Suzanne and her year-long First We Eat experience are in the current issue of Up Here Magazine, available at news stands now.
In the piece, written by Miche Genest, and featured on the magazine’s cover, Suzanne chronicles the ups and downs, and the lessons learned from her year of feeding her family only food 100% local to Dawson City.
Their exploits have produced a cookbook that features recipes and stories collected on the road, from home cooks to seasoned professionals alike, including our own Miche Genest. They not only celebrate Canada’s culinary diversity, but also note how important it is to look at where our food comes from and what we can do to get involved.
We had a chance to ask them some questions about their project.
How did the idea originate for your project? What sparked the whole thing for you?
When we were camping this one time we had a long conversation about food and culture, Canadian food culture, and how we had both travelled across the country (we both grew up in different parts of the country) and it turned into a talk about what we point to as Canadian food and we didn’t quite know the answer. We thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a project where we went around for a certain amount of months to specifically talk to people in different regions and see what people were making and what they were eating. And we thought the most efficient way to do it would be on a road trip.
What makes Canadian food Canadian?
Canadians tend to think that we don’t have a distinctive culinary culture, it is interesting because there is this mentality that we are an immigrant nation and that the foods we consume are imported from other cultures, but it is in the mixing of those influences that you can find it. There are all these dishes that maybe come from somewhere else, but they are transformed by Canadian-specific ingredients and they become a whole new thing.
And there is this feeling of “oh, this is just what we eat. This isn’t Canadian food”, as if we are reluctant to claim a food culture, and the wider sentiment is that we don’t have one. It is almost like the cliché of Canadians, that we are always apologizing for everything, and we are also apologetic for our own culinary culture.
What kind of dishes or cooking techniques that you had never heard of before did you discover on your roadtrip? Did any of them make their way into your everyday cooking?
There were almost daily discoveries. One of the coolest discoveries of a cooking technique was when we were on Spring Island on the northwest coast of Vancouver island and we were on a kayak expedition, and cooks from the Kyuquot first nation showed us this traditional cooking method for fish in which they butterfly the salmon and weave it through cedar slats and they roast it vertically over the fire. And it was the best roasted salmon I‘ve ever had, but it also felt like a whole experience, not just a meal.
The trip and the process of writing the cookbook completely opened us up to new cooking techniques and ingredients, like for example I had never cooked wild boar before, and we got this recipe from a Saskatchewan chef for wild boar meatballs and then we started seeing that you could actually get these ingredients around our area. Learning to cook different types of wild game and realizing how different all the flavors are, and that there really is so much variety out there. We definitely expanded our kitchens
In P.E.I. a chef gave us a recipe for scallops that combined them with a pear and currant salsa, a combination that you normally wouldn’t think of but they are all super Canadian ingredients that were locally sourced from the area. All the recipes in our cookbook feel Canadian for different reasons, either ingredient based or culturally based. Perhaps a recipe just happens to be really popular in a specific region, or the reason is because of the ingredients that are found there.
What are your thoughts on the issue of food security?
It is interesting for people who want to change the way they eat and be more aware of what they consume, I think this is such a much easier time to do so. Food is a topic that has been exploding for the last 10 years or so, the local food movement has expanded so much. In my experience, the best way to get involved is to reach out and talk to different people, ask more questions, ask what everyone is eating and where it comes from. Also we have to think on practical terms, not everyone has the economic means to start spending more money on organic food at farmer’s market or the time to grow their own food all of the sudden, but the fact that things are shifting is very important. Making an effort to be part of the conversation is important. A good way to do this is sharing meals together.
Dana and Lindsay's Yukon visit included a tour of Klondike Valley Nursery and a special dinner at Miche Genest's house - Photos by FEAST
Salmon roasting with cedar slats, Kyuquot stye - Photo by FEAST
A three-page article about the First We Eat project, written by Suzanne, is appearing in the Spring issue of Harrowsmith magazine. The issue is available on newsstands now.
Harrowsmith’s tagline is: “Make. Grow. Sustain. Share.” It’s therefore not surprising that Suzanne’s message of sustainability and Northern food security is a perfect fit for the publication. Harrowsmith has been spreading its message for over four decades, and was the first Canadian magazine to focus on organic living, alternative energy sources, and a country lifestyle.
When Art Napoleon found he had to cook a selection of wild and cultivated ingredients from a local food “mystery box” over a campfire with three Indigenous Yukon Elders, he said, “Oh no! You’re going to gang up on me.” He had reason to be fearful—Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Jane Moses, Teetl’it Gwich’in Elder Dorothy Alexie, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormandy are all experienced campfire cooks with many years of cooking on the land behind them.
But as participants at “Our Camp is our Kitchen” learned, when it comes to campfire cooking Napoleon is no slouch. He and the ladies transformed the ptarmigan, rabbit, caribou guts, caribou meat, sheep ribs, wild rhubarb, cranberries, birch syrup and a host of other delicacies into soup, stew, fricassee, viande grillée and pudding that fed anywhere from 75 to 100 people. Their cooking fire burned in an galvanized metal drum with a grill set over top; their camp was a wall tent and a tarp shelter in the parking lot beside the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Community Hall.
The event was part of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Myth and Medium Conference, held from February 19 to 23 in Dawson City. Napoleon was a special guest at the conference, and the organizers worked him from morning till night, calling several of his skills into play. He arrived Monday afternoon, gave the opening keynote address that evening, cooked all day Tuesday, performed a concert Tuesday evening, gave a talk on food and nutrition Wednesday morning and flew out Wednesday afternoon.
As Napoleon told the audience Monday night, he juggles several careers–singer-songwriter, educator, conservationist, naturalist. He holds an MA in Language Revitalization from the University of Victoria and is a former Chief of the Saulteau First Nation in north-eastern BC. Most recently, he’s co-host of APTN’s Moosemeat and Marmalade with British chef Dan Hayes — an exploration of two very different approaches to cooking wild game, the Indigenous and the classically trained.
Food and cooking are the sinews that tie much of Napoleon’s life and work together. He first learned how to cook on open fires and woodstoves as a child living in Peace River country, and later grew comfortable in modern cooking facilities. He has always loved cooking for people, and one of his approaches to cooking traditional food is to “gourmet it up.”
“It’s given me great pleasure to serve good food to people, especially if I can present traditional food in ways that people haven’t tasted,” he said. “If you want to show the beauty of your culture, food is one way to do that.”
Napoleon said that at heart he’s an educator, and cultural revitalization is a cornerstone of his life philosophy. “So food is something that fits in there nicely. Food and philosophy and cultural teachings—I don’t really see much difference between those.”
Napoleon, who lives in Victoria, advised people on how to “Indigenize their diet” in an urban context. In his talk on food, nutrition and planning on Wednesday morning he reminded the audience, “If you live in the city there’s lots of ways you can still access your traditional resources.” He goes back to his traditional territory to hunt; he receives packages of wild food from his family; he learns what wild foods grow in his area and goes out foraging. “I can still be an Indian down there, I don’t have to be a Victorian.”
Napoleon also suggested ways of incorporating better nutrition into modern diets, noting that on the land, “People ate clean and they were very active. They were in great shape. Our meats were the original free range organic meats.” Today, he said, “The food industry sucks. It’s all about the money. You’ve got to make it all about health, and make your own choices.”
The reality is that Indigenous people live in two worlds, he added, and even hunters supplement their traditional diet with store-bought foods. “They’ve just become part of the culture.” He laughed. “Red Rose tea is part of the culture!”
He admires Suzanne for her efforts to eat only local food for a year, calling her endeavour “either crazy or brave, and maybe a little bit of both. I think it’s a lot of work, and would take great, great discipline.”
But he shares one of Suzanne’s concerns, mentioned in her presentation on Tuesday evening: how sustainable is her diet? Napoleon asked, “If everybody wanted to do it…would things get over-harvested? What kind of impact would it have on the land? Long ago people managed it in a way that was sustainable, but now there are bigger populations.”
These are questions shared and pondered across Canada and around the world: how do we feed ourselves in a sustainable manner? When the population will potentially reach 9.7 billion by 2050?
As Indigenous people who live in two cultures, Napoleon said, “There’s no way we can survive as an island. That’s the great thing about the Yukon–the divide is not so wide as it is in Souther Canada.” He ended his Wednesday morning talk on an emotional note. “You guys are lucky,” he said, near tears. “You guys who are living in territories that are bringing [the traditions] back.”
Napoleon said he always likes to contribute food for thought in his work. Asked what he would like people to take away from his participation at Myth and Medium, he reflected for a minute and said, “The need for balance. Always remembering that we walk in two worlds, and there’s ways to return to your cultural integrity while still living in these modern times.”
In this episode of Yu-Kon Grow Iton CBC North’s A New Day with Host Sandi Coleman, Suzanne discussed her search for natural sweeteners, as well as the challenges around finding a locally-sourced vinegar.
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,