by Miche GenestAll manner of foods were celebrated at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in biannual Myth and Medium conference during the week of February 19, 2018, from whole grains to healing herbal concoctions to wild game. Not surprisingly, animal guts played a significant role, not just in cooking, but also in presentations and demonstrations, and in conversations among Elders and cooks from several Indigenous nations.
Vuntut Gwitchin hunter Stanley Njootli Senior told the audience on Wednesday night that the bag carried by The Boy in the Moon in the traditional story shared by many northern Indigenous peoples was filled with–caribou guts. Elizabeth Kyikavichik remembers that the first thing her family ate after a successful caribou hunt was the guts. Elizabeth, who is Teetl’it Gwich’in, grew up on the land near Fort MacPherson and was an avid student of her parents’ traditional hunting and cooking methods. In traditional Indigenous cooking the whole animal is consumed, from antler to hoof, and guts are a highly valued source of nutrition.
In fact, the same is true of pretty much every culture worldwide — traditionally, guts have been eaten with pleasure and gusto. Think of blood pudding, or liver paté, or steak and kidney pie, or the Greek kokoresti, or the Costa Rican sopa de mondongo. In North America it’s only since the Second World War that we’ve turned our backs on guts, or offal — we’ve grown accustomed to the relatively inexpensive, choice cuts made available through the large-scale industrial raising and harvesting of animals, and by the supermarket retail model of selling food.
The smaller butcher shops that typically carried offal have become harder to find. Now we tend to be squeamish about what we perceive as the stronger flavours of animal guts, and their different look and texture. In recent years Indigenous hunters in the Porcupine Caribou range have noticed that some hunters were leaving gut piles and heads behind in the field when they harvested caribou.
The Van Tat Gwich’in Government and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board collaborated on the publication of Vadzaih, Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof in part to encourage a return to traditional hunting practices. The book is both a field guide and cookbook, designed to appeal to hunters and cooks of all ages, pairing old and new ways of preparing caribou heads, shins and offal, as well as other parts of the animal.
When I worked on developing the contemporary recipes for Vadzaih with the community cooks of Old Crow, I grew accustomed to eating, and enjoying, kidney, heart, liver, tongue and brain. But I shied away from the intestines and the stomach. I don’t know why, since one of my favourite dishes as a teenager dining out with my parents was sweetbreads (pancreas) in Madeira sauce. Why was pancreas okay and not stomach? I don’t have an answer.
At Myth and Medium, those who attended the “Our Camp is Our Kitchen” cooking fire during the Shì Lëkąy Food Tastes Good Knowledge Fair were lucky enough to sample two different kinds of caribou stomach, prepared by Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Mary Jane Moses, Tetl’it Gwich’in Elder Dorothy Alexie, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormendy and visiting cook, hunter, musician and TV producer Art Napolean, of the Beaver people in Peace River country in northern BC. I screwed up my courage and tried a piece of tripe. It was mild, sweet and chewy, and I would try it again without hesitation.
I’m not alone. Among the Canadian settler population, due to the resurgence of interest in eating local food and the growing concern about food waste, guts are making it back onto the menu. International celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall are serving tripe in their restaurants. Canadian chef and author Jennifer McLagan has published Odd Bits, How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, a cookbook devoted to cooking the head, feet and guts of domestic animals. (We relied heavily on Odd Bits when putting together Vadzaih.)
And small butcher shops are making a comeback not only in big urban centres, but, luckily for us, in Whitehorse and Dawson City. At Myth and Medium we learned that Suzanne had taken to eating burbot liver in order to replenish her internal stock of Vitamin D. Suzanne offered samples of the liver during her workshop on Wednesday afternoon. We also ate caribou tripe and caribou head cheese and several different kinds of pemmican cooked by several different Indigenous people. And the Moosemeat Men served moose nose at Thursday evening’s feast.
I went home to Whitehorse with a few pounds of charcuterie made by Shelby Jordan of BonTon Butcherie and Charcuterie, and a surprise bonus. This was haggis, also made by Shelby, from pork liver, pork and wild boar tongues, boar head, boar kidneys and beef suet, all from locally raised animals, mixed with the requisite toasted stone-ground oatmeal and a flavourful blend of warm spices, the whole thing stuffed into beef bung, or appendix, which is in modern times the typical haggis casing.
Haggis, as we know, is the classic Scottish way of eating the whole animal, a traditional dish cooked right after the hunt and now most often served on poet Robert Burns’s birthday. I brought my BonTon haggis to a potluck dinner party on Sunday after the conference, where it was enjoyed by 14 people, some of whom had never eaten haggis or offal before. My husband, who is a Scot, said it was the best haggis he’s ever had. Converting the masses to offal one caribou stomach, one haggis, at a time.