UpHere Logo

Extreme Measures: The All-Local Dawson City Diet

Extreme Measures: The All-Local Dawson City Diet

Dawson City filmmaker Suzanne Crocker committed to eating only what could be grown, foraged, hunted or fished from around town for a year. She survived the harvest, a near mutiny and the winter. But could she go a calendar year without salt?
By Michele Genest
Sep 24
From the September 2018 Issue

The kitchen was a cook's nightmare.

It was August, harvest time in Dawson City and all of the food, the wild and the cultivated, was ripening at once. In Suzanne Crocker’s open-concept kitchen in her funky wooden house on the outskirts of town, every counter was buried deep under mounds of fresh produce waiting to be processed. The sink overflowed with unwashed bowls, pots, pans and lunch dishes. I had stopped by to visit, and Crocker dropped everything and hauled me outside to help pick false toadflax berries, which she had heard were a good source of pectin. It was clear no job was finished before the next begun. 

Crocker, her husband Gerrard, and their three children were two weeks into an ambitious culinary experiment and when I saw the disorder my heart sank. As a cook, I know there are moments during a big catering gig or in the middle of berry season when the kitchen is chaos. But at the end of the day order is restored. I could see that Crocker was going to live in chaos for months as she prepped, dried, canned and froze the harvest while cooking everything—absolutely everything—from scratch. 

On July 31, 2017, Crocker had embarked on a yearlong commitment to eat only the food she could source in and around Dawson City—a little more than two degrees south of the Arctic Circle.

She was far from the first person to go local. In 2004, ten famous chefs from Northern Europe signed the Nordic Manifesto, a ten-point document that pledged their fealty to a regional Nordic cuisine. Nordic restaurants have been in the headlines ever since. And in 2007, Random House published The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by two Canadian writers about their year consuming only food produced within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver. (The book ends with the couple making their own salt from seawater.)

But there were two major differences between Crocker and her predecessors. One, she was not a famous chef. Far from it. She was a self-confessed kitchen misfit who had little interest in cooking. Two, she did not live amongst the abundant fields and orchards of southern British Columbia. 

But Crocker did share one important characteristic with her spiritual brothers and sisters: she was committed to the point of obsession. No food would pass her lips unless it could be grown, foraged, fished or hunted near Dawson. No oil, no vinegar, unless she could make her own. No spices, sugar, baking powder or baking soda. No flour, unless from local grain. No condiments, no pepper, and no salt. On this point she was adamant. Unless she could somehow source it locally, no salt. 

I thought this was going too far. But I didn’t say so. Crocker was clearly exhausted, and overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of her. She didn’t need naysayers. She needed support. Privately, I didn’t know how she was going to pull this off.

Back at home in Whitehorse, whenever I told anyone about the project, the common question was, ‘Why? Why so extreme?’ I didn’t have the answer, but I suspected it had something to do with Crocker’s approach to life: all or nothing. 

Fall harvest with, clockwise from back left, Crocker’s son Sam, her husband Gerrard, Crocker and her youngest daughter, Tess, and local farmer Grant Dowdell. Here, they pose next to some future pumpkin pie. Courtesy Karen Digby

CROCKER DECIDED TO EAT entirely locally for a year sometime in the summer of 2016, sparked by a small series of catalysts. Always conscious of living sustainably on the planet, she had been reading food labels and fruit stickers for years, doing her best to buy as locally as possible in a town where 97 percent of the food is trucked up the highway. But her conversion from thoughtful shopper to diehard locavore started in 2012, when she watched news coverage of supermarket shelves in Whitehorse emptying at lightning speed when food trucks were stalled for several days on the Alaska Highway due to a washout. She started thinking seriously about food security. “There’s one road into Dawson,” she often says. 

Then, her children visited the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Working and Teaching Farm, a collaborative venture between the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Yukon College. Her kids came back with two nuggets of information: one hundred years ago the Yukon produced the overwhelming majority of its food, and a large percentage of the nutrients in fruit or vegetables are lost three to five days after picking. “Those two things were the match,” says Crocker. “I said, ‘Okay. I’m going to do this.” 

From the beginning, the project had a public service goal: to draw attention to the importance of food security in the North, Crocker would film herself and her family throughout the year. And there was another clue to Crocker’s insistence on extreme measures: it would make a good film. 

Her family had been the subject of one of her films before. In 2010, they retreated from the world to spend nine months in a remote cabin, inaccessible by road, off-grid and unplugged. The resulting film, All the Time in the World, produced in 2014, was a portrait of a family rediscovering each other, growing closer in the challenging but less complicated world of the bush.

But this time the family was less enthused by the project and they told her so. Repeatedly. Kate and Sam were 15 and 17—the hungry years. And their attention was focused on the world outside the home, not inward on the family—and especially, not on their mother’s latest fixation, which would literally take food from their mouths. Crocker’s youngest, 12-year-old Tess, was only slightly more amenable. Eating only local food meant no Cheerios, no toast, no ‘grab and go’ treats they could pluck from the fridge without even thinking about it. The kids looked into their food future and did not like what they saw.

Her husband Gerrard, whose hungry years have never really ended, didn’t relish the thought of another year of scrutiny under the eye of the camera. Recently, he hit a grouse with his truck and drove into town with the dead bird on the front grill. He only discovered it was there after several people waved and honked at him. Crocker wanted him to repeat the drive into town so she could film it for the project. He refused, on the grounds that art shouldn’t interfere with life. He remained steadfast for several days, until the grouse’s deteriorating condition settled the question. 

But if the family wasn’t on board, the farming community in Dawson was. Crocker picked a good time to undertake her project—there’s a farming renaissance happening in this town of 1,300, with more than a dozen farms currently in production and several more in the planning stages. Crocker built a network of farmers and fishers in preparation for her year, nailing down a supply of eggs, goat’s milk, root vegetables, wild boar, honey, Saskatoon berries, greens, chum salmon and more. (Moose would be Gerrard’s responsibility.)

She bought a share in the small dairy herd owned by Jen and Loren Sadlier of Klondike Valley Creamery, located across the Klondike River, 20 kilometres south of Dawson. “The milk is her dividend,” explains Jen Sadlier. “That is the way we need to do it legally. I don’t sell milk.” (The company does sell cheese and yogurt locally, though. It’s the first time in a century that local dairy products have been available in Dawson stores.) The Sadlier milk became a cornerstone of the Crockers’ diet; the family consumed an average of 45 litres per week. Crocker learned how to skim the cream to make butter and turn butter into ghee, an oil substitute; heat milk and add kefir for yogurt and string cheese; churn out ice cream and creamsicles. 

Berwyn Larsen and Sylvia Frisch of Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup supplied the family’s chief condiment. They went through an average of one litre a week. Birch syrup subbed in for nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon in their crust-less Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. It flavoured the ice cream and creamsicles and Crocker’s go-to treat of hot frothed milk. Combined with Saskatoon berries, the versatile syrup became a glaze for roasted meat.  

Several local farmers planted crops specifically for Crocker. Otto Muehlbach and Connie Hardwerk of Kokopellie Farms in Sunnydale provided cabbage and high-calorie root vegetables that supplied the family all year. Grant Dowdell and Karen Digby planted sugar beets, as did other farmers, and she ended up with 350 pounds. 

Together, this community of farmers kept the larder full.

Crocker says one of the best things about her year was getting to know her farmers and suppliers. “I feel like they’re part of my extended family,” she says. “Farmers are so undervalued in our society, and they are amazing. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness, their hard work and their optimistic attitude despite equipment failures, losing crops, losing animals—they just soldier on.”

For help with wild foods, Crocker called on Trondëk Hwëch’in elders, herbalist Beverly Gray, author of The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, Skwxwú7mesh ethno-botanist Leigh Joseph, now living in Dawson, and a legion of others. I was signed on as cook-advisor and contributor to the website Crocker set up to share her story and stimulate discussion across the North.

And that’s how I found myself in Crocker’s kitchen that chaotic August afternoon.

Crocker shops at the Dawson City Farmers Market. She chose a good time to embark on her local diet, as there has been a boom in local food growers and producers recently. Cathie Archbould

AFTER MY FIRST VISIT, I committed to returning for a week to help refine some cooking techniques, introduce new recipes, and be an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. By the time I arrived in November, the scene was much calmer, even though Dawson was in the middle of freeze-up and Crocker was separated from her milk and vegetable suppliers by two rivers filled with churning ice. 

Disasters had been weathered, like when a moose ate all of Muehlbach’s barley. Or the big family meltdown, when the kids mutinied after three days of washing, cooking and grinding 30 pounds of cauliflower for pizza crust. But that was behind them. 

By November, Crocker had backed off asking the family for quite so much help. They had come to an agreement that the family wouldn’t eat anything contraband inside the house. The harvest season was over, and she had developed a routine of sorts. She had found solutions to the problem of breakfast and lunch: eggs and potato pancakes were the breakfast staples; sometimes she cooked a whole turkey or moose roast for lunches alone. She had discovered that dried, burnt coltsfoot was an acceptable substitute for salt—on food, though not in it. Dried, ground nasturtium pods worked in place of pepper. And the precious grain had arrived—Muehlbach’s rye and Red Fife Wheat had survived both the moose raid and an early snowfall. 

But every corner of the house was still being used for food storage. Bags of dried herbs filled the bookshelves. Drying grains had just been cleared out of the loft so I could sleep there. 

The morning after I arrived, we got to work. We ground grain into flour and baked the longed-for bread, cake and scones, using sourdough or eggs as leavener.

Crocker had learned how to make sweet syrup from sugar beets, and I peeled and chopped pounds of them, barely making a dent in the stash in the garage. I learned to save every scrap of vegetable—nothing was wasted, not even sugar beet peels. 

Fat was precious. At one point I was pouring wild boar bacon fat from a frying pan into a jar balanced beside the sink and accidentally knocked both jar and fat into the soapy water. Crocker grabbed the jar, scooped up the fat mixed with dishwater, and put it in the fridge. Once the fat congealed, she lifted it off the water and cooked breakfast with it. (When she wasn’t looking I threw the remaining fat in the compost.) 

Crocker made up for her inexperience in the kitchen with her talent for adapting on the fly. In mid-February, she discovered she was low in Vitamin D, and started eating burbot liver. In April, she was down to her last onion, but she wasn’t concerned—there were still dried chives and soon garlic scapes would be coming into season.

Gerard fishes for burbot. Courtesy Suzanne CrockerJen Sadlier feeds a calf on her farm. Cathie Archbould

In late June, with about a month left to go in her year, she was already dreading the return to the old way of eating. “The family is looking forward to a big grocery shop on August 1, but I am not.” She missed black tea, and oil and vinegar dressing, but apart from those items and baking supplies there was nothing she wanted to return to the house. Telling me this, her voice was resigned and even sad. She had discovered a way of life that she loved.

Still, Crocker isn’t sure if a 100-percent-local diet is for everyone. Her suppliers have their own opinions. “If she can do it here, it can be done anywhere in the world,” says dairy farmer Jen Sadlier.

But could the community sustain it? Otto Muehlbach isn’t so sure. “We need a larger farming community. And we need to change our mentality. Do we need strawberries at Christmas from Chile?”

Crocker thinks part of the answer is eating less. “I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing,” she says. One wonders if her family would agree.  

But over the course of the year, she and the family ate well. Two dozen eggs a week. Full-on turkey dinners with all the fixings—all local—for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Homemade birch syrup toffee candies for Halloween and Easter. Sourdough rye bread. Chapatti crackers. Family life settled down too: Gerrard was a big help, and so were the kids, frequent loud complaints notwithstanding. Kate even contributed delicacies like Northern Béarnaise sauce and all-local cream puffs, adapted from recipes she learned at school. 

Crocker did end up buying sea salt, though. It came from a source in Sitka, Alaska, Northern enough to be acceptable. But it was only used for the sake of food safety in the pork sausage and rillettes made by local butcher Shelby Jordan of BonTon Butcherie and Charcuterie and in the brine for the Tomme cheese made to order for the family by Klondike Valley Creamery.

Everything else had enough savour without it.

To learn more about Suzanne Crocker’s one-year journey, and to see the trailer for the film, due in 2019, visit firstweeat.ca