You are what you eat

An array of country food, and an ulu to cut it. | NWT Archives/Dept. of Public Works and Services fonds/G-1995-001: 7264

Dook’s Look Back

by Catherine Dook

Some 55 years ago my mother married my pilot father and moved north. Because she was a southern girl accustomed to grocery stores and plumbing, she was forced to make some unexpected domestic adjustments. Oh, there was a grocery store, and after awhile even  plumbing, but every now and then Dad would fly home to Yellowknife from the High Arctic carrying a frozen caribou leg. As suppertime neared, you would find Mom squatting in a snowbank cutting slabs of meat off the bone with her little hacksaw while sooty ravens hopped just out of reach and watched the proceedings with great interest. Then, bearing a chunk or two of meat into the house to thaw, Mom would comment prosaically on dinner as if she’d just returned from shopping. Caribou was too dry to roast, she told us. Why, the last roast had turned out tough as an old boot, so she thought she’d stick to frying.

After one journey home bearing meat, Dad told Mom that the Oblate priest with whom he’d bunked overnight had fried up the best caribou steaks he’d ever eaten.

“Tell me exactly what he did and I’ll do the same,” said Mom, pulling out her cast iron skillet.

“First he spat on his hands and wiped them on his beard,” Dad said.

“Let’s skip that step,” Mom rejoined.

After dinner Dad pushed back his plate with a sigh and commented the good Father had done better.

“What do you expect?” Mom asked. “I haven’t the beard for it.”

Another year Dad was invited by Inuit friends to put on some hip waders and leather gloves to fish in their stone weir. The technique was simple: the men chased the dappled char swimming around their thighs with their hands, and when they caught one, they grasped it firmly by the gills and flung it onto the pebbled beach, where the women clubbed it over the head. Dad came home with three Arctic Char and a sprained thumb.

Char was a luxury. Mom consulted seriously with the ladies in her sewing circle and came up with a recipe for whole baked char with cucumber sauce that still resonates with my taste buds.

Summers, Mom took to berry-picking with great enthusiasm. Every August, with a bowl in one hand and a hat on her head, she would sally forth on the hunt. Cloudberries, pale and juicy. Dusty raspberries half the size of your little fingernail. Blueberries deep in the muskeg surrounded by clouds of whining mosquitoes. And last of the year, sometimes under an inch of snow, bog cranberries that clung to the flat rocks, red and hard and sour and desirable as gems.

By the time we were teenagers Mom was completely comfortable with country food. She could fillet a char, fry a caribou steak and serve both with a berry sauce she’d canned herself. But I didn’t learn the extent of her dedication until the summer when, as a middle-aged adult, I camped with my parents in a gravel pit south of Yellowknife. Other people’s parents camped next to trees and water, but my parents swore the gravel pit grew the best raspberries for miles around and was therefore as fertile as Eden, albeit somewhat dustier and perhaps more full of buffalo chips.

Mom had set purposefully off with her bowl and hat, when suddenly a herd of 20 buffalo cows and calves thundered toward us. Death by trampling, I thought, would be a horrible way for my senior citizen mother to die, so in a panic I screamed a warning. But Mom waved cheerily at me, stooped lower and continued picking raspberries with the kind of rhythmic skill that comes after years of practice.

At that moment, all in the dusty sunshine with 20 startled buffalo staring at me, I realized my mother was inextricably bound to the Arctic. Though she had begun as a young bride unaccustomed to the culture and context of country food, she was now completely at home in her corner sure the buffalo agreed with me.

Catherine Dook was born in Yellowknife where her father worked as a bush pilot. She is the author of three humour books and now lives onboard the sailing vessel Inuksuk in Cowichan Bay, B.C. with her husband. Contact catherinedook@hotmail.com to purchase her books.

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