Welcome, nine new lambs to Peter Dunbar’s sheep herd, on the banks of the Yukon River, about 5 kilometers downstream from Dawson City. There were two sets of triplets, one set of twins and one singleton.
It is still cold in the Yukon so the newborns get sweaters to help keep them warm for their first few days of life.
I know that fish tend to accumulate toxins from our water systems, especially predatory fish. So I wondered, since I am consuming a fair amount of burbot liver this winter, do I need to worry about mercury levels and other contaminants such as PCB’s and DDT?
To my surprise I learned that, in fish, mercury accumulates in the muscle in levels much higher than in the liver. This is the exact opposite of terrestrial animals such as caribou where mercury levels are higher in the liver compared to the meat.
Mercury levels in fish vary depending on the location but, in general, predatory fish (lake trout, burbot) have higher levels of contaminants than non-predatory fish (whitefish, grayling, salmon) and larger (older) fish have lower levels of contaminants than smaller (younger) fish.
According the limited burbot data we have available in the Yukon, the mercury levels in burbot muscle are five times higher than in the burbot liver. However burbot muscle has the highest mercury levels of all the freshwater fish we catch in these parts. Chum salmon has the lowest mercury levels (less than a tenth that of burbot).
Based on Health Canada’s tolerable daily mercury limit is 0.47 ug/kg/day (for adult men and adult women who are not of child bearing age), my daily limit of burbot would be maxed out at 45 grams (1.5 oz) per day! And my daily limit of burbot liver would be a whopping 225 grams (8 oz) per day.
So my Vitamin D needs of 10 grams of burbot liver per day are no big deal.
But a daily limit of 45 grams of burbot muscle is a really small portion! Of course, I am not eating burbot every day, so it still averages out ok – but it was a good reminder to limit my consumption of burbot.
So my take home message: Burbot liver is a great source of local Vitamin D. By consuming sautéed burbot liver one can get enough Vitamin D without too much mercury. Burbot flesh should be considered a winter treat and if one is going to eat a lot of local fish, grayling and salmon would be better choices.
Want the stats?
Here are the statistics from fish in Old Crow from a study by Yukon Research Scientist, Mary Gamberg
Mercury per gram of fresh fish:
Burbot : 0.62 ug/g
Pike: 0.17 ug/g
Burbot liver: 0.124 ug/g
Grayling: 0.06 ug/g
Chum Salmon: 0.04 ug/g
(Based on a sample size of 14 burbot, 11 pike and 12 chum salmon from Old Crow and grayling from other Yukon locations.)
For adults, the tolerable daily mercury limit is 0.47 ug/kg/day (Health Canada) (less for women of child bearing age)
This translates to a tolerable daily limit in grams of fish for an adult woman of my size:
Burbot : 45 g (1.5 oz)
Pike: 164 g
Burbot liver: 225 g
Grayling: 466 g
Chum Salmon: 700 g
As mercury levels differ from one water system to another, I was curious as to what the levels would be in the burbot living in the Yukon River at Dawson City. I sent in one 4 pound, 11 year old burbot for testing and levels came back as 0.23 ug/g mercury in the muscle and 0.04 ug/g in the liver. The mercury levels from the Old Crow burbot are 2.5 times higher than the levels in the one fish tested from the Yukon River. One sample only, but it suggests that the mercury levels in the Yukon River near Dawson are less than the levels around Old Crow.
For PCB’s and DDT, the amount found in 10 grams of burbot liver from the Old Crow study was quite low, one tenth of the tolerable daily intake for PCB’s and one twentieth for DDT.
When chef Joseph Shawana was growing up on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron, and he wanted to eat morel mushrooms, he just went outside and picked some. “I didn’t even know how much morels cost until I moved to Toronto and people were talking about morels for 50 or 60 bucks a pound, and that was quite a steal,” he says. “And here I am at home just frying them in a little bit of garlic and butter.”
Cedar, juniper, partridge, the white-tailed deer and a “huge abundance” of morels are just some of the wild flora and fauna found in Shawana’s traditional territory on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve. Along with cultivated foods sourced from small, local producers, wild foods form the backbone of the menu at Shawana’s Toronto restaurant, Kū-Kŭm Kitchen.
The seasonal menu reflects Shawana’s heritage and his training—he attended culinary school in Toronto and worked in several restaurants there, most recently at Snakes and Lattes, where in 2016 he featured a special Aboriginal Day menu that quickly sold out, eventually inspiring him and partner Ben Castanie to start up Kū-Kŭm.
Shawana’s 27-seat spot, opened barely a year ago in an older mid-town neighbourhood, is one of four Indigenous restaurants in Toronto, and his work is emblematic of a new wave of Indigenous chefs across Canada who are wowing diners by combining traditional ingredients with contemporary cooking techniques.
“It’s a really good opportunity to showcase Indigenous cuisine,” says Shawana. In the spirit of collaboration and mentorship, each chef will work with a Yukon First Nations chef or culinary student to produce dishes that celebrate Indigenous cuisine.
Shawana will bring a few different Indigenous traditions with him, starting off the multi-course meal with a squash, corn and bean soup that honours the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois nations of southern Ontario and the north-eastern United States. Squash, corn and beans are known as the Three Sisters in that tradition; they are companion plants that help each other in the growing phase. Corn stalks support the bean runners, the bean plants fix nitrogen, and squash provides ground cover, moisture retention and protection against rodents.
As a tribute to the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, Shawana will serve seal loin, seared in a pan over the fire and accompanied by sautéed sea asparagus from the West Coast, some wild onions and wild garlic, and fire-roasted Yukon beets.
Shawana took some flak when he introduced seal meat at Kū-Kŭm in October 2017. A petition with more than 3,000 signatures circulated online, demanding he remove seal from the menu. That sparked a counter-petition from a Toronto Indigenous artist, who was frustrated at the bad press Shawana was getting, and with a more general misunderstanding of Indigenous culture and traditions.
Shawana was aware he might be headed for controversy. “We were hesitant to have [seal] on the menu here at first, just because we knew we’d get a little bit of backlash for it,” he says. But, as he told CBC in an earlier interview, “…it’s part of the northern community’s culture. So we’re trying to pay homage to them, as we do with everything else.… It’s all dietary needs of the Indigenous communities from east to west.” Seal meat is still on the menu at Kū-Kŭm, and Shawana says it’s doing very well. Not long ago he served his seal to a party of Inuit diners. “It was their first time of having seal the way we serve it here,” he says. “They loved it.”
Shawana learned to love cooking at his grandmother’s side; she cooked for the family and for the community. “My grandmother played a huge role in all of our lives growing up. That’s part of the reason I named my restaurant Kū-Kŭm. Another reason is my wife is Cree and Kū-Kŭm means grandmother in Northern Cree—so it’s a way of paying tribute to my wife [too], who is a huge part of who I am today.” A mural of his grandmother, his mother and his mother-in-law graces one wall of the restaurant.
Dinner at Kū-Kŭm might include main courses of pulled caribou wrapped in caul fat, goose with puff pastry, or bouillabase of mixed Canadian fishes and seafoods in a cedar and anise broth. Dessert could be a pot of rich chocolate mousse lightly flavoured with lavender. But the meal always ends with a cup of cedar tea. In winter, passersby can drop in, even if the restaurant isn’t open, to warm up with a cup of that same tea.
“My grandmother always taught us to keep the door open, because you never know who’s going to want to come in and get fed, or just keep warm,” says Shawana. “
That simple, human hospitality goes hand in hand with Shawana’s philosophy of respect for whole ingredients and for bringing community together over food. “We deal with smaller businesses that actually know their products and know their farmers and their families, and know how everything is harvested.” Shawana sources wild ingredients from Forbes Wild Foods, who work with several Indigenous communities in Ontario. “So we’re helping that business out, which in turn helps out a lot of First Nations communities.”
Before Shawana was approached by organizers to take part in the First Nations Fire Feast, he wasn’t aware there was a food scene happening in the Yukon. “It doesn’t surprise me, just considering that everybody is starting to go back to the roots of where food actually comes from.”
“It doesn’t come from the grocery store, it comes from [outside] our back doors.”
To purchase tickets for the First Nations Fire Feast, visit here.
Two of the many awesome women farmers in Dawson are Diana McCready of Emu Creek Farms and Maryanne Davis of Tundarose Garden. Both produce succulent crops of delicious berries – saskatoons, haskaps, raspberries and black currents. Emu Creek Farms even grows some northern cherries! Diana and Ron McCready have the added challenge of having no road access to their farm, it is only accessible by boat.
Northern Cherries and domestic Haskap berries at Emu Creek Farm. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
A late June frost wiped out many of the wild berries that we normally count on. We will be forever grateful to the many Dawsonites who donated some of their precious wild berry stock to help supplement our year. Wild low bush cranberries are a family favourite!
Fortunately, although the wild berry crop was meek, domestic berries thrived!
A three-page article about the First We Eat project, written by Suzanne, is appearing in the Spring issue of Harrowsmith magazine. The issue is available on newsstands now.
Harrowsmith’s tagline is: “Make. Grow. Sustain. Share.” It’s therefore not surprising that Suzanne’s message of sustainability and Northern food security is a perfect fit for the publication. Harrowsmith has been spreading its message for over four decades, and was the first Canadian magazine to focus on organic living, alternative energy sources, and a country lifestyle.
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.”
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.
That seems to be the sentiment of the week, the question most posed during this time of Suzanne’s absence.
But fear not, for we are living in a state of self-imposed restraint. We are now so deeply entrenched in “The Program” that we no longer depend on the wrath of Suzanne to sustain our momentum. The brainwashing has reaped its yield, the temptations are squashed, the longings are suppressed, the wistful explorations of taste are on the shelf of life.
Throw me into a vat of salted caramels, plunk a cappuccino in my hands, and observe personal restraint in action! Work me into a sweating lather on a hot summer afternoon, then offer me a cold beer in a frosted mug, and watch me, unfazed and resilient as I let it turn to vinegar.
My mother used to describe me as stubborn. Suzanne labels me as obstinate-defiant. I found it best not to ask what my employees and patients thought. Better to imagine only the most complimentary adjectives.
Although I don’t really want my tombstone to read: “Here lies one stubborn man,” I have to admit that there are benefits to having the trait. Like now. When getting through the tough. When there is a principle to uphold, when only perseverance will do.
My main assistant is Tess. She is all over the dairy products: skimming the cream, making the yogurt, shaking for butter, creating chevre. And I have found that a successful way to maintain my poundage has been to assume the duty of ice-cream making!
We have been eating well. Roasts and vegetables every evening. Potato cakes, eggs and sausages every morning. Lots of protein, dairy and complex carbohydrates. Little sugar. We are 6 months into “The Diet,” holding strong (possibly stubborn!) and firm in the resolve that sugar is the nemesis in the human diet.
When most Dawsonites make the 550 km trip to Whitehorse, they head down the highway with an empty vehicle and come back loaded with goodies from the city – including groceries from the big box stores. Today I find myself in the opposite situation.
I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be travelling at all during this year of eating 100% local – mainly because of the daunting task of bringing all my food with me. But, with February comes the Available Light Film Festival and Industry Conference in Whitehorse. And I found myself itching to attend. So I am going. For one week. And I’m not driving. I’m flying.
One week’s worth of Dawson local food on its way to Whitehorse as luggage on a plane. Just how much is one week’s worth of food for one person? Sixty pounds worth it turns out. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve got. I once again am having ‘range anxiety’ over food. Having all my food in one tub feels very finite. Will it be enough? What did I forget? I guess I’ll find out. While the other industry guests graze on appy’s and oysters, I will be pulling out cheese, dry meat, carrots and toasted pumpkin seeds from my parka pockets. While they sip on a cold beer or a glass of red wine, I will pull out a thermos of hot milk. One thing is for sure, there will be no shortage of conversation starters!
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.
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.
Miche and I were very privileged to have Dawson City chef, Brian Phelan, join us in the kitchen this week to teach us how to cook a dish from his Acadian roots, Rappie Pie.
Rappie Pie is a total comfort food and definitely a great winter dish, especially this week in Dawson with temperatures hovering between minus 35° and minus 40°C. The three hours in the oven required to bake Rappie Pie helped keep the house warm!
In many ways it is quite a simple dish, requiring very few ingredient: basically a chicken and some potatoes. One of the most interesting things about Rappie Pie is the preparation. You juice the potatoes but only use the pulp. However, you measure the juice produced to determine how much hot chicken stock to add back to the potato pulp. The magic ratio is 7:10. (For every 7 cups of juice produced, you add 10 cups of boiling stock to the pulp.) The timing is critical, as you don’t want the potato pulp to oxidize. The boiling chicken stock that you add to the potato pulp actually cooks the potatoes in the bowl – even before it goes in the oven. Then you add your herbs or spices (traditionally sautéed onion and salt and pepper; in our case onion and ground celery leaf) and layer the potato pulp mixture with chicken in a large casserole dish. During the three hours of baking, the casserole absorbs the chicken stock, becomes firmer and develops a delicious crust. It’s not the kind of dish that looks great on the plate – the word ‘mush’ comes to mind. But it is delicious and filling and oozes comfort.
Traditionally, the potatoes would have been grated (hence the name ‘rappie’ from the French word “râpé” which means grated) and then the juice squeezed out. But juicers definitely make that process much more efficient.
One of the wonderful things about food is how it gathers people together and the memories we associate with certain foods. Listening to stories from Brian of Rappie Pie suppers past, reminded me of this and how important food is – not just to sustain us, but all the traditions, gatherings and memories that go with it.
I’m not sure if this year of eating local will become one of those fond memories in future years for my kids or if it is scarring them for life. Some days it’s hard to tell. But I will keep my fingers crossed for the former.
It’s my first night in Dawson, it’s -22C, and there’s a starry sky up there. I just walked home along First Avenue in the quiet, snow-lit darkness. I’m staying at Bombay Peggy’s on the last night they’re open for the season—maybe I should be down in the bar but instead I’m up here in the Gold Room enjoying the solitude and the feeling of a season coming on, the winter revving up. The trees are heavy with snow.
The cold, the quiet, the snow, the dark trees, the deep excitement of winter, remind me of when I first arrived in the Yukon, 23 years ago. When I was a kid growing up in Toronto, Collingwood was our version of the North. We skied there every weekend in winter. I loved the pillows of snow, the slanting light, the blue shadows of those winters.
But coming to the Yukon was like coming to where winter began. The stillness at night, the snow sparkling like diamonds—I’d never seen that before, snow in Southern Ontario doesn’t do that.
Winter began here.
I got that feeling again tonight. And, buzzing underneath the crisp cold air, was the low-voltage, warming hum of possibility. That’s another thing I remember about first coming to the Yukon. Anything is possible here.
Tomorrow I move up to Suzanne’s house, and we will start a week of experimenting with the food she has grown, gathered from farmers and the forest, processed, preserved and stored over the past several months. The work she has done is mind-boggling. There is enough in her larder for a rich and sustaining menu of delicious local food all winter long.
Our task list is lengthy. Transform 350 lbs of sugar beets into syrup. Figure out what to do with the delicious pulp. Lessons in meat cooking. Discover new quick ways to cook potatoes. Devise snacks that the kids can grab and go. Crackers—how are we going to make crackers? Pizza crust with steamed cauliflower—can we make it work?
Underground, above ground, inside, outside — northerners have developed numerous ways of creating cold storage areas. Perhaps one of the simplest is the outdoor freezer: as soon as it’s cold enough, and barring a thaw, many northerners simply keep foods frozen by storing them outdoors.
In the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, there is a different solution. Katrina Cockney, Manager of Administration and Community Services, explains that as late as the 1980s individual families dug ice houses for their own use. But as the community grew in size and more houses were being built, that became less practical.
In the late 1960s, with the help of government funding, the community built a freezer deep in the permafrost, 30 feet below the surface. There are three main corridors down there, opening into 19 rooms. Access is via a steep ladder through a trap door in a small, locked shed. The contents of the freezer change according to the season — in summer there might be dry fish and muktuk, geese in the fall, and caribou and dog feed in the winter.
The freezer used to be accessible to tourists, but is no longer due to safety concerns. The hamlet is considering building a walk-in icehouse in order to show tourists the local technology. In more modern times, many households have one or more chest freezers for traditional foods. When the temperature is below freezing, they often move one freezer outside. But Katrina Cockney estimates there are still about six families who use the community freezer year-round.
There is another part to the story. Not only is the freezer practical, “It’s beautiful,” says Cockney. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like a wall full of crystals.” Cold storage can be beautiful in more ways than one.
Freeze-up has begun in Dawson — a unique, but very significant, season to communities in the north who are separated from roads by rivers.
Dawson is nestled at the confluence of two rivers: the Yukon River and the Klondike River. Some folks live on the far side of the Yukon River in West Dawson and Sunnydale. Some folks live on the far side of the Klondike River in Rock Creek. These folks have no access to any stores or other amenities of town during ‘freeze-up’ — the time of year when ice floats down the rivers preventing boat travel and the ferry that crosses the Yukon River gets pulled for the winter. They must wait till the river freezes solid enough to cross by skidoo or eventually by vehicle. Last year freeze-up lasted 7 weeks. So for those folks, stocking up on enough water and food to last them through freeze-up season is a normal part of October.
I am not normally one of those folks. I live on the town side of the rivers. But this year the grocery stores are off limits to me. This year, freeze-up is playing an entirely new role in my life. Because this year, some of my main local food sources are on the far side of rivers. My root vegetables are on the far side of the Yukon River – at the Kokopellie Farm root cellar in Sunnydale. The dairy cows (the source of all my milk, butter, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream) are on the far side of the Klondike River — at the Sadlier’s Klondike Valley Creamery.
So this year, I too must stock up for a freeze-up that could last up to 7 weeks. The last ferry run across the Yukon River was on Oct 29th. On this side of the river I have stocked up with 150 lbs of potatoes, 150 lbs of carrots, 40 lbs of beets, 40 lbs of rutabagas, 20 lbs of cabbage and, of course, lots of pumpkins.
The Klondike River is still crossable by canoe, despite the ice. But not for much longer. For the past 6 weeks, I have been collecting empty milk jugs from friends and neighbours and freezing as much milk as I can. I have also been making extra butter and ice-cream — all in preparation for freeze-up. On our local diet, we have been consuming about 1 gallon of milk per day. At that rate, for a freeze-up lasting 7 weeks, we would need 49 gallons of frozen milk! We don’t have that. We have about 20 gallons. I will continue to collect and freeze as much as I can and then … let the rationing begin.
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’ve been blogging this week about preserving and pickling without the use of salt or vinegar, as these ingredients are not locally produced in Dawson City. I had hoped to use rhubarb juice as a substitute for vinegar for pickling, but despite its low pH value, there was a chance it might not prevent botulism-carrying bacteria … definitely not worth the risk.
So, after some research and consultation, it was on to plan B, lacto-fermentation without salt, which involved using celery juice or whey instead of a salt brine. I prepared batches of sauerkraut, kimchi, and dill pickles, fermenting one jar with celery juice and another jar with whey. No salt.
And it was a success! The fermentation with celery juice worked really well and is already starting to be flavourful.
The jars with whey are not quite as promising. They seem to be developing mold quite quickly. Although fermenters know this is not a big deal. You just scoop it off as it grows. A tough transition for someone who grew up being taught to throw out moldy food. But, more importantly, the initial taste of the whey jars is not as great as the celery juice jars.
So — salt- free sauerkraut and kimchi with celery juice coming up!
An interesting tip, thanks to the local fermenter Kim Melton – to help keep the pickles and veggies crisp add a black current leaf to the bottom of the jar.
78 days in and I no longer miss salt! I’m not sure when it happened. There seems to have been a gradual and imperceptible change in my taste buds. But it is a good thing, since I do not yet have a local source of salt to season my food.
However, salt has been used for generations as a preservative. And this Fall, as I struggle to store a year’s worth of food, preservation has an entirely new meaning in my life.
Pickling and canning are a mainstay of preserving foods, but they require an acid — usually vinegar. I have no vinegar. I have no lemon juice. I did discover that rhubarb juice is almost as acidic as white vinegar (with a pH somewhere between 3.0 and 4.0). So I tried making sweet pickles with a brine of rhubarb juice, birch syrup and ground celery leaves. No salt. I was pretty pleased with the taste and quite proud of myself for finding a way to pickle without vinegar or salt. I put my 4 jars of experimental pickles in the pantry. Then, while researching more thoroughly, I discovered caution after caution about pickling or canning with homemade vinegars. Apparently, with the variable pH of homemade vinegars, they can’t be relied upon to prevent botulism. Great. I imagine the headline: Family of Retired Physician Eating Local Dies of Botulism! I immediately moved my 4 jars of sweet pickles from the pantry to the fridge and put them on the ‘to be eaten soon’ list.
This has been an usually warm fall in Dawson City, Yukon. Last week crocuses, our first wild flower of Spring, were seen sprouting on sun-exposed bluffs, and one gardener reported pea shoots sprouting in her garden.
This type of mild weather is certainly not what you’d expect in a town not far from the Arctic Circle. Traditionally, on Thanksgiving weekend Dawson receives a snowfall that stays on the ground. Well, as it turns out, despite the atypically warm fall, this year was no exception …
On October 10th, Dawson saw its first snowfall, and all indications are that the snow will be sticking around.
That means it’s time to get those hoses drained and put away for winter, and to pull the last of the veggies from the garden before the ground freezes hard next week.
Some of the Dawson Farmers contributing to Suzanne’s Thanksgiving Dinner
I received the ultimate compliment last week in the bank line up when a local farmer said to me “ Suzanne, you’re looking like a farmer these days!”
I looked down at myself. I had worn both knees out of my jeans. My hands were rough. Garden dirt was etched into the creases of my palms as well as a permanent fixture under my nails. My ‘bush coat’, previously only worn during camping trips, had become my practical everyday wear. And I felt a small surge of pride.
Over the past year, I have witnessed how hard farmers work. For my part, mostly from the other end of a camera. But I have experienced snippets of hands on work (such as helping a farmer dig up 300 pounds of beets) and gleaned a new appreciation for the difference between gardening and farming. Every day farmers are working hard outdoors from early morning till sunset (which during a Yukon summer, can be a very long day!) On rainy and blustery days when I choose to stay indoors with a hot cup of tea, farmers are outdoors working. When the blackflies are at their worst, farmers are out in their fields. No such luxuries as a weekend off or a summer camping trip. I believe that farmers are one of the most undervalued segments of our society. No matter where we buy our food, it is the incredible hard work of farmers, invisible to most of us, that provide us with this necessity of life.
This past Thanksgiving weekend, as I sat down to share a turkey feast with family and friends, I felt especially thankful to farmers. And I felt both privileged and humbled to know each farmer responsible for every single ingredient on our supper table. Our turkey was thanks to Megan Waterman at Lastraw Ranch. Our carrots and potatoes thanks to Lucy Vogt. The milk and butter for our mashed potatoes thanks to Jen Sadlier at Klondike Valley Creamery. The brussel sprouts thanks to Otto and Conny at Kokopellie Farm. The celery thanks to Becky Sadlier at Sun North Ventures. The onions thanks to the Derek and the students at Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Farm. Our pumpkin pie thanks to Grant Dowdell’s pumpkin, Megan Waterman’s eggs, Jen Sadlier’s cream, and Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson’s birch syrup. A precious apple thanks to John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery. And our low bush cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie spices thanks to the forest.
There are many, many folks who have helped me during our first 72 days of eating only local to Dawson City, be it the farmers who grow the majority of our food or the folks who have leant me garden space, shared some of their produce or shared their helpful advice.
Thanks to all and a very special thank you to farmers.
Listen to Suzanne’s latest appearance on Yu-Kon Grow It, a segment of CBC Yukon’s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman. Suzanne reported on how things are going two months into the project, and talked about some of her plans for Thanksgiving.
I’m up early today. No, not because of the eager anticipation of yet another scintillating cup of rhubarb tea. Nor is it because of the alluring wonder about new ways to cook an egg this morning.
It’s the fire in my right hand that owns my senses. Lucky for me, I have a background of medical knowledge, so my mind is not racing with unnecessary fears and concerns about endless hypothetical possibilities. I recognize carpal tunnel syndrome for what it is. And the pulsating tightness in my finger represents the festering splinter from yesterday’s effort.
The blame sits squarely on the shoulders of produce. The sheer volume of foodstuffs is squeezing us out of house and home, so I have felt compelled over the past days to mitigate this pumpkin-invasion by building a storage shed. And with frost looming, and with moose in full rut, time is of the essence.
So I have been taking matters in my own hands, contributing to Suzanne’s cause divergently. A frenzy of saws with noble intent. A flurry of nails and boards, all single-mindedly set on seeing this project through.
And the hand symptoms, with a tincture of time, will dissipate. The mind will forget. Only the shed and its contents will remain.
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.
It’s happening. I’m developing a taste for the subtle flavours. I can eat a boiled vegetable with no seasoning. I love the taste of a tomato off the vine. Try a kohlrabi today; peel it, slice thinly, eat slowly, savour the crispness and rush of liquid as it flows across your parched and desirous palate. Meat and fish are great, as is, seeping in their own juices. Skip the gravy; save it for the nearly rotten meat, when you need to hide the rancid taste. Use gravy in the way perfume was once used to disguise body odor.
Salt is a cover; it is there to disguise flavour, not enhance it. Same for sweetness. And pepper and curry and cinnamon and nutmeg and all the rest. Rise up people and revolt! No longer allow yourselves to be chained to culinary tradition, which encourages the bathing of food with herbs and spices, such that you will be indifferent to the plethora of food mediocrity. Good food has its own good flavours.
The Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River is turning an abandoned, industrial pig farm into a teaching campus, with the help of a contribution from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor).
Since 2013, NFTI has trained more than 150 people from 30 communities, and 13 of those people have gone on to start their own farm businesses. With the 260-acre farm campus, NFTI will demonstrate and teach how to feed 200 people. “Our most isolated communities are 200 people are or less, so we wanted to show, in a realistic way, what does it take to feed community of that size,” said Kim Rapati of NFTI.
The farm will develop the sustainable systems needed to provide a complete diet for 200 people, including greenhouses, permanent food forests and orchards, hardy northern grains and pastures, meat and dairy farming, food storage and marketing.
The focus is on “regenerative agriculture”, or agriculture that supports a healthy and abundant ecosystem, that will also help northern people protect wild herds and wild harvesting.
Rapati said that the failure of the pig farm, established in 1990 and abandoned in 1995, demonstrates that industrial, confinement agriculture does not work in a northern context, “for our people and our markets.” The NFTI farm campus is representative of a new model of agriculture taking hold in Canada–small-scaled, highly productive farming systems. “It is now possible for small, bio-intensive market gardens to earn between $25,000 and $150,000 in Canada,” Rapati said.
Salt is humankind’s oldest spice. But it’s not just a question of taste. Salt is also an essential nutrient for human health and a key ingredient in preserving food.
Suzanne is not worried about her physiological salt requirements. Her local diet will consist of enough meat and fish, which naturally contain salt, to meet her health needs. However, she is concerned with salt as a flavour enhancer and, more importantly, with salt’s role in the preservation of foods and in the making of cheese. Which all translates into a major problem for Suzanne, as she has no source of salt for her year of eating only local foods. Throughout history and across cultures the problem of acquiring salt has been solved through trade. Without resorting to the option of trading, and with no ocean nearby, Suzanne is seeking alternatives for a local salt source or salt substitute in Dawson City.
Suzanne’s husband Gerard has jokingly suggested that the family could harvest the salt from his sweat as he chops wood for the winter. Not surprisingly, this offer of a paternal salt lick has not found any takers. So what is Suzanne to do? She is currently researching alternative salt sources, and we will continue to report on her findings.
If you have any suggestions or thoughts for Suzanne about an alternative salt source, please leave your comment below or send us an email with your ideas, hacks, or experiences.
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.
Wild strawberries are one of the first wild berries to ripen (followed closely by soap berries, which we’ll cover in a later post). It’s best to “get low” when harvesting wild strawberries as they are located very close to the ground, often hiding underneath their foliage. You’ll typically find wild strawberries in meadows, young woodlands, sparse forest, woodland edges, and clearings.
It may take a while to cover the bottom of your bucket, but your patience will be amply rewarded. They are oh so sweet and bursting with strawberry flavour! Best popped straight into your mouth, but if you have the willpower to save them. then they can be also be frozen for later and used for all things strawberry.
It may be time to start looking at lambsquarter in a different way. Much like chickweed, this common garden weed (sometimes also known as pigweed) is another often-overlooked plant that has great potential as a wild food.
A prolific grower, lambsquarter is well-suited to Dawson gardens, and does well in many Northern regions.
Lambsquarter leaves are delicious raw and are not bitter like many other edible foraged leaves. Suzanne reports that she loves the taste, and they are her new favourite foraged leaf to eat raw. Sometimes called “northern spinach,” the leaves can also be cooked and used as a spinach substitute in stir fries or baked dishes like lasagna.
The leaves keep well in the refrigerator for a couple of days, or for the long term can be dried or frozen and stored for later use in sauces, soups, or stews. Lambsquarter is rich in Vitamins A and C, so the dried leaves can be a great source of these vitamins in wintertime.
One cautionary note: lambsquarter absorbs pollutants so avoid harvesting near roads or industrial areas.
In a feature published this week, The Yukon News profiled Suzanne and her upcoming year of eating only local foods, which will start by the end of July. The piece, by Lori Garrison, discussed the project, and highlighted some of the challenges – as well as pleasant surprises – Suzanne has encountered in preparing for her one-year experience.
It is clear that Suzanne’s journey thus far has been a highly educational one, and while she laments some of the things she will be forced to go without (such as coffee, chocolate, and salt) the lessons she is gaining from the project have been invaluable. As a filmmaker and storyteller, Suzanne can naturally find the lighter moments and human interest aspects of First We Eat, but the interview also touches on the project’s potential importance beyond entertainment value. The traditional food acquisition methods – and their practitioners – that she is documenting can ultimately have a beneficial impact for all Northerners in terms of developing their own long term food security.
Suzanne also paid tribute to the many and diverse local producers on whom she is leaning heavily, both to acquire food for her larder, and to provide the insights and knowledge to help her with her own growing and foraging activities. As noted in the article, the local growing activities are even more remarkable when you take into consideration that many farms in Dawson are off-grid without access to electricity or municipal running water.
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.
Miche here. When you go up to visit Old Crow you never know what that unique and generous community will send back with you — a haunch of caribou traded for some Taku River sockeye, or several pounds of King salmon roe. This year a friend and colleague presented me with a whole, wild, specklebelly goose.
I had never tasted a wild goose before. Bringing it home to Whitehorse, I plunked it in the freezer while I decided how to cook it.
The specklebelly, or greater white-fronted goose, migrates through Old Crow every fall and spring on the way to and from their nesting grounds in the Arctic. These geese are an important part of the traditional diet in Old Crow.
In early May the hunters were out on the Porcupine River, bringing home the birds for the family pot.
Every year, the hunter who got my goose gives all the women in his family a bird for Mother’s Day. He tells their men, who cook the goose, to follow the magic formula: 2-2-2. That is, slow-roast the specklebelly with two cups of water for two hours in a 200°F oven.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the specklebelly “provides the makings for one of the most delectable wild game meals you’ve ever eaten.”
This cook concurs. I followed a modified 2-2-2 formula, and that specklebelly was the best wild fowl I’ve ever tasted. Thank you Old Crow.
Pelly River Ranch is the the oldest, continuously working farm in the Yukon territory, located 10 kilometres up the Pelly River from its confluence with the Yukon River. Dale and Sue Bradley are the second generation of Bradleys to run the Pelly River Ranch, and the Bradley family are the fifth in a series of owners dating as far back as 1901, when Edward Menard bought 20 acres on the Pelly River and brought in farmer George Grenier as his partner. The farm changed owners through the years until 1954 when Dale Bradley’s uncles Hugh and Dick Bradley bought the place from the Wilkenson family.
Like their family before them, Dale and Sue and their son Ken run a mixed farm, which means they engage in several agricultural practices. They raise chickens and beef cattle, mostly Hereford and Angus, have a big vegetable garden, and they raise hay to feed their cattle. The Bradleys sell their eggs, chickens and beef to customers in Dawson, Faro and especially Whitehorse. In addition, they supply local markets with a range of root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, rutabaga and parsnips.
Pelly River Ranch mantains a herd of about 50 cattle, which they feed with their farm grown hay as well as fresh forage, from grasses to rose leaves to young fireweed, a feed that gives the beef a wild, natural flavour that Bradley appreciates.
In the year 2000, the Yukon Agriculture Branch presented the Bradley family with the “Farmer of the Century Award” for their nearly 50 years of agricultural work at the Pelly River Ranch.
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.
While dandelions are the bane of gardeners who are cultivating a lawn, the flowers from this plant — one of nature’s most prolific growers — are a blessing for those foraging for wild food.
The flower is a sun-lover, opening when the sun is out and closing up when it gets dark or cloudy. The flowers should be picked when they’re in full blossom, and the petals should be removed immediately after gathering before the flower heads start to close up.
Dandelion flowers can be used in variety of ways, including the well-known dandelion wine. They can be eaten raw in salads, or used for stir-fries, baking, or sauces.
Miche Genest here. A reminder: This winter I experimented with making homemade rhubarb vinegar using only products available in the Yukon — that is, wild low bush cranberries, frozen rhubarb from my back yard in downtown Whitehorse, tap water and Yukon Birch Syrup made by Berwyn Larsen and Sylvia Frisch on the banks of the McQuesten River.
The catalyst for the experiment was to provide a home-grown vinegar for Suzanne, who is about to embark on her year of eating only the foods she can source in or around Dawson. What to do about salad dressing? (The oil is a whole other topic.) No balsamic for her!
Apple cider vinegar is the obvious solution, but Suzanne’s supply of apples from horticulturist John Lenart will be limited, and their primary role to provide fresh fruit for the family. So I turned to locally-available fruit, starting with rhubarb and low bush cranberries.
The first attempt failed but the second time appears to have succeeded. Now that the fresh rhubarb is coming, I’ll continue to experiment and see if it makes a difference. Suzanne is experimenting too. Watch for updates, and in the meantime, click here for the recipe.
I tested the vinegar with a pH strip and it had a PH of 3.
In taste comparisons with commercial apple cider vinegar the apple cider won in terms of both flavour and sharpness. However, I’m delighted with the rhubarb vinegar in salad dressings. It provides the necessary acid. It does its job.
Spruce tips are a versatile ingredient in a variety of dishes and can be frozen for use throughout the year.
Photos by Cathie Archbould.
At this time of year throughout the North the spruce trees are starting to put on their new growth. The dark green of the existing branches is highlighted by the bright green of new tips. These emerging spruce tips are a delicious and versatile wild food.
Spruce tips have a distinct taste. It’s light and citrusy and with slight resin-like flavour. You can just eat them as they are or add them to smoothies and salads. Dried tips can be used for a soothing tea, or add chopped tips to drinking water and let it sit for an hour or so while the water absorbs all the goodness. They’re also great for seasoning dishes like soups or stews, and work well with both sweet and savoury recipes. They can be pickled, candied, turned into oils, vinegars, jellies and syrups, and used as a herb. Craft brewers also often use spruce tips for flavour in their beers.
Dry them off and store them in the freezer for use throughout the year. Spruce tips are high in Vitamin C — another reason to store them for use during wintertime. They also contain carotenoids, and are rich in minerals such as potassium and magnesium.
You’ll know the spruce tips are ready to pick when they are bright green with a small brown husk at the end. Knock off the husk before using. Remember that this is the tree’s new growth, so pick sparingly from any single tree before moving on. It’s a good idea to pick a good distance from any roadway to make sure they’re free of airborne toxins.
Up North, we love it when patches of fireweed take over our landscape, after all, it is The Yukon’s official flower. But did you know you can eat it too? Suzanne is enjoying having this first fresh vegetables of the season in her diet.
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?
The first Fireweed Market of the season opened Thursday at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse on a beautiful sunny day—let’s hope Thursdays stay sunny for the rest of the summer!
A small but mighty crowd of farmers, vendors and enthusiastic customers were there, reconnecting after the long winter, sharing gardening tales, buying bedding plants, and snacking on kettle popcorn or samosas. Buskers busked, little kids chased each other through the stalls and the occasional dog was spied eyeing up the snackers and hoping for a dropped pakora.
Supplies of produce were limited, as always at the beginning of the season, but Bart Bounds and Kate Mechan of Elemental Farms had swaths of starts for sale. (Bart said recently, “My ultimate dream is to get everyone in the Yukon growing their own vegetables and I grow the seeds.”)
Local cook and author Michele Genest came home with starts of beets, cabbage and kale from Elemental Farms, (she’s not a gardener, but this year, in solidarity with Suzanne, she’s determined to succeed) a dozen eggs (the blue ones are so beautiful) from Michael Ballon, and an order for two chickens and two turkeys from Grizzly Valley Farms. All in all, she reports, a most satisfying day.
It won’t be long before markets open in Dawson, Mayo and Haines Junction. Here’s to a great growing and eating season!
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.
Suzanne’s main sweetener for her year of eating local will be birch syrup from Berwyn Larson and Sylvia Frisch’s birch camp not far from Dawson. The sap has been running well and Suzanne is starting her year with a 12-litre bucket of delicious Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup .
Suzanne recently talked about her experience at the camp on Yu-Kon Grow It on CBC North‘s A New Day with host Sandi Coleman.
One of the great treats of spring in the Southern Yukon is fresh whitefish from the Yukon end of Atlin Lake. The local fisherman lays a net underneath the ice anytime from late March to early May, and sells his catch under the name Great Northern Fish Company. The season is short and the yield small, but on a good day he can take out 75 fish, each one about weighing about two kilos.
This year, on a blazing, blue-sky morning, Michelle Genest’s husband went out to Atlin Lake to help with the harvest. He came home in the late afternoon with 10 kilos of beautiful pinky-white filets wrapped in 10 500-gram packages. (The harvesting, fileting and packaging all happen on the same day, and the guts feed the eagles and the ravens.)
Michelle and her husband cooked a batch that night, in the simplest way imaginable: dipped in egg and flour and fried in butter. Glorious. Atlin Lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) cooks up firm and tender and is so delicate in flavour you have to pay attention. The reward for that attention is the flavour of lake, sky, and a sparkling spring day on the Yukon end of Atlin Lake in late April or early May. It doesn’t get much better.
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.
J.B. MacKinnon, the award-winning independent journalist and author whose works include The 100-Mile Diet, a bestseller that helped catalyze the local foods movement, will be speaking and showing slides this week in the territory as part of the 2017 Yukon Writers’ Festival. The Festival is produced by Yukon Public Libraries in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts.
All events are free and open to the public. MacKinnon’s Yukon schedule is as follows:
Monday 1 May
7 p.m. – 8 p.m. Dawson Library
Tuesday 2 May
1:30 – 2:30 p.m. Pelly Crossing School (students only)
7:30 – 8:30 p.m. Faro Library
Wednesday 3 May
7:00 – 9:00 p.m. Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, Whitehorse
15-minute reading along with other Festival authors plus reception
Thursday 4 May
7:00 – 8:00 p.m.Teslin Library
From vanished bison herds to collapsing fish stocks, the natural world as we know it is a shadow of what it used to be. In his talk and slideshow, bestselling author J.B. MacKinnon revisits a time when grizzlies roamed the Canadian prairies, wolves howled in England, and ten times more whales swam in the sea. He calls for an “age of rewilding,” in which we rebuild a wilder world everywhere—from the city to the backcountry, and also in ourselves.
J.B. MacKinnon’s latest book, The Once and Future World, was a national bestseller and won the international Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. Other works include the seminal local-food book The 100-Mile Diet (with Alisa Smith), and Dead Man in Paradise, which won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction. J.B. also writes in the field of interactive documentaries, most notably for the NFB’s Bear 71, which premiered at Sundance. As a journalist, he appears in both major outlets such as The New Yorker and National Geographic and vanguard publications like Adbusters. J.B. is a rock climber, mountain biker, snowboarder, and—yes—a birdwatcher. He lives in Vancouver.
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.
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.
Miche here. About five days into this second round of vinegar experiments, a thought occurred to me—low bush cranberries keep forever in the fridge. That’s because–oh yeah—I remember this–they are high in benzoic acid, a naturally occurring preservative. Are low bush cranberries, then, a good choice for making vinegar? Well, maybe not.
I called Sheila Alexandrovitch, who has a homestead far down the Annie Lake Road 30 kilometres southwest of Whitehorse and asked if she’d ever fermented low bush cranberries. (Sheila is a locally famous for her fermentation knowledge. Her caveat: “I don’t know the science, I just know what works.”) She said, “Oh no. Low bush cranberries actually stop the fermentation process.” Aha!
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.
Kohlrabi is not a vegetable you will often find in the grocery store. However, it is a root vegetable that grows well in the Yukon.
It doesn’t look so inviting from the outside, but slice into it and it is tender and delicious – raw or cooked. Suzanne’s husband, Gerard, discovered that it slices into crunchy and fresh tasting crackers quite easily!
Suzanne tried some sliced fresh local kohlrabi crackers with a delicious cream cheese and chum salmon caviar topping, with a sprinkling of dill – all ingredients local to Dawson City, Yukon!
Not only tasty and healthy, but also a beautiful looking snack!
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.
Suzanne Crocker loves nuts. She really loves them. So how is she going to get by without nuts for a whole year?
Easy–She’ll eat seeds instead! Sunflower seeds, Styrian pumpkin seeds. She’s recruited a couple of farmers to grow the pumpkins, and she’s ordered up some Russian sunflower seeds to plant in her own garden. Both varieties are high-yield; in fact Styrian pumpkins are grown for their seeds, not their flesh. The question is, will the Dawson growing season be long enough for the seeds to mature? We don’t know. But here are a couple of recipes Suzanne might use, should she be successful. Call them aspirational. Oh. But the olive oil might be a problem…not so many olive trees in Dawson…
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.
Many northern Canadian communities do not have the luxury of the rich soil found in southern Yukon. This is the case for the fly-in community of Arviat, (population 2,800) – the second largest community in Nunavut.
In 2014 Arviat built a greenhouse beside the school to see if they could grow their own vegetables with local soil and local fertilizer. And they have been very successful!
It is a wonderful thing that our farmers have the ability to overwinter and breed livestock in the North!
Piglets, Calves, Kids and Chicks are a Spring ritual at Aurora Mountain Farm in Whitehorse. Aurora Mountain produces certified organic chicken, eggs, hay and vegetables (including garlic, yum!) available seasonally from their farm. They also offer delectable wild crafted preserves, jams & mustard, and even handmade goat milk soap!
Yup! Suzanne has been munching on sweet & crunchy carrots from Kokopellie Farm all January. “They taste like they are freshly picked only even sweeter!” offers Suzanne.
Otto Muehlbach, whose farm is in Sunnydale (Dawson), has designed a large root cellar to store carrots, potatoes, cabbage, beets, and other root veggies all winter long. The trick seems to be 2-4 degrees C and keeping the humidity and condensation low. If you can find a way to get to Sunnydale, Otto’s fresh root vegetables are sold from his house on Saturdays between 2 and 5 pm as long as it is warmer than -30C.
First We Eaters! Homemade flax seed crackers, homemade pumpkin butter and homemade cranberry chutney. Food for thought: can we grow enough Styrian pumpkins to support a home-grown pumpkin butter and pumpkin oil industry? Why not? – Miche Genest
Suzanne will use her one-year challenge to start a public conversation about food self-sufficiency with communities across the North.
Through social media and this website, First We Eat wants to collaborate with people and organizations that can help Suzanne’s journey by sharing knowledge, both traditional and innovative, on eating local North of 60 – not just in Dawson, but all across the North.