As Christmas approaches and thoughts turn to traditional foods that are so much a part of the celebration, cooks everywhere stock up on ingredients required for these seasonal treats.
Life was not this simple for the First Nations people who lived in our area. Historically, the Oji-Cree, [Ojibway and Cree] were hunters and gatherers whose knowledge about the land and wildlife was vital to their survival because it provided food, clothing, shelter, tools and medicine.
The ability of the people to obtain these important resources was directly connected to the changing of seasons. Hunting, fishing, gathering berries and trapping occurred during different times of the year. Deer, moose, rabbit and fish were available during the winter, the season when we celebrate Christmas.
Lavinna Pemmican, an Oji-Cree woman, born in Kasabonika Lake First Nation, [adopted into the Chapleau Cree] has a wealth of recipes obtained from various relatives. A family favourite is the wonderful moose stew that her Aunt Fran makes.
Lavinna explained, “It took Fran two days to prepare the moose meat that she recently received from a hunter. It is traditional to share food and provide for other members of the community, especially respected elders.
“After the moose meat was divided into usable portions, she removed all fat, bones, sinews and silver skin, cut the meat into small cubes and cooked it in a skillet, added water and flour to make gravy, then put in cooked cubed potatoes, onions, carrots and turnips to produce a delicious warm and filling comfort food. Moose stew is still popular today.”
She has eaten it, but Lavinna noted that pemmican is “not relied upon much now. In earlier days it was very important for survival as a portable food that could last for a long time.
“Traditionally, pemmican was prepared from the lean meat of large game such deer or moose.
“About five pounds of meat are required to make one pound of dried meat suitable for pemmican.
“The meat was cut in thin slices and dried over a slow fire or in the hot sun until it was hard and brittle, then pounded into a powder-like in consistency, using stones.
“It was combined with melted fat in an approximate one-to-one ratio. Dried fruits such as blueberries were pounded into powder and then added to the meat/fat mixture.
“The mix is highly nutritious and filling and will remain edible for several months or even years.”
Lavinna provided her mother Elaine’s modern version of the still popular bannock.
“My mother’s updated version uses butter or margarine in place of lard and the mix is cooked in the oven instead of being wrapped around a stick and propped over a fire, but the result is still a tasty staple that has been enjoyed over the centuries.
“Combine four cups of flour, four teaspoon of baking powder, one teaspoon salt, and one-quarter cup of sugar. To three-quarters cup of melted butter add two beaten eggs and one-and-one-half cups of milk or water.
“Mix well and add one-half cup of raisins, blueberries or cranberries.
“Combine wet and dry ingredients and pat into a pan. Drizzle melted butter over the top and bake in a 350-degree oven for about one-and-one-half hours or until golden. Naturally, the Oji-Cree were familiar with maple syrup and honey and added them to foods as a sweetener and flavour improver.”
Today overindulgence in rich Christmas food means a trip to the nearest pharmacy.
“Since this was not an option for early First Nation people, they consulted a medicine man or woman who made remedies out of plants native to the area.
“A cleansing drink made from cedar was often the suggested treatment.
“To four cups of water add about one cup of fresh cedar foliage and boil for 20 minutes. After it was strained and cooled to lukewarm the patient drank a cup and started to feel better.”
Despite past efforts to eradicate First Nation traditions, the resiliency of these communities has enabled them to preserve the best of their traditional culture as they incorporate features from modern society.
Thanks to grocery stores, specialty food shops and the Internet, fruits and vegetables, spices, herbs and just about anything edible, no matter how rare and exotic it was once considered to be, is readily available either fresh or frozen for most of the year.
“Christmas dinner is all about celebrating with close knit family and could include favourites such as moose stew provided by a hunter or a turkey from the grocery store.
“The old ways and the new blend to produce a feast. Merry Christmas!”