On Christmas day, devoted cooks from Old Crow, Yukon to Arctic Bay, Nunavut will toil over steaming pots of moose or caribou stew, boil Arctic char and oven-roast geese to serve at community halls for what is often the most lavish feast of the year. Bannock, vegetables and desserts round out the meal before games and dancing close out the night. The menu depends upon where you are—it’s moose or caribou in Old Crow, seal in Grise Fiord. But no matter the latitude or longitude, the meal is all about the people it brings together.
For one whole week during the Christmas holiday, the community centre in Old Crow, Yukon is the place to be. There are indoor and outdoor games, dancing, music and sports—and food. The biggest feast occurs on Christmas Day: it’s cooked up by the women’s auxiliary and how they do it is up to whoever is at the helm, says Bruce Charlie, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief. “Of course the hunters go out and try to kill a moose for Christmas day,” says Charlie. “Last year we got a caribou.” Roasts or Moose Head Soup are just a few favourites.
A few years back, staff at the Alice Frost campus of Yukon College gathered recipes from around Old Crow including Stuffed Ptarmigan and Stuffed Caribou Heart, Rabbit Pie and Black Duck Soup—and a couple different options for bannock.
Tammy Josie’s Gravy Fried Caribou
1/2 -1 lb Caribou meat from rump or from arms
Several Chunks of caribou rump fat
1/4 cup Flour
1 tsp Salt (optional)
1/2 tsp Pepper (optional)
1 clove Fresh garlic, chopped (optional)
Cut up the caribou meat into bite-sized chunks. Put the flour into a freezer bag or onto a plate. Add seasoning if desired (salt & pepper, garlic). Heat frying pan to medium. Add chunks of caribou fat for grease. Flour the chunks of meat and shake/coat evenly. Place meat and any remaining flour into frying pan, stir, and cover. Stir occasionally. Cook to desired meat texture. Variations: Substitute caribou meat with moose meat and moose fat.
There’s a lot more to plan for when dinner isn’t as simple as running out to the store. In Kugaaruk, Nunavut, the community potluck includes caribou stew and Arctic char. Most of the food will be caught and stored away starting in October and kept in a deep-freeze until Christmas.
The Hunters and Trappers Organization in Grise Fiord, Nunavut cuts it a bit closer for the hamlet’s New Year’s country food feast. At around 10 a.m., eight men and four women head out on the ice to hunt the main dish—seal—and they’ll be back in the community hall by late afternoon with their catch.
Is there a special way to cook or dress seal? “We usually cut it up here in the community hall and eat it raw,” says Terry Noah, HTO manager.
The age-old question: country food or turkey and the fixings?
Why choose? Most communities have turkey or ham options, along with traditional foods on their dinner tables. In Arctic Bay, Nunavut, Christmas dinner is a southern-style feast of turkey, mashed potato, stuffing and cranberry sauce. And once all of that is nearly digested, the community gathers again for a country food dinner on New Year’s Day, when seal, walrus, narwhal, caribou, and polar bear could all be served up.
Who cooks what?
Christmas dinner in Kakisa, NWT was held potluck-style for years, with a turkey and all the fixings—as well as an assortment of country foods. Everyone pitched in… at least until a couple years back when they realized all the preparation was taking away from the enjoyment of the food and festivities. Now, the community of 45 has a turkey dinner catered out of nearby Hay River.
It’s still a community effort in Wrigley, NWT where volunteer cooks bring in moose or caribou stew, and geese roasted in the oven or cooked over a pit fire. There might even be some beaver meat.
Any secret recipes for stew? “I just put everything together,” says Elsie Hardisty of Wrigley. There’s no recipe and no measurement, just the meaty parts of the animal, some carrots, potatoes, parsley, onion and celery, and a packet of powdered gravy. “I don’t do a measuring cup or anything like that,” she says, “But I make it with bannock.”
Dorothy Rispin’s Stuffed Caribou Heart
(From Old Crow Gwitchin Kitchen recipe book)
1 Caribou heart
3/4 cup Rice, Cooked
1 cup Dried veggies
1/2 cup Onions, chopped
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Pepper
1/2 tsp Thyme
1/2 tsp Oregano
3 tbsp Water
2 tbsp Butter
1/2 cup Canned mushrooms (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 350F. Clean caribou heart under running water, removing any blood clots. In a bowl, mix together cooked rice, salt, pepper, thyme, oregano, chopped onion, dried vegetables, and canned mushrooms. Add enough water to moisten. Fold in softened butter. Stuff mixture into heart pockets and place in a roasting pan. Bake covered at 350F until brown, approximately two to three hours.