When a Yukon woman's moose steaks suffered a meltdown, she gained a new love for the North's rich feast -- and for the folks who share it. By Sharon Shorty
Recently, upon returning to Whitehorse from a trip down south, I swung open my front door to be greeted by a suspicious odour. Normally, this wouldn’t surprise me. A bit of a stench is to be expected in a house inhabited for 10 days by an unsupervised husband and a teenaged boy. But this smell was much worse than the putrid funk of bachelor living. In the basement I discovered, to my horror, that our upright freezer was open. A glacier of ice had formed across the opening. Its motor whined from overwork. Within, my frozen treasures had begun to rot.
In most Canadians homes, I imagine, an open freezer is no big deal. A few soggy bags of perogies, maybe? A thawed box of Hot Pockets? But this is the North, where the freezer is king. It’s an absolutely vital appliance -- a vault where you store all your gifts from the land. This is especially true for First Nations families, most of whom have at least two freezers. One elder I know keeps a freezer stocked with meat and another stuffed with yet-to-be-tanned moose skins.
My freezer had been a wedding gift from my mom. It was beautiful: gleaming white, six feet tall, vast. It took about two weeks to fill, mostly with presents of country food from well-wishing family members. All this freezer-worship was lost on Derek, my husband, who hails from the yuppie mecca of Kitsilano, B.C. They have gourmet cupcakes and organic dog food there, apparently, but they don’t have a lot of freezers – especially ones jammed with salmon and moose steaks. When I first met him, his studio condo had a small fridge whose tiny freezer compartment was stocked with nothing but ice cubes and freezer-burned ice cream.
Now, down in my basement, I trembled as I took stock of the damage. No! Not the rhubarb from last year’s backyard crop! Not the herring eggs from Alaska – they were a gift from the coast, and a link to my Tlingit heritage. Not the moose steaks hunted by Uncle Joe, who, according to tradition, had shared them with all his sisters. Dear Lord, forgive me. Here they were, the fruits of the North, and they were all destined for the Whitehorse landfill.
Miraculously, though, some of the bounty survived. I discovered that most of the salmon from the Taku River and Dawson were okay. Same with the halibut steaks from our friends in Juneau (it had been a good trade -- a pound of halibut for each pound of Tim Hortons coffee). The moose roasts, moose ribs and moose brisket (I had brisket?) remained frozen. Even most of the coveted herring eggs turned out to be fine.
Then, digging even farther into the freezer, I found treats I didn’t even know about. Yummy frozen caribou ribs -- who gave me those? And the cranberries my mom picked for me last year, when I couldn’t get out to her cranberry patch. Why had I forgotten these?
I reflected on the many nights my family had eaten defrosted chicken while a Northern feast sat downstairs. What was I saving it for -- a special occasion? A birthday? An anniversary? Another moon landing? When does a special occasion become special enough to defrost a moose roast? Is this how I live my life -- always afraid to live in the moment? On that awful day, I fried up some moose steaks, cooked cranberries and started a moose rib-and-brisket stew. An unexpected feast was enjoyed by all.
Nowadays, we have more room in the freezer, as I’m no longer saving food for special occasions. I’m reminded of the abundance of my life whenever I open the freezer, taking my pick of awesome traditionally-harvested food from people I love -- food to share with people I love, today.
Provided, of course, those people can learn to keep the freezer door closed.
Sharon Shorty is a Tlingit writer, actress and humourist best know for her popular “Gramma Susie” comedy sketches.