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Long Distance Cravings

Long Distance Cravings

Where a Big Mac is a really big deal
By Herb Mathisen
Jun 13
From the June 2016 Issue

It was 1990 and my dad had just won return airfare to Edmonton to see a hockey game. This was back when it still took an entire paycheque to fly there from Yellowknife; back when it actually meant something to go to Edmonton. And it was back before we had a McDonald’s.

My dad worked at Treminco, a short-lived gold mining operation 20-minutes’ drive from town that employed him and 30 others when it was humming between 1989 and 1992. His buddies bugged him about bringing them back some burgers. So he did, stuffing a bag containing a dozen or more Big Macs and Quarter Pounders into the overhead compartment before his flight home. The next morning, a couple muck-covered miners rode the cage up from underground, passing hundreds of feet of Canadian Shield, to devour those reheated burgers for lunch. Others took the frozen delicacies home to save for just the right occasion.

None of this struck me as odd at the time. Nor does it now. Northerners have long gone to great lengths for a taste of that most pervasive aspect of southern living: fast food. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a flight to a small community out of Yellowknife without a passenger balancing a dozen or two Tim Hortons donuts in clumsy boxes on their lap. In Iqaluit, a gas bar used to airmail in Big Macs and buckets of KFC chicken, and keep them chilled in a cooler, to sell to anyone with those specific cravings.

A Yellowknife couple, who treated guests to 500 pieces of KFC chicken when they were married 15 years ago in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, have celebrated each anniversary with the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices ever since.

Why? Because getting your hands on these products that most people look at with disdain is still considered a luxury when you live in a place where they’re unavailable. When I was growing up, the skinny black cable cord that went into the wall fanned the flames of my desire. The endless stream of TV ads—featuring impossibly happy people consuming a symmetrical and meticulously groomed food item shot under immaculate lighting—interrupted Saturday morning cartoons and hockey games. They were a constant reminder of the things we didn’t have in Yellowknife, in the North, of the conveniences always on offer in that land far, far away. In a funny way, biting into one of those faux-flavoured, factory-line burgers made you feel like you were temporarily a part of the rest of the world. 

Yellowknife got its first McDonald’s in 1992. (It now has two.) As a naïve nine-year-old, it was a signal to me the city had made it, that the world had taken notice of our town. And to no one’s surprise, the Yellowknife location immediately started shipping out burgers—dozens, sometimes hundreds at a time—across the Arctic, for the same reasons my dad smuggled them onto his flight home.

Because even though those burgers travelled thousands of kilometres—drying out, cooling down, being frozen and finally reheated—they were still a treat. Just like I imagine the Quarter Pounders tasted so much better to those resurfaced miners, huddled together outside the blue Treminco head frame during their brief and chilly 1990 lunch break, than any burger would to me today in Yellowknife, now that I can get one whenever I want, 24-hours a day, seven-days a week.

Last August, our city mourned the closure of the KFC—our first fast food outlet, which opened back in 1968. Stories flew in from across the territory: the cash-for-chicken exchanges in Fort Smith, NWT, facilitated by flight attendants over the years; bulk thigh-and-drumstick deliveries to mine sites, to communities for weddings and high school graduations. KFC zealots from all over the region paid the store the ultimate tribute in its last days, eating it out of chicken before it closed. Chicken-lovers now have to drive to High Level, Alberta to get their fix.

And they already are. A Yellowknife couple, who treated guests to 500 pieces of KFC chicken when they were married 15 years ago in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, have celebrated each anniversary with the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices ever since.

In April, Mike Johnston made the 700-kilometre drive each way, just to bring some chicken—15 buckets in all—home to his wife and kids to continue the tradition.

Same as it ever was.