Winter seems to have arrived early this year. The big freeze hasn’t hit us yet but there sure seems to be a lot more snow than last year. I recently spent some time finishing up some pre-winter chores that I was not able to complete before the snow fell.
Any type of work in the winter is simply more difficult. Working in a foot of snow, while wearing thick snow boots and layers of warm clothes, takes up a lot of energy. It was gratifying that when I got back from my chores after spending several hours trudging through snow, there was a pot of hot stew of leftover roast beef and hearty vegetables. There is nothing like coming in from the cold after some hard winter work to find a warm house and a nice hot meal.
A cold day and a hot meal bring back a lot of memories. Just about every day of my childhood in the winter time was spent playing in the great white banks of snow around our home in Attawapiskat and then heading in for a hot meal that mom had prepared. Dad always kept the house warm by feeding the wood stove. Much of the time he overdid it as he always preferred the place to be hot rather than warm. To my parents it was better to be too hot because as soon as you stepped out, you were more apt to stay warm for a longer period of time.
As my brothers and I sat down for our hot meal, it felt good to get out of damp winter clothes and to free our heads and hands from restrictive clothing. While seated at the table we could feel the warmth emanating from the wood stove. It felt refreshing and cozy to sit around the table in the kitchen waiting for mom’s meal. Our home was like a small pocket of warmth in a world of cold outside. We were surrounded by the fragrance of mom’s pot of food, the scent of fresh pine logs and the fire from our stove.
In winter, our food mostly consisted of wild meats that were easily gathered in our community at this time of year. The moose hunts take place in the autumn, the fall goose hunt brings in some geese, the spring goose hunt is a big provider and the winter caribou hunts start after freeze up has made the ground hard enough for travelling.
So it was not just availability but the ability to transport food that made these traditional sources of food more accessible. It was more practical to transport a caribou or two in minus-20 degree weather on a sleigh over snow than trying to move many geese quickly over water or mushkeg in warm spring temperatures. The cold weather actually was a benefit to our way of life by allowing us to freeze our food for transport or store our meats for long periods.
The hot meals mom cooked were unadorned and non-spiced. These dishes included butchered goose with rice or dumplings, caribou stew with carrots and potatoes or a base of fried moose meat and onions that became a thick stew. In fact, the only additional ingredient to the meat was salt and pepper. To us the taste of plain moose, goose or caribou was enough to whet our appetites.
I believe that eating wild meat is an acquired taste that people grow to enjoy over a long period of time. In my case, moose and caribou is associated with cold winter days and hot stews served with a cup of fresh hot tea and a loaf of bannock. Those days of mom’s meals and our time around the kitchen table always come to mind when I dig into a hot stew.
Out on the land, traditional food was prepared using these basic recipes. On a hunting trip, all one needed was a pot big enough to serve a small group of people. Whatever wild meat was available was cut up into a pot of water and cooked along with rice, oats or dumplings and then served hot.
In cold weather, any source of heat is valuable and drinking hot gravy was a great source of nutrition and warmth. I have heard many elders tell me that in the past, when the family’s supply of tea ran out, people drank the gravy from the pot of food to go with their meals. Back then, a leftover pot of gravy was treated in much the same way as a pot of tea. There were a few occasions when I travelled out on the land with some traditional older members of my extended family and they thought nothing of dunking their mug into a pot of caribou or goose gravy to have a cup of hot liquid stew.
These days when I sit down to a beef or chicken stew it occurs to me at times that it would be just great to dip my mug or cup into the pot of gravy for a hearty drink. I might just do that the next time a stew pops up.