Tasting Northern Ingenuity

“You Can’t Eat Snowmobiles” (Richler 525). This observation seems obvious, yet necessary to contemplate when travelling to Canada’s northern regions.

Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

Children Snowmobiling
Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

Welcome to the territories and their capitals: 

Whitehorse (YT), Yellowknife (NT), and Iqaluit (NU).


When journeying north, readers will likely think of extreme weather conditions, geographic remoteness, and social isolation. These factors make food-sourcing and meal-time rituals challenging, no matter the temporal setting.

A change in location brings a change in ingredients, and this week’s literary fare is certainly distinct from our earlier “Capital Meals” of Ottawa, Victoria, and Edmonton. Recurring dishes in our sampling of the territories include caribou, ptarmigan, and fish, alongside the ever-popular tea.

In Late Nights on Air, Elizabeth Hay describes an exquisite meal of caribou veal that takes place in Yellowknife. Similarly, Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife features Danny, a penniless drifter who almost samples caribou at the Greasy Nugget cafeteria. At the grill counter dedicated to northern fare, Danny spies a veritable buffet: “fried ptarmigan, pike and chips, sweet and sour bear paw, scrambled caribou brains on toast, detoxified polar bear liver and onions” (30). Fast food outlets are readily available in the capital, but there are options with a local flair. Nora (another central character in Zipp’s novel who works as a government researcher specializing in arctic rodents) canoes from her houseboat on Yellowknife Bay to a dockside grill that caters to tourists and crews from air charter companies. At first glance, this breakfast could be served anywhere in North America: a toasted whole wheat bagel, yogurt, and blueberries. But then, there are unique touches: “chopped dandelion, followed by a cup of Labrador tea in which floated a decorative piece of sphagnum” (55).

Photo Credit: Juliene Lima Photo Edit: Robyn Clarke

Photo Credit: Juliene Lima
Photo Edit: Robyn Clarke

Poet Clea Roberts captures everyday life experiences in the city of Whitehorse in her book of poems Here Is Where We Disembark. Domestic details and images familiarize the landscape. In the poem “Transmutations,” winter-time images alight: “peaches radiate / like gentled suns in the root cellar” (14); trucks rumble on the roadways, “bringing / the bread and the milk” (15); and “February ate / a cord of wood / a snow shovel, and a beaver hat” (20). In “The Longest Night,” the dim moonlight provides little warmth,

… but fills
the snow tracks
of tree squirrels
with blue shadow
level as teaspoons. (26)

Painted in Waterlogue

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

In “What to Carry With You,” August ends and winter fast approaches. Adjusting to these seasonal transitions, the speaker anticipates that indoor domestic spaces, dimly lit, will provide comforting sounds: “the tender clink of tea pots / retrieved from cupboards” (64). Clea Roberts’ contemporary Yukon setting (featured in Part I of her book) eventually finds a haunting counterpart in Part II with a shift back in time to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898. In “Arrival” a new prospector, Daniel Snure, addresses his imaginary wife while disembarking at Hootalinqua (north of Whitehorse). He takes in the scene, appreciating the new forms of knowledge that his wife will necessarily acquire:

. . . we are greeted

by the loose tongue of alder smoke
which tells me the Hän women
cure salmon for the winter—

you will learn this too,
though the dance hall music
still clings to you
like black fly in the spring (71).

Part II is a magical series of conversations, where even a king salmon addresses a woman fishing, and she replies: “You are a gift / against hunger” (“Harvest” 80).


Along with caribou and fish, human resourcefulness is a significant “ingredient” for the realization of the territories’ capital meals. Yellowknife and its surrounding area have inspired many tales of ingenuity when it comes to procuring reliable sources of food.

In Steven Zipp’s Yellowknife, when Danny first crosses into the Northwest Territories, he has no money for food, but the capital—otherwise known as “Moneytown” (11)— beckons with its promise of diamond mines. After crossing the border, Danny’s first meal consists of bread and condiment sandwiches, the mustard, relish, and ketchup swiped from the Border Café (12).

Painted in Waterlogue

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

Once settled into the city, Danny notes the number of dogs, quickly realizing another option for satisfying his hunger:

Danny happened to spy a huge bag of dogfood in someone’s front yard. It was a brand he’d never tried before. . . . It was only then he noticed a man leaning against the fence, watching him intently. . . .
The fellow came nearer. “Ever try that stuff with milk?” he asked.
Danny didn’t understand him at first. “What?”
“Dry dog food. I did. Figured it might be like breakfast cereal. Big mistake, even with sugar.” . . .
“I’ll tell you something else,” he went on. “That stuff may be okay in summer, but you’ll never last the winter on it. Gotta have fat.” (26-27)

George Blondin, the late Dene elder and storyteller, describes in “Starvation” the challenges of winter, when fish in a “small fish lake” seem to go into a “hole in deep water” as the elders explained (21), and big game is the only food available to those living in the mountains, but hunting big game in temperatures hovering around minus 40º and without a gun is nearly impossible. In “Starvation” a clever widow and her young son decide that they will surely die if they don’t strike out and fend for themselves. Nearly starved, the widow manages to build a fire to thaw ground enough that she can dig up some roots favoured by bears in the summer (22). Next, she finds rabbit tracks in a willow patch and manages to snare enough rabbits to gain strength (23). “They were so happy that they could eat now. But the mother was very careful not to eat everything at the fire. She skinned the rabbit, being very careful not to waste even the blood. The mother made a soup with rabbit livers, blood and roots. For the first time in long time, the widow and her son ate well” (23). Gradually, as they wend their way to the Mackenzie River, spring starts to come, and the young son himself learns to trap rabbit and ptarmigans and muskrats with his bow and arrow. “The mother had survived the terrible starvation that occurred in the middle of winter in the mountain country. The boy, now twelve years of age, became a good hunter. And that is the story” (23).

Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

Mackenzie Waterway
Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

Some tales of starvation are less successful. In Solomon Gursky Was Here, Montreal-born writer Mordecai Richler reveals that some meals are devised out of sheer necessity and are far from one’s original menu plans. In the novel, Henry Gursky, the rather eccentric Hassidic heir of the Gursky clan, takes supplies every year for Passover celebration to the “camp of the faithful” some 250 miles away. Keeping kosher in the Arctic is challenging, as Henry well knows. One fateful year, he makes the journey with his son, Isaac, and Johnny, grandson of Pootoogook, by snowmobile. But they don’t get back in time for Passover. When Moses sees the newspaper headline, “Gursky Heirs Missing in Arctic,” he jumps on a plane to Edmonton, and then to Yellowknife to join the search. “‘He should have taken his dogs,’ Riley said, ‘not those goddamn snowmobiles. You can’t eat snowmobiles’ (525). When they eventually find the campsite, only Isaac is alive. “‘They lost the sled with the food. Isaac survived by slicing chunks out of Henry’s thighs,’ Riley said ordering double Scotches for both of them” (526).

Painted in Waterlogue

Photo Credit: Shelley Boyd

Richler sums up the conclusion of this macabre story in a jaunty ditty in the style of Robert Service:

There are strange things done ‘neath the
Midnight Sun,
but the thing that made us quail
was the night the Jew
in want of a stew
braised his father in a pail. (527)

Rudy Wiebe’s novel, A Discovery of Strangers takes place in Yellowknife or Tetsot’ine Territory, during the years of Franklin’s early exploration 1820-21. The Yellowknife people provide hospitality to the English explorers or “Whitemuds” as they are called because of their impractical building construction methods, and are quickly linked in the minds of the English with food and nurturing in the Arctic landscape that is so inhospitable. The initial fort near today’s Yellowknife is called “Fort Providence,” in an early show of optimism. Although the beautiful 15-year old Yellowknife girl, Greenstockings, cannot communicate with the Englishman Robert Hood, they do speak to one another in and through food. Greenstockings ‘explains’ why she prefers cooking with hot stones than with the heavy pots of the English, although Hood cannot understand her words, “he laughs to see her laugh” (157). “The freedom of watching, of listening with incomprehension, fills him with staggering happiness” (159). Hood grows to love the Yellowknife’s favourite foods. When they take up winter residence at “Fort Enterprise” (about 250 kn north of Yellowknife by Twin Otter, more by canoe), Hood sometimes leaves the English buildings to visit the Yellowknife camp. In one scene, he offers his own silver spoon as implement for “the gelatinous food scooped steaming from a cooked or smoked caribou stomach” and although realizing the incongruity of such a blending he blurts out “Haggis” to signpost one other surprising food that has become acceptable fare on white linen (168). At that moment, “Laughter pulls her mouth wide at his exploding breath, at this game of eating, together, learning with simple silly laughter what they have both done since before consciousness” (168-9). Hood would “happily eat here forever” rather than endure the “red meat boiled or roasted by Hepburn out of every recognizability except grey slop or charcoal” that is fare in the officers’ mess (171).

Instead, Hood presses on with the exploration, facing hunger, bitter cold, and the challenges posed by Michel Terohaute. The others think that Michel, a Mohawk, cannot access Yellowknife foods that might save them (227). Instead, when disaster and starvation strike, Michel Terohaute turns to the “long pig” as human flesh is described, to gain strength for himself and to provide some nourishment to those too desperate to question its source (222-3). The novel describes tales of Mohawk cannibalism (284, 290), but the Mohawk Michel also tells the tale of how Whites ate his brother on the Ottawa River (239). Eventually the Orkney-man Hepburn will himself turn to cannibalism in order to survive (291), with the tacit consent of his group (239), and through this breach of decorum will eventually gather the strength to carry the ‘higher-minded’ Richardson (who drinks only broth but never eats the meat knowingly) back to Franklin’s encampment, Fort Enterprise.

Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

The Scarcity of Milk
Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

For Margaret Atwood, northern cities are key settings in her critical depictions of the future. Atwood’s fictional meals reflect the dystopian civilizations from which they are produced. This food is typically not easy to digest.

In “Historical Notes,” the final section of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers are transported out of the near-future theocracy of Gilead (whose centre is situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and into the far-future of 2195. The setting is now an academic conference at the University of Denay in Nunavit. When her novel first appeared in 1985, was Atwood imagining a “Nunavit” territory before Nunavut became an official territory in 1999? Although the scholars take a critical view of the now-defunct Gilead, not much has changed with respect to gender politics. The plenary speaker makes a sexist joke about enjoying the Arctic Char at dinner as much as the “charming Arctic Chair,” who is a woman (312). In the former republic of Gilead, the handmaids gave of their flesh (a bodily form of “charity”) while labouring on the birthing stool (a chair which situated them in a subordinate position to the Commander’s barren wife). The handmaids’ enforced role was to produce babies for the elite members of society. In the far-future world of “Nunavit,” this past theocracy seemingly haunts the academics’ seafood dinner as similar kinds of beliefs and attitudes remain on the “menu.”

In Atwood’s most recent work of speculative fiction, MaddAddam, the north again brings into focus the challenges of near-future civilizations. This time, environmental abuses and excessive consumerism are the targets of Atwood’s critique. In the novel, the character Zeb recounts working at “Bearlift” — a “scam” organization that air-drops edible refuse collected from Whitehorse and Yellowknife to feed starving polar bears in the hope of saving them from starvation brought on by global warming (59). Bearlift’s only achievement is to teach the bears “that food falls out of the sky” (59). Urban waste is insufficient to save the endangered animals, and human civilization must take note, since its own wastefulness and over-consumption wreak havoc on the planet and humanity’s own survival. In Atwood’s dystopian world, the future-north continues to pose challenges related to an extreme climate and starvation, but for altogether difference reasons.

Photo Credit: Juliene Lima Photo Edit: Robyn Clarke

Muktuk is whale skin and blubber. Juliene says this one was made from Beluga whale, and served with salt and HP Sauce.
Photo Credit: Juliene Lima
Photo Edit: Robyn Clarke

Canadian poet Eric Linden and songwriter Stompin’ Tom Connors both reference Muktuk, in their tribute to the fictional “Muk Tuk Annie.” Muktuk is a delicacy made of whale skin and blubber. Although the poem “The Ballad of Muktuk Annie” and song by Connors based on the poem are both humorous, it is doubtful whether or not Annie’s nickname refers to her love of the northern treat.

Have you dined on caribou or any other northern fare? Do you have any other suggestions of capital meals from the territories? We welcome your feedback. Please tweet us @CanLitFare.

Stay tuned next week for a culinary exploration of the territories on the Tableaux Blog.  

After that recipe post, we will be travelling to the prairies and the land of living skies:
Regina, Saskatchewan


Territories Sampling Menu

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. Print.

– – -. MaddAddam. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2013. Print.

Blondin, George. ”Starvation” from Legends and Stories from the Past.

Hay, Elizabeth. Late Nights on Air. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007.

Richler, Mordecai. Solomon Gursky Was Here. Markham: Viking, 1989.

Roberts, Clea. Here Is Where We Disembark. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2010. Print.

Wiebe, Ruby. A Discovery of Strangers. 1994. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1995.

Zipp, Steve. Yellowknife: A Novel. Canada: Res Telluris, 2007. Print.


Written by Shelley Boyd and Nathalie Cooke

Inuksuk Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

Photo Credit: Juliene Lima

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