Community Responses to Changing Foods in Panniqtuuq, Nunavut

13 February 2006

report by Maggie Newell,
CHO’s Secretary

From left: Liz Driver, CHC President; Dr Lynette Hunter, our guest speaker; Fulvia della Schiava and Irene Herzuk of the Programme Committee
Bannock made by Fulvia and Irene Caribou Stew made by Lynette and Liz

On Monday, 13 February, the Ontario Historical Society (OHS) and the Culinary Historians of Canada (CHO) presented their first joint lecture program. Dr Lynette Hunter from University of California Davis talked about “Community Responses to Changing Foods in Panniqtuuq, Nunavut.” By a happy coincidence, this event took place during Aboriginal Awareness week.

Elizabeth Driver on behalf of CHC and Robert Leverty on behalf of the OHS welcomed the audience of twenty-six. Rob briefly recounted the story of the John McKenzie House and how it came to be the home of the OHS. It was built in 1913 in the Arts and Crafts style, and preserved and restored through the efforts of the OHS in exchange for a twenty-five year lease.

Dr Hunter began her talk with a disclaimer, stating that she is not a nutritionist, a dietitian or an expert on the subject of Native foodways. Her research in the community of Panniqtuuq on Baffin Island began with an academic interest in storytelling as a way of maneuvering in social situations. There are, in fact, not many stories about food in this part of the world. However Dr Hunter’s experiences in Panniqtuuq revealed how food is involved in a sense of traditional values.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a “cook” in the usual sense of the word is the almost complete absence of fuel above the tree line. Panniqtuuq is virtually on the Arctic Circle, and there are no trees this far north. Fuel in the form of rendered blubber is burned in a stone vessel called a qilliq, but though this vessel is like a hearth, it traditionally was used for light and warmth, not cooking. Food is “prepared,” rather than “cooked,” in traditional Inuit culture. Nunavut is a cold desert with a short growing season and little top soil to support vegetation. However, the ocean is a rich resource, one that brought Scottish and American whalers to this area from the 1820s to the 1880s. This first contact brought flour, sugar and lard into the local diet. Thus bannock is a “traditional” food dating back to the mid 19th century.

The harbour at Panniqtuuq continued as a gathering place for Native people after the whaling finished in the 1880s and southern influences increased as the community continued to grow. In 1921 a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost was established, followed by an RCMP station in 1923, and a hospital and church in 1927. The 1950s brought dramatic changes to the north. Tuberculosis devastated many Native communities, for which the treatment at that time required long-term hospitalization. As there were no treatment facilities in the north families were fragmented when infected individuals spent years in the south, some as many as ten or more years. One can imagine the culture shock on first moving to the south, staying for an extended period, and then returning to the north.

Traditional winter transportation and hunting were also altered forever when a distemper epidemic killed most of the sled dog population in the late 1950s and 1960s. Snow machines took the place of dogs hauling sleds across the snow. This was not a simple change as dogs can be fed from resources on the land, but gasoline has to be imported and paid for. The immediate effect was to make winter hunting very difficult, so many people gathered in more settled communities like Panniqtuuq.

Today residents of Panniqtuuq and other northern communities have a choice of foods from the north and south. “Country” foods from the land continue to be important, partly as a matter of taste and partly of economy. The consumption of raw food is still very common. Local game includes caribou, ringed seal, beluga whale, arctic hare, polar bear, ptarmigan, arctic char and snow goose. Concerns are expressed about the regular consumption of some animals, such as polar bears, because of the accumulation of toxic chemicals in their flesh as they consume other animals contaminated by the PCBs dropping in the cold air over the Arctic.

Over the centuries the Inuit have developed some inventive means of using what is available. A sort of “Inuit ice-cream” is made by whisking minced blubber with the fingers until it reaches the right consistency. Although this may not sound appetizing to someone raised in the south, this uses the animal fat that is locally available just as our ice-cream uses the animal fat in dairy products.

The lack of greens in the diet seems like an insurmountable problem to someone brought up in the south, but a surprising number of vitamins are present in parts of the animals that make up the traditional Inuit diet. Caribou liver, muktuk, and seal fat and liver provide vitamins A, B, C and D. Polar bear liver has vitamin A at levels that are toxic to humans. Traditionally the stomach contents of a slaughtered caribou were eaten, as well as its flesh. In this way the reindeer moss, arctic moss, liver wort and red mushrooms consumed by the caribou are “cooked” by its digestive juices.

Today southern foods, including fresh vegetables, are available in most northern grocery stores. The limited vegetation in this region has many medicinal uses. Two examples are Arctic willow, used for pain (there is salicylic acid in the bark), and Wintergreen for chest complaints. The Cottontail plant has an oily stem and fluffy flower head. The tops can be used like cotton swabs or dipped in seal oil and used as fire starters.

A Summer Camp is an opportunity for Inuit families to live on the land, hunt game, harvest wild plants, and pass on skills to their children. Dr Hunter was able to observe a family trip that included hunting for ptarmigan eggs and cooking seal stew on the beach. These trips help to stock the larder with dried arctic char and the freezer with caribou. Typically a family returning from a successful hunting trip will share with other members of the community. In particular, people unable to hunt for themselves receive gifts of game for their freezer.

There are some amazing traditional ways of preparing food without using fuel to cook it. “Ageing” is a method of preparing caribou that Dr Hunter compared to the process of making cheese. After removing the innards, the caribou carcass is sewn up and left under a pile of stones for approximately four months. This must be done in the warmer weather in order to age or “cook” the caribou, not freeze it. The torso might be stuffed with whole birds or fish, which melt together with the caribou. Like some kinds of cheese, the aroma is very strong, and it is an acquired taste.

In 1998 the community of Panniqtuuq had the rare opportunity to hunt a bowhead whale, a cause of major celebration because permission to hunt a whale is rarely granted by the Canadian government. Dr Hunter showed images of the celebration and the serving of the traditional delicacy, muktuk. This is not blubber; it is the pink layer of flesh under the white blubber. Using their cannery facilities much of the whale was canned and shipped around the circumpolar region to other communities. Sharing this good fortune was part of the celebration, and an expression of a deep-rooted cultural value.

Starting in the 1970s a local woman named Rosie Veevee went house to house in Panniqtuuq giving cooking classes in southern cooking. The ingredients and technology to eat a southern diet are available, but other obstacles remain. An article published in Up Here magazine in March 2006 estimated that a family of four can pay anywhere from $250 to $350 a week for groceries. In remote communities very few people can afford to eat a healthy southern-style diet exclusively because it is very expensive to eat imported fruits, vegetables and dairy products. The shipping costs for healthy southern food are subsidized by a government-run food mail program, for which individuals and grocery stores can apply. Some consumers can take advantage of sealifts that bring bulk shipments to communities on the Arctic coast during the summer.

Another government-sponsored effort to improve nutrition in the north is the Nunavut Food Guide. Like the Canada Food Guide this publication outlines the recommended daily servings of different food groups. On closer inspection one discovers bannock in the breads group, local berries in the fruits and vegetables group, and seal, caribou and ptarmigan in the meat group. This sensible approach blends local and southern foods.

We finished our evening with delicious samples of caribou stew, bannock prepared three different ways, and a selection of northern teas.

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