Country Food in the City

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

One great thing about Northern parties: every once in a while, near the end of the night, someone will pull out a slab of maktaaq (narwhal meat), much like a whiskered gentleman might produce a pricey scotch in a hazy southern drawing room. Cardboard will be laid down, ulus and pocketknives produced, maybe a little soy sauce or HP, and a good old impromptu country food feast will ensue. When it happens in one of the communities it’s a nightcap—chewing (and more chewing) commences; conversation continues. But in a Yellowknife trailer this past year over Christmas, it triggered something else: a bit of rapture.

Whale meat is strong—not fishy, but definitely of the sea. After eating whale, seal or walrus, the flavour will permeate your body and scent your skin. Eating maktaaq again took me back to a summer spent on a boat, warming up on seal meat while cruising the coastline, scoping shores for herds of caribou. I wanted more. But where to find country food in the city?

“As far as wild meat goes, there’s not a whole lot that’s commercially sold; some Alberta bison, local fish—pickerel when it’s running, and whitefish—and I guess muskox, but we haven’t had that in a while.” Northern Fancy Meats owner Terry Greene is giving me a tour of his Yellowknife operation; he’s the only butcher in the city who can handle a whole caribou or muskox. For 30 years, he’s offered country food processing (“basic cut-and-wrap, that’s your stew, burger, steaks, your roast is $1.85 a pound, right up to $10 a pound for jerky”).

“Ten years ago, we were here every night; it was always overtime. Back when everyone was allowed to hunt caribou it was swamped in here.” But today, the abattoir is almost empty, and it’s been that way since 2010, when strict harvesting limits were put on the Bathurst caribou hunt. In the freezer, past the pallets of beef and chicken there’s a little Rubbermaid cooler and a small cardboard box of ground caribou that a customer wants turned into jerky. Otherwise, there hasn’t been any country food all week.

There are a few restaurants in town where wild meat is actually on the menu—Bullock’s Bistro for local fish and The Lodge at Aurora Village for reindeer, buffalo, locally-smoked fish, berries and bannock. Otherwise, Greene suggests I try online, but buyer beware: “I recently had a customer that got some caribou hips from Rankin, three in a box. Told me she paid $3,000.”

Iqaluit’s Tooma Natsiq started the Facebook page, “Inuit country food sell/swap” in June 2012, and says he’s never seen caribou prices that high. “Usually for a full caribou, hunters are getting $200 to $300,” he says. Even at that price, the sale of country food is controversial among some Inuit. “Growing up, we would always give away country food,” he says. So when Nunavummiut started selling wild meat online, “people were complaining a lot, saying we shouldn’t sell food.” He created the page as a safe space for hunters to sell their meat and make enough money to finance their next hunt. “If anyone complains,” he says, “I’m going to ban them from the group. [Facebook] has become really important for making country food accessible to people who can’t go out hunting anymore.” And to maintain a steady diet of country food, he says, “takes a network.”

Among the Tłı̨chǫ, too, the country food-sharing network is still strong. Petter Jacobsen isn’t aboriginal, but as a traditional knowledge researcher, he’s been accompanying Tlicho hunters since 2010. “We’ll pack up for four or five days, and in the springtime, we’re looking for Bluenose East caribou migrating north.”

After harvesting six caribou last April, he says, “we brought the meat back to Gamètì and stored it in a warehouse. When we came back the next day, it was already gone, just one guy’d cut off a big leg, next guy’d cut off a leg, and so on. We had to go out hunting again.” Jacobsen took as much as he could carry back to Yellowknife, where he says he eats country food about twice a week and still can’t share it enough.

One night, Jacobsen hosts a dinner party pairing caribou ribs with Spanish red wine and roasted, rosemary potatoes. The rib is so long it looks silly, arching wider than the plate, but slender, and elegant. It tastes strong, fatty, gamey, but nothing like summer on the boat—not like freedom, but packed with energy. Cooked in the oven, it’s a different thing entirely.

“I think it’s important to have country food here in town,” says Jacobsen. “It gives you a feeling of where this place is. Sure, it’s the city, but not really. It’s the North, we’re in the middle of nature.”

Read the story, with photography by Angela Gzowski, at Up Here.

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