Or, how a Whitehorse man tried to eat totally local, and wound up going totally loco. By Mitch Miyagawa
David Mackinnon has great eyebrows. They’re bushy, wild and turn sharply up at the temples – a Scottish trait, I’m told. I couldn’t find the scientific name for this, though I did stumble on a website about trichotillomania, the urge to pull out body hair, including eyebrows. But more on that later.
David is my friend and normally a low-key fellow, but on this fine autumn day in Whitehorse, as we stand among the crowded tents and tables of the season’s last Fireweed Community Market – the weekly farmers’ fair – his eyebrows arch, wag and furrow. He’s telling me about the black bear that almost carted off his moose.
On a fall hunting trip, David and his friend Seamus had bagged the moose and were cutting up the meat when a bear came sniffing around. Retreating to a safe distance they shouted until they went hoarse and set off bear-bangers. Finally the bear wandered off. David dragged the moose-meat to the boat while Seamus provided cover, commando-style, with his rifle.
It’s strange to hear a most-of-the-time vegetarian like David tell a story about using firearms to defend his meat. But he has no problem eating animals he catches or kills. He’s a locavore – someone who eats local foods. Even if you haven’t heard of locavores, you’ve likely heard of the book that made them famous, The 100-Mile Diet>. It’s by David’s brother, James, a Vancouverite who was bothered that most of his food came to him from thousands of miles away. For a year, he decided to live off food from within 100 miles of his home. The concept took off and now David’s brother is a minor celebrity.
But The 100-Mile Diet is set in coastal B.C. – Canada’s land of milk and honey, where flowers bloom in February and the farmer’s markets never close. Here in the Yukon, however, the landscape is more begrudging of its food. Yet advocates like David insist it’s possible to eat locally in the North.
Which is why I’m here, at the market. Inspired by David --and by his brother’s book, I’ve decided to try an experiment. For one day – just one day – my wife, our two toddlers and I will eat only grub from near Whitehorse. It’s the 100-mile diet, Yukon style. How hard could it be? Hard enough to give me trichotillomania, I’d find out.
The basic idea behind the 100-mile diet is environmental and philosophical: Your food shouldn’t have to travel. It’s bad for the environment, and not so great for your food. Yet almost everyone on this continent lives nowhere near the source of their meals. Garlic from China, cheese from the States, lamb chops from New Zealand – you get the picture. One American study estimated the food we eat travels at least 1,500 miles to get to our table. In the North, it’s easily double that.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be. Up here, aboriginal people ate locally for millennia. During the Klondike gold rush, dozens of farms sprung up in the fertile soil around Dawson City. And today, that tradition of self-sufficiency persists. There are enough farmers in the territory that they’ve started GOOFY, the Growers Of Organic Food Yukon. Compared to our neighbours in the NWT and Nunavut, we’re blessed – the Whitehorse area alone has at least 10 local farms, which produce everything from bison to broccoli. Plus the bounty of our enviably untouched land – fish, moose and berries – is all close at hand.
It feels especially close at hand here at the Fireweed Market. It’s only two days until my 24-hour trial. The market’s just opened and already dozens of people are perusing root vegetables, soft cheeses, leathery greens – even a pot of soup labelled “made with organic ingredients and love.” I part ways with David and start making the rounds, scouting for my first local meal.
At the Aurora Mountain Farm tent, a woman in a purple shawl points at a cooler full of eggs. Her canvas shopping bag is already bulging with produce, but there’s a note of hungry desperation as she asks, “Are all those eggs taken?” Graham Rudge regrets to say that they are. Graham’s the lanky teenaged son of Aurora Mountain farmers Tom and Simon Rudge. Wearing round glasses, a rainbow-hued blazer and black shirt, he looks a little like a magician who just fumbled his trick.
Nearby, I introduce myself to Brian Lendrum, a tall, lean man with a mane of white hair. Brian is part blind, so he lifts the lid off the cooler for customers to select their own cheeses, stacked and clearly labelled – feta, halloumi, chevre, ricotta. Brian and his wife, Susan, tend goats on a farm near Lake Laberge, 20 minutes from town. This cheese, I realize, is a godsend – it’s made within 50 miles of my home. I know my family’s limitations: Getting my two sons, approaching four and two years old, to eat kale and kohlrabi will be next to impossible. I thank Brian, telling him I hope to make macaroni and cheese.
Only one problem. As I continue hunting, I discover macaroni won’t be an option. No wheat. A few Yukon farms cultivate rye and triticale, but this summer was too cold for the plants to ripen. I briefly consider gnocchi, the Italian potato dumplings, as an option, but remember that they too need wheat.
So, without a clear plan (a big mistake), I load up on all the local produce I can find. I take cheese and a big container of goat milk from Brian. I pick up peas, peppers, dill and parsley from Brian Boyle, a CBC radio reporter who runs a small farm. I buy Himalayan tomatoes, purple and oblong, from peace-sign-button-wearing Scott Snider, of Anarchy Farms, located near Marsh Lake, 70 kilometres south. To this I’ll add our own modest backyard harvest of carrots and potatoes. Everything is coming together. I can imagine each meal, the garden-grown flavours and textures, and the second helpings we’ll all demand.
Egg frittata with chevre, tomato and
parsley; potatoes with onion.
The 100-mile diet day has arrived, and I’m one meal down. But it was pretty much a disappointment. Breakfast wasn’t filling or flavourful. Without any oil or butter, the eggs and potatoes stuck to the pan. My morning addictions hit me smack in the head. Sugar, salt, wheat, and caffeine – oh, caffeine. My head pounds.
Despite this, I set off to acquire more local food: Which is to say, I’m going fishing. I figure I’ll just go catch a few graylings in one of the nearby lakes. I invite David along for good luck. Sure enough, he hooks a beautiful rainbow trout on his first cast into Hidden Lake. I run down the shore with my net. He’s come through again. Fish and game simply lay down and die at his feet. Vegetarians must somehow give off a more trustworthy scent. Not me, though. David’s trout slips off the line just as I reach to scoop it up. An hour passes. Then another. No more bites. An eagle circles and lands on a tall spruce, tilting his head doubtfully at us. A loon laughs from the far shore. The birds are mocking us.
Then my cellphone rings. “Where are you?” asks Angela, my wife, with a note of panic in her voice. “The kids won’t eat lunch.” David and I pack up, pull our waders out of the mud with great sucking sounds and head home empty handed.
Carrot and potato soup, with feta and dill.
“How come you didn’t like the soup?” I ask Tomio, our eldest son.
“There wasn’t enough taste in it.”
Fair enough. Angela has gamely produced a lovely 100-mile potage: Carrots and potatoes from our garden, herbs and cheese from the market. But the boys, not satiated by either breakfast or the mid-morning snack of Yukon raspberries, are rebelling. In desperation, Angela has to add Knorr soup mix to get them to swallow even a few spoonfuls. Sam, our 18-month-old, cries for 20 minutes before going down for his nap. Tomio grabs my leg and looks at me pleadingly. It’s at this point I start tearing my hair out. In the North, apparently, you just can’t walk into locavorism with a half-formed plan. You have to think ahead. And if you don’t, be prepared to make compromises.
I make a cup of strong black tea (not local) and toast four thick slices of bread (ditto). I stir honey into my tea, stealing a glance at the label: made in Australia. What’s wrong with our bees in Canada? I butter the toast and we eat it quietly at the little table in the kid’s playroom. Tomio downs three slices. It’s raining outside. We’re silent. When we’re done, we all lay down around the house and go to sleep.
Arctic char with goat feta, tomato, onion, and rhubarb juice; steamed vegetables; hunter’s stew; dessert of baked chevre with cranberries and rhubarb.
I’ve gotten lucky. After being skunked at fishing, I discover the downtown fish-monger has some organic, farm-raised char fillets from a pond within city limits. I pick up enough so that our friends, Anna and Stephane, can join us. Anna, a lawyer, mountain-biker and huntress, recently bagged a moose just within our 100–mile limit, and she brings along a lovely hunter’s stew. Stephane, a business consultant and fish-and-chips stand owner, is building a chicken coop for their backyard. Earlier, they’d boasted to us about their giant quinoa stalks. Under the circumstances, they are the perfect dinner guests.
The fish is tender and perfectly cooked, the rhubarb a fine substitute for lemon juice. The kids gobble it up. Anna’s stew is hearty and rich, truly satisfying – even without a bottle of wine. For dessert, Angela bakes the goat cheese with cranberries she’s picked and it’s better than cheesecake – lighter, less rich. Tomio asks for more.
We sit around the living room, glowing and full. Feeling the glory of having achieved a delectable harvest meal, we talk about what you’d have to do to live like this year-round in the Yukon. You’d have to take the whole summer off, tend a big vegetable garden, kill a moose or two, render the fat to lard, stock the freezer with fish, buy or barter for cheese and milk, hope someone’s triticale comes through, and gather berries like maniacs in the fall.
It would take a braver and more resourceful soul than me. But I’ve discovered that, despite our preconceptions about the North, we have some advantages up here in the 100-mile game. Plenty of wild protein is available if you have the skills. You can raise your own egg-chickens in downtown Whitehorse if you want. The range of produce we can grow is limited, to be sure, but we’re lucky to have such an enthusiastic community of farmers, most of whom are more than willing to help locavore-wannabes any way they can.
I eat the way I do because I’m addicted to the convenience. According to one website, “habit reversal training” has apparently helped a lot of people who suffer from trichotillomania. My hair-pulling one-day experiment in local eating has shown me I need more than a little habit reversal. So would someone please tell my wife I need to spend a lot more time fishing next summer?
Mitch Miyagawa is a well-fed writer and filmmaker in Whitehorse, Yukon.