There is only one real dessert in the Cree culture – and that is bannock. It is a baked mix of mostly flour and water with variations that sometimes add some sugar. To many, it might seem very bland but there is more to bannock than just plain white dough. Bannock can be oven baked in a pan or slow cooked on a skillet over a fire.
My personal favourite is a wrap of bannock dough around a stick, which is then roasted over an open fire. When my mom made us this treat, she always added raisins or in the summer, during the berry season, she mixed in blueberries.
An even better alternative was when mom made a pot of fresh gooseberry jam and some bannock. I remember myself and my brothers and sisters circling the table around mom’s freshly cooked jam and dipping our bannock into the sugary sweet potion. It was like a fast-paced Cree-style fondue where we all tried to outdo each other to down as much of the jam and bannock as possible.
Bannock is also great fried in a pan. When mom made this special treat for us out on the land, it was more of a snack that provided myself and my siblings a boost to get our work done around the camp. My favourite memories of bannock have to do with eating it on the land. After a day of fresh forest air and working for hours, nothing beats sitting around a campfire with a cup of strong hot tea and stick-roasted bannock. I can remember moments in my childhood when I enjoyed the rare combination of fresh hot bannock with a layer of melted butter and then a thick topping of mom’s homemade gooseberry jam.
I seldom got the chance to enjoy many sugar treats when I was growing up back up the James Bay coast in Attawapiskat. Before I was exposed to the southern non-Native world, I did not have much access to fast-food snacks or sugary treats. It was difficult to ship these things into the community and that made it very expensive to buy a litre of ice cream or even a box of cookies. In addition, mom knew that any sugary, sweet, salty or fatty treat would be gobbled up by nine rambunctious children in a matter of minutes. It was a real treat for any of us to enjoy a bag of chips, a chocolate bar or a can of pop. Mom and dad wanted to spend our family funds on bulk packages of foods and they did not mind skipping the treats because they came from a generation that rarely ate any candies or sugary foods during their childhood.
I have to admit that I find there is nothing like the luxury of savouring a bag of chips. The saltier and more artificially flavoured, the better. There must be something in the combination of high fat content food peppered with salt and spice. I think my ancestors must have really lacked sources of fat and sodium because at different times, I just get a real craving for this simple treat. However, it is easy to lose control and I do my best to stay away from the junk food aisle in the grocery store. I remind myself that my good health is more valuable than the quick reward of a high fat snack.
We all have cravings for sweet desserts. Everyone has a favourite treat they enjoy from time to time. I love chocolate bars and one of my favourites has always been Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. There is nothing like the combination of chocolate and peanut butter. When I discovered coffee, there was no better way to have it than with double sugar and double cream. To accompany the coffee, I would enjoy having a sugary doughnut to add to my sweetened caffeine hit.
Scientists explain the phenomenon of craving for sugars, fats and salts by pointing out that as human animals, we were originally designed to live in the wild where there is no easy access to these foods. To deal with the lack of these nutrients, our bodies were designed to crave them to ensure our survival. Our cravings drove us to search for these nutrients and eat our fill because these foods did not occur abundantly in nature. Unfortunately, we have adapted so well to our world that instead of being better able to search for these foods, we have actually taken a step further and have created methods to manufacture them in huge quantities.
We have outdone ourselves and we are capable of manufacturing fatty, sugary and salty foods on a massive scale that can make it cheap and affordable for everyone to indulge their cravings. The sad reality is that diabetes has become an epidemic in Native communities and many of our people are becoming sick and dying from this devastating disease. Thankfully, First Nation health organizations and the federal and provincial governments are actively working on education, prevention and treatment programs to combat diabetes.
To some it is the height of evolution to be able to create and enjoy a triple chocolate milkshake made with chocolate ice cream, chocolate milk and chocolate sauce or a cardboard tube of pizza-favoured chips. Don’t forget poutine, chocolate-cream pie, cheesecake, apple fritters and the famous banana split. Our abilities to produce these sweets have exceeded our instincts to know when to stop and I think that the next step in our evolution will be for all of us to learn how to exercise a lot more self-control.
As much as my Cree ancestors would have enjoyed all of the tasty high-calorie snacks, I think they would agree with me in saying that too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Isn’t that a shame?