A "Welcome Kablunaaq" Dinner

COUNTRY FOOD.  

It was our main motivation to get up north, and a term we’d never actually heard before starting FEAST.  As Dana mentioned in the last post, country food is traditional “food from the land,” and has made up the Inuit diet for thousands of years.  Among many things, country food includes caribou, arctic char, seal, whale, berries, muskox, and wild bird eggs, each of which have many different forms of preparation and preservation. 

In the museum in Churchill, I found this newspaper clipping tacked to the wall; in it, locals kids were interviewed about their favourite ways to eat country food.  Their preferences ranged from raw narwhal with soy sauce to cooked seal with salt, two dishes we certainly didn’t see anywhere else in Canada.

We did, however, see plenty of familiar foods at the grocery store, since communities around the north now heavily depend on expensive, imported foods.  While country food is as direct a nutritional source as you can get, the most popular imported foods tend to be highly processed, meaning health issues like diabetes are a huge concern.  Part of the reason for this is that processed foods are simply cheaper to buy, and last longer than fresh ones.

We had expected things to be costly up north, but neither of us were prepared for just how extreme it really is.  In the café attached to our hotel, for example, a plain burger and fries cost $21, while a dozen chicken wings at the hockey arena canteen went for $18.  For families that don’t have the resources or knowledge to hunt, gather, and prepare their own country food, the local grocery store is their only option, and it’s understandable that customers would stretch their dollars as far as possible.  Food costs can get so outrageous, there's even a Tumblr dedicated to it.

www.foodsecurecanada.org

But, back to what we were there for - food of northern origin.  Before I share the courses of our first big meal, here’s a great country food fact, which I find especially fascinating as the daughter of a woman who never dared serve roast beef even the slightest bit rare: foods like whale and caribou can be served frozen, cooked, OR raw, and whale is so forgiving it can be thawed, eaten, re-frozen, thawed, and eaten again.  Polar bear, on the other hand, must be fully boiled before it’s ingested, or else it’s dangerous.  Fascinating!

Our first big opportunity to try country food came from a collaboration between Tourism Nunavut and the restaurant at Inns North; they put together a “Welcome Kablunaaq Dinner” for us.  Though I was unaware at the time, Google has since told me “Kablunaaq” means “white person.”  Welcome, white people!

We started with a platter of appetizers, and baskets of freshly-baked bannock. 

There was jerky-like dried caribou, and several preparations of dried and smoked arctic char (called ‘pipsi’) from Kivalliq Arctic Foods, a local business we’ll share more about later. 

Char is a phenomenal; it’s related to both salmon and lake trout, and is the northernmost fish in the world.  Depending on the time of year and location in which it is caught, the colour of its flesh can change dramatically.

Our next course (of this appropriately meat and fish-heavy meal) was battered and fried turbot, pan-fried char, risotto, and steamed vegetables. 

We did our best to eat all the veg (be gone, scurvy!) and gladly would have eaten ALL of the tasty rice and fish.  We still, however, had an entire course of muskox stew and caribou on the way, so we held off as best we could.  Yes, that’s eight proteins in one meal, putting this dinner in high competition with our Keenawii’s Kitchen spread on Haida Gwaii.  Maybe you protein powder-obsessed body builders just need to move north.

The stew, with finely ground muskox, was rich and warming - the ultimate dish for -40 weather.  The roast caribou loin was dark, lean, and densely-flavourful; just by looking at caribou you can tell it’s packed with iron, protein, and vitamins.  

Impressively, the chef managed to sneak meat or fish into every course – including dessert!  Our final plate was a poached pear with candied pipsi.  

This was an outstanding meal shared with wonderful hosts.  Thank you to Nunavut Tourism and the Inns North for an incredible introduction to country food!  

-LA

 

 

Ancient Sewing Needles, Caribou Stomachs & Inuit Artifacts

Let’s travel back quickly to the museum in Churchill when, among other things, my eyes fixated on thousand year old sewing needles, hand-carved from bones.  As soon as I saw them, I became keenly aware that I know nothing about survival.  I take things like sewing needles, which I use only for the odd, wayward button, completely for granted.  

In Rankin Inlet, we met Monica Shouldice, an Inuk woman and retired kindergarten teacher whose devotion to her heritage has resulted in an enormous collection of Inuit artifacts.  Meeting Monica and learning about her culture reaffirmed this suffocating realization that despite my enthusiasm for camping, I would absolutely die in the wilderness.

Monica was born in the remote Nunavut tundra, in a sod house that her pregnant mother built by herself on the solid—but not yet frozen—autumn ground. 

Qulliq

By spring, her mother gave birth to Monica, alone on a caribou skin, by the light of a qulliq, a traditional Inuit lamp lit by flint, arctic cotton, and animal fat. 

Flint

At the time, her father was in a southern hospital being treated for tuberculosis; Monica finally met her father when she was six, when they all moved to Rankin Inlet for the opening of the nickel mine.  She has eight brothers and three sisters, and her father drowned at the age of 45.  Even Monica can’t believe her mother’s strength and resilience; as we sat with her and she looked around her own home, she said, “She had only a few things -  not like this.  This would be too many things!”

Monica went on to tell us numerous tales of growing up and hunting in Nunavut.  As soon as school finished, her mother used to take her and her siblings to the river to hunt caribou, and catch and dry arctic char.  She and her husband Michael continue this tradition every year, travelling to the river when the caribou herd moves through.  

Caribou skull

A traditional Inuit diet consists of meat, fat, and some berries.  From Monica, we learned just a few of the many ways caribou are prepared and eaten.  With caribou, as with any animal hunted and eaten by the Inuit, the salt of the seawater is the only seasoning applied. 

As expected, everything is eaten or put to use; the eyeballs are coveted because they are both warming and filling, the heads are boiled for stock, the tallowed fat can be used for cooking, and the meat can be eaten frozen, raw, or dried. 

Caribou fat

The most fascinating dish we heard of (but unfortunately, could not try) had to do with the most nutritious part of the caribou: the stomach.  The stomach is where the grazed vegetation accumulates, and thus, eating the stomach provides something akin to eating ‘vegetables.’  The stomach is filled with the caribous’ bone marrow, tied up (leaving an air hole), hung in the shade, and left to age for about seven days.  After this time, the marrow/stomach concoction, called paqqut, can be sliced like butter, and served on dried caribou.  Never would I have conceived of such a dish, but it’s been eaten and appreciated for generations.

The flavour of caribou was best described by Monica; she stated simply, “It tastes like itself.”  It doesn’t taste like chicken, it doesn’t taste like beef - it tastes like caribou, and nothing else.  The taste of ‘country food,’ the name given to food from the land, plays an important emotional role in the lives of the Inuit.  It’s the ultimate comfort food.

A self-described ‘egg thief,’ Monica collects and eats as many varieties of eggs as possible, including duck, goose, ptarmigan, swan, seagull, and crane.  Wide-eyed, we perused the large collection of eggs in her living room display case.  

Monica also collects and preserves various insect varieties: most are native to the region, but she has also preserved some that have travelled in from freighter ships.  Her past students used to gift her the interesting eggs and insects they’d find!

Monica has a vast collection of traditional tools, many of which were made by her husband Michael. 

The most common tool in their collection is the ulu, or ‘woman’s knife,’ which is made from caribou antler and steel, and used for many diverse purposes including skinning animals and preparing food. 

There was also a toggle-jointed harpoon, which very effectively pierces and captures sea animals because of its shape.

Monica also showed us some seal skin pelts, one of which was commercially tanned, and one that she was treating herself, through a long process of crumpling and stomping.  Once prepared, she’ll make it into slippers, boots, and even pants!  It’s one of the warmest pelts to wear in the north, and we greatly appreciated the sealskin slippers she gave us to wear while in their home.

Leaving Monica’s house, I felt enlightened and challenged by the resilience of the Inuit people, inspired by the Inuit’s profound connection to their food and land, and comforted from spending time in Monica’s wise, reverent, and motherly presence. 

Right now, Monica and Michael are likely on one of their annual hunting trips, preparing a variety of animals for their family and community to eat.  I only wish we could join them on the summery Nunavut terrain so they could teach us more about the northern world in which they live.

-DV