I am sitting down with my new comfort drink: a mug of frothed steamed milk. The milk has come straight from the cow. Before I heated the milk, I skimmed off three inches of cream. One jar of cream has thickened overnight and is being shaken by my 15-year-old daughter while she reads a novel. In an hour it will transform into butter and buttermilk. More cream is in the ice cream maker, churning into ice cream with birch syrup for a sweetener. Some of the milk is being heated and stirred by my 11-year-old daughter in preparation for adding homemade kefir to turn it into yogurt. In the meantime, I am making dried moose meat, seasoned with ground celery leaf and stinging nettle, and boiling up another 10 pounds of potatoes to help keep my 17-year-old son satiated in snack food for a couple of days.
Just an average day in my household. At least an average day this year; the year I have decided that I will feed my family only food that can be hunted, fished, foraged, raised or grown in my arctic community of Dawson City, Yukon, a remote Northern Canadian community at 64° north, 300 km south of the Arctic Circle, further north than Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit.
It’s the 100-mile diet arctic style. No salt, no caffeine, no sugar, no nuts, no rice, no chocolate, no legumes, no oil, no vinegar and very limited grains.
I am not a farmer and the kitchen is not my natural habitat. So why am I doing this? Because there may come a day soon when we will either choose to or be forced to feed ourselves. And I want to explore and to celebrate how well we can feed ourselves in the far North.
The average North American meal travels 1500 miles to reach the supper table. Double or triple that for the Canadian North. This means high costs for shipping which translates to grocery costs that can be up to five or six times the Canadian average. Not to mention long transit times during which fresh produce loses most of its nutrients before it lands on our dinner plates. Many of Canada’s northern communities cannot be reached by road, only by plane or by boat. For those that do have road access to the south, there is only one road in, one road out. When that road gets blocked by landslide or by forest fire or the planes and boats cannot travel due to bad weather, the grocery store shelves go bare within a couple of days. Climate change is causing more extreme natural disasters and infrastructure can no longer be counted on to bail us out. Feeding ourselves locally is becoming more and more relevant.
After all: “First we eat, then we do everything else.” – MFK Fisher
My garden and greenhouse only provide a small fraction of the food required to feed my family for a year. I am relying on Dawson’s resourceful farmers, other gardeners and the forest to make up the difference. Dawson City has a short, but intense growing season. Lots of summer sun, but only 66 consecutive frost-free days. Feeding and overwintering livestock is possible, but challenging in temperatures that reach minus 40C. Prior to settlers moving in, indigenous communities lived entirely off the land in the North. The land provides moose, caribou, rabbit, grouse, fish and many wild plants, berries and mushrooms. We have more moose than people in the Yukon and one moose will provide enough meat to feed two families for a year.
I started our year of eating local on July 31, 2017. The first two months were overwhelming, trying to harvest, process and store a year’s worth of food for a family of five. Our house has been taken over by food storage. Four freezers plus twelve large tubs of frozen food now overtake our veranda. Racks of drying onions and braids of garlic have become the center piece of the family room. Herbs and sunflower heads hang from every banister. The garage is filled with root vegetables and pumpkins. Cobs of popcorn hang from the rafters. The pantry is full of eggs and pressure canned tomatoes. In fact, the only room in our house that is not storing food is the bathroom.
I have no local source of salt. My husband suggested that I could harvest the sweat from his back while he chops wood, but I have yet to be that desperate. Interestingly, after about 6 weeks, I found that I didn’t miss salt anymore. In turn, I started to find that food tasted salty naturally, especially tomatoes and spinach and celery. Speaking of celery, I have an entirely new appreciation for this vegetable. Celery is now my best friend. Celery is actually quite high in minerals, especially the salty ones! Dried, ground celery leaves have become my new ‘salt’ for seasoning all things savory. Celery juice now substitutes for brine for salt-less lacto-fermenting (think sauerkraut and kimchi). Dried spruce tips have become my cinnamon. Rhubarb juice has become my new vinegar. Dried and ground nasturtium seed pods are my pepper.
We have no sugar. Although I am about to experiment with 350 pounds of non-GMO sugar beets grown for me by local farmers. Instead of sugar, I have birch syrup and a small amount of local honey. (It is not easy to overwinter honeybees in the far north, but these bees managed to survive!) I have learned to love birch syrup. Birch syrup ice cream. Birch syrup yogurt. Birch syrup pumpkin pie (crustless). Birch syrup toffee. In fact, a shot of birch syrup straight up has satisfied the occasional craving for a once loved piece of chocolate.
What I have missed the most in the first three months of eating local is grains. No grains means no bread, no cookies, no scones, no bagels, no cereal, no rice, no pasta. This has been the biggest adjustment for my family. Potatoes have been trying hard to fill the gap. A variation of potato pancakes is our filler every morning along with two eggs each. We go through a dozen eggs a day! However, thanks to the ingenuity of one Dawson farmer, I did recently acquire some grain. Now I just have to figure out how to thresh and winnow and grind it!
It has been very interesting to eat seasonally. There is a saying: “In the summer, we eat above ground, in the winter we eat underground.” And it is true. In July and August my cravings were for salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli. Once the cold weather hit in September and the snow arrived in early October, I no longer yearned for salad. My cravings switched to root vegetables: potatoes, carrots, squash, parsnips and rutabagas. It will be interesting to see if root vegetables lose their appeal over the long winter. I have saved some radish seeds to try sprouting. Salt-less fermented sauerkraut may have to suffice over the winter for the occasional craving for ‘above ground’ crunch.
At the moment, with our freezers and our house busting with food, I feel like we will have enough for the winter. But, really I have no idea. There is some anxiety to the concept of not being able to replace something we might run out of by going to the store. A long-time farmer once spoke to me about the ‘hungry gap.’ This would be around March and April, when our food supply may run low and Dawson is still blanketed in snow.
I know that Spring officially starts on March 21st but March is still the middle of winter in the North. It will be late April before the snow will start to disappear on south facing slopes revealing the crocus, our first wild flower of spring. Sometime in early May, the ice will break up on the rivers, the birch sap will flow and our first green vegetable of spring will start poking out of the ground –fireweed shoots!
Our only fresh spring greens in May and early June will be foraged and how welcome they will be! Fireweed shoots, coltsfoot shoots, young dandelion leaves, horsetail, lungwort, plantain, cotton wood buds and spruce tips.
Spring quickly turns to summer in the North. By the end of May the leaves will be out on the trees, we can start planting our gardens and Dawson will often be the hot spot in Canada for a few days. By July the gardens, greenhouses and farmers markets will be bountiful with delicious fresh produce once again.
I have no idea how this year is going to go. I have no idea if I have stockpiled enough food. What I do know is that eating local is a community effort, we are very reliant on Mother Nature, we are more adaptable than we think we are, necessity really does breed creativity and eating locally is absolutely delicious! I already feel healthier than I have in years.
It is both a wonderful and a humbling experience to actually know where every single ingredient on our plate comes from. And I have certainly learned to value both the people and the land that helped put it there.
Suzanne Crocker is a retired family doctor turned filmmaker and director. Her feature documentary All The Time In The World (allthetimeintheworld.ca) was screened in 25 countries around the world and winner of 22 awards. David Suzuki touted it as “A magnificent film.” You can follow Suzanne’s ambitious journey to establish food security north of 60 here: FirstWeEat.ca