Culture is a complex creature. It is alive and transformative. Risa and I talked about what “cultural food” is and how one would approach such an idea. Our discussion brought us to this land, the stories that reside in the soil, the oppression and the hope of this place called Canada. These lands are pulsing with an intrinsic knowledge and history that European colonization attempted to “erase”.
It is not my place to tell the stories of First Nations peoples, but it is my responsibility to recognize and support their rooted, contemporary and vital role in this culture, this land, and within my life. Foods and stories have an indelible link to land and people. The Canadian government sensed the importance of food to the soul and strength of First Nation’s cultures when food-centered ceremonies such as the Balhats and Potlatches were illegalized. Described from my simplistic comprehension, the Balhats were a political gathering, a social celebration and an integral part of First Nations governance and community that centralized around feasting and giving of “gifts”. I attempt to understand my place within this intricate story by searching for my own composite culture in a country that names itself “multicultural”. I am shaped by the stories that reside in the marrow of this land.
Risa and I decided to work with a recipe that connects to this land. I used to make pemmican a lot when I was a kid. Pemmican was a travel food made by First Nations peoples for long journeys. It is a high-energy food that is usually rich in animal fats, dried fruits and berries. Risa thinks of pemmican as “the original energy bar”. I used to make large batches for our journeys, driving across Canada following the summer treeplanting season from B.C. to Ontario.
Treeplanting camps invariably reside hours inside of “nowhere”. There is always a water source nearby, a creek, river or lake. On lakes I would often find hunter’s hidden canoes. Coaxing some rough-faced camp dogs into the boat, with an improvised paddle we’d head over to the other side of the water. There were cutblocks everywhere. Where the sun scorched without leaf sheltering branches, there were plentiful berry-ripe bushes. I would inevitably stumble upon the bent shoulders of people below the edges of huckleberry hills. They were hidden people long hours away from towns and concrete. Their presence surprised me when moments before I had felt so alone on the land.
I would continue to pick berries for pemmican, quietly focused and leaving irreversible circles of space around the other shy harvesters. There were groups of pastel flowered women with black tufted hair and crown-shaped bamboo sunhats. There were spacious ovals of Native families, elder women, tousled youth and blueberry-stain-faced babies. Mostly we berry pickers would remain on our respectful hillocks, faces down to the fruits. Occasionally there would be an upright moment and our distant circle faces would be caught gazing at each other with gentle eyes, followed with a simple open hand, held up momentarily. So rare are humans silent together, gathering sustenance directly from the earth. Many stories still remain untold, but somewhere along the way we all affect each other. Culture is made of people sustaining and, often unintentionally, flavouring each other’s lives and even meals.
Today I ate organic blueberries, cooked slow with a hint of maple syrup and savoured over a bowl of plain yoghurt. All the memories returned. The scents of marshland, wet dogs, leaves falling and energizing pemmican nibbles at the end of a simmering day. I feel gratitude to those who came before, and wish sustenance to those who follow after.
fruity nut squares
2 c toasted sunflower seeds
1 c walnuts
1/3 c maple syrup
1/3 c apple juice
1/3 c oil
1 c barley flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c diced dried apple
1/4 c diced dried cherry
1/2 c diced dried blueberry
1 c currants
11/2 c boiled water
1/2 c tahini
1/2 c rice syrup
1/2 c maple syrup
2/3 c arrowroot powder
2/3 c pumpkin seeds
1T hemp seeds
- Preheat oven to 325°.
- In a food processor combine sunflower seeds and walnuts. Grind to a coarse meal. Empty into a mixing bowl, add syrup, apple juice, oil, flour and salt. Mix.
- Press into a 9 x 13 pyrex baking pan.
- Steep dried fruit in boiling water for 10 minutes.
- In a food processor combine tahini, syrups. arrowroot powder & soaking liquid. Blend.
- Transfer to a bowl, add pumpkin, hemp seeds & soaked fruit. Pour over base. Bake for one hour. Allow to cool before cutting.
Risa Salsberg has been cooking vegetarian for over 25 years and is a graduate of Dubrille Culinary. She has studied macrobiotics and whole foods in California and trained at Sanko-in, a Buddhist nunnery specializing in shojin ryori (traditional Buddhist vegetarian cookery). Risa is currently studying fine arts in Vancouver. Craig Walker first began cooking vegetarian in tree planting camps. Craig has studied macrobiotics at the Vega Study Center and has cooked professionally in Japan.