First we eat: Dawson woman to subsist on local food only for a year

Eggs, meat, fish, berries: Yes. Chocolate and coffee? No.

Salt — which most people eat too much of — will soon be a hard commodity to come by for Dawsonite Suzanne Crocker.

As part of her project First We Eat, Crocker — a retired family doctor-turned-filmmaker — is getting ready to eat nothing but locally-produced, Dawson-area grown food for a year starting next week. Basically, if you couldn’t make it or grow it yourself along the Klondike River 200 years ago, Crocker won’t be eating it. Which means things like salt — typically derived from seawater — are off the menu.

“Salt is the hard part,” Crocker says. “Dried coltsfoot or celery is supposed to be a substitute, flavour-wise. I’m looking for some evidence of trading, of course, with the coastal tribes in this region, but I haven’t found any yet.”

The purpose of the project is to “celebrate the ingenuity, resourcefulness and knowledge of Northern Canadians and our relationship to the land through the food that we hunt, fish, gather, grow or raise in the North,” Crocker says on her website.

“In the North, people are so resourceful and food production really highlights that. We have an incredible knowledge base up here … and I’m using myself as a guinea pig,” she says.

Scanning the labels and places of origin at the grocery store — kale from the US, beef from Alberta, strawberries from Mexico — it’s hard to imagine eating only things from your own backyard. But Crocker says it’s entirely possible, even for a self-professed rookie in the kitchen and the garden like herself. The Hän people in the area prior to European contact were entirely self-sufficient, of course, but even European settlers were able to eat locally in ways hardly imaginable today.

“I’ve never been able to find a source for it, but the numbers I’ve heard (for local food) is 98 per cent in the 1900s, and only two per cent now,” she said.

“You look at pictures (of the region) with whole fields of giant cabbages.”

Crocker and I speak on a bright, sunny day in Dawson. It’s mid-June and this garden is more advanced than any I’ve seen in Whitehorse. The soil in Dawson is supposed to be some of the best in the Yukon, which allows gardeners — and farmers —to do “really amazing things,” she said.

A few local farmers have managed to do something which any Yukon gardener will known is quite difficult in our climate — grow grain, such as buckwheat and rye. This means Crocker can mill this to make flour to make rye bread.

“Really flat loaves,” she says, a bit wistfully, “without salt, sweetened with honey.”

Dawson also has a plethora of agricultural options, she says, things you might not even think of; there’s a dairy, Klondike Valley Creamery, beekeepers, farmers raising chickens for eggs and livestock year round. A local arborist, John Lenart of Klondike Valley Nursery, not only raises apple trees, but other fruits, including a strain of sour cherries. This is even more amazing when you consider that many farms in Dawson are off-grid, meaning they rely on the river for water and often function without traditional sources of electricity, she says.

“Farmers are such an under-the-radar, undervalued part of the world,” Crocker says.

Aside from produce, Crocker expects to heavily supplement her diet with wild plants, fish and game.

“I’ve had to learn to look at plants in a really different way,” she says.

All this wild food means a lot of foraging, something she says is time consuming but very rewarding.

“In the days of pre-contact, foraging must have been a full-time job,” she said. “So far, I’ve discovered how crazy spring can be — I imagine fall will be the same … but it’s a lot of time spent outside, with your hands in the dirt, in the forest, which is very gratifying.”

“Doing everything from scratch forces you to take your time. I find making yogurt very meditative … it’s nice.”

It’s not only Crocker who will be participating in this new diet — she shares a home with her husband and three children, two of whom are teenagers with typically voracious teenage appetites, so keeping everyone fed (and happy) will be a bit of a challenge.

“The family did not sign up for this project and so they aren’t exactly keen,” Crocker says with a laugh. “My husband agreed to not bring any store bought groceries into the house anymore, as of this week, so we’re eating up everything in the pantry…. My challenge will be to keep enough quantity and variety.”

While this project is Crocker’s own personal brain-child, she says this project isn’t just about her; it’s rooted very deeply in the community.

“There are so many reasons local food is important but community is a huge part of it,” she says. “I am learning so much — but I’m also learning how much knowledge people hold.”

While lots of people are helping her out — one friend has even managed to grow her some popcorn, Crocker’s favourite snack —this project, which officially begins for Crocker in July, naturally involves sacrifices, she says.

“No coffee,” she says, looking down at her latte with a sigh.

Personally, I find the concept of a world without coffee utterly unacceptable, but I admire her dedication.

You can follow Crocker’s project as it progresses at her website, www.firstweeat.ca.

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com

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