long visit in my kitchen, was how to cook a moose steak with only the local ingredients I had on hand. Miche taught me about rubs. So, remembering her moose rub lesson, I removed the moose steaks from their whey marinade and patted them dry. In the re-purposed coffee grinder (no coffee in this house) I blended together dried juniper berries, nasturtium pods, and spruce tips, and then rubbed the spice mix onto both sides of each dried steak. Then I wrapped the steaks in plastic wrap and set them into the fridge for a couple of hours. Miche also taught me about cooking – hot and fast. Miche likes her steak rare so she sears it for 1 ½ minutes per side. I decided to go a little longer – but I did watch the clock.
The result? Yummm! Tender and tasty. Drizzled with a moose demi-glaze (made from moose bones – recipe to come later). Perhaps my ears deceived me, but I think I heard 15-year-old Kate say, “You could open a restaurant after this year, Mom.” Fine praise indeed for the mother who didn’t like cooking!
For two days the North Klondike Highway has been closed due to unseasonably warm weather causing black ice and massive frost heaves. This means that my community of Dawson City, as well as the communities of Mayo, Fort MacPherson and Inuvik, are all cut off from the rest of Canada. No road in. No road out. No grocery trucks. No mail. Ten days before Christmas.
Air North, the only airline that links our communities to Whitehorse and hence, the rest of Canada, has managed to squeeze in extra flights during the short window of December daylight, to help transport the many people who are now unable to drive south. But this is not a panacea. Yesterday the plane couldn’t land in Dawson due to bad weather. Some folks won’t get a seat on the plane for another four days. And although the planes can transport people, they can’t supply Dawson and Inuvik with groceries.
So here it is, another reminder of our particular vulnerability in the North. It’s not the first time. It happened on an even larger scale in 2012 when the only road into all of the Yukon was closed due to mudslides – causing the shelves of the many large grocery stores in the Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, to go bare within a couple of days.
There is no doubt we are seeing the effects of climate change around the world, and especially in the North.
Dawson’s average temperature this time of year should be minus 20° to minus 30° C. For the past two weeks we have had temperatures ranging from plus 2° to minus 10°C. Whitehorse has had above zero temperatures and rain.
This is the second year that the Yukon River has failed to freeze between Dawson and West Dawson. Without an ice bridge, the journey to town for West Dawsonites for supplies is now 12 km instead of 2 km – and currently only passable by foot, skidoo, or dog team.
These are quickly becoming the new norms in the North. Another poignant reminder of the importance of increasing our self-sufficiency and our food security. The importance of lessening our dependence on infrastructure that links us to the south. The reason why I am putting myself to the test and feeding my family of five only food that can be sourced locally for one full year.
I, of course, have enough food to get me through. Many others have freezers full of moose meat. Hopefully, the highway will soon re-open and this event will be considered a mild inconvenience in the memories of many. But should we pass it off so casually? Is it actually the canary in the coal mine. And rather than a temporary inconvenience, a foreshadowing of things to come. A memory that should inspire adaptation and change.
Many studying global food security suggest the answer will be in the development of more local, small-scale organic farms and growers. I agree. And I believe this will be especially important for Northern Canada along with a renewed understanding of what we can source locally from the land. The less we need to rely on ‘one road in, one road out’ the better off we will be.
The Christmas season has arrived – a season for many wonderful things, not the least of which is Christmas baking. Holiday baking traditions in my family are melt-in-your-mouth shortbread and rum-soaked fruit cake that has aged for 6-12 months.
This year is a little different.
My family recently headed to Whitehorse for various sporting events (and two days of eating contraband!) So I took advantage of the empty house and settled in for a two-day Christmas baking extravaganza. Although it might be better described as a two-day Christmas baking science lab.
What is unusual about this year’s baking, is that it is all experimental. No white flour, no white sugar, no icing sugar, no baking powder nor baking soda nor corn starch. No salt. No nuts. No chocolate. No candied orange and lemon peel. No raisins. No currents. No cinnamon, ginger or cloves. I pulled out my traditional recipes for short bread, ginger snaps, aspen rocks and fruit cake and attempted to adapt them to the local ingredients I have on hand. I pulled out old dusty copies of December editions of Chatelaine and Canadian Living and scoured them for recipes that might suit my ingredients. I have yet to find a recipe for just my ingredients, so adaptations, substitutions and imagination have taken over.
I am extremely grateful for the ingredients I do have available. Thanks to the hard work of Dawson farmers, and the abundance of edibles the Boreal forest can provide, there will be 100%-local Christmas baking in my house this year!
I now have flour (thanks Otto) and sugar beet sugar (thanks Grant, Becky, and Paulette). I also have butter (thanks Jen), eggs (thanks Megan and Becky), birch syrup (thanks Sylvia and Berwyn), honey (thanks David) and berries (thanks Diana, Maryanne, the forest and the many Dawsonites who shared some of their precious wild berries with me this year). I have potato starch (thanks Lucy, Otto, Tom, Brian and Claus). I have a few winter hearty apples (thanks John and Kim). I have dried spruce tips (thanks forest) and dried nysturtiam seed pods (thanks Andrea and Klondike Kate’s).
Of course, experimenting is also limited by quantity. Every ingredient I have has been hard fought for. The sugar takes several days to create from sugar beets. The butter takes several days to make from the cream skimmed off the fresh milk. And before I have flour, I need to clean the grains and then grind them. Whereas I once automatically doubled or tripled recipes for Christmas baking, this year I find myself cutting every recipe in half. I have become leery of recipes that call for 2 cups of sugar for example – as that would use up almost all the sugar I have on hand before starting the arduous task of processing more sugar beets.
Mixing and matching, substituting, altering quantities – such is the alchemy behind Christmas baking this year.
But many have been less than desirable. My friend Bridget dropped by during my baking frenzy and sampled some of my experiments. “You can’t call these cookies,” she announced after tasting one of my shortbread trials. I was deflated. “But you can call them biscuits.” She then proceeded to lather some butter onto one of my cookies and declared it quite good. After I got over my moment of self-pity, I too tried one with butter and then with cream cheese and had to admit she was right. They taste more like oatcakes (without the oats). So sweet biscuits they are. The recipe included here for Yukon Shortbread did, however, pass the cookie test.
My family has now returned from Whitehorse and I will bring out the results of my baking bit by bit to see what they think. The experimenting will continue – adjusting this and adjusting that. Trying a few new recipes. But first … I have to make some more butter, grind some more flour, and peel some more sugar beets.
If you have any Christmas baking recipes that you think might adapt well to my local ingredients, I would be more than happy to have you share them!
I love birch syrup and am grateful to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson who are raising their two daughters in the bush and producing birch syrup commercially. During the past 4 ½ months of eating only local foods, we have consumed 24 litres of birch syrup. I have discovered that the flavour of birch syrup alone can substitute for the ‘far east’ spices of cinnamon and all-spice. I have even been known to down a shot of birch syrup, straight up, during those moments when, in a previous life, I would have grabbed a piece of chocolate – to get me through a moment of emotional or physical despair.
I also love David McBurney’s local honey – it is pure, delicate, and divine. And it is treated like a delicacy in the family. It also makes the perfect sweetener to enhance other delicate flavours that would be overpowered by the robust flavour of birch syrup.
But there are times, especially in baking, when chemistry is required and a liquid sugar option just doesn’t do the trick. Now that I have local flour, and Christmas is coming, baking is on my mind. So what to do when crystalized sugar is required?
Birch syrup, unlike maple syrup, does not crystalize. I learned this last April while visiting Birch Camp. So, with birch sugar no longer an option, I ordered GMO-free sugar beet seeds. I have never had any luck growing regular beets, so I recruited others to grow the sugar beets for me – the great gardeners Paulette Michaud and Becky Sadlier. Unbeknownst to me, long-time Dawson farmer, Grant Dowdell, also had my year of eating local on his mind and ordered non-GMO sugar beet seeds to see if they would grow in the north. The sugar beets grew marvelously for all, confirming that they are indeed a reasonable crop for the North. They like warm days and cool nights – perfect for a Dawson City summer. I ended up with 350 pounds worth to experiment with!
Sugar beets contain approximately 20% sucrose, the same sugar found in sugar cane. One quarter of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets. In Canada, Taber, Alberta is the industrial hot spot for growing and processing sugar beets into sugar. On a commercial scale, lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide are added to form calcium carbonate which solidifies and pulls out any impurities – thus resulting in familiar white sugar. No such additions for a local home-made sugar, so the resulting sugar is brown with a richer taste.
There is a paucity of information out there on just how to make sugar from sugar beets at home, so I gave up on research and moved to trial and error. After all, with 350 pounds of sugar beets, there was room for experimentation and failure. And failure there has been! Although no failure has yet to see itself in the compost. The family seems more than willing to devour the failures – be they sugar beet toffee, sugar beet gum, sugar beet tea. Even burnt beet sugar has found a use. (Thank goodness because there has been a lot of burnt beet sugar!)
In the process, I have also discovered the wonder of the sugar beet – a root vegetable that was previously unknown to me. Sugar beets are often touted as a food for livestock or a green manure crop so I was expecting the taste of the sugar beet itself to be unpalatable. But it is just the opposite! Cooked up, it is a delicious, sweet, white beet. The sugar beet leaves are also edible. And amazingly, even after the sugar is extracted, the sugar beet pulp remains sweet and delicious. I’m afraid the local Dawson livestock will be getting less sugar beet pulp than previously anticipated this year.
One thing is for certain – processing sugar beets into sugar requires time and patience. Here are my step-by-step instructions on how to make syrup (easy) and sugar (difficult) from sugar beets.
Sugar was first extracted from sugar beets in the mid 18th century. In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars when French ports were cut off from the rest of the world, Napoleon encouraged wide-scale sugar beet production and processing. France remains one of the world leaders in sugar beet production and most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beets, rather than sugar cane.
Consider adding non-GMO sugar beet seeds to your next seed order. In Canada, they can be found from Salt Spring Seeds and from T&T seeds. Sugar beets grow well in the north and are a delicious root vegetable in their own right. But don’t throw out the water you cook them in, as this water is sweet and can easily be used to make beet syrup and beet syrup candy. And, if you are brave, sugar! If you live in an area populated by deer, be warned that sugar beet tops are a great attractant for deer. Word is now out to the Yukon moose so perhaps next year Dawson’s sugar beet rows will require fencing!
Who would have guessed that “the diet” would become a vehicle for enhanced weekend variety? Previously, I had mentioned that driving kids to Whitehorse for recreational opportunities is a weekend pursuit familiar to me, as well as to many Dawsonites. But last weekend I shirked that responsibility, displacing the schlepping responsibility to another unsuspecting parent. And why, you might ask? Well, the truth is that another task of joyful potential was imminently presenting itself to the arena of daily responsibilities.
Suzanne had been dutifully storing the year’s supply of pie pumpkins in our cold storage room, which really isn’t a cold storage room at all, but rather, my otherwise cozy workshop / recreational room, which has been repurposed “for the greater good.” Now the room stores food, and my main purpose for the space has been diminished to a cold storage place for my coat, boots, and hockey gear, so that my climatization process might begin well before I even step outside.
So, with grave urgency and a voice of impending doom, Suzanne woke me, advising that her inspection of the food stores revealed a situation of calamitous proportions. There were “soft spots” appearing on the pumpkins. The dreaded soft spots that we all live in fear of. The harbingers of rot, the messengers of mold, the precursors of peril. And with all the vitality of Saint Nick on Christmas Eve, I leapt from my bed to save the pumpkins.
So, the initial examination revealed that 45 of the 75 stored pumpkins were in need of some sort of resuscitation, presumably tainted by a touch of frost. Suzanne did the initial triage, finding only a few code blacks. These were quickly dispatched, put out of their suffering by cold immersion in the great outdoors. We set to the code reds and yellows with some haste, fearful that the warmth of our working kitchen would disseminate the contagions, contaminating all that we have worked for, diminishing the project to a wasteland of sorrow. We put the code greens aside for the next day, knowing that they were not in immediate danger, reconciling that this was an undertaking with great magnitude.
Perhaps it is my training as a doctor or perhaps it is just human nature, but there is immense tactile joy when you insert your hand through the mold of a pumpkin, pulling out the diseased mush. In some ways, extracting the soft spot of pumpkins is better that dealing with human rot, as it does not have the same intensity of smell, which is unmistakably pervasive in the case of humans.
Anyway, back on track … the process was extensive. There was the washing, the debridement of mold and mush, the separation of salvageable parts, including those seeds that were not black, or tainted in a cobweb substance that reminded me of the dendrites of neurons, as demonstrated in electromagnetic images of the brain. There was the scrapping of the pulp, the peeling of the skins, the chopping, the packaging and finally, the freezing for future processing. We roasted seeds the whole while, using them as nourishment to fuel the event. We collected the discarded parts, marveling that there was not so much waste after all, and that most of it was being commissioned as food for the pigs and chickens of Dawson.
And at the end, using the logic that we were already in chopping mode, Suzanne pulls out more of the ubiquitous sugar beets for washing, peeling, chopping and boiling …
Since I retired, one of the common questions I field is, “so, what are you doing with all your free time now?” The truth is, the surgical part of my job is not much changed, it is just that my patients have.
One of the favourite supper recipes was Pork Hock Rye Casserole, although it doesn’t have to include pork hocks – it is adaptable to any slow cooking meat. And the rye could easily be substituted with barley (once I thresh it) and probably even with wheat grains (although I think I will preserve every precious grain of wheat for baking!) This, like Rappie Pie, is another excellent one dish winter comfort food – filling, delicious and 100% Dawson City local!
I feel like Pandora’s Box has been opened. What with the great cooking from Miche Genest, the effective grinding of flour reintroducing grain into the diet, and the discovery of my wife’s “freeze-up” stash of birch syrup ice-cream, all on the tails of months of hunger and craving, there is now a flood of dietary temptations to which I am succumbing.
Today is weigh-in day. On the first of the month each household member must step on the scale, the scale of truth, transgressions and temperance. It is a little like the confessional booth, each of us enticed to tell all, once the weight is announced, collectively rejoicing in the euphoria of cleared conscious.
And for the first time since committing to “the diet,” I have added a few pounds to my atrophied skeleton. Of course, this is hardly earth shattering news, so I am not really letting the cat out of the bag about the propensity of dietary grains and sugars to round out one’s figure.
And I could tell, even without the scale of truth, that things were changing. My belt was a little tighter, my skin folds a little thicker, and there was an absence of the constant emptiness. But my cravings are still relentless, well beyond the normal cyclical changes of winter that most of us northerners are familiar with.
All this has me now wondering about rebound. Are these the first days of my new self? Will I keep growing and growing? Should I submit my Christmas clothing wish list now, or would it be best to wait, monitor my growth daily, plot it out so that I could have a more accurate estimation by Christmas Day?
In the meantime, I smell fresh bread, and like a burbot after rotting meat, I am out of here!
Despite a very cold November, with several weeks of -35° to -40°C, it looks like it is going to be a long freeze-up for the Yukon River again this year. I am lucky enough to have 25 kg. of wheat grains and 25 kg. of rye grains that were secured from Otto at Kokopellie Farm just before the ferry was pulled. But Otto’s wonderful grinder is on the other side of the Yukon River. So, for now, I am left to my own devices.
I tried to grind the grain with a combination of blender and flour sifter. It took many, many passes. It was possible to eke out a small amount of flour, but certainly not very efficient.
Although Dawson is small (about 1,500 people), it is the kind of community where you can put out a request for an obscure item, such as flour grinder, on the local Crier Buyer Facebook page and expect to get a response.
I was not disappointed.
Within a day, I was very grateful to receive a call from Louise Piché. She had a hand crank flour grinder, not yet tried, that she had picked up somewhere or other and I was welcome to borrow it. A flour grinder is a wonderful thing! A couple of passes through the grinder along with a bit of an upper body workout and voilà – flour! Flour!! Flour means the possibility of bread and baking!
We have flour!
Subsequently, I received another call – this time from Becky Sadlier who has an electric flour mill that we could borrow. However Becky lives on the other side of the Klondike River, now filled with slush. But Yukoners are never too daunted by the weather. Loren Sadlier was making one last canoe trip across the Klondike, through the slush, and the grinder could go with him. I had thought the hand grinder was a gift from the heavens. The electric grinder was able to make an even finer flour!
There are still a few obstacles to overcome, such as the lack of yeast, baking soda, baking powder and crystalized sugar. But where there is a will, there is a way. Let the baking experiments begin! (And let me remember my lesson in grain moderation! )
Miche Genest sent me this wonderful breakfast option, Breakfast Caflouti, which only requires ½ cup of flour and no leavening agent. It was a tremendous hit in our family – and a very welcome change from our usual fried eggs and mashed potato cakes.
Grains have now entered my local diet. And, unfortunately, I did not heed the concept of moderation with their re-introduction.
Spending almost four months entirely grain free was very interesting. Certainly, it was the one food that haunted me. When I ventured outside my house, the smell or sight of baking was associated with a sense of longing. Plates of bannock at Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in feasts, the smell of Nora Van Bibber’s cinnamon buns at Fall Harvest Camp, the desert table at potluck dinners, the baking at Christmas bazaars – those were the difficult times. Those were the times when I realized how important it was that my family agreed to the ‘no grocery store food in the house’ policy. I do have will power, but I’m not sure how much.
I have also come to realize how much grains contribute to a sense of being full. Without them, potatoes help fill the gap. As does a mug of steamed milk. In the absence of grains, these have become my go-to’s when I need a quick snack. Mashed potato cakes have become the morning staple to replace toast, bagels, or cereal. I have really become quite fond of them and haven’t yet tired of eating them almost every morning.
At the start of this local diet, there was an almost instant melting away of extra pounds. Gerard’s weight loss was the most noticeable, losing 30 pounds during the first two months! Was this due to being grain free? The other unexpected result of eating local was a distinct lack of body odour. Could that also have to do with being grain free? Have those folks who live a gluten free existence noticed the same phenomena?
When Yukon chef, Miche Genest, came to stay with us last week I had to clean up the grains that had been drying in the loft floor so that Miche would have a place to sleep. The barley is not yet threshed. And I haven’t figured out how to de-husk the buckwheat or hull the oats. But thanks to Otto and his combine, the wheat and the rye were threshed and just waiting for me to find a way to grind them. So, one evening, when 12-year-old Tess started talking about how much she yearned for a bowl of cereal, I came up with an idea. Why not boil the whole rye grains! And so Tess did. Accompanied by warm milk, the first mouthful was an extremely comforting and satisfying experience. All my grain longings seemed to come to the forefront as I ate spoonful after spoonful. Somewhere in the logical side of my brain was a small voice suggesting that downing a giant bowl of cooked whole rye might not be the best way to re-introduce grains after four months without. But I couldn’t stop. So I ate the whole bowl. I had a fitful sleep that night. For the next 2 days, I felt like there was a brick in my stomach. I produced enough gas to power our house. Short-term gain for long-term pain. Lesson learned. I will attempt a more moderate re-introduction once I recover from this one.
Despite its sub-arctic climate, the Yukon is blessed with several apiaries. With care, bee hives can survive the harsh winters, even as far north as Dawson City. This is the profile of one of the Yukon’s honey producers.
Bee Whyld is a small apiary in Watson Lake, Yukon, specializing in producing Fireweed Honey. Owned and operated by Courtney and Joel Wilkinson, Bee Whyld was officially founded in June of 2016, although it had been in the works for a few years prior.
Courtney originally had a job as a salesperson for an Alberta honey company, and was working towards keeping her own bees. On a visit to the Yukon to visit her then-boyfriend Joel, she noticed the fields of fireweed common in the territory. Courtney knew from her experience selling honey that Fireweed is not only one of the rarest honeys, and also one of the best for flavour and medicine, and this sparked the idea to bring bees up to the Yukon and make Fireweed Honey.
Beekeeping in the North is quite challenging, especially overwintering and maintaining the health of the hives, but through trial and error Courtney and Joel have learned what it takes to successfully produce honey in the Yukon.
Their honey bees gather all of the nectar that they turn into honey from the Boreal Yukon forests, with fields of flowers that are untouched by pesticides, and not genetically modified. Their honey is also both unpasteurized and raw, meaning they don’t heat it at all. This ensures all the natural antibiotics, pollen, and Royal Jelly are still intact within the honey, making it a good choice for medicinal uses (such us helping to heal wounds, helping to fight off infections, helping to reduce allergies, and alleviating sore throats).
Bee Whyld’s Yukon Fireweed Honey has been called “the Champagne of honey.” It is a rare honey prized around the world for its medicinal qualities, and its light sweet taste.
This “diet” is an inspirational opportunity, a chance to demonstrate creativity, an exercise in economy of action. Clearly, life would have been amiss without it and I would have felt like I had been abandoned in a black hole for eternity.
Lately, I’ve found new joys in drinking dishwater. Sans the soap part. And also sans the multiple and varied particles that typically inhabit true dishwater. So, to ensure that I am communicating properly (and in order to be politically correct), let’s just call this “false dishwater.” Or, to be even more politically correct in the nostalgic eyes of Canadian baby-boomers, we can condense this to F.D.
So, F.D. has become one of my staples. And the variety of flavors and textures offers enough intrigue that it competes with the best of the addictive alternatives. I’ve referred to F.D. in the past, so as a refresher, this is how I recommend it: take an “empty” birch syrup container, add a bit of hot water, swirl, pour into the cup that was once your treasured coffee cup, drink lavishly and selfishly of the elixir of F.D. When finished, repeat the process for an entirely different richness of flavor. Keep repeating until the original container is virtually clean (and thank whomever that the days of wooden kegs is all but past!). So, while experiencing a variety of unique and flavorful drinks, one can do the family a favor by cleaning dishes using F.D.
There are an abundance of missed opportunities; the joys of ingestible F.D. can be found everywhere in the kitchen, literally awaiting discovery and daring. For a more savory mid-afternoon winter tea, try F.D. from a pickle jar. An experience in globular texture can be readily had through F.D. yogurt. Or if that is too stimulating to the regurgitating reflex, then one can tame it down by trying the more subtle and less distinct curds of F.D. milk.
With time, tolerance overrides tact. I sometimes find myself unscrupulously indulgent, thinking selfishly that there are no other cravers of F.D. in the room. Why, just the other day, I casually picked up the nearly empty pot of stew, added some boiled water, swirled, and proceeded to drink directly from the pot, entirely skipping the stage of soiling a clean mug. My kids were appropriately aghast: clearly I should have shared my bounty.
When I came to Dawson to cook with Suzanne, I was prepared for frugality, for the careful husbanding of food supplies — I had read Gerard’s blogs about the one onion a day, the rationing of juniper berries.
I was prepared for ingenuity, too, the experimentation with flavour in the absence of salt, sugar, spices, and oil. What I was not prepared for was how Suzanne’s frugality and ingenuity would change my way of thinking.
I’ve always thought I was experimental, and I am, given a cupboard full of nutmeg and cinnamon and garam masala to complement the juniper berries and spruce tips, the many varieties of sugar and syrups available to me, the wine for wild berry reductions, the fresh leeks and fennel for moose stock. I’ve always considered myself a frugal cook, wasting little, using the whole vegetable, saving scraps for stock.
But here, in this kitchen, frugality and ingenuity have taken on new meaning. Here’s how. Ingenuity: Suzanne has figured out how to make sugar beet syrup. Simply put, cover chopped sugar beets in water, bring to the boil, simmer for several hours, strain, squeeze excess juice from the beets, boil down cooking liquid into a delicious, complex, earthy syrup, a syrup that goes well with everything on the table, sweet or savoury, livens up a cup of warm milk, and substitutes for sugar in baking (with some adjustments, but that’s for a later post). Sugar beets grow well in this climate, and we speculate: is there a future Yukon industry in sugar beets?
Frugality: Chef Brian Phelan came over and taught Suzanne and I how to make Rappie Pie, a favourite Acadian comfort food. The recipe involves juicing 10 pounds of potatoes and cooking the pulp in boiling chicken stock — there’s more, but that’s for another post. The by-products of the juicing are as many as 14 cups of potato liquid covered with a layer of stiff foam, and, at the bottom of the bowl, a cement-like residue of potato starch.
Suzanne would not allow any of this by-product to be composted. I cooked the potato liquid for use in soup. She skimmed off the foam and baked it into an odd but tasty version of potato chips — a recipe that still needs perfecting, but the basics are there. And she chipped the starch out of the bowl, crumbled it onto a drying screen lined with parchment, and put it in the food drier. The next day, she ground some in a coffee grinder, made a paste with cold water and it thickened our moose stew to perfection.
I helped with all of these endeavours, but Suzanne was the driving force; fierce, committed, consumed with curiosity. I was prepared for her fierceness, but did not know exactly where it might take us.
Now I do. It takes us to ingenuity and frugality, sugar beet syrup and homemade potato starch; it takes us to new ways with food we hadn’t thought of.
Miche and I were very privileged to have Dawson City chef, Brian Phelan, join us in the kitchen this week to teach us how to cook a dish from his Acadian roots, Rappie Pie.
Rappie Pie is a total comfort food and definitely a great winter dish, especially this week in Dawson with temperatures hovering between minus 35° and minus 40°C. The three hours in the oven required to bake Rappie Pie helped keep the house warm!
In many ways it is quite a simple dish, requiring very few ingredient: basically a chicken and some potatoes. One of the most interesting things about Rappie Pie is the preparation. You juice the potatoes but only use the pulp. However, you measure the juice produced to determine how much hot chicken stock to add back to the potato pulp. The magic ratio is 7:10. (For every 7 cups of juice produced, you add 10 cups of boiling stock to the pulp.) The timing is critical, as you don’t want the potato pulp to oxidize. The boiling chicken stock that you add to the potato pulp actually cooks the potatoes in the bowl – even before it goes in the oven. Then you add your herbs or spices (traditionally sautéed onion and salt and pepper; in our case onion and ground celery leaf) and layer the potato pulp mixture with chicken in a large casserole dish. During the three hours of baking, the casserole absorbs the chicken stock, becomes firmer and develops a delicious crust. It’s not the kind of dish that looks great on the plate – the word ‘mush’ comes to mind. But it is delicious and filling and oozes comfort.
Traditionally, the potatoes would have been grated (hence the name ‘rappie’ from the French word “râpé” which means grated) and then the juice squeezed out. But juicers definitely make that process much more efficient.
One of the wonderful things about food is how it gathers people together and the memories we associate with certain foods. Listening to stories from Brian of Rappie Pie suppers past, reminded me of this and how important food is – not just to sustain us, but all the traditions, gatherings and memories that go with it.
I’m not sure if this year of eating local will become one of those fond memories in future years for my kids or if it is scarring them for life. Some days it’s hard to tell. But I will keep my fingers crossed for the former.
Another weekend of “balls and braces” has passed. This is my new term for those weekends that I take one or more of the kids to Whitehorse for sporting events and orthodontic work. There have been many such journeys over the past couple of years; so much so that when people ask about Dawson recreational opportunities, I glibly respond that on weekends, we like to drive to Whitehorse.
Another notable aspect of these trips is the inherent opportunity for dietary transgressions. What could be more stimulating, after prolonged periods of personal restraint, than experimental observation of the effects of self-indulgence? Who could have ever imagined the joys that this year would provide?
Coffee is generally one of my first dietary infractions when I find myself succumbing to temptation “on the road.” And with alarming consistency, the taste of real coffee is always less enjoyable than that conjured up in my memory.
But soon enough, I find bread, and that’s a different story. Whether it is a bun with butter, or garlic toast, or a muffin, donut or morning toast, it doesn’t matter. All forms of pastry are absolutely enthralling, urging me to have just one more… And so I do!
The grains are satisfying, quelling the emptiness that is so familiar to me now. But, the downside is some bloating, which unfortunately is paired with enough gas to make the concealment of dietary misdemeanors problematic. Between the caffeine and the grains, my guts awaken! The grumbling and gurgling, I feel, is almost orchestral.
Sadly though, my family is disinclined to appreciate the musical genius contained within my body. And to this, I remind them of the notable scientific advancements through personal experimentation, and that my gas production affords them a critical role as participants in this ongoing process of discovery…
It has been a wonderful and very busy first two days in the kitchen with Yukon chef Miche Genest. Despite several interruptions for broken down cars, 40 below temperatures, dog walks and Christmas bazaars, Miche and her sous-chef (me!) have still managed to cook up a storm! In between meal preparations we have been boiling down sugar beets into syrup, hand-grinding flour, experimenting with sprouting rye and wheat grains, making yogurt and preparing chevre.
Saturday’s supper: scalloped potatoes, baked spaghetti squash glazed with butter and birch syrup and rare moose steaks prepared with a savoury rub from both garden and forest, served with a morel mushroom cream sauce.
Sunday night’s supper: was a delicious pork hock casserole cooked with whole rye grains and a yummy custard with cranberry sauce for desert.
Eventually we will post most of the recipes. But for now – here is the recipe for the delicious custard with cranberry sauce, otherwise known as ‘Token Gesture Custard’ by Gerard in reference to a portion size that was incongruous with his desire for more.
It’s my first night in Dawson, it’s -22C, and there’s a starry sky up there. I just walked home along First Avenue in the quiet, snow-lit darkness. I’m staying at Bombay Peggy’s on the last night they’re open for the season—maybe I should be down in the bar but instead I’m up here in the Gold Room enjoying the solitude and the feeling of a season coming on, the winter revving up. The trees are heavy with snow.
The cold, the quiet, the snow, the dark trees, the deep excitement of winter, remind me of when I first arrived in the Yukon, 23 years ago. When I was a kid growing up in Toronto, Collingwood was our version of the North. We skied there every weekend in winter. I loved the pillows of snow, the slanting light, the blue shadows of those winters.
But coming to the Yukon was like coming to where winter began. The stillness at night, the snow sparkling like diamonds—I’d never seen that before, snow in Southern Ontario doesn’t do that.
Winter began here.
I got that feeling again tonight. And, buzzing underneath the crisp cold air, was the low-voltage, warming hum of possibility. That’s another thing I remember about first coming to the Yukon. Anything is possible here.
Tomorrow I move up to Suzanne’s house, and we will start a week of experimenting with the food she has grown, gathered from farmers and the forest, processed, preserved and stored over the past several months. The work she has done is mind-boggling. There is enough in her larder for a rich and sustaining menu of delicious local food all winter long.
Our task list is lengthy. Transform 350 lbs of sugar beets into syrup. Figure out what to do with the delicious pulp. Lessons in meat cooking. Discover new quick ways to cook potatoes. Devise snacks that the kids can grab and go. Crackers—how are we going to make crackers? Pizza crust with steamed cauliflower—can we make it work?
The kitchen is not my natural habitat. It used to be the one room in the house that I tried to avoid. (Having a husband who is, or should I say ‘was’ a good cook, certainly helped with my kitchen avoidance issue). But for the past 110 days, the kitchen has felt like it is the only room in the house that I occupy – from early morning till bedtime. I am thinking of setting up a cot beside the fridge. And it has been quite the learning curve. Clearly, necessity is also the mother of creativity in the kitchen.
So you can imagine how thrilled I am that celebrated Yukon chef and cookbook author, Miche Genest, is arriving in Dawson today for the sole purpose of spending ONE WHOLE WEEK in my kitchen. I feel like I have won the lottery! In fact the whole family, feels like they have won the lottery!
Miche has been invited to share her passion and skills for Northern cooking at events across the country – both north and south. This summer, Miche was a guest cook on Canada C3 expedition, a 150 day expedition from Toronto to Victoria through the Northwest passage to celebrate and share the stories of coastal communities and connect Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
When Miche arrives in Dawson today, she will be taking stock of the local ingredients I have in the house and then tomorrow, we start cooking!
Expect some great 100% northern local recipes to be coming this way soon!
Our house is dripping. The windows are sweating and there is rime on the outside soffits wherever the moisture has found breaches in the vapor barrier of the house. Opening the door releases a cloud of humidity into the starkly contrasting cold world outside, engulfing everything in a fog dense enough to cause nightmares in a Newfoundland fisherman.
Three of the stove-top burners are blasting away at pots of boiling sugar beets. The stove fan is humming, desperately trying to do its job of ridding the house of moisture. Our daughter’s fiddle is out of tune. There is a new scrape under one of the doors and another needs unusual persuasion to close properly. Suzanne’s hair is a mass of tight ringlets. Everyone’s skin is nice, wrinkle-free, offering a glimpse of our appearances a decade ago.
We have had another assembly line of production. Sugar beets have been double washed and scrubbed. Then peeled and sliced thinly or grated. Then boiled to extract and concentrate the sugar. And there is so much boiling that I worry that our ancient repurposed camp stove might take an early and unexpected retirement, even before it runs out of propane. Or that the outside of the house begins to resemble a quinzhee as the inside becomes resurfaced in slime mold.
I’ve taken to closely examining my appendages for early signs of webbing. Last night I awoke in a sweat, dreaming that the pain I felt in my leg was the first indication of its metamorphosis into a mermaid’s tail. After reassuring myself of the nonsensical nature of dreams, I feel comfortably back to sleep, only to awaken this time in a panic, thinking I was a goldfish trapped in an aquarium.
And so it will continue today; another assembly line of working children is planned. But first we must wait till they surface for the day and swim out of their rooms to demonstrate their new adornments of scales and slime.
I’m an uninspired chef these days, attempting to navigate unfamiliar territory.
The problem is that I am the type of person who needs visual cues to achieve inspiration. Normally I would shop by walking every aisle, identifying the things needed or wanted as I see them. I pack for trips similarly, wandering from room to room, recognizing things that I might need. And if I don’t see them, then there is a high probability that there will be no spontaneous reminder of the need.
And similarly, I’ve always cooked that way … browsing through the cupboards and fridge, praying for visual cues and inspiration, looking forward to getting this duty over with.
But now, when I open the fridge, I am met with an unknown terrain. Certainly, I can identify the cheese, the eggs, the 4 containers of milk and the vegetables. But then, things get challenging. Almost all that remains in this packedfridge is an unrecognizable assortment of containers. And even though they are dutifully labeled and dated with strips of masking tape, I still have trouble navigating my way through, to find any relevance to my plans for meal preparation.
This is an example of some of the items in the fridge: two containers of chicken broth, bottles of pickles that do not resemble pickles, bottles of kephir grains labeled “do not throw out,” (for which there is neither worry of me throwing out, or of ever, ever, using them). There are bottles of apple cider, rhubarb vinegar, two creams, one yoghurt, tomato sauce x 2, the very dark colored “ketchup,” sausage water, and water kephir (whatever that is!). To continue, there are containers of spruce tips, separate containers of boar fat, bacon grease and butter. There are 3 buttermilk containers, all with different dates, and one with visible separation and worrisome coloring. There is one labeled “moose thickener,” which I imagine is a body-building supplement for the aspiring young moose. And it continues: there is one labeled crushed tomatoes, another called ghee, another of boar “scrunchions,” and one of “moose in veggie stock,” (who I imagine is praying for his eventual release, much like a genie in a jar, or a man on a restricted diet).
It could be just me, but this is a difficult supply list for my creative juices. So, I resort to the very recognizable and mundane vegetable and meat. Sorry, family. But I intend to make up for all this. Having recognized all the masking tape we are going through for labeling, I intend to buy shares in the company. With this new-found profit, I will have a celebratory feast when these difficult times come to an end!
Sheila Alexandrovitch has homesteaded on the Annie Lake Road, 40 kilometres south of Whitehorse, since 1981. Over the years she’s raised goats, llamas and sled dogs; she’s brought up her two children on the farm, and pursued an artistic practice there, working with materials like willow, beads, precious stones and wool. These days she raises sheep (producing beautiful felted work with their wool) and as always, vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables.
Alexandrovitch is locally famous for her vegetable ferments, selling jars and jars of them at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse and the weekly market at the Mount Lorne Community Centre on the Annie Lake Road all summer long. At Mount Lorne’s last, stock-up market of the year, on September 26, she and her helper stood behind two tables groaning under her ferments, and giant mounds of fresh carrots and potatoes. As I purchased a few pounds for our house, we struck up a conversation about root cellars — I knew she was pretty much self-sufficient, and curious about her storage methods.
Every winter, Alexandrovitch stores an impressive weight of vegetables in her root cellar — this year, she’s got 135 pounds of potatoes, 80 pounds of carrots, 40 pounds of beets, 20 to 30 pounds of parsnips, 35 pounds of turnips and 7 or 8 cabbages. Asked when she runs out of supplies, she replied, “I don’t. By the end of June I’m out of carrots, but I always have rutabagas and beets, and I always have potatoes. And by the end of June, we’ve got greens.”
The cellar that stores this bounty is a hole dug into the ground under her house, accessed by a trap door in the kitchen floor. The cellar is framed in with 2 x 6 boards, insulated with Styrofoam, sheeted in on the inside and completely sealed. In the 2½-foot crawlspace between the earth and the floor of the house, the walls of the cellar are exposed, so the above-ground portion is wrapped with Styrofoam and foil and banked with dirt.
The space is 7 feet long by 6 feet wide and around 4 ½ feet deep — about chest height for Alexandrovitch. There’s no ladder — she just lifts the trap door and jumps in. She piles whatever supplies she’s retrieving onto the kitchen floor, and then jumps out of the cellar, the same way you’d push yourself out of a swimming pool. (She finds this athletic feat unremarkable.)
In winter the temperature in the root cellar is around 2° or 3°C above freezing. There’s no air circulation system, but she’s never noticed any ill effects from ethlylene — not surprising, because most of the foods she stores don’t produce ethylene. (Learn more about the fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene here.)
Alexandrovitch keeps endive, leeks and chicory in pots, in another cold space, this one on her porch. She runs out of those greens sometime in January, but then she’s got all her ferments, plus frozen leeks and kale, kept in her freezer at a neighbour’s place. She has canned goods and grains in the root cellar, and she might drive to town for coffee, butter and oil, but she prefers to use goose fat—she’ll render 6 to 8 litres this year–or pork fat, which she’ll also render.
Alexandrovitch estimated that she spends about 95% of her time growing, processing, preserving and preparing her food. “But what a good way to spend 95% of your time,” she said. “It’s not so hard. It’s just a bunch of work.”
Moments of unscrupulousness sometimes have the redeeming quality of offering insight into one’s behavior. I seem to find or create many such moments in the normal course of my day.
Suzanne and I share the meal preparations so I decided to marinate some moose steaks a couple of nights ago. First, I grab the rhubarb “vinegar” from the fridge, only to be redirected to the rhubarb juice department. The vinegar, I was instructed, had a separate specific purpose.
Then I grab the container of juniper berries, take a liberal portion, and proceed to crush them, adding them to the lovely evolving marinade. This was duly noted.
Suzanne suggested that the flavor could be enhanced if they were ground in the now repurposed coffee grinder. When I did not respond to this suggestion enthusiastically, she tried once again, stating that the supply of juniper berries was perilously scant, and that grinding them would make them last longer. But by this time, the deed was done, berries stubbornly crushed and added.
In the time it took for the unmoved grinder to gather an infinitesimal modicum of dust, I was offered a generous portion of humility. The visibly upset Suzanne delivered a composed and articulate commentary on the scarceness of juniper berries this year, which I had clearly not appreciated. She outlined the cold and prickles she endured, and reminded me that she bore the lone responsibility for gathering those berries. As I said earlier, the only redeeming aspect of the moment was the personal insight I acquired.
Clearly, this was about more than juniper berries. This was about respect and appreciated effort and shared commitment to a course. It was about meaningful communication and the need to understand potential ramifications before acting. It was about the value we place on personal involvement in the acquisition of security, and how even the simplest of tactile tasks can foster feelings of tremendous individual engagement and ownership.
So, the things we grow, gather or build have more personal value than their monetary value would suggest. Might this explain the disproportionate satisfaction we enjoy with a shed full of firewood? Or a freezer full of moose, or berries, or blanched broccoli? Might it explain why we build our own boats, or shelves or sheds? Why we crochet, knit or needlepoint?
Given that, then why has our society increasingly moved away from the joy we could acquire through manual tasks? What will be the price for this evolution? And what would it say, if the juniper berry could speak?
Juniper is a coniferous shrub that produces berries. In Old Crow, Yukon it is sometimes known as ‘sharp tree’ thanks to its very prickly needles which are very familiar to all who pick juniper berries. Juniper berries should be picked with great respect as it takes 3 full years for a berry to ripen! When ripe they turn from green to a dark blue. The ripe berries can be picked any time of the year, but you may have to dig to find them under the snow in the winter, as juniper is a low lying shrub.
Eaten raw, juniper berries have a distinct aromatic spicy flavour reminiscent of gin. Juniper berries make an excellent spice — especially once ground into a powder. A coffee grinder works very well for this. A small amount of ground juniper berry goes a long way. It can be used in marinades or dusted on wild game including moose, caribou and grouse. It can even be lightly dusted on salmon. A small amount can also be added to soups or stews. According to Boreal Herbal, in Sweden a conserve is made out of juniper berries and used as a condiment for meats.
Juniper berries have a few extra qualities as well. They help digest gas-producing foods such as cabbage. Also, because juniper berries have a light coating of yeast on their skin, a few berries are often added to ferments to help out the lacto-fermenting process. So adding a few juniper berries when making sauerkraut has a triple effect: flavour, aiding the fermentation, and less gas when you eat the kraut! The yeast coating on the berries also makes them a useful ingredient in creating sourdough starter (which is another form of fermentation). Mix some flour and water and add a few juniper berries. Once it becomes bubbly and smells yeasty, you can remove the berries and the sourdough starter will be well on its way! In Old Crow, juniper berries are also boiled as a tea, which the Van Tat Gwich’in say also helps ease colds and cough symptoms.
Juniper berries should be used in moderation and avoided in people with kidney disease and in pregnant women.
At First Hunt Culture Camp students learn about all aspects of caribou hunting under the guidance of experienced Elders and hunters. Photos by Ashley Bower-Bramadat.
I don’t think many high schools in Canada offer caribou hunting as a high school credit. But Robert Service School in Dawson City, Yukon does.
Since 1995, every October, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation have introduced youth in the community to caribou hunting under the guidance of experienced Elders and hunters at First Hunt Culture Camp. It is open to all high school students, both First Nations students and non-First-Nation students, and counts as one high school credit.
This year 18 youth participated. They spent four days up the Dempster Highway (the northernmost highway in Canada) on traditional land that has always been an important source of food for Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in ancestors. The youth chop wood for the woodstoves that heat the cabins (this year the temperature dropped to -22°C during First Hunt), they learn gun safety and rifle target practice, they practice archery, they learn how to snare rabbits, and they go caribou hunting. After a successful hunt, they also participate in skinning, hanging and butchering the caribou. The meat is then distributed to local elders and used for community feasts.
I had the privilege to be part of this year’s First Hunt Culture Camp, which was held Oct. 19-22. What struck me most, apart from all the adults who volunteer time to be part of First Hunt, is how all the students totally thrived in this element, regardless if they came to First Hunt already with skill sets or were learning new skills for the first time.
Mähsi Cho for inviting me to be part of First Hunt!
For the Inuit communities of Nunavut, seal meat has been a staple in their local diets for millennia. The meat is a vital source of fat, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and iron. Seal pelts are also prized for their warmth, and since first contact with Europeans, trade in seal products has played an important role in the regional economy. This revenue is especially crucial in remote areas where many foodstuffs need to be imported, and transportation costs are high.
A commercial seal hunt in Southern Canada, most notably the annual spring hunt in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, has generated controversy in recent decades, led by high-profile animal-rights activists, and resulting in a 2006 call by the European Union for a ban on all harp seal and hooded seal products. The traditional Inuit seal hunt has been swept up in an animal rights activism fervor, adversely affecting an age-old way of life.
But now indigenous groups are standing up for their heritage and defending their traditional lifestyles. Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has released Angry Inuk, a feature-length documentary that defends the Inuit seal hunt. In Toronto, Indigenous chef Joseph Shawana is keeping seal meat on the menu at his Ku-Kum Kitchen restaurant, despite a petition calling for its removal, and is galvanizing a groundswell of public support of his own.
Partially shot in the filmmaker’s home community of Iqaluit, as well as Kimmirut and Pangnirtung, where seal hunting is seen as essential for survival, Angry Inuk also follows an Inuit delegation to Europe in an effort to have the EU Ban on Seal Products overturned. The film criticizes NGOs such as Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare for championing animal rights while ignoring the needs of vulnerable northern communities who depend on the hunt for their livelihoods.
Chef Shawana, whose restaurant specializes in indigenous-themed dishes, says he researched the Northern hunt before opting to serve seal meat. He points out the Inuit seal harvest is very sustainable and humane, and contrasts it with the roughly two million cows, 20 million pigs, and 550 million chickens killed each year in Canada alone during large-scale food production. But at the root of the issue, says Shawana, is the need to acknowledge and support Canada’s aboriginal cultures.
There is a local saying about the weather in Dawson City: “Nine months of winter and three months of tough sledding.”
It’s only a slight exaggeration. One thing for sure is that the shoulder seasons — Spring and Fall — are extremely short in the far north. This is yet one more challenging aspect of growing in the North.
We posted previously about the efforts by Otto at Kokopellie Farm to harvest his crop of locally-grown rye and barley so Suzanne could have some grain in her 100%-local diet. Otto did finally manage to harvest his rye and wheat on Oct 23rd. Turns out it was just in time. This is what Dawson looked like, one week later!
Just in case you are wondering, this project is about more than eating local. Much more. This is a ferret into social behavior and individualism, tolerance and will. And of course, it is about hunger and stupidity.
All our lives we have heard the mantra: humans are a social animal. But what does that mean practically? It means we hunt and gather in groups, we live in groups, and we eat together. We work and play together. We help one another. We share. We concern ourselves with the less fortunate. We set standards and rules which are acceptable to the group, preferring group safety over whimsical notions of individualism.
So what happens when individuals become non-conformists, breakers of tradition? When does the novelty of individual exploration and challenge wear off? When does it become an annoying expression of self-indulgence to the friends? What is the tolerance within a society?
And of course, a huge part of social structure is communal eating and drinking. And now even more, since social smoking is all but banished. So, what happens to the dynamic when people do not share the same food? When does it become uncomfortable, or even intolerable, to demonstrate one’s dietary defiance?
Who would have thought that “the diet” would have opened a pathway to a more profound understanding of one of the forces behind cultural segregation and assimilation?
Underground, above ground, inside, outside — northerners have developed numerous ways of creating cold storage areas. Perhaps one of the simplest is the outdoor freezer: as soon as it’s cold enough, and barring a thaw, many northerners simply keep foods frozen by storing them outdoors.
In the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, there is a different solution. Katrina Cockney, Manager of Administration and Community Services, explains that as late as the 1980s individual families dug ice houses for their own use. But as the community grew in size and more houses were being built, that became less practical.
In the late 1960s, with the help of government funding, the community built a freezer deep in the permafrost, 30 feet below the surface. There are three main corridors down there, opening into 19 rooms. Access is via a steep ladder through a trap door in a small, locked shed. The contents of the freezer change according to the season — in summer there might be dry fish and muktuk, geese in the fall, and caribou and dog feed in the winter.
The freezer used to be accessible to tourists, but is no longer due to safety concerns. The hamlet is considering building a walk-in icehouse in order to show tourists the local technology. In more modern times, many households have one or more chest freezers for traditional foods. When the temperature is below freezing, they often move one freezer outside. But Katrina Cockney estimates there are still about six families who use the community freezer year-round.
There is another part to the story. Not only is the freezer practical, “It’s beautiful,” says Cockney. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like a wall full of crystals.” Cold storage can be beautiful in more ways than one.
For the first time in my life as a mother, all three of my children had Hallowe’en without me this year. No doubt it had something to do with the house rule about ‘only local food allowed in the house’. They were not about to sacrifice their holiday tradition of gorging on mini chocolate bars, rockets and bags of chips, so they each conveniently made plans to be at the houses of others on All Hallow’s Eve.
This left me with the realization that there would be no Halloween candy for me this year! No snacking from the bowl meant for the trick-or-treaters (who rarely ever come to our out-of–the-way house). If a stray child came knocking on our door this year, we would be handing out carrots. No bargaining with my kids to share some of their loot. And no sneaking into their treat bags when they are at school, hoping that they won’t notice the occasional missing chocolate bar.
But since Halloween is the season for unreasonable sugar consumption, I decided I would find a way to do it local – even without sugar. So I pulled out the candy thermometer, took stock of my local food resources and set to it.
I can now proudly say, that I have successfully overindulged on local sweets for Halloween. Thanks to birch syrup candy, dehydrated yogurt sweetened with wild strawberries and …. sugar beet candy! (see the recipes) More on the sugar beets later. But suffice it to say, Halloween inspired me to dig into my 350-pound store of sugar beets and start experimenting. I feel a bit sickly and my teeth are sticky, but I do not feel left out of the Halloween candy splurge.
Freeze-up has begun in Dawson — a unique, but very significant, season to communities in the north who are separated from roads by rivers.
Dawson is nestled at the confluence of two rivers: the Yukon River and the Klondike River. Some folks live on the far side of the Yukon River in West Dawson and Sunnydale. Some folks live on the far side of the Klondike River in Rock Creek. These folks have no access to any stores or other amenities of town during ‘freeze-up’ — the time of year when ice floats down the rivers preventing boat travel and the ferry that crosses the Yukon River gets pulled for the winter. They must wait till the river freezes solid enough to cross by skidoo or eventually by vehicle. Last year freeze-up lasted 7 weeks. So for those folks, stocking up on enough water and food to last them through freeze-up season is a normal part of October.
I am not normally one of those folks. I live on the town side of the rivers. But this year the grocery stores are off limits to me. This year, freeze-up is playing an entirely new role in my life. Because this year, some of my main local food sources are on the far side of rivers. My root vegetables are on the far side of the Yukon River – at the Kokopellie Farm root cellar in Sunnydale. The dairy cows (the source of all my milk, butter, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream) are on the far side of the Klondike River — at the Sadlier’s Klondike Valley Creamery.
So this year, I too must stock up for a freeze-up that could last up to 7 weeks. The last ferry run across the Yukon River was on Oct 29th. On this side of the river I have stocked up with 150 lbs of potatoes, 150 lbs of carrots, 40 lbs of beets, 40 lbs of rutabagas, 20 lbs of cabbage and, of course, lots of pumpkins.
The Klondike River is still crossable by canoe, despite the ice. But not for much longer. For the past 6 weeks, I have been collecting empty milk jugs from friends and neighbours and freezing as much milk as I can. I have also been making extra butter and ice-cream — all in preparation for freeze-up. On our local diet, we have been consuming about 1 gallon of milk per day. At that rate, for a freeze-up lasting 7 weeks, we would need 49 gallons of frozen milk! We don’t have that. We have about 20 gallons. I will continue to collect and freeze as much as I can and then … let the rationing begin.
Three months into this “lifestyle change,” and I’ve been testing my resolve. And of course, the risk is that there is not much resolve to test.
The other day, I chatted with someone who was sipping on a well-deserved cold beer, while I dutifully nursed a cup of freshly boiled water. Surely, I was enjoying myself more …
Last night, there was an office celebration of my retirement (this, of course, could be interpreted in more ways than one!). As per many social festivities, there was food involved, and while “the diet” can compete with most main course offerings, desert is a completely different matter. You see, the relative absence of sugar is probably the most notable hallmark of this altered form of sustenance. And deserts, by definition, tend to be sweet.
So, I decided to tackle the temptation head on: I planted myself right by the desert selection. There was a wide variety of displayed decadence, from puddings to pies to pastries. My survival tactic was to watch others with full undivided attention as they sampled the multiple options of sheer deliciousness, while allowing myself the pleasure of slowly gnawing on a piece of dry moose meat.
It was an experiment really. I was hypothesizing that close physical approximation to such rapturous consumption, might somehow endow me with a vicarious experience of equal proportion. Much to my chagrin, the hypothesis was not substantiated through the course of the experiment.
So, this morning I’m re-evaluating the relevance of the Scientific Method in my life. Clearly, this logical deductive process demonstrates overtones of dispassionate indifference to the relevance of my personal pleasure. I’m feeling abandoned by science.
It’s late, and I’m not anywhere near ready for sleep. Could have been the sugar. Could have been the day’s dosing of several coffees. Could have been the incessant gut rumbling and sense of bloating following the spree.
Let’s back up and start over. I’m just back in Dawson after a 36-hour absence. I had to dash to Whitehorse with my son for a couple of errands, and in my typical state of rush, “forgot” to take food. So road food it was. We avoided the deer, grouse and lynx, which were all seemingly offering themselves up to us, and decided to dine on commercial goods, which paradoxically in today’s world, might be deemed more “traditional” than the real meat of true road-kill.
So, here I am, wondering what to do with this bubbling bath of energy in the early morning hours. And as I was clearing out the trash from the truck, I thought that some of you might be interested in a qualitative analysis of my brief dietary splurge.
First of all, I’d like to say that I am amazed by the volume of trash generated from food wrappers over this relatively short time: there is a plastic grocery bag filled with wrappers, plastic and styrofoam. This is more trash than our whole family has been generating over weeks on “the diet.” Hmmm…
A search in this bag helps my recollection and tells the story. There is a styrofoam cup that once held road coffee. All in all, it was not a very satisfactory beginning to a breach of caffeine absenteeism. And of course, I knew better, but this experiment was not so much a deliberate act of temptation with the very best offerings that earth can present, as it was a simple indulgence in the type of foods that could easily be passed off as normal or acceptable daily intakes. And sadly, every single subsequent coffee was disappointing, whether it was the “free coffee with gas” (which I now understand more fully the meaning), or the fill-ups with restaurant breakfast, or the bought coffee on the run. Nothing to miss there…
There are more empty packages that once contained the likes of sweet chili Doritos, hickory sticks, an ice-cream bar, a “family pack” size of sushi, road-side popcorn, a milk shake and monster drinks. We’d all have to agree that these choices are not quite consistent with the recommendations of the Canada Food Guide and that there is plenty of room there for dietary improvement, but the truth is that I could once eat this with impunity.
Not now. I’ve been buzzing for the past day, and probably even through this medium, you can hear me. I feel bloated and for the first time in awhile, no longer have that familiar emptiness in the tummy. But, I do not feel satiated: I feel thirsty, unsatisfied and strangely… hungry.
I think the hunger is simply a disguised craving for more strong flavors. And that was the most striking observation. The flavors were so overwhelmingly intense, whether that be salt or sweet or hot spice, and this intensity seemed to successfully sabotage my ability to differentiate between need and desire. In a world where that is the benchmark, how does the subtlety and nuance of real and nutritious food stand a chance? And how will we even begin to make gains on the obesity epidemic?
In the meantime, I’m really enjoying the simplicity of my hot cup of water right now and I look forward to the search for gentle and genuine flavors tomorrow.
Shortly after posting my tale on Oct 23, I received a call from Kokopellie Farm. More snow was in the forecast so Otto decided it was now or never for harvesting the rye and the Red Fife wheat. And so the story continues:
After some serious labour with ropes, the wet snow was removed from most of the grain heads in the field. Unfortunately some of the grain was laying flat under the snow. Fortunately some could be resurrected via pitch fork and muscle power. Unfortunately some patches were already frozen to the grown and not harvestable. Fortunately there was still a good section standing. Unfortunately the wet stalks of the rye kept getting jammed in the combine requiring manual removal. Fortunately Otto was able to do this without injury. Unfortunately the engine of the combine broke down. Fortunately Otto was able to fix it. Unfortunately the combine engine kept breaking down. Fortunately Otto never gives up and was able to get it going again each time and finish harvesting the rye. Unfortunately it was getting close to dark, more snow was in the forecast and the wheat had not yet been harvested. Fortunately, Otto discovered the final issue with the engine, repaired it and was able to harvest the wheat before darkness fell! Yeah!!!
Many, many thanks to the tenacity, mechanical genius, ingenuity and hard work of Otto and Conny who were able to harvest the rye and wheat against all odds! Now it dries (under shelter) and can eventually be ground into flour.
The last of the crops has now been harvested. There is sourdough bread in my future. Let it snow!
Miche here. In late October my household of two took delivery of a 35 lb box of local carrots, cabbage, beets and potatoes, part of a fundraiser for a local school. It was not an overwhelming amount, but it did bring up again one of our failures when we built our house in Whitehorse. We forgot to include a cold room.
The family home in downtown Toronto, where I grew up, had a cold room. It was a dank, dark, spidery kind of place, and it was, on one occasion, the lair of a roast beef dinner, stored temporarily during a power outage and then forgotten. The roast beef, peeled potatoes and sliced onions transformed over time into an awe-inspiring, slime-covered monster. (We brought our friends to see it until my mother found out. As I recall she threw the dinner away, roasting pan and all.)
But though not altogether welcoming the cold room did what it was supposed to do—it kept whole, unpeeled, raw root vegetables cool enough for long-term storage.
Now, in present-day Whitehorse, my household doesn’t stockpile local root vegetables because we don’t have a cold space, apart from the fridge.
Instead, we freeze, can, pickle, ferment, and go to the store to buy root vegetables that someone else has stored. Freezing, salting, drying, smoking, fermenting and canning are all technologies key to the long-term storage of food. But only cold storage preserves the vegetable raw, so you can eat a crunchy, home-grown carrot in January or grate a local beet into your coleslaw in mid-March.
Over the next while here at First We Eat, we’ll be exploring food storage ideas from across the north. Tell us: how do you keep your vegetables over the winter? Do you have a root cellar? Do you cover your carrots in sand? Do you wash them first or not? What do you do about cabbage?
In the meantime, I see a lot of kimchi in my future.
I am often asked which food I miss the most. I had expected it would be chocolate or caffeine (very strong black tea was my comfort drink). Surprisingly it is neither. What I miss most is grains: cookies, pies, bread, bagels, rice, pasta – these items that were once staples in our household are no more. The potato is trying its best to fill the gap, but after 85 days without, grains are definitely missed.
It is not easy to grow grains in the far north, as our growing season is so short. But it has been done.
I feel like Northern grain is a character in one of those ‘Good News, Bad News’ stories:
The good news is that in 2016, Otto at Kokopellie Farm had a successful crop of rye and barley that he was able to grind into flour. The bad news is that I used up all I had last winter experimenting with wheat-free and salt-free sourdough bread recipes.
Fortunately Otto planted rye and barley again this year and it grew well. Unfortunately, in August, a moose ate the barley. Fortunately the moose didn’t eat the rye (because it was protected by a fence). And the GREAT NEWS is that, unbeknownst to me, Otto had also planted Red Fife wheat and it grew well (and was protected by the fence)!
Unfortunately, the combine required to harvest the grain was stuck 550 km away in Whitehorse, waiting for a bridge on the North Klondike Highway to be repaired. Fortunately the bridge repairs finished just in time for harvest season mid September. Unfortunately, while hauling the combine to Dawson, the trailer had several flat tires which caused another week’s delay. Fortunately, the combine did eventually make it to Dawson.
Unfortunately by the time the combine arrived in Dawson, it began raining and you can’t harvest grain when it is wet. Fortunately there was a brief break in the weather in early October. Unfortunately, there was no time to put the combine together because the root vegetables had to be harvested before the ground froze. Fortunately grains can withstand frost. Unfortunately, after all the vegetables were harvested it began to snow. Fortunately dry snow can easily be knocked off the grain. Unfortunately this snow was heavy and wet. Fortunately the combine is now fully assembled and ready to go. Unfortunately it is already October 23 and the wet, heavy snow remains on the grains.
Otto, a very pragmatic and optimistic farmer, still feels there is hope. The wheat and rye are still standing. Some cold, clear weather might dry up the snow and make it possible to remove the snow from the grain so it can be combined, but time is running out. I am not sure how this good-news, bad-news story is going to end. My moose anxiety resolved with a successful hunt. Now I have grain anxiety.
I’ve been blogging this week about preserving and pickling without the use of salt or vinegar, as these ingredients are not locally produced in Dawson City. I had hoped to use rhubarb juice as a substitute for vinegar for pickling, but despite its low pH value, there was a chance it might not prevent botulism-carrying bacteria … definitely not worth the risk.
So, after some research and consultation, it was on to plan B, lacto-fermentation without salt, which involved using celery juice or whey instead of a salt brine. I prepared batches of sauerkraut, kimchi, and dill pickles, fermenting one jar with celery juice and another jar with whey. No salt.
And it was a success! The fermentation with celery juice worked really well and is already starting to be flavourful.
The jars with whey are not quite as promising. They seem to be developing mold quite quickly. Although fermenters know this is not a big deal. You just scoop it off as it grows. A tough transition for someone who grew up being taught to throw out moldy food. But, more importantly, the initial taste of the whey jars is not as great as the celery juice jars.
So — salt- free sauerkraut and kimchi with celery juice coming up!
An interesting tip, thanks to the local fermenter Kim Melton – to help keep the pickles and veggies crisp add a black current leaf to the bottom of the jar.
It’s the rationing that will be my undoing. All summer and fall there has been an abundance of harvest coming through the house. And when working outside, a simple stroll through the garden yielded tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and the odd berry, which could satisfy those peckish moments enough to get a person through till the next meal.
Now, things are tightening up. The other day, I was preparing a nice broiler of moose meat, lavishly garnished in onions and garlic, a decadent gesture in celebration of the successful hunt. Suzanne strolled by, peeked over my shoulder, and did not deliver the expected awe in regards to my culinary efforts. Instead, she took this as an opportunity for a discussion in realism and restraint.
She reminded me that we had limited stock for the winter, equivalent to “one medium-sized onion and one clove of garlic, a day.” What we have is what we have. Till summer.
I quickly realized that there is no room in that calculation for decadent delights. And that’s when the fear started to crawl into my persona. You see, my calculations suggest that we often have potato pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, both accented with onions and/or garlic. Naturally. Then, a nice on-the-fly winter lunch could be canned moose meat fried up with a little…onion. And/or garlic. Something that could sustain a guy through the woodpile at 20 below. And then there is the supper for a family with almost three teenagers. That medium-sized onion is going to require some serious divine help.
And then there was last night. As you know, Suzanne has been making birch syrup ice-cream fairly steadily recently, preparing for freeze-up which is the time when the cow becomes inaccessible. So, last night she pulls out the ice-cream as a treat. We all had some, and as a respectful gesture of appreciation for fine taste, I motioned for another round. No luck. That would deplete the stock. What we have is what we have. You can have today if you don’t mind being without tomorrow.
The problem I’m having is that I really care so much more about today than I do tomorrow. We are talking ice-cream addiction here. What has tomorrow got to do with anything? Eat now.
You see, this is the kind of thing that comes naturally to Suzanne. She enjoys calculated restraint. Not everyone does. She doesn’t know that. It reminds me of a ten-day hike that she took me on years ago, before kids, when we walked the old Yukon Ditch from Dawson to Tombstone. She took care of the logistics and food. I had the simple job of lugging everything. Every day, in fact every moment of every day, I was hungry. Suzanne had “done the calculations,” but the tiny meal allocations and the meager desert allotments of “either one square of chocolate or this sliver of fruit cake,” were not making any impression on my constant state of starvation. It was not till we returned to the land of food and sustenance, and after realizing that we had each lost one to two pounds per day (!!), that a re-punching of the numbers revealed that the calculation was quite incorrect. No kidding.
So, this whole experience is starting to feel that it could be a déjà-vu opportunity, a chance to test our mettle, and perhaps a chance even for Suzanne to brush up on her math…
With no intentional self-indulgence, I have occasionally glanced at myself when walking by a mirror. This simple act offers explanation as to why my pants are slipping over my hips and shirts that were once small seem to have stretched over the years of storage. I’ve lost weight. No denying it. And I can’t say that this has been intentional, but rather, a direct consequence of “The Diet.”
But, let’s not refer to it as “the diet” anymore, since the word, diet, is in this modern time, suggestive of a concerted and deliberate effort to lose weight. This has simply been a change in the way of eating, or more specifically, a change in the types of foods eaten.
I am always eating something, spurred on by an insatiable emptiness in my gut. Carrots are my “go to” snack food, followed by yogurt, whey, cheese, and any leftovers that I can find in the fridge. I eat eggs daily and in quantities that my body has never experienced. There are fried potato cakes daily, and often sausage or bacon added to the breakfast menu. Every evening we have meat or fish or pork, along with an accompaniment of assorted vegetables. There is no shortage of food.
And the food is good. The veggies taste great, just as they are. The milk is decidedly sweet. All the local protein is nourishing and seemingly endless in quantity. And has anyone tried the dehydrated yogurt? It is like sour candy—something unique, special, and quite pleasing to the palate. And the other day, for my birthday, Suzanne pulled out an ice-cream cake, lathered with a birch syrup/cream concoction of sheer decadence. That large platter went in one sitting.
But yet, the weight is falling off. And the only disappointment of all this is the realization of the power of my delusion, the delusion that I was not over-burdened, that I was not harboring such flab, that my physical package of power was unchanged, just a little padded over these past years. But the mirror and clothes are not lying; over the years my body has been relentlessly replacing muscle mass with fat. And for that revelation, I am grateful to “The Diet.”
What about lacto-fermentation? Fermentation is as old as humanity. Think beer, cheese, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Lacto-fermentation of vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, takes advantage of the naturally occurring good lactic acid bacteria on the surface of the vegetables, which helps transform the juice of the vegetable into an acid that essentially ‘pickles’ the veggies. There are lots of experts in lacto-fermentation in the Yukon including Kim Melton here in Dawson. I recently took a wonderful fermentation workshop by Kim at Yukon College. However, the fermentation of vegetables calls for a brine, made from salt. And I have no local salt.
Not to worry, the ingenuity of northerners prevails! Leslie Chapman, who spent many years living in the Yukon bush near Dawson, ferments without salt. She uses celery juice.
I also consulted Kim Melton’s copy of the fermenting bible, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, a very large book with a very small paragraph on fermenting vegetables without salt. It mentions the option of using a starter culture of whey.
I have celery. I have whey.
So I tried a new experiment. I made sauerkraut, kimchi, and dill pickles, fermenting one jar with celery juice and another jar with whey. No salt.
78 days in and I no longer miss salt! I’m not sure when it happened. There seems to have been a gradual and imperceptible change in my taste buds. But it is a good thing, since I do not yet have a local source of salt to season my food.
However, salt has been used for generations as a preservative. And this Fall, as I struggle to store a year’s worth of food, preservation has an entirely new meaning in my life.
Pickling and canning are a mainstay of preserving foods, but they require an acid — usually vinegar. I have no vinegar. I have no lemon juice. I did discover that rhubarb juice is almost as acidic as white vinegar (with a pH somewhere between 3.0 and 4.0). So I tried making sweet pickles with a brine of rhubarb juice, birch syrup and ground celery leaves. No salt. I was pretty pleased with the taste and quite proud of myself for finding a way to pickle without vinegar or salt. I put my 4 jars of experimental pickles in the pantry. Then, while researching more thoroughly, I discovered caution after caution about pickling or canning with homemade vinegars. Apparently, with the variable pH of homemade vinegars, they can’t be relied upon to prevent botulism. Great. I imagine the headline: Family of Retired Physician Eating Local Dies of Botulism! I immediately moved my 4 jars of sweet pickles from the pantry to the fridge and put them on the ‘to be eaten soon’ list.
Now that I brought them back to civilization, my ears are being assaulted. There is the constant drone of our homemade dehydrator, working away at the tomatoes and celery leaf and meat. There is the whir of the fans that are drying our onions upstairs and the beets and herbs downstairs. The stove burners are hissing away, concentrating tomato sauce. The juicer is pulverizing celery and rhubarb into salt and vinegar substitutes. The fridge and freezers are audibly straining to keep up with demand that comes with harvest time. One kid is vigorously frothing hot milk for Suzanne, her new comfort drink to replace the Red Rose tea. Another kid is making ice-cream…stocking up for freeze-up when the cows will be on the other side of the river and we will be rendered dairy-free. Someone is scrubbing, banging and rattling the relentless supply of dirty dishes. And, as if that is not enough, everyone is talking, despite the radio being on in full competition. With their ears being that much more sensitive than mine, there is no wonder we don’t have any moose in our own backyard!
This has been an usually warm fall in Dawson City, Yukon. Last week crocuses, our first wild flower of Spring, were seen sprouting on sun-exposed bluffs, and one gardener reported pea shoots sprouting in her garden.
This type of mild weather is certainly not what you’d expect in a town not far from the Arctic Circle. Traditionally, on Thanksgiving weekend Dawson receives a snowfall that stays on the ground. Well, as it turns out, despite the atypically warm fall, this year was no exception …
On October 10th, Dawson saw its first snowfall, and all indications are that the snow will be sticking around.
That means it’s time to get those hoses drained and put away for winter, and to pull the last of the veggies from the garden before the ground freezes hard next week.
We previously posted how Suzanne was having some angst about coming up with a local option for her family’s traditional Thanksgiving favourite — pumpkin pie — with no grains available for crust and no traditional pumpkin pie spices.
She tried Miche’s suggestion of using ground dry-roasted low bush cranberry leaves as a spice, but it didn’t work for Suzanne.
So, instead Suzanne tried two adaptations:
1. Birch syrup alone adds a delicious flavour with no extra spice needed.
2. For a spicier option add ground dried spruce tips, ground nasturtiam seed pod ‘pepper’ with the optional addition of ground dried labrador tea leaves.
Both were topped with a dollop of whipped cream.
The jury was split as to which variety was preferred, but both were devoured!
Note: the cream, hand separated from the milk, was naturally sweet and needed no sweetener addition. Interesting observation compared with store bought whipping cream.
Hint: To get hand-separated cream to whip, pour it into a bowl and let it chill in the freezer until it gets a thin frozen crust on top. Then whip.
Some of the Dawson Farmers contributing to Suzanne’s Thanksgiving Dinner
I received the ultimate compliment last week in the bank line up when a local farmer said to me “ Suzanne, you’re looking like a farmer these days!”
I looked down at myself. I had worn both knees out of my jeans. My hands were rough. Garden dirt was etched into the creases of my palms as well as a permanent fixture under my nails. My ‘bush coat’, previously only worn during camping trips, had become my practical everyday wear. And I felt a small surge of pride.
Over the past year, I have witnessed how hard farmers work. For my part, mostly from the other end of a camera. But I have experienced snippets of hands on work (such as helping a farmer dig up 300 pounds of beets) and gleaned a new appreciation for the difference between gardening and farming. Every day farmers are working hard outdoors from early morning till sunset (which during a Yukon summer, can be a very long day!) On rainy and blustery days when I choose to stay indoors with a hot cup of tea, farmers are outdoors working. When the blackflies are at their worst, farmers are out in their fields. No such luxuries as a weekend off or a summer camping trip. I believe that farmers are one of the most undervalued segments of our society. No matter where we buy our food, it is the incredible hard work of farmers, invisible to most of us, that provide us with this necessity of life.
This past Thanksgiving weekend, as I sat down to share a turkey feast with family and friends, I felt especially thankful to farmers. And I felt both privileged and humbled to know each farmer responsible for every single ingredient on our supper table. Our turkey was thanks to Megan Waterman at Lastraw Ranch. Our carrots and potatoes thanks to Lucy Vogt. The milk and butter for our mashed potatoes thanks to Jen Sadlier at Klondike Valley Creamery. The brussel sprouts thanks to Otto and Conny at Kokopellie Farm. The celery thanks to Becky Sadlier at Sun North Ventures. The onions thanks to the Derek and the students at Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Farm. Our pumpkin pie thanks to Grant Dowdell’s pumpkin, Megan Waterman’s eggs, Jen Sadlier’s cream, and Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson’s birch syrup. A precious apple thanks to John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery. And our low bush cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie spices thanks to the forest.
There are many, many folks who have helped me during our first 72 days of eating only local to Dawson City, be it the farmers who grow the majority of our food or the folks who have leant me garden space, shared some of their produce or shared their helpful advice.
Thanks to all and a very special thank you to farmers.
Originally written on Oct. 5th in the bush during Gerard’s Hunt
Perseverance has brought me home. Success on the hunt finally came after a grand finale of a day, with multiple sightings interspersed amongst the erratic transitions of nature from rain to wind to sun.
It was providential that I got this young bull. Circumstances beyond my understanding brought him to me, giving room for ethereal musings, even awe.
It had started as another day of frustration: cow after cow. The only visible reminder of this earth’s existence of bulls, were their telltale tracks. And those tracks are seductively dangerous, for they lure one further and further into the land of impracticality, the places where one man alone should not shoot a moose.
This was just not working, so I blasted off to another region altogether, a little archipelago of islands, a little oasis off the big river. Instantly, I saw a huge bull…much larger than I wanted or thought I could handle. But, despite that, after him I went, exhibiting all the logic of manhood. I tried sabotaging him from the back of the island. I tried calling him out. I tried motoring upstream, then quietly and unsuspectingly drifting back. I gave it a rest and went elsewhere, saw another cow.
Then the weather turned nasty. Rain and wind and a black sky were the harbingers of what was most certainly snow. As it was getting on in the day, this was incentive enough to seek shelter, set up camp, and brace myself for the storm. Quite fortuitously, my search for ideal shelter steered me back in the neighborhood of the large bull sighting.
I called a little, while setting up camp. I was surprised to hear the bull rustling and grunting in response, something new to this year’s experience. So I sat in the moored boat, gave a grunt and watched the bull come running towards me. But, it was not the large guy at all. Rather, this bull was young, of manageable size and intent on walking close to the water’s edge. He was clearly offering himself and I thanked him when he fell.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that the work was done and I left for home with the dressed moose in the boat. During the whole process, I couldn’t stop thinking about how fortunate I was that this guy showed up. If I had shot that monster moose, there is a good chance that I’d still be there…
Listen to Suzanne’s latest appearance on Yu-Kon Grow It, a segment of CBC Yukon’s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman. Suzanne reported on how things are going two months into the project, and talked about some of her plans for Thanksgiving.
I’m writing this using a carpenter’s pencil I found in my jacket; a subtle reminder of my unfinished shed project. The paper is the unused margins of the 2017 Yukon Hunting Regulations booklet. Don’t say I’m unprepared.
It’s a glorious afternoon to drift on the river. For the moment, this is my new stealth tactic, after failing at motoring, tracking, climbing, spotting, calling and calling and calling. I feel that this will work. Why wouldn’t it? Everything else has only improved the lot of local moose, as they inch their way to the end of the hunting season.
It’s cold and a bit windy. I do calisthetics to keep the monotony and chill at bay, something my father passed down from the generations of sailing and fishing in Newfoundland.
I saw two more cows this morning. No sign of the bull after tracking for a couple of hours. These are evasive creatures, capable of silently disappearing in the smallest droke of trees. Amazing.
There was no trampolining mouse last night, nor were there owls. In fact, other than the hopeful raven and eagle, the river is practically devoid of birds. The rare Merganzer, no geese, two paired swans. It’s late in the season, I’m guessing. Maybe late for moose, even… But, the land is big, capable of harboring a wide variety of hidden life. I saw a small brown bear that seemed to be this year’s cub, yesterday. No mother in sight. This morning, I saw a large grizzly.
There is a wisp of orange on the tops of the cottonwood, and some willows are hanging on to their foliage, in stubborn denial of the season. It’s a game of patience, this. One swings from despondency to hope, simply by the sighting of a moose, or even a burst of sunshine through the grey overcast. My mood is fickle. Food might help. I think I’ll try that thing called Tomme, which looks like a dairy derivative. Maybe it’ll make my spirit soar.
This morning was full of no such thing as the expected action. Instead, I was awaken by dueling grey horned owls, each trying to out-perform the other… hoot-a-hoo, hoo-oo…
And peculiarly, in the night, I was perturbed by either a carnivorous or fun-loving mouse, who repeatedly attacked my tent. He would scramble up the side of the tent, only to slide down. He did this repeatedly. I consoled myself with thoughts that it must be a joyful mouse, excited by the frosty canvas that was offering a moon-lit opportunity for pre-snow sliding.
Now, I’m sitting down to another breakfast of eggs and burger, washed down with mugs of boiled, delicious, silty water. The owls and mouse have settled down for the day, just as mine is gearing up, demonstrating that this earth provides space for a living opportunity unique to all.
Tonight I’m camped in a most unlikely location. From that you might surmise that I’m hunting again. On the river again. It’s my third night, this stretch, and I’m not sure how long I’ll be out.
This is the first year that Suzanne was really interested (invested) in my success with getting a moose, so she essentially sent me packing. Said, “there’s not much point in you coming back till you get a moose.”
So, out on this beautiful river I sit, drift and explore, suffering through a man’s duty or living the dream, depending on perspective. And Suzanne was kind enough to throw a few things in the cooler. Good thing, since grouse is off the menu after I realized I forgot the .22 bullets. I’ve got a couple of packs of moose sausage, three dozen eggs, two packs of moose burger, something called Tomme, and a whole bunch of carrots and potatoes. I’ve just finished my third consecutive supper of burger/ potato soup, and perhaps because of the paucity of options, each supper tasted better than the last.
I was thinking luck would be on my side, and I’d be eating fresh tenderloin and roasted rack of ribs all month, till I felt like ending the holiday, proclaiming that, “I just got him last night.” But, the way things are going, I might just be here for the winter and suffer a lingering slow death as I run out of food.
Sure, I’ve seen moose. But no shots fired. They’re skittish, grouping up, uninterested in my calls, running on sight so quickly that I haven’t even seen an antler. No inquisitiveness in me at all, despite having a red boat. I guess “seeing red” doesn’t mean the same to Yukon bulls as it does their Spanish relatives.
And what’s worse, is that moose seem to be fully versed in the general regulations about hours of operation. This morning, a cow and (possible?) bull presented themselves in the early dawn, too soon for certain identification. Tonight, two cows and another possible bull, provided me with a tantalizing glimpse just at dusk.
Which is why I am camped here. Right across the slough from that last sighting, on a steep bank, back-dropped by a grassy viewing slope, and just enough “flat” ground for my small tent’s footprint. I’m so close to the boat, I might as well have slept in it. An unknowing observer might think that I’ve deliberately parked the boat this way as a safety, such that if I was to roll off this precipice in the night, I would land in the boat and be saved from a chilly, wet drowning. They would not know that this sight was not so much chosen as provided. Tomorrow there will be action.
I have been suffering from moose anxiety. I suspect this might be a diagnosis particular to northern Canadians, with variations such as caribou anxiety and seal anxiety depending in which part of the North you call home.
Every October when the first snow falls, I look out at a woodshed full of wood and a freezer full of moose meat and feel the tremendous comfort of knowing that, come what may, we will have heat and food through the winter. “It’s like money in the bank”.
This year is different. This, the year we are eating only food local to Dawson City. The name ‘Murphy’ comes to mind.
Gerard has been hunting for almost 2 weeks and had yet to even see a bull moose. Very unusual. Lots of tracks, but no moose. Unfortunately, you can’t eat tracks.
It has been a surprisingly warm Fall this year in the Yukon. Perhaps the bull moose are waiting for colder weather before going into full rut. Whatever the reason, they have not been interested in the call of a pseudo-cow (i.e. Gerard). Perhaps he should have shaved.
On Oct 1st, after re-stocking his food (3 dozen local eggs, 2 pounds of local cheese, 20 pounds of local carrots, 10 pounds of local potatoes and the remnants of last year’s moose — 3 pounds of moose burger and 15 moose sausages), Gerard headed out on the river again for one last hunt. I’m sure I had given him the strong impression that he was not to come home again until he had a moose. But as the days passed this week, I began hoping that he wasn’t taking that literally. He is hunting alone.
And then, late last night, the phone rang.
It was a call from a satellite phone. And it was Gerard’s voice at the other end of the line. He was still alive. And one bull moose wasn’t. Phew! A relief on both accounts.
It has not just been the moose that have been affected by the weather this year in Dawson. A late frost in mid June seemed to have destroyed many of the wild berry blossoms resulting in an unusually poor year for wild berries. A very dry summer affected the wild mushrooms such that mushroom foragers have been scratching their heads to find any at all – worst year for wild mushrooms in 25 years!
It is another poignant reminder on our dependence on the forces of nature. And the importance of diversity (if not moose, at least we have some local chicken and local pork in our freezer). And the importance of community. Despite the slim pickings, Dawsonites have been generously sharing their precious supply of berries with us this year and I am sure that if this was to be Gerard’s first ever unsuccessful moose hunt, those who had more luck would have been sharing their moose as well.
Moose anxiety has now been lifted. Mähsi Cho Jejik. And thank you Gerard.
Recently Suzanne and family harvested the plants, hoping for a favourite family treat to accompany their movie watching. Unfortunately, first attempts at popping have been unsuccessful. Suzanne’s not sure if the kernels are not dry enough — or perhaps they’re too dry. She will keep experimenting, but any suggestions are very welcome. If anyone has grown and successfully popped their own popcorn, let us know.
Thanksgiving weekend is coming up. For Suzanne and family. a favourite Thanksgiving treat is pumpkin pie. Now, Suzanne does have 91 pie pumpkins in storage for the winter! Thanks to Grant Dowdell who grows great pumpkins on his Island about 10 km upstream from Dawson on the Yukon River. Grant has had great success with the Jack Sprat variety of pie pumpkin (check out Grant Dowdell and Karen Digby’s Seed Guide). Grant finds they have the best storage capacity of all the squash, storing well into May.
So, although Suzanne has no grains for a crust, she certainly has the pumpkins — as well as cream for whipping, eggs, and birch syrup for a sweetener. But she has no pumpkin pie spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, or allspice. So what to do? Could she use dried and ground spruce tips or Labrador tea?
First We Eat collaborator Miche Genest has a great pumpkin custard recipe for Suzanne. Miche has suggested adapting it using cream instead of evaporated milk. plus birch syrup to taste instead of sugar, and adding an extra egg. For spices, Miche suggests dry-roasting low bush cranberry leaves in a frying pan, then grinding and adding those. Suzanne will give it a try and report back on the results.
If you have any suggestions for alternative pumpkin desert recipe, or a northern local alternative to pumpkin pie spices, let us know!
It’s been 65 days since Suzanne started eating locally, which means it’s also been that long since she’s had any grains! But there’s a glimmer of hope on that front, thanks to some buckwheat that was grown in Dawson this year by Stephanie Williams and Mike Penrose. They planted it as a cover crop for their yard and it grew quite well in our northern climate.
Suzanne has harvested the buckwheat groats. Now, if she can just figure out how to thresh them by hand she will try cooking it. (If anyone has experience with hand threshing, suggestions are welcome. Just contact us.)
Despite the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, as it is not a grass. (It’s actually related to sorrel and rhubarb). It is one of the so-called ancient grains, having been first cultivated around 6,000 BCE.
Porridge made from buckwheat groats, known as kasha, is often considered the definitive Eastern European peasant dish. The dish was brought to North America by Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish immigrants who also mixed it with pasta or used it as a filling for cabbage rolls, knishes, and blintzes.
At 3:30 p.m. today I flung my rifle into the river. This was immediately followed by my body. This, like most of life, was more circumstance than deliberation.
I was feeling rather sprightly and adept, much like I would have felt after shooting a moose 20 or 30 years ago. But sadly, today there was a great absence of moose. And I am no longer as footsure as I was 20 or 30 years ago.
I had untied the boat, coiling up the painter as I approached it. As the current was strong, I had to quicken my pace towards the bank, taking that fateful (non-sprightly) leap onto the deck. The landing didn’t go so well, and in an effort to save myself, I inadvertently flung the rifle off my shoulder and into the river. Stupidly, my reaction was to plunge an arm in after it, thinking I suppose, that the rifle might be floating there, awaiting a rescuing hand. There was nothing for it but to jump in after it.
Thankfully, the water was only about 2 feet deep. I groped at the bottom and found no rifle. But the boat! It was adrift and even more of a priority than my trusty old 30-06. So, I floundered after the boat, grabbed the painter, tied her off, then retraced my steps upriver, in the water.
Now, over the years this family has lost a thing or two in the silty and opaque waters of the Yukon River. Once I dropped the fuel cap for my boat in 2 feet of water. I spent a good hour scouring the riverbed to no avail. One of my daughters was momentarily distracted while washing some mud off her shirt, only to turn around and find it gone. Another daughter lost a pair of pants the same way. The river gobbles things up and doesn’t spit them back.
Those were my thoughts as I rummaged around in this grey, swirling milk. I wondered how the pull of the 5-knot current might affect a rifle, whether things tend to get dragged to the deep or slide straight downstream. I worried about kicking it deeper, felt it best to start downstream and deeper, working towards the estimated point of entry. And I worried that whatever the effect the river was going to have on the rifle, it was going to compound with time.
After only a couple of minutes of frantic dredging, my hand blindly seized the precious tool! Not this time, Mr. River, not this time!
A Dawson fall tradition — and food staple — continues as the annual Chum salmon run is in full swing in the Yukon River. Out on the river, several commercial fisherman are catching Chum to help fill the freezers of Dawsonites.
There was a time when Chum salmon used to be known as ‘dog fish.’ This was when the King salmon (also known as Chinook salmon) were running in such great numbers that Chum was reserved for dog food. This is no longer the case. The King salmon population has declined significantly and eight years ago a moratorium on fishing of species was put into place, and there has been no commercial King salmon fishing in Dawson since then.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, who have traditional rights to the harvest, also voluntarily stopped subsistence fishing for King salmon in 2014 for a seven-year period, in hopes that by then the King salmon population will have revitalized.
Dawsonites keep hope of a renewed King Salmon run someday. In the meantime, chum has become a staple in a local Dawson diet. Suzanne especially enjoys it marinated in birch syrup and smoked or poached in the oven with onions and rhubarb juice.
Isn’t it funny that some behavior patterns don’t change? Like for instance, I always eat the non-yoked half of a boiled egg first. That’s what comes to me as I sit on a log, eating one boiled egg after another, awaiting the furtive moose that I’ve been calling since yesterday.
Why sit? Go after him, you might say. Well, yes that’s one way. Hunters have choices and I’ve tried that. You see, yesterday I found this place: fresh tracks, wide open shooting ranges, unobstructed views in three directions. No wind. Quiet! Beautiful conglomeration of willows, water, gravel and sand. No mud! It’s the place where I want to shoot a moose. Unfortunately, it seems that it is not a place where a moose wants to die.
Yesterday, I called and called here, sat in disbelief that the moose wouldn’t expose himself in this perfect spot. I examined the empty tracks, tracks of yesterday’s history making, hoping they would fill with moose before my very eyes. Disillusioned, I finally left.
In spite, I decided that it would be fitting retribution to the unslaughtered moose if I went for a “drive-by”… cruise the river, check out a few other spots with hopeful sign. Did that, no luck. Just loneliness and hopelessness. And because there was no better place to field dress a moose and load my boat alone, I came back before dark, set up camp, roasted three moose sausages on a stick (no dishes!), called and called, and was asleep by 10pm, knowing that Mr. Moose would awaken me in the morning.
To my dismay, he did not. I called some more, scanned till my eyes crossed, then started the fire. As I was boiling the eggs I thought, how convenient: hot water to drink, hot water to wash up with, hot water to boil eggs, and no dishes! Genius at work.
But now, the eggs are gone and it appears that the moose has also. I pack up, drink some hot water, decide that there is no point in wetting my face with the water when the rain and tears of the day will do that anyway. So I toss the water and head to the boat. I’ll search for the moose of circumstance, interrupted by a man of circumstance. You can’t linger over tracks. Tracks are a euphemism for life: you can’t dwell on the past. Time to move on and try something new. The next time I boil an egg, I’ll eat the yoke first.
This past weekend the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation held their Fall Harvest Culture Camp at Forty Mile. This is an annual event where traditional knowledge is shared with youth and adults.
Forty Mile is 77 km down the Yukon river from Dawson City at the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers. It is known as the oldest town in the Yukon, but was largely abandoned during the Klondike Gold Rush. The location is currently a historic site co-owned and co-managed by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the Government of Yukon.
Forty Mile has a much longer history, however, as a harvest area used by First Nations for generations. This location was one of the major fall river-crossing points of the Fortymile caribou herd. Hunters would intercept the herd here as it crossed the Yukon River. In spring and summer, it was the site of an important Arctic grayling and salmon fishery.
The Fall Harvest Culture Camp saw harvesting of moose, chum salmon, and grouse, as well as wild plants and berries from the forest. It was a successful harvest, taking place in a beautiful and peaceful location, and overall a wonderful weekend.
What a fun-filled evening! It was Suzanne’s idea, not mine. She suggested, since the last couple of cauliflower-processing family marathons did not really result in happiness all around, that I should do it alone tonight. Perhaps she had nothing but benevolence as her motive, thinking that the multi-tasking exercise would help keep my looming dementia at bay. Perhaps she just wanted to affirm how advanced my decline might be. A test, in other words.
Her cited reason for me “putting away” the cauliflower was almost as transparent as the family’s need for a dough-substitute. She simply stated that everyone else was busy, what with the two oldest tackling the ubiquitous mound of dishes, the youngest shaking her innards to the point of potential harm in an effort to produce butter, and Suzanne boiling down two pots of tomatoes and juicing up celery for God knows what. That left me with free hands.
So, I clear some working room and get to it. Chop some cauliflower, blanch it in the steamer (“for precisely four minutes” — ha!), cool it in a basin of cold water, place it in the blender, transfer it into a cheese-cloth, squeeze out the liquid (“save that for soup stock or as a nice hot drink”), transfer the paste into zip-lock bags, remove the air, seal, label and date, freeze. Repeat. And repeat.
But what happens is that some stages take longer than others, so in the name of efficiency, new batches are started, until eventually all stages end up going simultaneously. There is nothing more to it than moving the body around the stations, using the mind to keep track of those “precise four minutes” and, well, using the mind.
It wasn’t long before the unattended blender started producing unusual whining sounds, and the cold immersion bath was hot, and the “precise four minutes” became anytime really, and the squeezing station was backing up. Then someone said, “Is something burning?”
Putting away food is a peculiar activity, possibly designed by the desperate, or by those who are into the aesthetics of touch and texture. When all was done, the counters (and floor) cleared off, the blender and cheese-cloth cleaned and rinsed, the black charcoal scraped and scrubbed off the previously perfectly functional steamer, I had a reflective opportunity while cradling my hot cup of cauliflower drippings and the five little baggies of dough.
Earlier in the day, I had put the tin on my shed roof. I had also repaired my boat and test-driven it. But tonight, following a similar investment of time as those earlier endeavors, I processed enough cauliflower that we could have five whole pizzas! Makes you wonder why I don’t spend more time in the kitchen …
Here in the Yukon, and throughout much of the North, it’s moose hunting season.
Moose is a staple for many Yukoners. One moose can feed two families for a year. Plus, since the animal haslived a good life feeding in the wild, moose meat is a lean and healthy source of protein.
Many Northerners rely on a freezer full of wild meat, such as moose, fish, seal and caribou to feed their families rather than relying on grocery store meat that travels a great distance to reach us.
In the Yukon, there are approximately 70,000 moose — that’s twice the human population of the territory. Hunts are carefully managed, with limits set on each region. Unless a limited number of special tags are issued by the government for hunting cows, only the bulls are harvested in the Yukon.
As Northerners we are acutely aware of where our wild meat comes from and we value the land and the animals that provide it. Mähsi Cho Jejik. (Thank you moose in the Hän language).
Breakfast today was beyond definition. It was a three-way compilation, which, as a word of warning, can happen when a man is left alone in the kitchen, bleary-eyed and hungry.
It started with the simple observation that there was a pot of leftovers obscuring all else in the refrigerator. Removal of said pot revealed a container of cooked cabbage. Digging deeper revealed the eggs, as well as other containers harboring mysterious concoctions.
Creativity is like that. Some of the greatest inventions are crafted from the aggregation of necessity with available resources. And of course, blind optimism helps.
When all things were stirred together, mixed with “local” boar fat, made into little patties, and fried up on the grill, it was surprising to me that the neighbors were not lining up with their plates and utensils in hand! And the memory will be forever embellished by the fact that this recipe will not be replicated by any, except possibly the very brave, or the blind.
Addendum by Suzanne:
I asked Gerard this morning what the ingredients were in his “pancake” creation. He was elusive. It was then that I noticed that the vase of wilted and forgotten flowers was missing. Hmmm. I may never know. But at least they were all edible flowers.
There are signs that the season is ending. Our green lawn is replaced with yellow leaves. There is a zip in the morning air, felt again the moment after the sun sets. There was a magnificent showing of Northern Lights the other night. The tomatoes are developing thick skins. The garden leaves are yellowing and drooping, begging reprieve. And the tired watering can sprung multiple leaks in defiant obstinance, kicking the bucket before our very eyes.
We’ve been digging and processing. The dehydrator has not stopped. The newly built onion drying rack was overwhelmed the moment after its completion. Similarly, I’ve been advised that regardless of the dimensions, the ‘’shed of optimism” is guaranteed to be too small …
I learned the other day that there was once a communal root cellar in Dawson. And of course, there were multiple other root cellars, both personal and commercial. Now, the only large-scale root cellar that I am aware of is at Kokopellie Farms in Sunnydale. It’s another example of how perfectly logical approaches to regional sustainability are quickly forgotten in a world of expedient transportation. Do we have to wait till the transportation becomes compromised before regenerating some of those time-proven skills?
Yu-Kon Grow It, a regular segment on CBC Yukon’s A New Day, interviewed Dawson farmer Lucy Vogt, of Lucy’s Plants and Veggies last week. Lucy grows many vegetables for Dawson and is most famous for her sweet and delicious carrots! Lucy will continue to sell produce from her vegetable stand in Henderson Corner into October.
I’m up early today. No, not because of the eager anticipation of yet another scintillating cup of rhubarb tea. Nor is it because of the alluring wonder about new ways to cook an egg this morning.
It’s the fire in my right hand that owns my senses. Lucky for me, I have a background of medical knowledge, so my mind is not racing with unnecessary fears and concerns about endless hypothetical possibilities. I recognize carpal tunnel syndrome for what it is. And the pulsating tightness in my finger represents the festering splinter from yesterday’s effort.
The blame sits squarely on the shoulders of produce. The sheer volume of foodstuffs is squeezing us out of house and home, so I have felt compelled over the past days to mitigate this pumpkin-invasion by building a storage shed. And with frost looming, and with moose in full rut, time is of the essence.
So I have been taking matters in my own hands, contributing to Suzanne’s cause divergently. A frenzy of saws with noble intent. A flurry of nails and boards, all single-mindedly set on seeing this project through.
And the hand symptoms, with a tincture of time, will dissipate. The mind will forget. Only the shed and its contents will remain.
One of the most challenging food items in Suzanne’s 100%-local-only diet is bread. Especially since no grains have yet been available. So, she was thrilled to discover carb-free bread!
Thanks to Cindy Breitkreutz in Whitehorse who found this recipe on MOMables.com. Suzanne adapted it to fit with her local ingredients, and it not only worked, but was a big hit in her family — on its own, as the english muffin in eggs bennie, and as the bun for a burger (which finally satisfied Tess’s longstanding cheeseburger craving). In fact it was so good that Tess and Kate declared they want cloud bread for their birthday cakes this year.
Suzanne adapted the original MOMables.com recipe, and we’re now calling it Top of the World Cloud Bread (a tribute to the legendary Top of the World Highway that runs from Dawson to Alaska). She used ¼ tsp rhubarb juice instead of cream of tartar (used to keep the egg whites stiff). The cream cheese she used was homemade (by draining yogurt overnight in cheesecloth).
Suzanne’s quest for a local salt option continues. And of course, Suzanne also has no pepper. In the meantime, she has found two good alternatives for seasoning the family’s food.
In the absence of table salt, Suzanne and family have started noticing that certain foods taste naturally salty — especially tomatoes and spinach. And, saltiest of all, there is celery. So instead of salt, the family is using dried, ground celery leaves.
They have also come up with a pepper alternative — nasturtium seed pods, which are dried and ground. If you still have nasturtiums in your garden, hunt for the seed pods and taste one fresh – it is like a burst of wasabi! Nasturtium seed pods can also be pickled (maybe even in rhubarb juice for Suzanne) as a locally grown caper. Of note, nasturtium flowers and leaves are also edible and have a mild wasabi-like bite to them. Try tasting one!
Nasturtium plant in blossom (left). Nasturtium pods after picking (right). These are then dehydrated, ground and used as a pepper substitute. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
It is harvest season and, in Dawson City, the end of the Farmers’ Markets. It is a good opportunity to get what’s left of the fresh veggies before the winter sets in. It is also a good time to launch our #FirstWeEatChallenge, a fun way in which everyone can help Suzanne come up with ideas to add to her locally-sourced menu.
Suzanne has been eating only 100% local foods for 51 days now, and it has been a real eye-opening experience.
Think you could do it? Perhaps you already do eat mostly local fare. If you want to show your solidarity for Suzanne’s year, or just see for yourself how challenging or how easy it really is, we invite you to try preparing just one meal with only foods local to your community. Alternatively, check out the list of local Dawson City ingredients and make a “Dawson Local” meal.
It would be ideal if you could stick to the same 100%-local-only standard as Suzanne for finding substitutes for salt, oil and spices, but we understand if that’s not feasible. Either way, we trust that everyone’s creativity will blow us away.
Come take the challenge, and share it with us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook using the hashtag #FirstWeEatChallenge, or send it to us via email . If you want, you can include the recipe for your dish so Suzanne can try it at home, with any necessary adjustments. We’ll then include it on our Recipes Page.
One of Suzanne’s big challenges is going to be condiments. She’s nailed the ketchup, and maybe her mustard plants will yield enough seeds for homemade mustard. But what about mayonnaise? Fresh eggs she’ll have in abundance; oil is going to be a problem.
The solution is surprisingly easy. Hollandaise! The familiar, creamy, buttery sauce we love slathered over Eggs Benedict is very much like mayonnaise once it’s chilled. Same basic ingredients: egg yolks, acid, fat. But in the case of Hollandaise the eggs are cooked and the fat is melted butter.
There is another stumbling block though — one of the key ingredients in Hollandaise is lemon juice. Not to worry. The sharp, slightly-stringent flavour of crushed juniper berries, combined with a splash of homemade rhubarb vinegar or rhubarb juice, do a great job of brightening the sauce’s flavour and cutting through the butterfat.
Our house is a warehouse. It is nothing more than a vessel of storage. There are onions covering the downstairs floor, awaiting my construction of a commercial-grade drying rack of immense proportions. Upstairs, there are green plant-like things looking tired, dry, and done, hanging upside down from every possible tie-off.
Upon close examination of the house, there are indicators of the original intent of a home. A peek past a wall of canned tomatoes reveals what most likely was a perfectly functional kitchen. A simple reshuffling of buckets of kale exposes a passageway, which in all likelihood, was explicitly intended to guide the weary to their sleeping quarters. These were once called bedrooms because the rooms generally contained beds that were not hidden behind more buckets of fluffy white stuff that approximates some wistful northern attempt at cotton. The dining room table hides beneath the “yield of the day.” This could be bags or buckets or boxes of produce. And we are talking serious quantity here, not one zucchini and a handful of carrots, fresh from the corner grocer. No sir. Our table is starting to buckle in the middle, and if it doesn’t implode soon, then it will be a miracle. Do I need to mention that there is no room for eating at the table?
All through late winter and early spring, I tolerated our living room and comfortable seating area in the sun, being owned by wooden planks bearing none other than rows of seedlings and the ubiquitous watering can, so that I could make myself useful should I ever wander into the living room. No room for humans (“what do you think this is, a house?”). I felt that this imposition was a mere temporary inconvenience, hardly worth the bother in the greater scheme of things. But looking at life now, I wonder how differently things might have transpired had I been more assertive, had I for instance, suggested boundaries as part of the bargaining process which pre-dated this project. Would it have been unreasonable of me to expect to return to a recognizable home, after toiling away the day for a handful of berries so the children can have a “sweet” before bedtime?
And the worst is that it doesn’t end. The other day, in a desperately furtive attempt to open up some living space, I started to pack the grow light up to the shed, when Suzanne caught me and stated without uncertainty that she needs the grow-light imminently to start the “Indoor Garden”!
For Suzanne, this means it is ‘now or never’ for many of the veggies grown this summer. Suzanne is trying to gather enough for her family for the year and to store them all away.
On Grant’s Island on the Yukon River, the harvest for Suzanne’s family included 148 pounds of onions and 226 pounds of pie pumpkins, along with 10 large seed pumpkins.
Fortunately for Suzanne, she will continue to be able to buy root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, turnip, beets and kohlrabi throughout the winter thanks to the amazing root cellar at Kokopelli Farm.
Saturday, Sept 16th will be the last Dawson Farmers’ Market for Lucy for the year. However, Kokopelli Farm will continue to sell for a few more Saturdays in town and to sell root veggies from the farm gate in Sunnydale all fall and winter. Lucy Vogt will continue to sell veggies at the gate at Henderson Corner into October.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm will be having their final public market on Wednesday 20 September at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
If you are interested in which onions and pumpkins grow and store well in the North: the onions that Grant grows are Expression onions, which store extremely well if they are well dried before storage. Grant’s pie pumpkins are of the Jack Sprat variety, and they store well in a cool room till May.
Despite the short growing season in Dawson City, Yukon (there were only 66 consecutive frost free days this summer), with almost 24 hours of daylight in June and July the growing season is intense. If you happen to be able to create rich soil to go along with the short, concentrated growing window, then Dawson can grow some mighty big vegetables.
Check out this romanesco grown by Paulette Michaud, weighing 7½ lbs!
Romanesco is a member of the cauliflower family. It was originally introduced by Grant Dowdell to the Dawson community and its unique beauty still turns heads at the Saturday Farmers’ Markets.
Cabbages also thrive in the unfettered Dawson summer daylight despite the short grown season. Take a look at this giant cabbage grown by Louise Piché.
Each year I wait for the late summer to start hunting wild mushrooms. I have been an amateur mycologist (“fungiphile”) for about 30 years. The Dawson City region is generally abundant with many different species of mushrooms over the months of July to October, and occasionally November, if it is a warm fall. What sets this region apart from much of Canada and even the lower portions of the Yukon Territory is that it escaped glaciation in the last ice age. Dawson City actually has topsoil, which holds not only fungal spores but also mammoth bones and all sorts of curiosities from the Pleistocene era.
I use the field guides for the Northwest Pacific American States as I find the mushrooms in our region key-out most closely — not exactly, but pretty darn close — to the winter species listed there. I use a combination of fruiting body appearance with spore prints and, because I geek out on this sort of thing, microscopic spore examination. The remnants of the mammoths have long since stopped adapting to the local environment but our mushrooms have continued their own path of adaptation over the intervening tens of thousands of years since those glaciers scraped off all the topsoil between the Tintina Trench and Spokane.
But this year has been a bust. I cannot recall a year so devoid of mushrooms in my time living up north. Not even the usually prolific, hardy and poisonous Cortinarius has appeared. Yesterday I found a portion of a deer mushroom (Pluteus cervinus) which a nervous squirrel dropped as I walked by on a trail. After a good rainfall over the last couple days a pathetic cluster of maggoty puffballs (Bovista plumbea) appeared beyond my doorstep. A week ago I found a couple mummified Lactarius deliciosus or delicious milk cap (not always delicious but always pretty). And that has been it.
My hunch is that it has been too dry this summer to promote decay of the substrates (dead wood, forest floor duff) along with the growth of the fungal mycelia which are the “roots” of a mushroom but actually the largest component of the organism that live for days to hundreds of years. Perhaps if we get more rain and some warm days, we could still see a decent crop of mushrooms. Fingers crossed!
Arora, David. (1991) All that the Rain Promises and More… Berkley, California: Ten Speed Press
Ward, Brent & D. Bond, Jeffrey & Gosse, John. (2007). Evidence for a 55–50 ka (early Wisconsin) glaciation of the Cordilleran ice sheet, Yukon Territory, Canada. Quaternary Research. 68. 141-150. 10.1016/j.yqres.2007.04.002. (Specifically reference to the diagram)
Suzanne’s family has a weekly family movie night that traditionally was accompanied by a very large bowl of popcorn slathered in butter and nutritional yeast. It still remains to be seen if popping corn will grow in the Klondike region, so Suzanne has been thinking of an alternative — a bucket of kale chips. The snack is seasoned with ghee and birch syrup.
The recipe was tested last year and Suzanne discovered that the kale chips can retain their crispness for many months if they are stored in an ice cream bucket with at tight-fitting lid.
So Suzanne’s plan is to create 52 bucket of kale chips before the kale disappears. She’s not convinced she will be successful; she has made the equivalent of 22 four-litre buckets to date. But she will keep on trying!
Kale Chips Recipe
Break up the kale into large pieces (without the stem).
Mix equal amounts of ghee and warm birch syrup in a bowl and pour some of mixture onto the kale pieces.
Mix well until all the kale is covered in ghee/syrup combo.
Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet.
Bake at 250F for 16-20 minutes until crisp.
Cool and then store in an airtight container or zip lock bag.
It’s happening. I’m developing a taste for the subtle flavours. I can eat a boiled vegetable with no seasoning. I love the taste of a tomato off the vine. Try a kohlrabi today; peel it, slice thinly, eat slowly, savour the crispness and rush of liquid as it flows across your parched and desirous palate. Meat and fish are great, as is, seeping in their own juices. Skip the gravy; save it for the nearly rotten meat, when you need to hide the rancid taste. Use gravy in the way perfume was once used to disguise body odor.
Salt is a cover; it is there to disguise flavour, not enhance it. Same for sweetness. And pepper and curry and cinnamon and nutmeg and all the rest. Rise up people and revolt! No longer allow yourselves to be chained to culinary tradition, which encourages the bathing of food with herbs and spices, such that you will be indifferent to the plethora of food mediocrity. Good food has its own good flavours.
Dwarf dogwood is a common wild flower found around Dawson and throughout many parts of the North. It is also known as bunchberry. In the summer there is a single white flower in the middle of this low-laying plant. Around mid-August the flower disappears and is replaced by a cluster of small orange berries.
The berries are not unpleasant, and have a small seed that is easily chewed, but the taste overall is rather bland. However, they are very high in pectin and can be used as a thickener if added to low-pectin fruits when making jam. Suzanne is gathering the berries and freezing them, and will test them out in preserves this winter.
Maybe I’m not cut out to live off the land. I’m certainly not taking full advantage of the opportunities which are being presented to me. This morning I swerved the truck to avoid a few young grouse, filling their gizzards with pebbles from the road. And a couple of weeks ago I nearly sunk the boat in my effort to avoid a gaggle of darling ducklings that darted in every direction I steered.
Why is it that I am not searching out these circumstances as opportunities, as gifts to me, the purported self-provider? Is it innately instinctual to exhibit this aversion to dietary road-kill? How can it be that we are almost willing to die in avoiding a collision with an animal, only to go home and load the gun for a fruitful hunt? How interestingly peculiar (note that I did not say, “hypocritical”?) that we might spend weeks nursing an injured rabbit back to life, only to spend another portion of our recreational time in the pursuit of snaring rabbits.
As a minimum, we might wave away this peculiarity with the suggestion that it is powerfully compelling, and certainly endearing, to nurture and love; on the other hand, for the omnivores and carnivores amongst us, there is apt justification for the phrase, “food for thought.”
Recently a friend told me she makes really good raw, dried crackers with the leftover pulp from juicing vegetables or fruit. Sounded like a great way for Suzanne to use up the pulp from all the rhubarb juice she’s making, and provide those quick snacks for the family she’s always on the lookout for.
I don’t have a mechanical juicer—mine is a steam juicer, a Finnish Mehu Lisa that leaves quite a moist pulp behind. So instead I grated vegetables, ground them in a food processor with some northern seasonings, added a bit of whey for bite, and spread them out on parchment paper laid over drying screens. I dried them at 135F for 9 hours. This is the result:
Not so good. Most recipes for raw crackers include some kind of binder like ground nuts or seeds to give the crackers heft. Not allowed in a Dawson-only diet. It’s back to the drawing board for me.
In the meantime, what to do with the failed crackers? Grind them into powder and use them as a salt substitute. Snatched from the jaws of failure! But still, it kind of hurts to see 3 beets, 2 carrots, 4 cloves garlic, 1 large onion, juniper berries and Labrador tea reduced to this:
I’ve got a sore forearm today. Reflecting back, it’s the rhubarb to blame. Or maybe the size of the knife. My advice is that if you have to spend all morning chopping 5,000 times in rapid succession, then choose a small knife. Better still, build a factory.
So, we need a ton of rhubarb. This is washed, chopped, packaged, weighed, frozen. Then, most is juiced into a vinegar-substitute so that we can have cheese. Today, my arm is questioning the relevance of cheese.
In fact, this project is making me question eating. Sometimes I feel as if more energy is utilized in the gathering and processing of food than what could ever be sequestered from the consumption of that produce. As I shrivel away, with the gnawing background of unrequited hunger always lurking, I feel that this journey is going backwards from what nature intended. Don’t bears just eat and get fat for winter? You don’t see them chopping rhubarb, thinking this will be really delicious in January. And moose just eat, get fat for winter, deal with whatever as it comes along, tolerate and expect the more lean diet of winter in trade for a delicious Fall of gorging and growing and whatever else moose do in the Fall. It is a sad day to realize that, in life, we don’t so much emulate the great beasts of this planet, as we do this one pesky critter, as we “squirrel” away food for the winter.
iIt’s back to school time, which means another year of trying to figure out what to pack in school lunches for our hungry pupils.
For Suzanne’s family during their year of eating only local foods, school lunches are an even greater challenge — especially at this time of year, when no local grains are yet available, which means no bread for sandwiches.
Today, they headed off with potato pancakes, moose sausage and carrots – all local of course.
So Suzanne is looking for creative ideas and can certainly use your help. Take a look at the Dawson City list of local ingredients (keeping in mind that there are no grains yet, as they have yet to be harvested). Any suggestions are always welcome, just let us know.
While the weather in the Dawson area is starting to cool off, there are still hopes of a summer reprise before fall kicks in.
Certainly, during the recent hot weather creamsicles were a favourite and refreshing treat for Suzanne’s family. They’re easy to make, and for Suzanne’s kids were ideal for hot sunny days … or when you’re craving a sweet treat (and trying not to think about chocolate).
2 cups cream
3 tbsp birch syrup.
Mix together well and pour into popsicle molds. Freeze.
Corn is a southern crop that has traditionally been quite difficult to grow in the North. But this year, many of those who attempted to grow corn in Dawson City have been successful. After a rocky start with late frost in June, the heat in Dawson in July and early August was beneficial for those who have been growing corn.
Some growers, like Sebastian Jones, Megan Waterman and Grant Dowdell, have had luck growing corn outdoors. Others, like Louise Piché, have done well growing it in their greenhouses.
Corn growing outside Sebastian Jones’s cabin. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
As reported earlier, Grant Dowdell is growing a crop of popping corn for Suzanne’s family on Grant’s Island, and we’re pleased to report it is doing beautifully, despite some unwanted attention from a midnight marauding moose. Grant also has good success growing sweet corn outdoors.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm are also experimenting with growing corn. It’s good news to know that with some special care and cooperation from Mother Nature corn can indeed be grown in Dawson!
So, it’s official: Suzanne is the only member of the “100% club.”
These trips out of town are just not conducive to the local diet. I lasted till the kids had wings and yam fries and pizza at Earl’s, when the combination of hunger and weakness of conviction overpowered me. And the food was, well … delicious. It was zesty, and the relative newness of the salt was notable enough to surprisingly create an evening’s worth of thirst.
And for breakfast, I tried to delude myself into thinking that the eggs and sausages could be local. But again, the salt kept the truth not far from the surface. And since the cat was out of the bag, I tried coffee. It was surprisingly unrewarding and the taste rather alarming, so I soon reverted back to my cups of straight-up hot water, Zenning in the bestowed purification.
I thought there would be more guilt. And likely, had I “cheated” while in Dawson, there might have been cause for reflection, personal evaluation of self-worth and the like. But, travel presents a practical excuse for indulgences of this sort. Thank goodness for travel.
The kids were quick to indicate to me that dietary guilt was an imperceptible emotion for them, nowhere on the radar. And, of course, that is the way it should be. This is not so much a challenge; it is really only an exercise in discipline, designed to inspire thought and conversation, designed to promote the healthy benefits of regionalization, but designed also to teach us appreciation for an infrastructure that allows such diverse dietary options.
This year, Louise experimented with growing purple peppers, and reports they grew really well. These plants — a sweet pepper variety — are purple on the outside but white on the inside and very tasty.
The seed variety she used was the Purple Star Hybrid from William Dam Seeds (65 days to maturity).
But there were more interesting things growing in Louise Piché’s greenhouse this year. A white pumpkin! Despite its long days to maturity in a short growing season, the pumpkin is doing quite well in a Dawson greenhouse.
The plant is of the New Moon variety from Veseys Seeds. It takes 100 days to grow to a final size of 25 to 35 lbs.
To see the specific varieties of fruit and vegetables that one of Dawson’s great home gardeners has had success with, download Louise Piché’s Seed Guide.
Last evening presented an opportunity for us to explore our inner emotions. And our motives.
It came on the heels of a heavy load of processing cauliflower into paste, to be used as a dough substitute. And then a huge topping of dishes before bed. This was all tempered with the message that was intended to be optimistic but proved catastrophic, that we would only need two more such evenings to provide us with enough “dough” to allow us the privilege of one pizza a week for the next year.
A notable benefit of childhood meltdowns is the necessity, eventually, for a rational conversation. We actually experienced that benefit rather soon, perhaps too soon for the “rational” part. But life, after all, is not scripted.
All kinds of cathartic comments were delivered during that evening of emotional venting. Sam kept saying, “I didn’t sign up for this”, which was then followed up with, “it’s a good job that I have a summer job, so I can afford to eat now, but how am I going to keep from starving when I go back to school?” T