Only two months left in my year of eating 100% local to Dawson. And it is not joy nor eager anticipation that I feel as the end approaches, but a sense of melancholy. I don’t want to stop. I loathe the day that packaged and processed foods re-enter the fridge and the cupboards and I know that I will be powerless to stop it. My family has put up with this experiment for almost a year, and they are very much looking forward to the shopping spree on August 1st.
Tess misses salt and the ability to pour herself a bowl of Cheerios in the morning. Kate misses baking – the fluffy sort that comes with white flour, baking powder and white sugar. Sam misses grab and go filler food – bagels, crackers, a limitless supply of apples all year round. Gerard misses big tubs of unrationed ice-cream.
And what do I miss?
Surprisingly almost nothing. Except a hot mug of strong black tea – which I am loathe to return to after ten months of being caffeine free. I expected I would miss chocolate, avocados, oranges, sushi, nutritional yeast on butter slathered popcorn…
But it is not these things that I miss.
I miss salad dressing! Vegetable oil and balsamic vinegar salad dressing!
Fresh greens are back on the menu and I now realize just how much I miss salad dressing. Lettuce, on its own, just doesn’t cut it for me. Ghee (clarified butter) and melted animal fat do not make good vegetable oil alternatives for salad. Rhubarb juice (my vinegar) doesn’t have enough punch on its own. I have tried making a ranch style dressing with yogurt, herbs, garlic and honey but it is still missing something.
So, with 2 months left to go, and fresh greens popping out of the ground, I am determined to crack this case. There must be a 100% local salad dressing option that can rival vegetable oil & balsamic vinegar. Help? If you have any suggestions, please let me know!!
I’ve been away for a bit. Living the life of the normal mass of humanity. Eating salt and sugar and chocolate and coffee and bread. Lots of bread and pastry. Relishing in croissants, light and fluffy, laced in butter (the salted type please!). Cereals for breakfast. Taking full advantage of the utility of commercial stores, buying food and consuming food while on the move. Rediscovering the sheer decadence of grabbing an ice-cream bar when a bit peckish on the road, marveling at not having to peel a potato and watch it boil as the stomach growls in wanton anticipation.
Sometimes we wonder about human progress. We wonder about the cost of convenience, about skills that have been abandoned, then lost. We marvel at the rise of dough in a pan or the conversion of agitated milk into butter. We love to see fresh garden shoots, sprouting from inert seed to vibrant life, made possible with the magical combination of dirt, sun, soil and water. It is easy to sentimentally linger in the past, easy to feel that we have become disconnected from the entanglement of chemistry which defines life.
But the human quest for convenience is not a recent event. We have always strived to make life more comfortable, to anticipate future needs and to mitigate risks. Thus, societies were born, and dependence on agriculture offered more predictability than the nomadic life of the hunter/gatherer. To grow, harvest and store food with increasing efficiency is to be human.
So, it is no surprise that we have evolved into our current state, where food is processed, packaged and shipped prodigiously. And while we can all agree that this process allows for some nutrient loss as well as the addition of some unwanted preservatives and additives, we cannot deny the necessity. We can’t all go shoot a moose. Nor can most of us grow and store our own food, regardless of how good it tastes or how nutritious it might be.
So, modern life must be about compromise. Be attentive to our food and make the most practical and healthy choices we can. Enjoy our indulgences but try to keep them infrequent enough such that we do not suffer from the health consequences that so often accompany them.
And did I mention that adding a few spruce tips to a mug of boiled water is a pleasant drink with which to start the day?
As part of the Dawson Youth Fiddlers entourage, I have just returned from Vadzaih Choo Drin, Caribou Days, in Old Crow, Yukon – four days of celebrating the Spring migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd en route to their Northern calving grounds and feasting on food from the land!
Caribou Days is a wonderful four day celebration of feasts, games and music, with jigging and dancing that continue to the wee hours of the morning. Everyone takes part, young and old, men and women. One of the Dawson contingent coined a new slogan for Old Crow: “Old Crow – where men dance!”
Much of the feasting celebrates food from the land. The caribou, vadzaih, features front and centre, but also rabbit, muskrat, whitefish, salmon, duck and beaver. For me, it was my first taste of muskrat! (Although I took my tub of Dawson local food with me, I also treated myself to some tastes of local Old Crow food while I was in Old Crow!)
There is a wonderful synergism to the games and feasting at Caribou Days. The log sawing competition and the kindling competition help keep the outdoor fire going for the huge grill that cooks the food from the land. The rabbit skinning contest and the muskrat skinning contest are perfectly timed before the meat hits the grill!
Muskrat meat ready for the grill, and fur ready for use. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Muskrat tails on the grill. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Beaver was also on the menu. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Prepared caribou heads ready to go in the pot. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Whitefish being cleaned for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Vuntut Gwitchin citizen, Stan Njootli Sr. demonstrates how to skin a muskrat. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Crow River ice after break-up. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The outdoor grill being prepared for the Caribou Days feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Almost ready. Checking on the caribou. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Food from the land ready for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The caribou are vitally important to the Vuntut Gwitchin who have relied on the caribou for tens of thousands of years for food and for clothing. All parts of the harvested caribou continue to be used from the head to the hoof to the hide. The Vuntut Gwitchin and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, with the support of many Canadians and Americans, continue to fight for the protection of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds, wintering grounds and migration routes from oil and gas exploration.
Massi Cho Old Crow for welcoming the Dawson Youth Fiddlers so warmly to Caribou Days with amazing Old Crow hospitality. We had a fantastic time!
One of my foraging and chef friends in Whitehorse goes over to Haines, Alaska a few times every year to enjoy the sea and the salt air and do some wild harvesting. She might come back with bags of lambs quarters, she might score a clutch of chanterelle mushrooms or a kilo of spot prawns.
The other day, just back from one of her excursions, she texted me, “Want some fresh eulachon for supper?” She was lucky enough to have been there for the weekend of May 5th, when the eulachon were running. I texted back, “Wow! I’m really not sure. Do I?”
The reason for my hesitation was I’d heard that eulachon oil, a delicacy to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest from California to BC to Alaska, can be really strong for the uninitiated. I’d also heard that the fish are so oily that when dried, they can reportedly be lit to burn like a candle. I’d smelled the eulachon being processed beside the Chilkat River last spring. The aroma was powerful. But I’d never tasted the oil, or the fish.
In many parts of the formerly eulachon-rich Pacific Northwest, this small, smelt-like staple of the Indigenous diet has disappeared. Happily, the run is still strong in Haines. My friend said that the Chilkoot River ran black in places, there were so many fish. She tried catching them in a collapsible camping colander, but they were too quick, so she just plunged her hand in and grabbed them, two or three at a time, stuffed them into a pot on shore, slammed the lid on and waded back into the river to grab some more — bouquets of eulachon, the gift of spring.
Back in Whitehorse, after our text exchange, my friend came over with a baby cooler. In it were a baggie-full of eulachon and two good handfuls of devil’s club sprouts. (The only time I’ve ever tasted those sprouts is when she has brought them back for my husband and me. ) She just happened to be in the forest at the right time; one day later and the sprouts would’ve been too big, the prickles starting to harden.
That night we feasted on these two presents from Alaska, kindness of my friend. On her advice, we lightly smoked the eulachon whole, then coated them, still whole, in flour. My husband had just returned from a hike with beautiful ripe juniper berries; I crushed those and added them to the flour, which was local; the last of my supply of triticale flour from Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley.
We fried the fish quickly in butter, and the devil’s club sprouts in butter and garlic. We ate both sprouts and eulachon with our fingers. We peeled the backbone, organs attached, from the fish, split the head to remove the brains and crunched the crispy skulls in our teeth. The flesh was sweet, mild, and silky, not oily at all. The devil’s club sprouts tasted, as my friend’s partner often says, like pure life. Strong, conifer-like, bracing, almost medicinal.
I said to my husband, “We have to really pay attention because we’re not going to taste these flavours again until next spring.” The bonus of eating seasonally, and locally, is that you can savour these experiences for the special treat that they are.
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.
In bygone days, when folks weren’t relying on freshly stocked grocery store shelves, the months of March, April and May were known as ‘The Hungry Gap”. The time of year when much of the winter’s store of food had run out and the potential of a new crop still awaited planting season.
We ate the last of our lettuce in September. Our last squash was consumed in February. We are close to finishing off the last of the carrots. And now we have no more onions.
In this new reality, where our consumption is almost entirely based on what we have stored away for the winter, I would have thought that consuming the last taste of onion would cause me anxiety. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as I had thought it would.
Perhaps it is because we are far from hungry. My worry last summer about not having enough seems to have resulted in over stocking. I think I have put away enough tomatoes for two years!
Perhaps it is because of our new reality of eating with the season.
Perhaps it stems from the challenge of cooking well with what we have instead of pining away for what we don’t have.
So we have run out of onions. But I still have garlic. I have one jar of dried chives. And I still have lots of dried herbs.
No more onions, no big deal.
Come July, the first taste of a fresh onion will be all the more delicious!
It’s something Dawson City hasn’t seen since the 1930’s — local dairy products for sale. Klondike Valley Creamery, a dairy farm in Rock Creek, on the far side of the Klondike River, has been raising the first dairy cows the region has seen in almost 80 years. And now the Creamery’s first dairy products have just arrived on grocery store shelves in Dawson.
Products for sale at the Dawson City General Store include a delicious onion-and-dill cheese spread and, for those with a sweet tooth, Mocha Labneh — the nutella of dairy products. Each container is labelled with the names of the cows who donated their milk for the cause!
The Creamery is planning to have more local Dawson dairy products after this year’s river break-up.
I know that fish tend to accumulate toxins from our water systems, especially predatory fish. So I wondered, since I am consuming a fair amount of burbot liver this winter, do I need to worry about mercury levels and other contaminants such as PCB’s and DDT?
To my surprise I learned that, in fish, mercury accumulates in the muscle in levels much higher than in the liver. This is the exact opposite of terrestrial animals such as caribou where mercury levels are higher in the liver compared to the meat.
Mercury levels in fish vary depending on the location but, in general, predatory fish (lake trout, burbot) have higher levels of contaminants than non-predatory fish (whitefish, grayling, salmon) and larger (older) fish have lower levels of contaminants than smaller (younger) fish.
According the limited burbot data we have available in the Yukon, the mercury levels in burbot muscle are five times higher than in the burbot liver. However burbot muscle has the highest mercury levels of all the freshwater fish we catch in these parts. Chum salmon has the lowest mercury levels (less than a tenth that of burbot).
Based on Health Canada’s tolerable daily mercury limit is 0.47 ug/kg/day (for adult men and adult women who are not of child bearing age), my daily limit of burbot would be maxed out at 45 grams (1.5 oz) per day! And my daily limit of burbot liver would be a whopping 225 grams (8 oz) per day.
So my Vitamin D needs of 10 grams of burbot liver per day are no big deal.
But a daily limit of 45 grams of burbot muscle is a really small portion! Of course, I am not eating burbot every day, so it still averages out ok – but it was a good reminder to limit my consumption of burbot.
So my take home message: Burbot liver is a great source of local Vitamin D. By consuming sautéed burbot liver one can get enough Vitamin D without too much mercury. Burbot flesh should be considered a winter treat and if one is going to eat a lot of local fish, grayling and salmon would be better choices.
Want the stats?
Here are the statistics from fish in Old Crow from a study by Yukon Research Scientist, Mary Gamberg
Mercury per gram of fresh fish:
Burbot : 0.62 ug/g
Pike: 0.17 ug/g
Burbot liver: 0.124 ug/g
Grayling: 0.06 ug/g
Chum Salmon: 0.04 ug/g
(Based on a sample size of 14 burbot, 11 pike and 12 chum salmon from Old Crow and grayling from other Yukon locations.)
For adults, the tolerable daily mercury limit is 0.47 ug/kg/day (Health Canada) (less for women of child bearing age)
This translates to a tolerable daily limit in grams of fish for an adult woman of my size:
Burbot : 45 g (1.5 oz)
Pike: 164 g
Burbot liver: 225 g
Grayling: 466 g
Chum Salmon: 700 g
As mercury levels differ from one water system to another, I was curious as to what the levels would be in the burbot living in the Yukon River at Dawson City. I sent in one 4 pound, 11 year old burbot for testing and levels came back as 0.23 ug/g mercury in the muscle and 0.04 ug/g in the liver. The mercury levels from the Old Crow burbot are 2.5 times higher than the levels in the one fish tested from the Yukon River. One sample only, but it suggests that the mercury levels in the Yukon River near Dawson are less than the levels around Old Crow.
For PCB’s and DDT, the amount found in 10 grams of burbot liver from the Old Crow study was quite low, one tenth of the tolerable daily intake for PCB’s and one twentieth for DDT.
Living in the far North, I usually take Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, during the winter months (1000 IU/day). This year I wanted to see if a local diet alone would keep my Vitamin D levels stable. Not unexpectedly, my levels dropped below normal as the days became shorter.
But, thanks to local Dawsonite and ice fisher, Jim Leary, I was introduced to burbot and it saved the day!
Burbot is an amazing fish. It is a freshwater, carnivorous, bottom feeder that thrives at the coldest times of the year under the ice of the Yukon River. In fact, it has chosen January as its favourite spawning month. Burbot live to be decades old. They have no scales and some folks find them a bit ugly and eel like. I think they have beautiful eyes. A survivor if ever I saw one. Which leaves me with some ambiguity about catching them. But their flesh is a thick and delicious white fish and their livers are especially nutritious.
Burbot liver is huge – six times larger than the livers of other freshwater fish of the same size, and comprising about 10% of their body weight! And their liver is packed with Vitamin D and Vitamin A, in fact 4 times the potency of the Vitamin D and A found in cod liver.
Turns out that a mere 10 grams of burbot liver per day would supply me with the equivalent of 1000 IU of Vitamin D. Chopped into chunks and sautéed in butter, burbot liver tastes similar to scallops. So consuming 150 grams of burbot liver every couple of weeks was no hardship on the palate.
And it worked! Thanks to the burbot, my Vitamin D levels returned to normal.
Fish tend to accumulate toxins from our water systems, especially carnivorous bottom feeding fish. I will share my findings on mercury levels in burbot and some other Yukon fish in the next blog.
If you’ve ever wondered about the nutrients in wild meat and fish harvested from the land, check out this comprehensive table of data compiled by Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at the University of McGill:
I used to think you needed a prairie to grow grains, or at least a big field. Then I met Dan Jason, farmer, gardener, author, cook, and owner of the seed company Salt Spring Seeds. His dearest wish is that we all become grain growers, whether we have a plot of land, a box in a community garden or a backyard of clayey soil in downtown Whitehorse.
Jason lives and gardens on Salt Spring Island, and he is a legend in British Columbia. For the past 30 years, he has been finding, cultivating and saving the seeds from ancient varieties of grain; grain that has grown in different parts of the world for thousands of years, providing sustenance and a way of life for numerous peoples.
Jason is passionate about the beauty of these grains, in the field and on the plate; he loves the way they look and the way they taste, their grace and their nutritional benefits. In 2017, introduced by our mutual publisher, we collaborated on writing Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds, a garden-to-table book with growing information and recipes for grains from amaranth to rye. Now he has me convinced that not only can I cook with grains, I can grow them too. “Growing grains is a lot easier than just about anything else,” he says. “It’s like planting grass.”
Despite our short growing season and cold winters, farmers have been growing grain for animal feed and green manure in the Yukon since the Gold Rush era. But we have a history of growing grain for human consumption too. Hudson’s Bay Company trader Robert Campbell harvested a “keg” (about seven and a half gallons) of barley at Fort Selkirk in 1848. In 1901, the Pelly Farm produced wheat and sold it, ground into flour, in Dawson City. Oats, wheat and barely were successfully grown at the federal experimental sub-station at the J.R. Farr farm on Swede Creek, 10 kilometres south of Dawson, in 1917.
In the present day, Otto Muehlbach and Connie Handwerk at Kokopellie Farm near Dawson have grown and harvested rye, barley and even wheat, keeping Suzanne Crocker and her family well-supplied with grain to grind into flour for baked goods in this year of eating locally.
In 2016 Krista and Jason Roske harvested 40 kilos of triticale, a rye and wheat hybrid, at Sunnyside Farm in the Ibex Valley near Whitehorse. I worked with their grain and flour all year long. Several years ago Tom and Simone Rudge of Aurora Mountain Farm on the Takhini River Road harvested rye and ground it into bread flour; it made beautiful bread.
But this is all grain grown on a larger scale, with the expectation of a fairly substantial yield–if not enough for the commercial market, then at least enough to contribute to the grain and flour needs of a small household. It’s unlikely that backyard grain growers will feed the family more than a few meals with their crop.
Their yield will be of a different sort—fun, satisfaction, and beauty in the garden at every stage of growth. And maybe a celebration or two.
This sesaon Randy Lamb, Yukon agrologist and chair of the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society (DUGS), which runs the Whitehorse Community Garden, plans to plant a 4 x 20-foot bed with barley from local farms, a hull-less barely from Salt Spring Seeds, and Red Fife wheat. “I should have enough to make bannock or pancakes for one of our season-end potluck socials at the Whitehorse community garden this year,” he says.
He plans to thresh and mill the grain himself, make hot cakes, and serve them with raspberry jam made with honey and berries from the garden. “My goal is to present it as “100-metre hotcakes”, based on the 100-mile diet theme.” That’s a pretty great incentive to grow some grain. Dan Jason would add, remember to eat your backyard grains whole, too. Or sprout them. “You get a lot back, sprouting your grains,” he says.
Jason thinks hull-less barley is a great idea, because it’s pretty tricky for the home gardener to remove the hulls from other varieties. He suggests rye, too, for the Yukon climate. “Rye is super-hardy. It can go to -40°C easily. And it’s easy to harvest, because the hulls are really loose-fitting. You just rub them and they come apart.” Flax and buckwheat are also good possibilities for the northern backyard grain grower. They’re hardy, adaptable and produce beautiful flowers.
Those who grew up in the Whitehorse suburb of Riverdale will remember oats and wheat growing in their midst, in the front yard of the Cable family’s house. Jack Cable planted the grains as green manure. “I was brought up in market garden country, so I knew that soil needed amendment, up here. It wasn’t a grain harvesting exercise, it was a soil-amendment exercise.” Urban grain-growing was so unusual (and still is!) that the 15 x 5–foot plot in the Cable front yard became a local attraction.
Cable’s intention was to grow a lawn once the soil had been amended. In my downtown Whitehorse backyard there is no lawn, but there is grass. Long, wild, tenacious grass. My intention is to replace some of that grass with grain. Jason suggests roto-tilling a few times first to dislodge the grass. He thinks I might even be able to grow amaranth—it’s worth a try. I’m hoping that raising grain turns out to be as low-intervention as raising the wild grasses, lambsquarters and dandelions currently holding dominion in my yard.
Would it not be the coolest thing, to walk through a Yukon community and see not mown lawns, but waving seas of grain growing in all the backyards? That would be some local attraction. As Randy Lamb says, “The locavore movement has been growing for years up here. Every season I’ve been adding something extra to my local diet. Veggies and berries are easy. Fruit, eggs, and honey take a little more effort. Grain is the logical next step.”
Suzanne, along with the Yellowknife Farmer’s Market and Food Charter Coalition will be guest presenter for a webinar this coming Monday 12 March 2018 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. PST on what sustainable food means in the North.
The Northern Food Network (NFN) is co-hosted by the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research (AICBR) and Food Secure Canada (FSC) as a space for people working in and interested in northern food security to share, learn about best practices across the North and advance collective action on food security. They co-facilitate bi-monthly webinars and teleconferences with focused presentations and discussion around 4 core themes: environment, health, agriculture, and food security.
When Art Napoleon found he had to cook a selection of wild and cultivated ingredients from a local food “mystery box” over a campfire with three Indigenous Yukon Elders, he said, “Oh no! You’re going to gang up on me.” He had reason to be fearful—Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Jane Moses, Teetl’it Gwich’in Elder Dorothy Alexie, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormandy are all experienced campfire cooks with many years of cooking on the land behind them.
But as participants at “Our Camp is our Kitchen” learned, when it comes to campfire cooking Napoleon is no slouch. He and the ladies transformed the ptarmigan, rabbit, caribou guts, caribou meat, sheep ribs, wild rhubarb, cranberries, birch syrup and a host of other delicacies into soup, stew, fricassee, viande grillée and pudding that fed anywhere from 75 to 100 people. Their cooking fire burned in an galvanized metal drum with a grill set over top; their camp was a wall tent and a tarp shelter in the parking lot beside the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Community Hall.
The event was part of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Myth and Medium Conference, held from February 19 to 23 in Dawson City. Napoleon was a special guest at the conference, and the organizers worked him from morning till night, calling several of his skills into play. He arrived Monday afternoon, gave the opening keynote address that evening, cooked all day Tuesday, performed a concert Tuesday evening, gave a talk on food and nutrition Wednesday morning and flew out Wednesday afternoon.
As Napoleon told the audience Monday night, he juggles several careers–singer-songwriter, educator, conservationist, naturalist. He holds an MA in Language Revitalization from the University of Victoria and is a former Chief of the Saulteau First Nation in north-eastern BC. Most recently, he’s co-host of APTN’s Moosemeat and Marmalade with British chef Dan Hayes — an exploration of two very different approaches to cooking wild game, the Indigenous and the classically trained.
Food and cooking are the sinews that tie much of Napoleon’s life and work together. He first learned how to cook on open fires and woodstoves as a child living in Peace River country, and later grew comfortable in modern cooking facilities. He has always loved cooking for people, and one of his approaches to cooking traditional food is to “gourmet it up.”
“It’s given me great pleasure to serve good food to people, especially if I can present traditional food in ways that people haven’t tasted,” he said. “If you want to show the beauty of your culture, food is one way to do that.”
Napoleon said that at heart he’s an educator, and cultural revitalization is a cornerstone of his life philosophy. “So food is something that fits in there nicely. Food and philosophy and cultural teachings—I don’t really see much difference between those.”
Napoleon, who lives in Victoria, advised people on how to “Indigenize their diet” in an urban context. In his talk on food, nutrition and planning on Wednesday morning he reminded the audience, “If you live in the city there’s lots of ways you can still access your traditional resources.” He goes back to his traditional territory to hunt; he receives packages of wild food from his family; he learns what wild foods grow in his area and goes out foraging. “I can still be an Indian down there, I don’t have to be a Victorian.”
Napoleon also suggested ways of incorporating better nutrition into modern diets, noting that on the land, “People ate clean and they were very active. They were in great shape. Our meats were the original free range organic meats.” Today, he said, “The food industry sucks. It’s all about the money. You’ve got to make it all about health, and make your own choices.”
The reality is that Indigenous people live in two worlds, he added, and even hunters supplement their traditional diet with store-bought foods. “They’ve just become part of the culture.” He laughed. “Red Rose tea is part of the culture!”
He admires Suzanne for her efforts to eat only local food for a year, calling her endeavour “either crazy or brave, and maybe a little bit of both. I think it’s a lot of work, and would take great, great discipline.”
But he shares one of Suzanne’s concerns, mentioned in her presentation on Tuesday evening: how sustainable is her diet? Napoleon asked, “If everybody wanted to do it…would things get over-harvested? What kind of impact would it have on the land? Long ago people managed it in a way that was sustainable, but now there are bigger populations.”
These are questions shared and pondered across Canada and around the world: how do we feed ourselves in a sustainable manner? When the population will potentially reach 9.7 billion by 2050?
As Indigenous people who live in two cultures, Napoleon said, “There’s no way we can survive as an island. That’s the great thing about the Yukon–the divide is not so wide as it is in Souther Canada.” He ended his Wednesday morning talk on an emotional note. “You guys are lucky,” he said, near tears. “You guys who are living in territories that are bringing [the traditions] back.”
Napoleon said he always likes to contribute food for thought in his work. Asked what he would like people to take away from his participation at Myth and Medium, he reflected for a minute and said, “The need for balance. Always remembering that we walk in two worlds, and there’s ways to return to your cultural integrity while still living in these modern times.”
My daughter, Tess, was having a craving – for poutine.
It was then I realized that I could actually make a totally northern, totally local poutine! And so I did.
Dawson potatoes, Dawson cheese curds, and moose gravy!
Norland potatoes grown at Kokopellie Farm are stored fresh all winter in their root cellar. With a skidoo or a four-wheel-drive truck I can brave this year’s long and bumpy ice road on the Yukon River and head to Kokopellie Farm on Saturdays between 2 and 5 pm to buy them direct from Otto’s root cellar.
The potatoes were oiled with rendered beef tallow from the Klondike Valley Creamery and then baked into scrumptious fries.
I made the cheese curds with milk from the Klondike Valley Creamery with the help of rhubarb juice (instead of vinegar).
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.
Every second year, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Dawson City, Yukon, hosts a colloquium/conference entitled Myth and Medium. The theme in 2018 was Food, Culture, and Identity, so not surprisingly, given her First We Eat project, Suzanne was asked to be one of the contributors to the event.
The week-long celebration kicked off on Monday with a potluck dinner, where attendees were invited to bring a dish that helped denote their heritage or identity. (Suzanne’s contribution to the potluck was her 100% locally-sourced garlic chevre on rye crackers.) But the evening’s main course was the collection of food-centered stories that followed by various guest speakers, including Suzanne and her husband Gerard.
The next day the official presentations began, given by a collection of notable speakers, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, including luminaries like Art Napoleon and Lawrence Hill, to name just a couple. Participating in a session entitled The Land Sustains Us, Suzanne paid tribute to those in the local community whose wisdom and aid have made her local-only experience possible. The audience was also treated to a preview snippet from Suzanne’s film, with very favourable crowd reaction.
Other Myth and Medium 2018 sessions touched on a wide variety of subjects, as one would expect from something as fundamental and far-reaching as food. From looking at wild plants for food and medicine — and a way to reconnect with traditional values — to finding what ancient stories can teach us about our food, the speakers were diverse, knowledgeable, and thought-provoking.
The next two afternoons saw Suzanne at a booth and doing hands-on cooking demonstrations and tastings of some of the things she has learned during her journey — from using colts foot ash as a salt substitute, to frying up burbot liver to help boost her Vitamin D levels.
Myth and Medium wasn’t all business. The event, which told attendees to: “Bring your dancing shoes and your appetites,” included lots of feasting, music, laughter, and activities. One of the highlights was the outdoor campfire, where there was cooking of all manner of wild local meat, including some rarer fare, such as moose nose, lynx, and a local ‘haggis’ made by stuffing a caribou stomach.
Ultimately though, the conference proved the old adage (although perhaps on several new levels as well), that we are what we eat.
I continue to search for a local option for salt in my community of Dawson which is nowhere near the sea. I haven’t yet had to resort to collecting the sweat off Gerard’s back as he chops wood.
So far coltsfoot ash has been the most surprising result – a wild plant whose bland tasting leaves magically transform into a salty ash after they are dried and burned. Dried celery leaves have been my go-to salt substitute – adding a mineral rich flavour to all things savoury.
Coltsfoot ash (left), and celery leaves. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
I am still researching the possibility of harvesting salt from local animal mineral licks. In the meantime, the Takhini Salt Flats came onto my radar – an endangered ecosystem that occurs in a small pocket of the Yukon a short drive from Whitehorse. This ecosystem is so unique that it is not even found in nearby Alaska. The Flats are not close enough to Dawson to be considered an option for my year of eating local. But it did inspire me to question if the salt from Takhini Salt Flats would be suitable for human consumption. I contacted Bruce Bennett, Coordinator of the Yukon Conservation Data Centre, at Environment Yukon to find out more.
And the more I learned about the Takhini Salt Flats, the more fascinated I became – unique plants that can be watered with salt water, ancient arctic ground squirrel cloaks from the Beringia Era, and inland ponds of shrimp! Read on and I will share some of the fascinating information I have learned about the Takhini Salt Flats.
Takhini Salt Flats is considered an athalassic salt flat which means the salt does not come from the sea. Instead, with a mountain range close by, the salt comes from silt from glacial lakes. Areas of permafrost prevent the water from soaking into the ground and there are no outlets to take the water to nearby rivers. So the water gradually evaporates leaving salt crystals on its surface.
Besides being very salty, the ground at Takhini Salt Flats is also very alkaline with pH values between 8.5 to 9.5. For both these reasons, most plants will not grow there. However there are some unique salt and alkali loving plants that flourish, many of which give the salt flats its distinctive red hue. And some of these plants are also edible.
One such edible red plant, that does not grow elsewhere in the Yukon, is Sea Asparagus or Arctic Glasswort (of the Salicornia family). Too bad it doesn’t grow near Dawson. Apparently, the young shoots taste salty and are rich in calcium, iron, Vitamin B and C and are exceptionally high in Vitamin A.
Another fascinating edible plant at Takhini Salt Flats is Salt Water Cress (Arabidopsis salsuginea) part of the mustard family and a relative of canola. Salt Water Cress, is a ‘super plant’ – you could water it with sea water and it would grow! And it will survive freezing, drought and nitrogen deficiency! It used to be common throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan but is now virtually non-existent in those areas due to agriculture and housing developments.
Chenopodium (the Goosefoot family) is related to quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa). The two most common Chenopodium in the Yukon are Lamb’s Quarter (Chenopodium album) and Strawberry Blite (Chenopodiumcapitatum) – both edible. (I ate a lot of both while foraging last summer and Fall!) However there is a rare Chenopodium, Chenopodiumsalinium, that dates back to the Beringia Era, that can still be found at Takhini Salt Flats. Chenopodium salinium pollen, which is preserved by freezing, helps archeologists date artifacts uncovered by melting permafrost in the North.
The remains of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi , Long Ago Person Found, was discovered in 1999 by sheep hunters on Champagne and Aishihik First Nations territory in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park in British Columbia near Haines Junction, Yukon. His remains were found as well as his walking stick, a spruce root hat, a small bag made of beaver skins and a fur cloak made out of arctic ground squirrel pelts. A high portion of preserved Chenopodium salinium pollen was found on the fur of the cloak and that clue showed that he had visited alkaline flats and helped date Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi to around 1700 AD.
Arctic ground squirrel cloaks were worn ceremonially by indigenous people long ago and traditional trails can still be found in the Takhini Salt Flats which would have been used by indigenous hunters over 700 years ago. The Takhini Salt Flats were a natural grassland for arctic ground squirrels because the high salinity of the soil prevents forests from taking over. Although, for unknown reasons they died out for a time, Arctic ground squirrels are now starting to return to the Takhini Salt Flats.
One would expect to have to go to the ocean to find shrimp. Not so! Several varieties of shrimp live in the inland ponds of the Takhini Salt Flats. One such variety is the Fairy Shrimp. Fairy Shrimp are the Sea Monkeys that many of us remember from our childhood! Many migratory shore birds come to the Takhini Salt Flats for a shrimp feast.
But I digress. What about the salt?
The salt itself is mainly in the form of mirabilite (Na2SO4·10H2O – also known as Glauber’s salt) and thenardite (Na2SO4). There is about 5% sodium chloride (NaCl) which is what we eat as table salt, but there is no easy way to separate out the NaCl from the mirabilite and thenardite. Mirabilite and thenardite are used by the chemical industry to make soda and also used in glass making. Mirabilite is also used in Chinese medicine and thernardite is also used in the paper industry.
My conclusion? Even if I did live closer to the Takhini Salt Flats, I’m not sure it would be safe to be sprinkling this salt on my food. Although I would certainly be taste testing the edible plants that grow there.
Kate, 15 years old, made a delicious supper of moose steak with Béarnaise sauce and roasted vegetables using only ingredients local to Dawson.
The Béarnaise sauce tasted very lemony despite having no lemon juice in it. Kate substituted rhubarb juice for both the vinegar and the lemon juice. And she used ground nasturtium seed pods in place of pepper.
Inuk chef and cooking show host Ooleepeeka (Rebecca) Veevee, The Laughing Chef, is a familiar and beloved face in Nunavut. Armed with her ulu, her infectious smile and her sense of humour, Ooleepeeka is the driving force behind the Inuit Broadcasting Company’s popular TV show “Niqitsiat” (which means “Good Food Ideas”) – a cooking show that profiles Northern dishes made with traditional Inuit food from the land or “country food”.
Caribou pizza, goose soup, char casserole, seal pie, beluga muktuk stir-fry are just some of the dishes that Ooleepeeka Veevee cooks up on her show. Ooleepeeka often brings guests on her show including NHL hockey star Jordin Tootoo (first Inuk to play in the NHL). No one is too famous to learn from Ooleepeeka!
In 2015 Ooleepeeka Veevee received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Award for her work promoting traditional Inuit foods. In awarding her the honour, the government cited how her TV program has been recognized for combating a growing epidemic of diseases related to poor nutrition in northern communities.
Ooleepeeka has shared her variation of a Traditional Seal Meat Recipe (link) with First We Eat.
“Niqitsiat” has been broadcast in Inuktitut on the Inuit Broadcasting Company since 2009 and can be viewed on APTN . Check out an episode of Niqitsiat, Ooleepeeka Veevee teaching how to cook BBQ arctic char and caribou head.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir
New York chef, Dan Barber, likes to tell how he experienced an epiphany a decade ago watching his chefs constantly dipping into the flour bin located outside his office. He realized that he knew nothing — where it came from, or how it was grown — about this ubiquitous, and somewhat tasteless ingredient, which was pretty much in everything the restaurant prepared. He set out to find a healthy, holistic flour alternative, but what started simply as a search for organic, locally-sourced grains, led to a broader understanding of sustainable agricultural methods. He realized there were many secondary crops being planted by the farmer to nurture and protect the soil and yield, but not necessarily contributing to the farm’s bottom line. That’s when Barber realized he needed to integrate his culinary methods and list of ingredients to include all those being used by the grower.
Barber has long been a champion of the local, organic food movement. But his interest goes beyond just serving this type of fare in his pioneering farm-to-table Blue Hill restaurant. Now, with a new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes for the Future of Food, Barber is striving to change not only the way food is grown, but the consumption habits of Americans as well.
Barber’s relates how his pursuit of intense flavor repeatedly forced him to look beyond individual ingredients at a region’s broader story. In The Third Plate he draws on the wisdom and experience of chefs, farmers, and seed breeders around the world, and proposes a new definition for ethical and delicious eating. He charts a bright path forward for eaters and chefs alike, daring everyone to imagine a future cuisine that is as sustainable as it is delicious.
In Barber’s view, modern industrial food systems are actually disconnected from the whole because of their large-scale specialization and centralization of food products. For organic farm-to-table agriculture to be truly sustainable, the whole process, including those preparing and consuming the food, need to be treated as parts of an interconnected, holistic fabric.
Barber has now opened a second restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a working farm and celebrated educational center in the Hudson Valley region of New York, where he both practices and preaches his philosophy. And the world is taking notice. He has received several accolades and awards for both his cuisine and his crusading efforts. In 2009, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
In an article in The Atlantic magazine, Barber describes how one of his inspirations is John Muir, (a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States), who wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
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!
New kids Freddie, Fiona, and Freda. Photos by Suzaane Crocker.
There are 3 new kids in town! Welcome to Freddie, Fiona, and Freda, born 10 days ago at Sun North Ventures in Rock Creek, outside Dawson City, Yukon.
Goats are a marvellous addition to food security in the North.
According to the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, NWT, one person needs approximately 1 million calories per year. The milk from just one goat provides 600,000 calories per year, more than half our calorie needs! In contrast, the meat from one goat would only provide 40,000 calories.
Goats are multipurpose. Female goats will provide milk as long as they are breeding and reproducing. Goat manure can be added directly to a vegetable garden as fertilizer – it doesn’t need to compost first as does horse, cow and chicken manure. And goats not capable of milk production or not required for breeding can become a local source of meat.
Becky and Paul Sadlier are two of many farmers who are successfully raising livestock in the North, despite the challenges of overwintering, feeding and breeding.
Larger animals, like goats, pigs and cows are able to produce enough body heat to keep their barns warm without needing any external heat – even at minus 40° C. Finding local feed is important, as shipping costs are expensive to bring feed from down south. And then there is the breeding – keeping variety in the gene pool to keep the stock healthy without having to import animals from down south.
Congratulations to the Northern farmers who are finding ways to make it work.
Do you know of other goats being raised further North than Dawson? Let us know.
Sean Sherman is known as the Sioux Chef and he is on a mission to revitalize indigenous cuisine across North America.
Sean and his indigenous Sioux Chef team create delicious meals using local indigenous ingredients — game meat, foraged plants, and wild grains. They exclude ingredients introduced since colonization such as dairy products, wheat flour, processed sugar, beef, chicken and pork. No bannock or fry bread! The traditional native foods are low glycemic, contain healthy fats and great proteins. Amaranth, quinoa, wild rice, vegetable flour, cedar, juniper, sage, bergamot, squash, corn, maple syrup …. these are just some of the staple ingredients in the Sioux Chef pantry.
The result, says Sean, is “vibrant, beautiful and healthy. It is a way to preserve and revitalize indigenous culture through food.”
As a chef, Sean found he could easily find food from all over the world but he had difficulty finding foods that were representative of his indigenous culture. So he began researching what his Lakota ancestors were eating in times past. His research took him into the foundations of indigenous food systems including Native American farming techniques, wild food usage and harvesting, land stewardship, salt and sugar making, hunting and fishing, food preservation, Native American migration histories, elemental cooking techniques, and Native culture and history.
Sean and the Sioux Chef team take knowledge from the past, apply it to modern day and create something new from it.
They have just released a fantastic cookbook “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen” complete with award winning recipes and teaming with knowledge. This is Sean’s version of ‘The Joy of Native American Cooking’!
Through the non-profit organization NATIFS, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, the Sioux Chef team have a dream to increase access to local indigenous food across North America. They plan to help set up Food Hubs across the USA, Canada and Mexico, each consisting of a restaurant and a training centre that focuses on local indigenous foods of the area.
On the last day of 2017, I’m looking back on a year of cooking with local foods and reflecting on the highlights. I was lucky enough to spend much of 2017 cooking and baking with a locally grown grain: triticale from Krista and Jason Roske’s Sunnyside Farm, located in the Ibex Valley close to Whitehorse. The Roskes acquired some seed from Yukon Grain Farm in the fall of 2015 and planted it on a portion of their land, intending to plow the plants back under to enrich the soil. But 2016 was such a good growing year that the plant actually matured, a rarity for grain in the Whitehorse area.
From that planting the Roskes harvested about 40 kilos of grain, by hand, and sold small quantities of whole grains, bread flour and pastry flour to customers in and around Whitehorse. I learned about their grain and flour from Jennifer Hall, executive director of the Yukon Agricultural Association, and a great champion of local farmers and their products.
The Roskes delivered one kilo each of grain, bread flour and cake and pastry flour to my house in early 2017. I was in the midst of developing recipes for a cookbook celebrating ancient grains, written in partnership with Dan Jason, a passionate organic farmer and owner of Salt Spring Seeds, and experimenting with all kinds of grains. (Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will be released by Douglas and McIntyre in early 2018. Stay tuned for Whitehorse and Dawson launch details!)
The Roskes’s bread flour made a beautiful sourdough pumpernickel-style bread, and the pastry flour produced gorgeous muffins, excellent quick bread, delicious beet gnocchi and most recently, lovely birch syrup shortbread cookies for Christmas.
That triticale got around in 2017. Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage and Timber Restaurants in Vancouver made tiny mushroom tartlets with the pastry flour at a Travel Yukon dinner last February, and in June, chef Carson Schiffkorn and I served whole triticale grain with a morel mushroom-miso butter to guests at Air North and Edible Canada’s Across the Top of Canada dinner at Marsh Lake. I served the very last of the whole grain, with more miso butter, for a media dinner hosted by Travel Yukon on November 26. Everybody loved the story of the accidental success of this beautiful, locally grown grain.
Triticale is not an ancient grain, but a hybrid of wheat and rye first developed in the late 1800s in Scotland and Germany, combining the grain quality of wheat with the hardiness of rye. In 1954 the University of Manitoba experimented with the viability of spring triticale as a commercial crop, and in 1974 the University of Guelph did the same with winter triticale. Winter triticale varieties are particularly good for short-season areas like the Yukon.
For the Roskes, hand-harvesting triticale grain “quickly lost its charm,” reported Krista. However, the success of growing triticale has whetted their appetites for more grain experiments, and Krista said they’re planting spring wheat in 2018. “Fingers crossed we will have wheat for flour by next September. I’ll definitely let you know if it works out!” Last time we spoke, the Roskes were contemplating buying more machinery — perhaps a small combine and a small grain cleaner. “It’s farm evolution,” said Krista.
I’m sad to say goodbye to the last of the whole triticale grains, but very happy that I will be returning from Christmas holidays in Ontario to a few cups more of triticale flour in my pantry at home. Birch syrup shortbreads anyone?
Local eco-chef and self-proclaimed foodie Benjamin l. Vidmar, has a dream. He wants to make the remote northern Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, Svalbard more sustainable, and to produce locally-grown food. Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The latitude of the islands range from 74° to 81° North, making them some of the most northerly inhabited places on Earth.
Like many communities north of the arctic circle, there is no viable soil in Svalbard. How does one grow local food if there is no local soil?
In 2015 Chef Vidmar started a company called Polar Permaculture Solutions, whose goal is to apply permaculture principles and ecological design to create a circular economy in Longyearbyen, and “to connect people back to their food.”
Working at the time as head chef at the Svalbar Pub, he noticed how all the food was being flown or shipped to the island. However, in the past food had been grown on Svalbard, and Vidmar wanted to return to that tradition — but with some modern enhancements and without having to ship in soil.
Vidmar started with hydroponic systems using commercial fertilizer, but felt he could do better. Why ship fertilizer up to the island, he reasoned, when there is so much food waste available to compost and produce biogas? Food waste in his town is dumped into the sea, and he took up the challenge to grow locally-grown food making use of available resources on the island.
Polar Permaculture researched what others were doing around the Arctic, and opted to go with composting worms, specifically red worms, which excel at producing a natural fertlizer from food waste. He got permission from the government to bring worms up to the island, which took a year and a half, but “was worth the wait.”
Vidmar’s company is now growing microgreens for the hotels and restaurants on the island. Fine dining chefs use microgreens to enhance the attractiveness and taste of their dishes with their delicate textures and distinctive flavors. During the growing process, worm castings are produced, and this natural fertilizer that can be used to grown more food.
In addition to composting with worms, Polar Permaculture has started hatching quails from eggs and is now delivering fresh locally produced quail eggs to local restaurants and hotels. Their next step will be to get a bio-digestor setup and to produce biogas with it. The worms are mostly vegetarian, but with a digestor, the operation will be able to utilize manure from the birds, as well as food waste that would normally be dumped into the sea. This will also allow them to produce heat for their greenhouse, as well as produce electricity that can run generators to power the lights. A natural fertilizer also comes out of the digestor, which will then be used to grow more food for the town.
What started as one chef’s personal journey has become a local permaculture operation that is reshaping the nature of the local food economy, and providing an inspiration for other Northern communities interested in food sustainability.
By the year 2050, the world’s population is expected to be 10 billion people. How will we be able to feed 10 billion people?
Valentin Thurn’s documentary “10 Billion: What’s on Your Plate?” takes the viewer across the world to examine possible solutions to this question – from insects to artificial meat, from industrial farms to micro-farms. If you eat food, this documentary is a ‘must see.’ And, although the feature length version is difficult to view from Canada, until Jan 21, 2018 you can watch the 53-minute version for free online thanks to TVO. Ontario’s educational TV network.
I cooked a steak! This may not seem like such a big deal, but it is the first time I have ever successfully cooked a steak. For many years, I was a vegetarian. Actually this only changed when I hitched up with a moose hunter who liked to cook. I am probably the only person on the planet who has difficulty roasting a chicken. Steak, has also been a mystery to me. How to cook it so that it is tender and not over done. Not my forté. Moose steak is particularly daunting, as it is not the tenderest of meats, requiring long, slow cooking or marinating. So I have always opted to leave the moose steak cooking to Gerard. He manages to cook it, thanks to marinades and the BBQ (a cooking device that I have also never mastered).
Ah, the marinade. Let’s see – no soy sauce, no vinegar, no wine. So how to marinade? Gerard tried marinating in rhubarb juice, but it wasn’t very successful. Perhaps it just needed more time. Dawn Dyce of Dawson City to the rescue! Dawn marinades her moose (and any wild game) in milk. I had heard tales of Dawn’s most tender moose roasts, so I decided to give it a try. In my case I had just made some chevre, so I had whey on hand and decided to marinade the moose steaks in whey. At Dawn’s suggestion, I put the thawed steaks in a ziplock bag, added some whey, removed the air and set the bag in the fridge for 24 hours, turning it over now and again when I noticed it.
Hoping that the whey would impart tenderness to the moose steak, I still had the dilemma of flavour and how to actually cook the darn thing. Enter Whitehorse chef Miche Genest! One of the many lessons I had from Miche’s week long visit in my kitchen, was how to cook a moose steak with only the local ingredients I had on hand. Miche taught me about rubs. So, remembering her moose rub lesson, I removed the moose steaks from their whey marinade and patted them dry. In the re-purposed coffee grinder (no coffee in this house) I blended together dried juniper berries, nasturtium pods, and spruce tips, and then rubbed the spice mix onto both sides of each dried steak. Then I wrapped the steaks in plastic wrap and set them into the fridge for a couple of hours. Miche also taught me about cooking – hot and fast. Miche likes her steak rare so she sears it for 1 ½ minutes per side. I decided to go a little longer – but I did watch the clock.
The result? Yummm! Tender and tasty. Drizzled with a moose demi-glaze (made from moose bones – recipe to come later). Perhaps my ears deceived me, but I think I heard 15-year-old Kate say, “You could open a restaurant after this year, Mom.” Fine praise indeed for the mother who didn’t like cooking!
For two days the North Klondike Highway has been closed due to unseasonably warm weather causing black ice and massive frost heaves. This means that my community of Dawson City, as well as the communities of Mayo, Fort MacPherson and Inuvik, are all cut off from the rest of Canada. No road in. No road out. No grocery trucks. No mail. Ten days before Christmas.
Air North, the only airline that links our communities to Whitehorse and hence, the rest of Canada, has managed to squeeze in extra flights during the short window of December daylight, to help transport the many people who are now unable to drive south. But this is not a panacea. Yesterday the plane couldn’t land in Dawson due to bad weather. Some folks won’t get a seat on the plane for another four days. And although the planes can transport people, they can’t supply Dawson and Inuvik with groceries.
So here it is, another reminder of our particular vulnerability in the North. It’s not the first time. It happened on an even larger scale in 2012 when the only road into all of the Yukon was closed due to mudslides – causing the shelves of the many large grocery stores in the Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, to go bare within a couple of days.
There is no doubt we are seeing the effects of climate change around the world, and especially in the North.
Dawson’s average temperature this time of year should be minus 20° to minus 30° C. For the past two weeks we have had temperatures ranging from plus 2° to minus 10°C. Whitehorse has had above zero temperatures and rain.
This is the second year that the Yukon River has failed to freeze between Dawson and West Dawson. Without an ice bridge, the journey to town for West Dawsonites for supplies is now 12 km instead of 2 km – and currently only passable by foot, skidoo, or dog team.
These are quickly becoming the new norms in the North. Another poignant reminder of the importance of increasing our self-sufficiency and our food security. The importance of lessening our dependence on infrastructure that links us to the south. The reason why I am putting myself to the test and feeding my family of five only food that can be sourced locally for one full year.
I, of course, have enough food to get me through. Many others have freezers full of moose meat. Hopefully, the highway will soon re-open and this event will be considered a mild inconvenience in the memories of many. But should we pass it off so casually? Is it actually the canary in the coal mine. And rather than a temporary inconvenience, a foreshadowing of things to come. A memory that should inspire adaptation and change.
Many studying global food security suggest the answer will be in the development of more local, small-scale organic farms and growers. I agree. And I believe this will be especially important for Northern Canada along with a renewed understanding of what we can source locally from the land. The less we need to rely on ‘one road in, one road out’ the better off we will be.
I love birch syrup and am grateful to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson who are raising their two daughters in the bush and producing birch syrup commercially. During the past 4 ½ months of eating only local foods, we have consumed 24 litres of birch syrup. I have discovered that the flavour of birch syrup alone can substitute for the ‘far east’ spices of cinnamon and all-spice. I have even been known to down a shot of birch syrup, straight up, during those moments when, in a previous life, I would have grabbed a piece of chocolate – to get me through a moment of emotional or physical despair.
I also love David McBurney’s local honey – it is pure, delicate, and divine. And it is treated like a delicacy in the family. It also makes the perfect sweetener to enhance other delicate flavours that would be overpowered by the robust flavour of birch syrup.
But there are times, especially in baking, when chemistry is required and a liquid sugar option just doesn’t do the trick. Now that I have local flour, and Christmas is coming, baking is on my mind. So what to do when crystalized sugar is required?
Birch syrup, unlike maple syrup, does not crystalize. I learned this last April while visiting Birch Camp. So, with birch sugar no longer an option, I ordered GMO-free sugar beet seeds. I have never had any luck growing regular beets, so I recruited others to grow the sugar beets for me – the great gardeners Paulette Michaud and Becky Sadlier. Unbeknownst to me, long-time Dawson farmer, Grant Dowdell, also had my year of eating local on his mind and ordered non-GMO sugar beet seeds to see if they would grow in the north. The sugar beets grew marvelously for all, confirming that they are indeed a reasonable crop for the North. They like warm days and cool nights – perfect for a Dawson City summer. I ended up with 350 pounds worth to experiment with!
Sugar beets contain approximately 20% sucrose, the same sugar found in sugar cane. One quarter of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets. In Canada, Taber, Alberta is the industrial hot spot for growing and processing sugar beets into sugar. On a commercial scale, lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide are added to form calcium carbonate which solidifies and pulls out any impurities – thus resulting in familiar white sugar. No such additions for a local home-made sugar, so the resulting sugar is brown with a richer taste.
There is a paucity of information out there on just how to make sugar from sugar beets at home, so I gave up on research and moved to trial and error. After all, with 350 pounds of sugar beets, there was room for experimentation and failure. And failure there has been! Although no failure has yet to see itself in the compost. The family seems more than willing to devour the failures – be they sugar beet toffee, sugar beet gum, sugar beet tea. Even burnt beet sugar has found a use. (Thank goodness because there has been a lot of burnt beet sugar!)
In the process, I have also discovered the wonder of the sugar beet – a root vegetable that was previously unknown to me. Sugar beets are often touted as a food for livestock or a green manure crop so I was expecting the taste of the sugar beet itself to be unpalatable. But it is just the opposite! Cooked up, it is a delicious, sweet, white beet. The sugar beet leaves are also edible. And amazingly, even after the sugar is extracted, the sugar beet pulp remains sweet and delicious. I’m afraid the local Dawson livestock will be getting less sugar beet pulp than previously anticipated this year.
One thing is for certain – processing sugar beets into sugar requires time and patience. Here are my step-by-step instructions on how to make syrup (easy) and sugar (difficult) from sugar beets.
Sugar was first extracted from sugar beets in the mid 18th century. In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars when French ports were cut off from the rest of the world, Napoleon encouraged wide-scale sugar beet production and processing. France remains one of the world leaders in sugar beet production and most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beets, rather than sugar cane.
Consider adding non-GMO sugar beet seeds to your next seed order. In Canada, they can be found from Salt Spring Seeds and from T&T seeds. Sugar beets grow well in the north and are a delicious root vegetable in their own right. But don’t throw out the water you cook them in, as this water is sweet and can easily be used to make beet syrup and beet syrup candy. And, if you are brave, sugar! If you live in an area populated by deer, be warned that sugar beet tops are a great attractant for deer. Word is now out to the Yukon moose so perhaps next year Dawson’s sugar beet rows will require fencing!
Grains have now entered my local diet. And, unfortunately, I did not heed the concept of moderation with their re-introduction.
Spending almost four months entirely grain free was very interesting. Certainly, it was the one food that haunted me. When I ventured outside my house, the smell or sight of baking was associated with a sense of longing. Plates of bannock at Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in feasts, the smell of Nora Van Bibber’s cinnamon buns at Fall Harvest Camp, the desert table at potluck dinners, the baking at Christmas bazaars – those were the difficult times. Those were the times when I realized how important it was that my family agreed to the ‘no grocery store food in the house’ policy. I do have will power, but I’m not sure how much.
I have also come to realize how much grains contribute to a sense of being full. Without them, potatoes help fill the gap. As does a mug of steamed milk. In the absence of grains, these have become my go-to’s when I need a quick snack. Mashed potato cakes have become the morning staple to replace toast, bagels, or cereal. I have really become quite fond of them and haven’t yet tired of eating them almost every morning.
At the start of this local diet, there was an almost instant melting away of extra pounds. Gerard’s weight loss was the most noticeable, losing 30 pounds during the first two months! Was this due to being grain free? The other unexpected result of eating local was a distinct lack of body odour. Could that also have to do with being grain free? Have those folks who live a gluten free existence noticed the same phenomena?
When Yukon chef, Miche Genest, came to stay with us last week I had to clean up the grains that had been drying in the loft floor so that Miche would have a place to sleep. The barley is not yet threshed. And I haven’t figured out how to de-husk the buckwheat or hull the oats. But thanks to Otto and his combine, the wheat and the rye were threshed and just waiting for me to find a way to grind them. So, one evening, when 12-year-old Tess started talking about how much she yearned for a bowl of cereal, I came up with an idea. Why not boil the whole rye grains! And so Tess did. Accompanied by warm milk, the first mouthful was an extremely comforting and satisfying experience. All my grain longings seemed to come to the forefront as I ate spoonful after spoonful. Somewhere in the logical side of my brain was a small voice suggesting that downing a giant bowl of cooked whole rye might not be the best way to re-introduce grains after four months without. But I couldn’t stop. So I ate the whole bowl. I had a fitful sleep that night. For the next 2 days, I felt like there was a brick in my stomach. I produced enough gas to power our house. Short-term gain for long-term pain. Lesson learned. I will attempt a more moderate re-introduction once I recover from this one.
Despite its sub-arctic climate, the Yukon is blessed with several apiaries. With care, bee hives can survive the harsh winters, even as far north as Dawson City. This is the profile of one of the Yukon’s honey producers.
Bee Whyld is a small apiary in Watson Lake, Yukon, specializing in producing Fireweed Honey. Owned and operated by Courtney and Joel Wilkinson, Bee Whyld was officially founded in June of 2016, although it had been in the works for a few years prior.
Courtney originally had a job as a salesperson for an Alberta honey company, and was working towards keeping her own bees. On a visit to the Yukon to visit her then-boyfriend Joel, she noticed the fields of fireweed common in the territory. Courtney knew from her experience selling honey that Fireweed is not only one of the rarest honeys, and also one of the best for flavour and medicine, and this sparked the idea to bring bees up to the Yukon and make Fireweed Honey.
Beekeeping in the North is quite challenging, especially overwintering and maintaining the health of the hives, but through trial and error Courtney and Joel have learned what it takes to successfully produce honey in the Yukon.
Their honey bees gather all of the nectar that they turn into honey from the Boreal Yukon forests, with fields of flowers that are untouched by pesticides, and not genetically modified. Their honey is also both unpasteurized and raw, meaning they don’t heat it at all. This ensures all the natural antibiotics, pollen, and Royal Jelly are still intact within the honey, making it a good choice for medicinal uses (such us helping to heal wounds, helping to fight off infections, helping to reduce allergies, and alleviating sore throats).
Bee Whyld’s Yukon Fireweed Honey has been called “the Champagne of honey.” It is a rare honey prized around the world for its medicinal qualities, and its light sweet taste.
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.
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 Inuit communities of Nunavut, seal meat has been a staple in their local diets for millennia. The meat is a vital source of fat, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and iron. Seal pelts are also prized for their warmth, and since first contact with Europeans, trade in seal products has played an important role in the regional economy. This revenue is especially crucial in remote areas where many foodstuffs need to be imported, and transportation costs are high.
A commercial seal hunt in Southern Canada, most notably the annual spring hunt in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, has generated controversy in recent decades, led by high-profile animal-rights activists, and resulting in a 2006 call by the European Union for a ban on all harp seal and hooded seal products. The traditional Inuit seal hunt has been swept up in an animal rights activism fervor, adversely affecting an age-old way of life.
But now indigenous groups are standing up for their heritage and defending their traditional lifestyles. Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has released Angry Inuk, a feature-length documentary that defends the Inuit seal hunt. In Toronto, Indigenous chef Joseph Shawana is keeping seal meat on the menu at his Ku-Kum Kitchen restaurant, despite a petition calling for its removal, and is galvanizing a groundswell of public support of his own.
Partially shot in the filmmaker’s home community of Iqaluit, as well as Kimmirut and Pangnirtung, where seal hunting is seen as essential for survival, Angry Inuk also follows an Inuit delegation to Europe in an effort to have the EU Ban on Seal Products overturned. The film criticizes NGOs such as Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare for championing animal rights while ignoring the needs of vulnerable northern communities who depend on the hunt for their livelihoods.
Chef Shawana, whose restaurant specializes in indigenous-themed dishes, says he researched the Northern hunt before opting to serve seal meat. He points out the Inuit seal harvest is very sustainable and humane, and contrasts it with the roughly two million cows, 20 million pigs, and 550 million chickens killed each year in Canada alone during large-scale food production. But at the root of the issue, says Shawana, is the need to acknowledge and support Canada’s aboriginal cultures.
Miche here. In late October my household of two took delivery of a 35 lb box of local carrots, cabbage, beets and potatoes, part of a fundraiser for a local school. It was not an overwhelming amount, but it did bring up again one of our failures when we built our house in Whitehorse. We forgot to include a cold room.
The family home in downtown Toronto, where I grew up, had a cold room. It was a dank, dark, spidery kind of place, and it was, on one occasion, the lair of a roast beef dinner, stored temporarily during a power outage and then forgotten. The roast beef, peeled potatoes and sliced onions transformed over time into an awe-inspiring, slime-covered monster. (We brought our friends to see it until my mother found out. As I recall she threw the dinner away, roasting pan and all.)
But though not altogether welcoming the cold room did what it was supposed to do—it kept whole, unpeeled, raw root vegetables cool enough for long-term storage.
Now, in present-day Whitehorse, my household doesn’t stockpile local root vegetables because we don’t have a cold space, apart from the fridge.
Instead, we freeze, can, pickle, ferment, and go to the store to buy root vegetables that someone else has stored. Freezing, salting, drying, smoking, fermenting and canning are all technologies key to the long-term storage of food. But only cold storage preserves the vegetable raw, so you can eat a crunchy, home-grown carrot in January or grate a local beet into your coleslaw in mid-March.
Over the next while here at First We Eat, we’ll be exploring food storage ideas from across the north. Tell us: how do you keep your vegetables over the winter? Do you have a root cellar? Do you cover your carrots in sand? Do you wash them first or not? What do you do about cabbage?
In the meantime, I see a lot of kimchi in my future.
I am often asked which food I miss the most. I had expected it would be chocolate or caffeine (very strong black tea was my comfort drink). Surprisingly it is neither. What I miss most is grains: cookies, pies, bread, bagels, rice, pasta – these items that were once staples in our household are no more. The potato is trying its best to fill the gap, but after 85 days without, grains are definitely missed.
It is not easy to grow grains in the far north, as our growing season is so short. But it has been done.
I feel like Northern grain is a character in one of those ‘Good News, Bad News’ stories:
The good news is that in 2016, Otto at Kokopellie Farm had a successful crop of rye and barley that he was able to grind into flour. The bad news is that I used up all I had last winter experimenting with wheat-free and salt-free sourdough bread recipes.
Fortunately Otto planted rye and barley again this year and it grew well. Unfortunately, in August, a moose ate the barley. Fortunately the moose didn’t eat the rye (because it was protected by a fence). And the GREAT NEWS is that, unbeknownst to me, Otto had also planted Red Fife wheat and it grew well (and was protected by the fence)!
Unfortunately, the combine required to harvest the grain was stuck 550 km away in Whitehorse, waiting for a bridge on the North Klondike Highway to be repaired. Fortunately the bridge repairs finished just in time for harvest season mid September. Unfortunately, while hauling the combine to Dawson, the trailer had several flat tires which caused another week’s delay. Fortunately, the combine did eventually make it to Dawson.
Unfortunately by the time the combine arrived in Dawson, it began raining and you can’t harvest grain when it is wet. Fortunately there was a brief break in the weather in early October. Unfortunately, there was no time to put the combine together because the root vegetables had to be harvested before the ground froze. Fortunately grains can withstand frost. Unfortunately, after all the vegetables were harvested it began to snow. Fortunately dry snow can easily be knocked off the grain. Unfortunately this snow was heavy and wet. Fortunately the combine is now fully assembled and ready to go. Unfortunately it is already October 23 and the wet, heavy snow remains on the grains.
Otto, a very pragmatic and optimistic farmer, still feels there is hope. The wheat and rye are still standing. Some cold, clear weather might dry up the snow and make it possible to remove the snow from the grain so it can be combined, but time is running out. I am not sure how this good-news, bad-news story is going to end. My moose anxiety resolved with a successful hunt. Now I have grain anxiety.
It’s the rationing that will be my undoing. All summer and fall there has been an abundance of harvest coming through the house. And when working outside, a simple stroll through the garden yielded tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and the odd berry, which could satisfy those peckish moments enough to get a person through till the next meal.
Now, things are tightening up. The other day, I was preparing a nice broiler of moose meat, lavishly garnished in onions and garlic, a decadent gesture in celebration of the successful hunt. Suzanne strolled by, peeked over my shoulder, and did not deliver the expected awe in regards to my culinary efforts. Instead, she took this as an opportunity for a discussion in realism and restraint.
She reminded me that we had limited stock for the winter, equivalent to “one medium-sized onion and one clove of garlic, a day.” What we have is what we have. Till summer.
I quickly realized that there is no room in that calculation for decadent delights. And that’s when the fear started to crawl into my persona. You see, my calculations suggest that we often have potato pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, both accented with onions and/or garlic. Naturally. Then, a nice on-the-fly winter lunch could be canned moose meat fried up with a little…onion. And/or garlic. Something that could sustain a guy through the woodpile at 20 below. And then there is the supper for a family with almost three teenagers. That medium-sized onion is going to require some serious divine help.
And then there was last night. As you know, Suzanne has been making birch syrup ice-cream fairly steadily recently, preparing for freeze-up which is the time when the cow becomes inaccessible. So, last night she pulls out the ice-cream as a treat. We all had some, and as a respectful gesture of appreciation for fine taste, I motioned for another round. No luck. That would deplete the stock. What we have is what we have. You can have today if you don’t mind being without tomorrow.
The problem I’m having is that I really care so much more about today than I do tomorrow. We are talking ice-cream addiction here. What has tomorrow got to do with anything? Eat now.
You see, this is the kind of thing that comes naturally to Suzanne. She enjoys calculated restraint. Not everyone does. She doesn’t know that. It reminds me of a ten-day hike that she took me on years ago, before kids, when we walked the old Yukon Ditch from Dawson to Tombstone. She took care of the logistics and food. I had the simple job of lugging everything. Every day, in fact every moment of every day, I was hungry. Suzanne had “done the calculations,” but the tiny meal allocations and the meager desert allotments of “either one square of chocolate or this sliver of fruit cake,” were not making any impression on my constant state of starvation. It was not till we returned to the land of food and sustenance, and after realizing that we had each lost one to two pounds per day (!!), that a re-punching of the numbers revealed that the calculation was quite incorrect. No kidding.
So, this whole experience is starting to feel that it could be a déjà-vu opportunity, a chance to test our mettle, and perhaps a chance even for Suzanne to brush up on her math…
A Dawson fall tradition — and food staple — continues as the annual Chum salmon run is in full swing in the Yukon River. Out on the river, several commercial fisherman are catching Chum to help fill the freezers of Dawsonites.
There was a time when Chum salmon used to be known as ‘dog fish.’ This was when the King salmon (also known as Chinook salmon) were running in such great numbers that Chum was reserved for dog food. This is no longer the case. The King salmon population has declined significantly and eight years ago a moratorium on fishing of species was put into place, and there has been no commercial King salmon fishing in Dawson since then.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, who have traditional rights to the harvest, also voluntarily stopped subsistence fishing for King salmon in 2014 for a seven-year period, in hopes that by then the King salmon population will have revitalized.
Dawsonites keep hope of a renewed King Salmon run someday. In the meantime, chum has become a staple in a local Dawson diet. Suzanne especially enjoys it marinated in birch syrup and smoked or poached in the oven with onions and rhubarb juice.
It is harvest season and, in Dawson City, the end of the Farmers’ Markets. It is a good opportunity to get what’s left of the fresh veggies before the winter sets in. It is also a good time to launch our #FirstWeEatChallenge, a fun way in which everyone can help Suzanne come up with ideas to add to her locally-sourced menu.
Suzanne has been eating only 100% local foods for 51 days now, and it has been a real eye-opening experience.
Think you could do it? Perhaps you already do eat mostly local fare. If you want to show your solidarity for Suzanne’s year, or just see for yourself how challenging or how easy it really is, we invite you to try preparing just one meal with only foods local to your community. Alternatively, check out the list of local Dawson City ingredients and make a “Dawson Local” meal.
It would be ideal if you could stick to the same 100%-local-only standard as Suzanne for finding substitutes for salt, oil and spices, but we understand if that’s not feasible. Either way, we trust that everyone’s creativity will blow us away.
Come take the challenge, and share it with us on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook using the hashtag #FirstWeEatChallenge, or send it to us via email . If you want, you can include the recipe for your dish so Suzanne can try it at home, with any necessary adjustments. We’ll then include it on our Recipes Page.
An innovative project led by the Inuvik Community Greenhouse Society is helping small, isolated Arctic communities, where access to fresh produce is scare, set up their own greenhouses and start raising fresh food. In June, community greenhouse coordinators from Aklavik, Fort MacPherson, Paulatuk, Sach’s Harbour, Tsiigehtchic, Tuktoyaktukc and Uluhakaktok attended a week-long internship program in Inuvik.
The program covered everything from soil preparation through weeding, trellising, pruning, and soil care to harvesting and worm composting. The interns worked in the greenhouse and in outdoor gardens around the community, even receiving instruction in raising chickens.
At the end of the course, each coordinator delivered a 30-minute workshop to prepare them for giving workshops in their own communities. The coordinator from Aklavik focused on engaging young people in the greenhouse, since it has been shown that when youth participate in community greenhouses, vandalism decreases significantly.
Emily Mann, coordinator of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, said that being gathered in once place allowed community coordinators to learn from each other and to establish a network for troubleshooting and sharing knowledge—the coordinators have since set up a Facebook page.
The interns are now busy in their own communities, reaching out, teaching workshops and bringing local people in to garden together. In Aklavik recently, local children made hanging flower baskets for the Elder’s home. Every Elder received one. As Mann said, flowers are important for pollination, but they help to build community too.
For those in the Dawson City area seeking fresh, local produce, this is the best time of year. Local producers are starting to harvest their crops and there are two separate markets available where the freshly-grown vegetables and herbs are available for purchase.
Every Saturday until mid-September the Dawson Farmers Market, located by the river on Front Street, is in full swing. You’ll not only find produce from several local growers, but there are also trees and plants for gardeners, and crafts as well. Fresh vegetables and herbs are already available in abundance, and as the season progresses there’ll be berries, apples, and preserves as well.
The Farmers Market runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. but you’re best advised not t wait until late in the day, as the produce is popular with Dawsonites, and some items sell out quickly.
Starting tomorrow, Wednesday 19 July, TH Working Farm will also sell their products to the public on their own Farmer’s Market, which will be held every Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
The staff at TH farm has been working hard all year to provide local produce for Dawsonites, which will include radishes, green onions, zucchinis, potatoes lettuce and spring mix among others, with more variety of veggies to come as the season progresses.
They also have been raising chickens and rabbits that are close to being ready for harvest, as well pigs and ducks, which will be available for purchase in the fall.
With this initiative, they are hoping to increase the variety and amount of locally grown food in the area, while teaching and training younger generations with an interest in agriculture.
One of the leaders in Northern food sustainability, Jackie Milne, the Founder and President of the Northern Farm Training Institute, was in Ottawa last Friday to receive the Meritorious Service Decoration from the Governor General.
With global warming affecting traditional hunting grounds, Jackie saw a need to increase access to fresh produce in Canada’s northern communities. She established the NFTI in Hay River, NWT to teach the local population about sustainable, environmentally sound farming practices that would supplement traditional diets. Since 2013, the institute has trained nearly 100 farmers from across the north, with Indigenous students making up more than half of the program’s graduates.
The Meritorious Service Decorations were established by Queen Elizabeth II to recognize the extraordinary people who make Canada proud. Their acts are often innovative, set an example or model for others to follow, or respond to a particular challenge faced by a community. The best candidates are those who inspire others through their motivation to find solutions to specific and pressing needs or provide an important service to their community or country.
Join the Northern Food Network for its third FREE webinar. This installment is on Growing Food and Community in the Northwest Territories. It takes place Monday 19 June from 10-11:30 a.m. PST (1-2:30 EST). The webinar will feature presentations by:
A vertical agriculture facility is in the planning stages with the goal of having it built in Carcross this fall. This innovative project will be the first of its kind in the Yukon.
Tami Grantham, Natural Resources Coordinator with the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, says: “What attracted us to this technology is the ability to grow greens year-round. It’s a goal and a mission for the government of Carcross-Tagish First Nation to become food-secure.”
Construction would be managed through a new corporation created as a partnership between the Carcross-Tagish First Nation and Northstar Agriculture of which the First Nation will be 51 per cent owner.
The system will recirculate water from a fish tank through a vegetable grow bed. Nutrients from the fish waste feed the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy. In normal aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by bacteria into nitrates, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.
The vertical part of this type of farming will be in the form of stacked layers that could be up to 10 meters high, in order to maximize production, contained in a warehouse-style space.
Not only would this mean a possibility for fresh local produce and lower food prices in the community, but also the promise of food security, as this system allows year-round growing of vegetables in a sustainable way.
The fish raised would be Tilapia, which is common in farming systems. Vegetables grown would include kale, spinach, and perhaps even strawberries and other vine crops.
An avid gardener and inventor, 82-year-old Chris Bartsch claims tomatoes like to keep their feet warm. He says raising the temperature of the soil will work for all Yukon vegetables too. With that in mind he is working on a DIY solar collector for warming the soil and increasing food production in Yukon.
Claus Vogel is growing celery from celery!
This is a great way to get more veggie from the bottom of a veggie that you would usually cut off anyway. Take the base from a stalk of celery, rinse it off, and put it in a shallow cup of warm water on a window sill. Change the water daily and keep an eye on it to see if any regrowth begins. You’ll see remarkable results in days and if you want, you can transplant the celery outdoors and have a great harvest at the end of the growing season.
Apparently this also works with romaine lettuce and green onions, and veggies similar to celery like fennel and celeriac. Louise Piché was successful at re-growing ginger from a piece of store bought ginger root, and some adventurous people have even re-grown pineapples from the tops!
Anyone else had any success with re-growing veggies?
David McBurney’s honey bees have survived the winter!
Bees have been successfully overwintered in southern Yukon, but it has been trickier to achieve in the Dawson area due to big temperature fluctuations in March/April, when it can be +20C in the afternoon heat of the sun and -20C at night. David and the bee’s success this winter means Suzanne should be able to add a bit of honey to her local diet for this upcoming year.
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.
In a beautiful article by Up Here Magazine, France Benoit opens the gate to her home and farm “Le Refuge“, which she has lovingly built and tended to for the past 25 years. On this property, by the shores of Madeline Lake in Yellowknife, France grows a variety of vegetables to feed herself as well as to sell in the local farmer’s market, of which she is a founding member.
The Caribou cookbook has arrived! Learn how to use all parts of the caribou. Traditional recipes such as ch’itsuh (pemmican), head cheese, and Caribou Bone Broth combined with new recipes such as Caribou Wonton Soup and Mushroom and Caribou Brain Ravioli.
On April 21 and 22 Vuntut Gwich’in citizens, conservationists, scientists, members of the public and families got together to celebrate the Porcupine Caribou Herd with two days of presentations, films, panel discussions, kids’ activities, and caribou tastings at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse. The event was hosted by Yukon Conservation Society (YCS), Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (VGFN) and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), all of whom have a keen interest in the health of the herd.
There was lots to celebrate. The herd is robust and growing in size. The relationship between northern indigenous peoples and the caribou that sustains them is respectful and strong. Harvest management strategies and hunter education programs are helping to ensure the herd continues to thrive.
But there’s bad news, too. Of 15 barren ground caribou herds the Porcupine herd is one of only two that are known to be increasing. The others have decreased alarmingly in recent years. Barren ground caribou have been listed as threatened in Canada. And the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are once again under threat from oil and gas exploration. VGFN and their First Nations and Inuvialuit neighbours, conservationists, scientists and concerned citizens are working together to ensure protection of the herd, and Porcupine Caribou: Celebrate and learn about the herd was part of that effort.
In this episode of Yu-kon Grow It, Sandi Coleman interviews Brian Lendrum and Susan Ross, who have been goat farming outside of Whitehorse for decades and producing delicious goat cheese.
Pioneers in the dairy business around Whitehorse, Lendrum and his wife found that their area around Lake Laberge had perfect conditions for raising goats, with rolling hills and lots of different vegetation for the goats to enjoy. On a regular basis, they would produce about 30 litres of milk a day, which translates to around 3 to 4 kg of cheese. Every week, they would take around 10 kg of their freshly made goat cheese to the local market, and sometimes sell out within the hour. They also experimented with goat milk yoghurt and sold bottled goat milk.
One way to have celery year round from the garden is to grow celeriac root. Weird looking but quite flavorful, celeriac root is edible raw or cooked, and tastes similar to the stalks of common celery.
It grows well in the North, keeps well in cold storage all winter, and apparently can have a shelf life of approximately six to eight months if stored properly. You can serve it roasted, stewed, blanched, or mashed, or added to your favorite stews or casseroles. Peel it and chop it and use it in place of fresh celery in cooking. Excellent combined with potatoes when cooking mashed potatoes!
On April 18th, Dawson City based ethnobotanist Leigh Josephhosted a community information session at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre . It was a great chance for Dawsonites to learn about the area’s traditional plant foods and medicines, as well as an opportunity to take part in the conversation.
Tonight, April 11th, is the date of this year’s Pink Moon, and everyone is talking about it on social media. But what makes the Moon pink on this particular date?
Sorry to disappoint you, but turns out the Pink Moon isn’t actually of a rosy hue. The title “Pink Moon” is credited to Native American tribes, many of them practiced the custom of naming every Full Moon according to the cycles of the year (like Cold Moon in December or Harvest Moon in September). In the case of this moon, the “pink” comes from the wild ground phlox that rapidly blooms in the springtime. The different full moons were a way of tracking the seasons ahead, and you can still find this knowledge in the Farmer’s Almanac.
Another tasty, although not so pretty vegetable that grows well in the Yukon is the root called salsify. Don’t let the hairy dark exterior intimidate you. Peel it, and it tastes similar to a very sweet parsnip, and you can eat it raw or you can cook it as you would cook most root vegetables.
Salsify might not be easily found in the average grocery store, but it actually grows wild in many places in the world, especially the Americas.
But not everything is under the ground: the flowers from the salsify root are gorgeous to look at, and also edible! The shoots can be used like asparagus, either raw or cooked, and the flowers can be added to salads.
Louise Piché is experimenting growing ginger this year – by planting a piece of ginger root from the grocery store. So far it’s doing well!
Did you know you can re-grow other vegetables from what you buy in the grocery store? Apparently, you can re-grow celery, romaine lettuce and even herbs like mint and basil. All it takes is a little patience!
Have you re-grown any store bought veggies at home? How did it go?
Take advantage of your greenhouse in April and May, before you plant your tomatoes and cucumbers, to give you an early crop of spinach or Asian greens! Riley Brennan, of Dawson City, direct seeds spinach in her greenhouse as soon as the soil thaws in April. She leaves the greenhouse unheated and the seedlings don’t require any covering. By the time she goes to plant her greenhouse proper in late May, she has a crop of baby spinach to harvest.
Next weekend, Dawsonites will have a chance to participate in two amazing workshops!
Seedy Saturdays will be held on Saturday March 25th at the Recreation Centre, and it will include presentations by Karen Digby and Grant Dowdell about northern gardening and by Scott Henderson about mushroom cultivation.
The following day on Sunday the 26th, there will be a Birch Syrup workshop in which participants will meet at the Rec Centre and then go hunting for Birch sap.
There are limited spaces on both, so make sure you sign up soon!
If there is something exotic you wish to grow in the North, ask Louise Piché of Rock Creek, Dawson City, Yukon. Louise is a well known gardener in Dawson and a frequent ribbon winner at Dawson’s annual Discovery Days Horticultural Fair. She loves experimenting with new and colorful varieties. She has successfully grown peanuts and ground cherries (aka golden berries) as well as asparagus, giant pumpkins and buckwheat.
Louise has generously shared her ‘tried and true’ cultivars that grow well in Rock Creek, which you can view on our seed page. This year she is experimenting with ginger, turmeric, artichokes and pink potatoes.
The CBC morning radio show “A New Day” hosted by Sandi Coleman on CBC Yukon, has started a new regular column called “Yu-kon Grow It”, which will air every other Wednesday morning between 7 and 7:30 am. On this segment, Sandi will check in with Suzanne about her “First we Eat: Food Security North of 60” project, as well as featuring other Yukoners involved in local food issues such as Miche Genest and other guests.
Sandi Coleman will next check in with Suzanne on Wednesday March 8th, between 7.00 and 7.30 am on CBC Radio Yukon.
Don’t forget to tune in!
You can listen to the first interview with Suzanne and Elyn Jones here,
Suzanne, new to the world of sourdough baking, has been experimenting with sourdough bread using store-bought rye flour (before she uses Otto’s precious rye and barley flour from Kokopellie Farm, in Sunnydale). She has also added Yukon’s own Uncle Berwyn’s birch syrup and water. No salt!
The Northern Food Network (NFN) is co-hosted by the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research (AICBR) and Food Secure Canada (FSC) as a space for people working in and interested in northern food security to share, learn about best practices across the North and advance collective action on food security. Sign up here for this great opportunity.
And one of the biggest obstacles they have found is that the local soil lacks nutrients. Commercial soil works fine, but it is costly and it needs to be flown in, which impacts the sustainability of the project.