I got out the barbecue the other day to cook supper outdoors. I enjoy having a barbecued meal. The food seems to taste better when cooked like this and in some ways it is healthier than pan-frying a meal on the stove. Cooking over a barbecue is a great way to get outdoors and spend some time out in the fresh air while doing something meaningful during the day.
Barbecuing is considered a luxury in the southern non-Native cities and towns. Having a barbecue is a status symbol. Everyone feels as if it is a necessary part of a home. There is even a whole industry behind barbecuing. A basic unit will cost a few hundred dollars while high-end models are huge pieces of machinery that can cost thousands. There are also all the accessories and attachments that people can add on for cooking all sorts of foods.
Barbecuing and cooking outdoors is a very familiar activity for me. It is not recreation to my people up the James Bay coast. Our family was always involved in barbecuing at any time of the year. We never owned a steel-framed barbecue unit back then but instead we did all our cooking outdoors around an open-pit fire. There were many ways of managing a fire in order to use it effectively for cooking all sorts of wild food.
My favourite memories of barbecuing centre around our family wigwam, an open fire and the goose hunt. After a successful goose hunt, all the food was assembled inside the wigwam to be prepared for cooking. Most were cut into thin strips for smoking over the fire, to create a cooked goose called Nah-Meh-Sh-Teh-K in Cree.
This kind of barbecuing took several days and this work required a great deal of planning and supervision. Good strong branches were needed for hanging the food. All the bark was stripped off so that the smoked food hung on the clean and fresh interior wood. Several racks were filled and suspended five to six feet above the fire. The smoking, smouldering fire was created by using just a small amount of wood. If we were in the community, we used our supply of dried firewood cut into small pieces. Out on the land, mom got the younger children to collect small dead twigs which were burnt slowly on a fire. One had to be careful about what fuel was used as many types of trees throw great flakes of ash into the air, which can ruin a batch of smoked meat.
I enjoyed sitting inside our wigwam with the scent of the smouldering fire, the pine bough floor and the smoking geese. Smoking geese took several days to complete and if it was necessary, the process was repeated again to cook more meat. The fire had to be rekindled from time to time to keep the smoke on the meat. While the fire was restarted, we took this opportunity to have a barbecued goose over the rekindled flames. This type of barbecued goose was called an Oo-Pah-Wah-N. There is a special method to this barbecue. A freshly plucked bird is cut in half but kept in one whole piece and then it is spread and stretched apart on a large skewer. This large skewer is double pointed and the lower end is stuck into the ground. Then this barbecue skewer is left to hang over the flames to cook.
Barbecuing has always been the way to cook food for my people on the James Bay coast. It is the easiest way to prepare food while travelling or living on the land. Food was prepared in many ways back then. All sorts of wild meat were prepared in this way including moose, caribou, fish and rabbit. Smoking was another way of using an open fire to cook food. One of the best smoked meats to prepare was fish. This type of meat when cooked, fried or boiled tastes rather bland, but when smoked, the flavour and taste is delicious.
Unfortunately, over the years, cooking outdoors has slowly been replaced by indoor stoves and ovens. However, the spring goose hunt is still a time enjoyed by my people along the coast. They set up their wigwams to make smoked meat and barbecue food in a traditional way over the fire at this time of the year.