Check out the menu from this 100% Yukon local feast served in 1912!
From The Dawson Daily News — Friday August 2nd, 1912
YUKON PRODUCE AFFORDS A SWELL DINNER
One of the most unique dinners ever held in the North was given Tuesday evening at “Messieur Pete’s” Merchants’ Café by Peter Rost, the Dominion operator, in honour of Rev. Father Vaughn.
Every article on the menu was a Yukon product. Nothing but Yukon grown vegetables, Yukon meats or game and Yukon beverages and berries were placed before the feasters. The dinner was termed a ‘potlatch’ and the menu included cream of tomato soup, from Yukon’s own love apples; combination salad, Yukon vegetables, Yukon salmon and other fishes; Yukon grizzly bear, and other big game entrees; stuffed Yukon chicken, and Yukon birds. Dawson grown native strawberries; wild Yukon blueberries and raspberries; ice cream from Yukon dairy; Yukon milk, and Yukon’s peerless sparkling water. Yukon brewed amber drinks might have been provided also were it not the crowd comprised tee-totalers.
Those at the table were: Peter Rost, host; Father Vaughn, Father Bunoz and B. L. Jelich. A magnificent menu in many colours was printed by the News as a souvenir. Father Vaughn said he will have London newspapers write up the feast, and give wide publicity to what Yukon can produce in foodstuffs.
Rice Root bulb with nodding onions on skunk cabbage leaf.
“Our people look after what we take, we don’t take too much, we leave something, we don’t go back to that same place, and we go gather elsewhere. All the harvesting is done to take what you need and not take everything. You need to leave something for other people and leave something so that the plant can continue to live. You’ve got to take care of those things.”
~ Chief Floyd Joseph, Squamish First Nation
I have grown up with the belief that plants are our relatives. Connected to this belief are plant harvesting and cultivation practices that are rooted in respect and reciprocity. For each plant food or medicine there were, and are, sustainable practices employed to ensure the long-term health and productivity of plants in particular harvesting areas.
When settlers arrived in Canada there was a misconception that the landscapes they encountered were untouched and unused. In reality, the landscapes were intensively managed and cultivated to maximize productivity of foods with the understanding that future generations would also carry out these practices and rely on these foods.
There are many well-known examples now of ecosystems that were shaped by millennia of cultural practices and Indigenous knowledge aimed at building sustainable and bountiful food sources. These practices centered on the understanding that harvesting has impacts and in order to balance out these impacts there must be reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of giving back for mutual benefit. A plant-harvesting example of this would be replanting a section of root when you are harvesting roots for food to ensure the plant you are harvesting from returns and thrives. There is often a spiritual aspect to this type of reciprocity as well, in the form of a prayer or offering to the plant.
Sustainability has been built into indigenous plant management practices since time before memory. People were taught to manage root vegetables through replanting and cultivation. They knew that harvesting too many leaf buds from a tree or shrub would stunt new growth. They knew that to harvest entire flowers meant that pollinators and animals would lose a food source and fruit would not develop.
Two examples of Indigenous plant cultivation are camas meadows and estuary root gardens.
Camas is a traditional root food that was grown in family managed gardens. Camas gardens were found in open meadows that were maintained through fire management. Burning the meadow would bring nutrients into the soil, remove grasses and provide open habitat for camas to thrive.
Estuary Root Gardens were also family managed gardens in estuaries. Management of these gardens included weeding, tilling, replanting and rotating harvest to ensure the productivity and sustainability of the gardens.
The relatively new popularization of wild foraging is leading to overharvesting and can be seen as another form of ‘taking’ from the land. I share in the excitement of harvesting but I ask you to please educate yourself and consider the impact you may have. Ask yourself: “Is this a plant I should be harvesting?” “Who else might be relying on these plant foods?” “Where am I harvesting? Is this a culturally or ecologically sensitive area?” “What is my intention with harvesting? How much do I take and what do I give back?” “How do I harvest and give back in a way that will sustain these plant foods for generations to come?”
If you don’t know the answers to these questions I urge you to seek out training or contact your local Indigenous community to ensure that you are practicing in a respectful way. Purchasing plants from a native plant nursery or transplanting into a garden setting are two great ways to have less of an impact on the wild plant populations.
Here are some great books if you are interested in further learning.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Kimmerer
Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask
by Mary Siisip Geniusz
As We Have Always Done Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance
by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
The buds are appearing on the trees, there’s new growth on the ground, and across the territory farmers, gardeners and consumers are gearing up for market season. In Dawson the first outdoor market took place on May 13, Mother’s Day; in Whitehorse the Fireweed Community Market officially opens May 17; and the Stewart Valley Community Market (SVCM) will rev up on May 26th. “Keep your friends close and your farmers closer,” says a poster on the SCVM Facebook page, which pretty much sums up the idea behind local markets: farmers and community.
Joella Hogan is one of the SCVM organizers, along with Sandy Washburn and Susan Stanley. “We usually try to have five or six markets a year,” she says. “Usually the first one in spring so people can get bedding plants and visit, and celebrate spring.
“When we started, our whole point was about connecting farms to local people, because lots of people couldn’t get out to the farms,” she continues. “We had no idea that it would become this huge social thing.”
The market started up about seven years ago, with the help of funding from the Community Climate Change Adaptation Project at Yukon College, which enabled organizers to invest in tables, tents, a barbecue and a cooler. Now the market is totally self-sufficient, deriving revenue from table rentals at $10 a shot and a $25 buy-in fee for food vendors.
Farmers Ralph and Norma Meese from Minto Bridge Farm are market regulars, and so are Adam and Danica Wrench from North Wind farm, a small family operation just up the road from the Meeses. “The Meeses sell mostly vegetables and eggs, whereas Adam and Danica are getting into pigs and chickens,” says Hogan. “There’s even a local lady selling eating rabbits.”
The farmers are joined by a good handful of local food producers, artists and artisans. Sometimes jeweller Esther Winter of Winterchild Jewellery takes a table, especially when she’s testing new designs. “She’ll say, ‘These are three new designs; pick your favourite and there will be a draw.’ I love it!” says Hogan.
This year market organizers are hoping to get more kids interested in participating, whether to sell lemonade or hold a bake sale. “We want to encourage entrepreneurship and small business, so we want to get the kids involved in the market so they understand more.”
The other group in the community the organizers have their sights on is the seniors and Elders. “They’re our biggest fans; they love getting out and visiting. Our thinking is, let’s engage them to have more ownership — phoning their friends to remind them there’s a market and putting up posters, so that it becomes more of a community-wide thing.”
Hogan recently attended the Zero Waste Conference in Whitehorse. “I said to Sandy, ‘We have to get on Zero Waste!’” Now, like the Fireweed Community Market and other markets across the country, SVCM is grappling with how to reduce garbage. “How do you do that? Do you offer incentives to the vendor? Do you, as the market, supply all the dishes and utensils so it meets your values? At what expense?”
Already, SVCM uses compostable cups, and Susan Stanley has made felt holders that will go around mason jars, which Hogan then takes home and washes after the market.
That is, if folks will allow her to take their coffee cups. Hogan says, “People don’t want to go home at the end of the day. We’re packing up and they’re like, ‘I just want one more cup of coffee!’”
One of my favourite edible leaves, lungwort (commonly known as blue bell) is now out and about around Dawson City. The young leaves are very tasty raw and can be added to salad, steamed or added to soups and stews. The early flower buds are also quite tasty – (although I always feels a bit guilty eating them before they have a chance to flower).
Important rule of thumb: In general, blue and purple flowering plants are NOT edible. Lungwort is the exception. Don’t eat lupine or delphinium or Jacob’s ladder which are also starting to appear around the same time (but the leaves look very different from lupin).
Spruce tips are a versatile ingredient in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes and can be frozen or dried for use throughout the year.
Photos by Cathie Archbould, Archbould Photography.
A candy, a spice, a tea, and great to snack on fresh — all this in the spruce tip!
Pick some now and enjoy them all year long.
At this time of year throughout the North the spruce trees are starting to put on their new growth. The dark green of the existing branches is highlighted by the bright green of new tips. These emerging spruce tips are a delicious and versatile wild food and high in Vitamin C.
Spruce tips have a distinct taste — citrus with a hint of resin. You can snack on them fresh or or add them to salads.
Candied spruce tips make a delicious snack and they store well in the fridge in a mason jar. The remaining birch syrup infused with spruce tips makes a wonderful coniferous-deciduous syrup blend that can then be used to make Spruce Tip Spritzers.
To enjoy spruce tips all year long, store them in the freezer. Or dry some to grind for a spice later in the year.
You’ll know the spruce tips are ready to pick when they are bright green with a small brown husk at the end. Knock off the husk before using. Remember that this is the tree’s new growth, so pick sparingly from any single tree before moving on. It’s a good idea to pick a good distance from any roadway to make sure they’re free of airborne toxins.
Enjoy this versatile burst of Vitamin C from the forest!
Fireweed shoots are the asparagus of the North and our first vegetable of Spring!
The tender shoots are now poking up around the Yukon. They can be eaten raw, sauteed or steamed. The best part is, that even though they are being snipped, they will grow right back! Harvesting the shoots doesn’t damage the plant, so you can harvest some now for eating and then let them grow back to enjoy the flowers later in the season. The sweetest fireweed shoots are those cut when the leaves are still reddish. They are a good source of Vitamin C and Vitamin A
Fireweed is the official flower of the Yukon and its eye-catching fuchsia blossoms add an extra layer of beauty to the Yukon landscape.
But it is not just another pretty flower, all parts of the fireweed are edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or sautéed in a stir fry or with other greens. The flowers and buds make a beautiful garnish and can be used to make fireweed jelly.
Fireweed grows rapidly during a typical Northern summer, as the hours of daylight extend to more than 18 hs a day. As a result, the season for harvesting the shoots is very short, and you better get them fast before they grow too tall and become bitter.
If you live in the North, have a look in your yard or your garden and have a taste of a young fireweed shoot.
The buds on the birch trees are just starting to turn green, which means it’s coming to the end of birch sap season. For the past few weeks you could spot a birch tree being tapped in many Dawson City backyards.
Most of us have been tapping a tree in order to drink the cold, refreshing and nutrient rich birch water – loaded with thiamine (one of the Vitamin B’s) and manganese, as well as some Vitamin C, iron, riboflavin, zinc, calcium and potassium. Birch water tastes like a super fresh and delicious glass of crystal clear water with only a rare hint of sweet if you look for it.
When the sap is running, the tree is actually pulling the sap from its roots all the way up to the top of the tree to feed its leaf buds which is an amazing anti-gravitational feat in itself.
Birch water goes bad within a couple of days, even in the fridge, so it needs to be consumed fresh. Alternatively, you can freeze it (even in ice cube trays) and save some frozen birch water to consume later in the year. The tapping of one tree will produce a lot of birch water, so be careful not to tap more than you can consume.
Very few of us will boil down the sap we collect to make birch syrup. We leave that to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and their crew who are currently very busy, working around the clock, collecting sap from about 1500 trees and preparing Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup to supply us all with the sweet stuff for the upcoming year.
My birch syrup supply is down to the last cupful. We are consuming about 1 litre of birch syrup per week! So I decided to boil down some sap and see if I could supplement our supply until the end of syrup season when we can get our next 12 L bucket from Sylvia and Berwyn’s birch camp.
Birch syrup and maple syrup, although both sweet, are quite different in both taste and components. Birch syrup contains fructose, the sugar in fruit, and it does not crystallize like maple syrup does. Maple syrup contains sucrose, the sugar in table sugar. One of the major differences between the two is the sugar content of the sap. It takes twice as much birch sap to make a litre of birch syrup, compared to making maple syrup. In fact the ration of birch sap to syrup is an astounding 80:1!
What does that look like in real life? I took my two largest pots and boiled down 14 litres of birch water. All that sap produced a scant ¾ cup of syrup!
A big thank you to the birch trees for sharing some your sap and to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson and crew for all the hard work that goes into turning it into syrup!
If you haven’t yet tasted birch syrup, you really must. It is delicious! When using birch syrup in recipes, I find I don’t miss the absence of other spices such as cinnamon or allspice. Check out the many recipes using birch syrup on our Recipe Page.
As the leaf buds start to turn green, the sap will take on a bitter taste, marking the end of the tapping season for another year.
It’s something Dawson City hasn’t seen since the 1930’s — local dairy products for sale. Klondike Valley Creamery, a dairy farm in Rock Creek, on the far side of the Klondike River, has been raising the first dairy cows the region has seen in almost 80 years. And now the Creamery’s first dairy products have just arrived on grocery store shelves in Dawson.
Products for sale at the Dawson City General Store include a delicious onion-and-dill cheese spread and, for those with a sweet tooth, Mocha Labneh — the nutella of dairy products. Each container is labelled with the names of the cows who donated their milk for the cause!
The Creamery is planning to have more local Dawson dairy products after this year’s river break-up.
As the swans return and the Yukon River breaks up, the longed-for foraging season inches ever closer. This waiting-for-spring seems endless now, but we know from experience that once the new plants start to appear it’s all going to happen really fast. First the dandelions and the spruce tips will appear, then the wild roses and the plantain and lamb’s quarters, then the Labrador tea and then the berries, the rapid succession of beautiful berries.
Now, as we lounge in spring’s waiting room, it’s a good time to reflect and prepare for the foraging season ahead. As our love of wild foods grows, there are more and more of us out there, and it becomes crucial to practice ethical harvesting, doing our part to protect and conserve, so we, the animals and the birds can continue to enjoy the wild harvest for generations.
The north is a big place, and sparsely populated, but even so the forager’s effect on the environment, especially sensitive environments, can be devastating. One Dawson resident said recently, “Indiscriminate harvesting concerns me as our population grows and more people are interested in the wild things.” When we’re out in number, our cumulative effect is far greater than we might think.
Stories from the forests of Quebec provide a cautionary tale. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum, also known as ramps, wild onion or wild garlic), once abundant in the wild, was so over-harvested for commercial and personal use that it became endangered. Urban sprawl and habitat destruction also played a part. Since 1995, by Quebec law, the only wild leek harvest permitted is 50 bulbs or plants for personal use. Today, though commercial harvesting and sales of wild leeks have been banned, the species is still listed as endangered.
Chef Nancy Hinton and her partner, the legendary Quebec forager Francois Brouillard, own Les Jardins Sauvages, a restaurant and small wild-food condiment business in Saint-Roch de l’Achigan just outside Montreal. Brouillard grew up spending summers in the woods near his grandmother’s cottage, now the restaurant, and was foraging for wild foods long before they became de rigueur on restaurant menus and at farmer’s market stalls.
Now, says Hinton, though she and Brouillard are very happy people have learned about wild foods, the downside is the woods are becoming overcrowded and habitat is threatened. “There’s a lot of people going out, and they’re going too fast, they don’t have the knowledge and the patience or the experience necessary, even if they care about sustainability.”
Worse, continues Hinton, the demand for wild food is so great it has spawned a flourishing black market. “There’s tons of people, and they sell to chefs, or to other people that sell.” This causes a number of concerns. “First, there’s no traceability, so if there’s a problem you don’t know where it came from or how it was picked. Second, these people are not people who are so concerned about sustainability.”
Hinton and Brouillard now sit on a committee that’s trying to develop guidelines for this burgeoning industry, but it’s complicated. How do you monitor compliance? How do you monitor the woods? In the case of wild ginseng, an endangered species in Ontario that brings high prices on the black market, Environment Canada is using video surveillance cameras on known patches.
In the meantime, wild ginger and crinkle root, plants that Brouillard has been gathering for years, and which still thrive on his family’s property because of careful harvesting, are listed as “at risk” in Quebec and their harvest subject to regulation. Hinton says that while she doesn’t want to dampen enthusiasm for beginners interested in wild harvesting, and understands that mistakes are made innocently, it’s frustrating to be denied access to much-loved plants because of others’ ignorance or willful negligence.
We might think it can’t happen in the Yukon. But in Whitehorse low bush cranberry pickers have already noticed that they have to go farther and farther afield to find berries, even in a good berry year. There are simply more of us out there. The way foraging works, one friend brings another, who then goes back to the same place with a new friend, who then returns with one of her friends, and so on, until the small patch of wild berries that might once have supported one person’s family with a few cups of berries for the winter is now under an enormous amount of pressure.
Last year at an area in BC famous for its wild watercress and its beautiful, extremely sensitive Karst landscape, my husband and I came across a Whitehorse family in the midst of harvesting wild watercress. They already had three large garbage bags full, and they were filling a fourth. “We do it for all of our family,” they said.
Well, okay. But surely we have to think beyond our own families. What if we all filled several large garbage bags every spring?
Amber Westfall, herbalist and wild food educator from the Ottawa area, has compiled a short list of helpful reminders on how to forage with care. It’s not a bad idea to review her guidelines while the season is not yet upon us.
Guidelines for Ethical Foraging
Composed by Amber Westfall, herbalist and proprietor of The Wild Garden, in Ottawa, Ontario. Amber says, “Please practice good stewardship and take care of the plants that take care of us!”
Make sure you have a one hundred percent positive ID. Ideally, reference more than one field guide, or go out with an experienced forager or wildcrafter.
Do not over-harvest. Be mindful of how many remaining plants are needed to ensure the stand will continue to flourish and thrive. Learn about how the plant reproduces. By seed? Rhizomes? Slow growing bulbs? Think about what other animals, insects and people might be using those plants.
Know the poisonous plants in your area and what to avoid.
Be aware that anyone can have an allergic reaction to any plant. Eat a small amount and wait 24 hour to see if you have a reaction.
Harvest away from busy roads and rail lines. Avoid contaminated areas and areas that have been sprayed with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The edges of farm fields, unless organic, are not appropriate for harvesting for this reason.
Know the history of the area you are harvesting from. Be wary of empty lots and avoid ‘brownfield’ land.
Do not harvest on private property without permission.
Do not harvest on protected land, fragile or at-risk environments or in provincial or national parks.
Learn which plants are threatened or at-risk and do not harvest them.
Learn which plants are prolific and which plants are invasive. These are ideal for harvesting.
Only harvest the appropriate part of the plant at the proper time of day and/or in the proper season.
Use clean, appropriate tools to reduce the spread of disease. Make neat, clean cuts at growing nodes to allow the plant to heal well and continue growing.
Leave some of the best specimens to go to seed and reproduce. If we take all the best plants and leave behind weak or diseased specimens, we are selecting for future plants that will be weak and subject to disease.
Have as little impact on the surrounding area as possible. Fill in any holes, re-cover bare dirt with leaf litter and try to leave the area better than you found it.
Don’t waste the plants that you harvest. Use and process them promptly while still fresh and compost any parts that are not used.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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:
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!
Don’t be surprised if you notice that our children have Popeye forearms. It’s the cow that’s responsible. And that’s even without the milking responsibility.
Once the milk enters the house, the action begins. One sentry awaits the definition of the line, as the cream rises. Then there is the careful skimming and separation of this precious, precious stuff. Some of it will be destined for creamsicles, some for ice-cream, some for butter.
After appropriate warming, the jar of cream is shaken vigorously, for longer than you want, the contents first turning a tinge of yellow, then magically transforming into clumps of butter. This needs separation from the buttermilk, washing and containment.
Meanwhile some of the skimmed milk is warmed, stirred continuously, and kefir is added. The watchful waiter of the next few hours has first dibs on yogurt.
And then there are the frothers. Milk is heated, stirred and frothed with vigor. Everyone likes hot frothed milk.
So this house is comprised of skimmers, stirrers, shakers, frothers, and scrubbers. Kudos to the cow.
Suzanne and her family were thrilled to have a new sweetener added to their list of locally-available ingredients — honey. And they’re very grateful to David McBurney and his bees for sharing.
Birch syrup is delicious and the family is finding all kinds of ways to use it. However, it does have a distinctive flavour that can sometimes overshadow other more subtle flavours (for example, when used as a sweetener for things like fireweed jelly). Honey has a much lighter and more delicate flavour.
David McBurney’s bees, who successfully survived Dawson’s -40°C in winter, have been busy this summer collecting pollen from local fireweed and clover. and transforming it into delicious, delicate honey. They produced about 20 pounds (9 kg.) of honey per hive!
Hopefully they will produce enough honey this summer to share with the humans while reserving enough to get them through a second Dawson winter.
As some of you may have gathered from Gerard’s posts, coffee was his main breakfast drink of choice before starting the 100% local diet. For Suzanne, it was black tea. Hopefully soon they will recover from caffeine withdrawal (see Gerard’s blog post “Symptomatic Addict“). In the meantime, creativity with tea abounds.
Elfie Lenzin recently came up with a wonderful tea combination that is currently Suzanne’s favourite and now referred to as “Elfie’s Tea” — labrador tea leaves with a few crushed wild blueberries. It is very flavourful with a hint of sweet and a beautiful colour.
Other tea possibilities abound as well. They include combinations of nettle, yarrow, mint, lemon balm, chamomile, rose petal, fireweed petals … the list goes on.
Do you have favourite local tea combo you would like to share with us?
When you don’t have much access to the usual suspects like grains, flour, nuts and seeds, and you’re making absolutely everything from scratch, breakfast for a hungry family of five becomes a real challenge. No toast, no pancakes, no bannock, no granola, no muesli, no porridge. What? What is a person determined to eat only the foods available in Dawson to do? You can only eat eggs so many days a week!
Suzanne called on Miche Genest for help in designing a seven-day breakfast menu that she can rotate over the coming year. Drum roll, please … breakfast number one is up: Potato and Carrot Latkes, made with only ingredients available in Dawson.
Here in Dawson City it’s the height of berry season!
This has even more significance for Suzanne and her family, as berries will be their main fruit supply for the next year, while they eat only local foods.
Suzanne recently did a calculation that has her rather nervous. If she and her family each ate 1 cup of berries each per day (which seems reasonable considering it will be their main fruit source for the year), and since one cup of berries weighs about 1/4 lb., she would need 456 pounds of berries for the year! This seems impossible. Currently she has 170 pounds of berries in the freezer (which seemed like quite a lot until she did her fateful calculation). Regardless, she will continue to collect and purchase as much as she possibly can and the family will just have to ration them accordingly.
Thankfully, Suzanne has help in her berry-gathering endeavour. Local producers Emu Farms and Tundarose Garden are helping her out tremendously. (If it were all up to her family picking wild berries, they would be in serious trouble.) Emu Farms supplies Dawson restaurants with delicious local berries. Maryanne from Tundarose Garden sells her scrumptous local berry jam every other Saturday at the Dawson Farmers’ Market.
A berry prolific bounty. Clockwise from upper left: high bush cranberries, low bush cranberries, saskatoon berries, soap berries, raspberries, haskaps. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
For Dawsonites, berries abound throughout the short summer. Although the wacky weather this summer has, so far, resulted in lower than average harvests of wild berries. Wild strawberries started in mid-July and were over in early August. Soapberries also started mid-July and are now falling off the bushes. Wild raspberries began appearing towards the end of July. Wild blueberries are in season now — if you are lucky enough to find any this year. High bush cranberries are starting and low bush cranberries and rosehips will follow shortly.
Domestic Berries Haskaps were the first domestic berries to appear, back in early July. Saskatoons started late July and into August. Black currents and domestic raspberries are ripe now. Unfortunately domestic strawberries did not fare well this year in the Dawson area because of the weather.
With no local source of salt for spicing up and preserving her food, Suzanne is looking for a natural, local substitute. One possible alternative that has surfaced is coltsfoot.
Coltsfoot is a wild plant that is often found in boggy terrain and disturbed areas. Its flowers open on leafless stems in early spring before the leaves come out. The leaves, which resemble a colt’s foot in outline and have angular teeth along the edges, appear after the flowers die in the early summer.
According the The Boreal Herbal by Bev Gray, in the past, coltsfoot ash was used by indigenous people as a salt substitute. The large coltsfoot leaves and stems were rolled into balls, dried, and then placed on top of a small fire rock and burned. The ash was then used in cooking.
Suzanne has been gathering coltsfoot and drying it, and will test out this possible salt substitute. Stay tuned to see how it turns out.
In a previous post we wrote how Suzanne and family were looking forward to some popcorn in their local-only diet, with the help of growers Karen Digby and Grant Dowdell. Having had success with sweet corn in the past, they planted a field of Tom Thumb popping corn especially for Suzanne.
The plants survived the mid-June frosts that savaged so many other local crops, but now there’s another, much larger, hazard afoot. It turns out a trio of moose have been hanging out at Grant’s Island. Of all the vegetables growing in the fields, the moose seem to have a particular appetite for Suzanne’s Tom Thumb popcorn plants, even more so that Grant’s sweet corn.
The family dog does his best to dissuade the marauding ungulates, but finds it harder to run off moose than bears. A scarecrow is now on the job and we will just have to see if it can keep the moose at bay and protect Suzanne’s precious popcorn. Grant’s Island is one of the rare microclimates in the Dawson area capable of growing corn outside, so Suzanne’s popcorn experiment is “all in one basket.”
Berry season has begun! Berries are one of the most common foraging foods to be found in the North, and we’ll be reporting on them as the different varieties reach maturity and get added to Suzanne’s larder. Wild strawberries are starting to emerge, but here we’ll have a look at haskap berries.
Haskaps are the first domestic berries of the season to ripen. They generally grow well throughout the north, and taste like a combination between a sweet blueberry and a tart green grape.
In addition to eating them raw, haskap berries can be made into jams or fruit leather. Or try them mixed in with vanilla ice cream. And they freeze well so they can be enjoyed throughout the winter.
In Dawson City, Yukon, Maryann Davis of Tundarose Garden sells fresh haskaps and haskap jam at the Dawson Farmers Market approximately every other Saturday while they last. Emu Creek Farm (run by Diana and Ron McCready) supply Dawson’s local restaurants with haskaps. Both are helping out Suzanne with a source of haskaps for her year of eating local. And if you would like your own haskap bushes, they can be purchased from Klondike Valley Nursery, run by John Lenart and Kim Melton.
Miche here. When you go up to visit Old Crow you never know what that unique and generous community will send back with you — a haunch of caribou traded for some Taku River sockeye, or several pounds of King salmon roe. This year a friend and colleague presented me with a whole, wild, specklebelly goose.
I had never tasted a wild goose before. Bringing it home to Whitehorse, I plunked it in the freezer while I decided how to cook it.
The specklebelly, or greater white-fronted goose, migrates through Old Crow every fall and spring on the way to and from their nesting grounds in the Arctic. These geese are an important part of the traditional diet in Old Crow.
In early May the hunters were out on the Porcupine River, bringing home the birds for the family pot.
Every year, the hunter who got my goose gives all the women in his family a bird for Mother’s Day. He tells their men, who cook the goose, to follow the magic formula: 2-2-2. That is, slow-roast the specklebelly with two cups of water for two hours in a 200°F oven.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the specklebelly “provides the makings for one of the most delectable wild game meals you’ve ever eaten.”
This cook concurs. I followed a modified 2-2-2 formula, and that specklebelly was the best wild fowl I’ve ever tasted. Thank you Old Crow.
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Victor Henry has taught Suzanne to see with new eyes.
Victor generously agreed to show Suzanne and ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph how to harvest wild rhubarb around Dawson. It seems like Victor can spot wild rhubarb a mile away! In the process, Suzanne also learned to look at her environment in a new way. She can now spot these plants easily (maybe not quite a mile away) and since has noticed wild rhubarb in many of her foraging locations — even in her own yard!
When Victor was a kid living at Moosehide (just down river from Dawson) he and his friends used to pick wild rhubarb and then sneak some sugar from the house to dip it in.
Victor suggests picking wild rhubarb before it flowers, when the stalks are young (late May to early June around Dawson), not hollow, and when they are juicy when cut and squeezed. Peel back the leaves and eat wild rhubarb fresh, or chop it and freeze it for later.
You can use wild rhubarb the same way you use domestic rhubarb. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Angie Joseph-Rear, especially loves wild rhubarb relish with moose meat. You can find some great recipes for rhubarb stalks (wild or domestic) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks website.
The young leaves can be eaten as well, either raw or cooked. (Note: only wild rhubarb leaves should be eaten, as domestic rhubarb leaves contain too much oxalic acid and are not edible.) To store the leaves, blanche and freeze them using a similar technique as with stinging nettle.
One of the things Suzanne and her family really love eating is popcorn with butter and nutritional yeast. She’s hoping they’ll still be able to indulge their craving during the year of eating only local foods, thanks to Grant Dowdell and Karen Digby.
Grant’s Island is located on the Yukon River about 10 km upriver from Dawson. It has a microclimate unique to the Klondike area that has previously allowed Grant and Karen to grow sweet corn outdoors – something that is usually very difficult to do this far North. This year, they are experimenting growing Tom Thumb popcorn for Suzanne, since this variety takes only 60 days to reach maturity.
If it works out Suzanne may have some popcorn for the upcoming year after all. She will certainly have butter. Next she’ll have to look for local options for toppings as there will be no salt and no nutritional yeast available. Any suggestions for locally available popcorn toppings for Suzanne and Family? If so, let us know.
Spruce tips will become one of Suzanne and family’s candy during their year of eating local. Miche Genest has a wonderful recipe for making Candied Spruce Tips using homemade Spruce Tip Syrup in The Boreal Feast, A Culinary Journey Through the North by Harbour Publishing. And Miche has generously allowed us to share her recipe.
However, Suzanne probably will not have access to sugar to make the syrup, so Suzanne has adapted Miche’s recipe and combined coniferous with deciduous trees to make Candied Spruce Tips in Birch Syrup. They are more ‘birchy’ than the original recipe, but still quite delicious. (And, according to 11-year-old Tess, addictive!) Before you worry about using precious birch syrup to candy spruce tips, remember, you can keep re-using the birch syrup for batch after batch. The birch syrup gradually takes on a more sprucey taste with every batch.
Right now Suzanne is feeling more like a “green horn” than a “green thumb.” Normally, sunflower seeds from the Mammoth Russian Sunflower are know for growing huge 8- to 14-inch heads, packed with seeds. Suzanne was hopeful that she could get them to grow in Dawson with enough time to go to seed. Facing a year without nuts, sunflower seeds were her hope for a local seed. And, in theory, if one grew enough perhaps some oil?
Miche Genest here. A reminder: This winter I experimented with making homemade rhubarb vinegar using only products available in the Yukon — that is, wild low bush cranberries, frozen rhubarb from my back yard in downtown Whitehorse, tap water and Yukon Birch Syrup made by Berwyn Larsen and Sylvia Frisch on the banks of the McQuesten River.
The catalyst for the experiment was to provide a home-grown vinegar for Suzanne, who is about to embark on her year of eating only the foods she can source in or around Dawson. What to do about salad dressing? (The oil is a whole other topic.) No balsamic for her!
Apple cider vinegar is the obvious solution, but Suzanne’s supply of apples from horticulturist John Lenart will be limited, and their primary role to provide fresh fruit for the family. So I turned to locally-available fruit, starting with rhubarb and low bush cranberries.
The first attempt failed but the second time appears to have succeeded. Now that the fresh rhubarb is coming, I’ll continue to experiment and see if it makes a difference. Suzanne is experimenting too. Watch for updates, and in the meantime, click here for the recipe.
I tested the vinegar with a pH strip and it had a PH of 3.
In taste comparisons with commercial apple cider vinegar the apple cider won in terms of both flavour and sharpness. However, I’m delighted with the rhubarb vinegar in salad dressings. It provides the necessary acid. It does its job.
1 cup (250 mL) rhubarb, washed and chopped, at room temperature (I used frozen, but the fresh stuff is coming up now)
3 or 4 juniper berries (for the yeast on their skin)
¼ cup (60 mL) Uncle Berwyn’s Pure Yukon Birch Syrup, at room temperature
4 cups (1L) water at room temperature – if tap water, let stand for a couple of hours in order for the chlorine to evaporate
Place the rhubarb in a bowl deep enough to allow vigorous stirring and wide enough to give maximum exposure to air. A 2L mixing bowl will do the trick.
Dissolve the birch syrup in the water and pour over the rhubarb. Stir vigorously and cover with cheesecloth secured by an elastic or string.
For the next week stir vigorously every 2 to 3 hours. After a few days, the mixture should start to bubble in small, fizzy bubbles that gather around the rim of the bowl. You might see white yeast gathering on the surface. Don’t worry about the yeast, it’s not a bad thing, however more vigorous stirring may be called for. If mould starts to form, spoon it off.
(I tasted the vinegar every second day. At first it tasted like birch syrup. After three days or so it took on a sharpness that eventually became both sharp and sour.)
After a week to 10 days, strain the mixture and discard the rhubarb. Return the strained liquid to the cleaned bowl or a screw top jar. Cover with cheesecloth.
Continue to stir or shake vigorously (put the lid on the jar before shaking, and take it off again afterwards) for three or four days. Taste your vinegar. If you are happy with the sharpness and sourness, stop the show! Cover the jar and put the vinegar in the fridge. I was happy with mine after 2 weeks, though in Wild Fermentation Sandor Katz says fermentation generally takes 3 to 4.
Spruce tips are a versatile ingredient in a variety of dishes and can be frozen for use throughout the year.
Photos by Cathie Archbould.
At this time of year throughout the North the spruce trees are starting to put on their new growth. The dark green of the existing branches is highlighted by the bright green of new tips. These emerging spruce tips are a delicious and versatile wild food.
Spruce tips have a distinct taste. It’s light and citrusy and with slight resin-like flavour. You can just eat them as they are or add them to smoothies and salads. Dried tips can be used for a soothing tea, or add chopped tips to drinking water and let it sit for an hour or so while the water absorbs all the goodness. They’re also great for seasoning dishes like soups or stews, and work well with both sweet and savoury recipes. They can be pickled, candied, turned into oils, vinegars, jellies and syrups, and used as a herb. Craft brewers also often use spruce tips for flavour in their beers.
Dry them off and store them in the freezer for use throughout the year. Spruce tips are high in Vitamin C — another reason to store them for use during wintertime. They also contain carotenoids, and are rich in minerals such as potassium and magnesium.
You’ll know the spruce tips are ready to pick when they are bright green with a small brown husk at the end. Knock off the husk before using. Remember that this is the tree’s new growth, so pick sparingly from any single tree before moving on. It’s a good idea to pick a good distance from any roadway to make sure they’re free of airborne toxins.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a nutritious spring green that has many uses, and once identified, may become a staple for your spring foraging. This plant is a perennial and grows as tall as 5-8 feet at maturity. The stem is usually less than 1 cm in diameter and the coarsely saw-toothed leaves are lance shaped to oval and have a pointed tip and a heart shaped base. The leaves are found growing in opposite pairs along the stalk. Stinging nettle is found growing in rich, moist soil along streams, rivers, meadows and open forest. This plant thrives in disturbed habitats such as village sites, roadsides and barnyards.
The leaves and stem have hairs that contain formic acid and can cause a stinging reaction when they come in contact with the skin — hence its name; many people opt to wear gloves when harvesting. Cooking or drying destroys the stinging properties, including drying nettles for tea, sautéeing, steaming, or baking.
Stinging nettles are best harvested for eating when the young shoots are less than a foot tall and still have a purple tinge to the leaves. They are at their most tender then. They can continue to be harvested beyond this height but they do get more fibrous as they grow and eventually will be too tough to eat. Do not harvest nettles after they have flowered as they develop gritty particles that irritate the urinary tract.
These nettles are rich in vitamins A and C as well as in minerals including calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. They are a delicious alternative to any recipe that calls for spinach and can be added to soups and stir-fry’s for added nutrition and vibrant color. The leaves can also be dried and used to make a healthy and hearty tea. Stinging nettle can be used as a bath to help with rheumatism and the mature plant can be processed to make strong cordage. Many coastal First Nations, including Squamish, used this cordage to make strong fish nets and fishing line.
Up North, we love it when patches of fireweed take over our landscape, after all, it is The Yukon’s official flower. But did you know you can eat it too? Suzanne is enjoying having this first fresh vegetables of the season in her diet.
The first Fireweed Market of the season opened Thursday at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse on a beautiful sunny day—let’s hope Thursdays stay sunny for the rest of the summer!
A small but mighty crowd of farmers, vendors and enthusiastic customers were there, reconnecting after the long winter, sharing gardening tales, buying bedding plants, and snacking on kettle popcorn or samosas. Buskers busked, little kids chased each other through the stalls and the occasional dog was spied eyeing up the snackers and hoping for a dropped pakora.
Supplies of produce were limited, as always at the beginning of the season, but Bart Bounds and Kate Mechan of Elemental Farms had swaths of starts for sale. (Bart said recently, “My ultimate dream is to get everyone in the Yukon growing their own vegetables and I grow the seeds.”)
Local cook and author Michele Genest came home with starts of beets, cabbage and kale from Elemental Farms, (she’s not a gardener, but this year, in solidarity with Suzanne, she’s determined to succeed) a dozen eggs (the blue ones are so beautiful) from Michael Ballon, and an order for two chickens and two turkeys from Grizzly Valley Farms. All in all, she reports, a most satisfying day.
It won’t be long before markets open in Dawson, Mayo and Haines Junction. Here’s to a great growing and eating season!
In this episode of Yu-Kon Grow Iton CBC North’s A New Day with Host Sandi Coleman, Suzanne discussed her search for natural sweeteners, as well as the challenges around finding a locally-sourced vinegar.
Birch sap makes a delicious drink fresh from the trees – refreshing water taste with only a hint of sweetness – but packed full of minerals. Birch sap contains natural carbohydrates, organic acids, fruit acids, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc, sodium, iron and copper, vitamins B (group) and vitamin C. It is said to have diuretic and detoxifying effects on the body, and it has been used as a folk remedy for many ailments in Europe and Asia for hundreds of years.
But birch sap needs to be consumed right away – it doesn’t last more than 24 hours even in the fridge. Sylvia Frisch, however, tried pressure canning the birch sap and storing it in her root cellar and it preserved very well and tastes great!
Also, Sylvia Frisch took advantage of the natural yeasts in birch sap to try and make vinegar. She bottled fresh birch sap last year and added a few raisins or black currents in each bottle and stored them in her root cellar. Suzanne and Sylvia cracked one open last week at Birch Camp and it was a delicious light white vinegar. They have bottled some fresh birch sap with local low bush cranberries this year and will see if they have equal success.
Suzanne’s main sweetener for her year of eating local will be birch syrup from Berwyn Larson and Sylvia Frisch’s birch camp not far from Dawson. The sap has been running well and Suzanne is starting her year with a 12-litre bucket of delicious Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup .
Suzanne recently talked about her experience at the camp on Yu-Kon Grow It on CBC North‘s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman.
This “Traditional Raspberry Pemmican” recipe comes from the show and blog “Wild Kitchen”. Wild Kitchen is a project based in the Canadian sub-arctic about people who harvest wild food. 100% of the cast and crew are from the Northwest Territories and they work with what is available on the land to prepare nutritious recipes with a distinct wild flavor.
You can watch Wild Kitchen episodes here and on their website you can find their awesome recipes.
Suzanne is looking for ways to keep her ever-hungry 17-year-old son, Sam, full next year. Sam suggested that pemmican might be a reasonable locally-sourced snack food that will help him get through the year, especially since he spends lots of time doing physical activity. After all, Canada was practically built on pemmican. Trading posts would seek this high-protein and high-energy food from the natives, and it was used to sustain the voyageurs, especially in winter, as they traveled long distances.