Suzanne Crocker is about to go on an unusual journey and she needs all the help she can get from Yukoners.
Starting next summer, the Dawson city filmmaker will spend a year eating only food that’s been hunted, gathered, fished, trapped, grown, or raised locally.
That means a year without chocolate, coffee, salt, and the vast majority of products requiring flour. And it means spending hours in the kitchen.
Crocker’s project seems a little extreme, but a closer look at her new film project, First We Eat: Food Security North of 60, unveils the incredible resources available in the North.
Crocker has been preparing for her project since September and she has a team of Yukoners helping her, including chef Miche Genest and herbalist Beverley Gray.
Genest wrote a cookbook on Yukon food, and Gray penned a guide on using Yukon plants.
The goal is not simply to subsist for a year on local food but to make it enjoyable.
“I wanted to draw attention to the bounty of food we have available (here),” Crocker said. “Northerners are uniquely resourceful because of the conditions we live in.”
And listening to the list of all the food available around Dawson City, her project doesn’t sound impossible, though it does sound difficult.
Crocker will start in midsummer so she can eat some of the first harvested greens of the season. She will buy shares in a local cattle herd to get a supply of dairy products. She’ll use potatoes to make her own flour. Moose, chicken and fish are all available around Dawson.
She plans to forage for herbs and berries. She’s been asking local farmers, including the Tr’ondek Hwech’in teaching farm, to plant produce she will need.
Her first challenge will be to preserve for the winter the vast amount of food produced in the summer.
“If I run out of tomatoes in November and don’t have enough stored or canned, I’m out of luck,” she said.
Her plan is to use a combination of freezing, canning and dehydrating.
Pickling could be an option, if she finds a way to make her own vinegar.
Vinegar is usually made using naturally occurring bacteria that turn alcohol into acetic acid. But that requires alcohol, like wine, for example, which Crocker can’t easily make.
That’s where Genest comes into play. After much research and discussion with Sandor Katz, who wrote a book on fermentation, the Yukon chef is testing a mix of cranberries, rhubarb and birch syrup to make vinegar.
And that’s just one of the recipes she’s coming up with.
“There are a lot of really inventive home cooks across the North who have come up with ingenious ways to preserve and cook with the food they grow, gather or hunt,” Genest said.
Before contact, Yukon First Nations thrived for thousands of years on the food they could find or grow, she said. But the Gold Rush and the building of the Alaska Highway disrupted that tradition, bringing imports of a vast amount of food from Outside.
On the list of pantry essentials, Genest has to find a way for Crocker to make vegetable oil, sugar, and salt seasoning. For the oil, Genest found Styrian pumpkins, a variety that produces hull-less seeds that can be pressed into oil or ground into a butter-like paste.
Recreating kitchen condiments with only Yukon food is a challenge the Yukon chef is thrilled to be part of.
“What really excites me are the ways in which it will encourage northerners to think about preparing uniquely northern food,” Genest said.
Yukon chefs are already doing it, but she hopes the project will provide “inspiration to go a little deeper.”
Birch syrup is an obvious solution for sweetening. Crocker will also plant some sugar beets — though she is unsure about the refining process — and hopes to find some honey.
Finding salt will be tricky. Crocker isn’t concerned about her nutritional needs, as she can rely on the salt already present in meat. The real challenge will be seasoning. Crocker will try to use coltsfoot, a Yukon plant.
“Coltsfoot used to be used by different First Nations as salt seasoning,” Genest said.
The plant is rolled, dried and slowly burned.
“The resulting ash has a high concentration of salt,” she said.
There are also juniper berries for meat, Labrador tea and many more plants for seasoning.
“There are a lot of wild plants that grow here that only a few of us, not including myself, are aware of them,” Crocker said.
It’s not the first time Crocker has challenged herself to such an odd and ambitious project.
In 2010 she lived in the bush, around Dawson City, with her husband and three children for nine months, with little contact with the outside world besides trips to get supplies. She turned it into an award-winning documentary screened around the world.
While Crocker is excited for her project to start, her family is not “overjoyed,” she says.
But she sees that as an additional challenge: making enough good and varied food to keep her family from dining out.
That might prove difficult, especially with her 16-year-old son, who’s at an age known for gargantuan appetites.
“It is a challenge to keep him fed even using the traditional grocery store,” she said with a chuckle.
Traditional knowledge will be essential to the project’s success, Genest said.
Crocker’s been using moose bones to make stock, for example. So far she’s been able to reuse the same bones four times.
But it will also shed light on Yukoners’ ingenuity.
That includes Otto Muehlbach’s Kokopellie Farm in Dawson City, that sells root vegetables year round. The farmer has buried a seacan container to create a root cellar. Using a system of air pumps he is able to keep the container above freezing temperature, Crocker said, and preserve the vegetables.
Yukon photographer Cathie Archbould will be documenting the project, while Crocker hopes to get enough funding to shoot a documentary.
How far can the Yukon go with food security? If all goes well, Crocker will have some answers in the summer of 2018.
For more info about Crocker’s project or to suggest ideas and recipes, visit firstweeat.ca.
Contact Pierre Chauvin at email@example.com