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Sea Fare

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Issue: 61 Section: Food Geography: USA, West Vancouver Island, Washington Topics: Indigenous

June 11, 2009

Sea Fare

Cooking, Nuu-chah-nulth style

by Kim Petersen

[cc 2.0] Some ingredients – like gooseneck barnacles – may be new to some chefs. Photo: Island Sol

TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF SNUNEYMUXW FIRST NATION (NANAIMO, B.C.)–At first glance, despite its unfamiliar title, Čamus looks like most other cookbooks. However, Čamus is a cookbook that is about more than just cooking. Čamus is about food, nature and language; it is a reflection of a culture, a way of life, and about preserving that way of life.

On the cover is a slice of moist salmon fillet arranged on a bed of leeks, celery leaves and the leaf of a skunk cabbage. A few sprigs of green onions are laid across the fish. Below, photos of berries, crab, sea urchin and mussels indicate that seafood and nature’s foods will be prominent in the Nuu-chah-nulth style cookbook. Good taste is also important. Čamus (chum-us) is an adjective meaning the satisfaction of being well-fed.

The cookbook contains recipes from the 17 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations found on the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Makah First Nation of Washington State. In addition to the Indigenous cuisine, the reader is also introduced to the culture, language, and philosophy of the Nuu-chah-nulth.

Tom Happynook, President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, laments the drift away from the traditional foods. Although many elders still value the nutritional and medicinal benefits of the traditional Nuu-chah-nulth diet, eating traditionally is less common among young people.

There is scientific research linking eating traditional foods with eliminating obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other afflictions that plague Indigenous Peoples. This, says Happynook, “should be enough incentive to turn to our customary foods. Healthy people equals healthy communities.”

Happynook holds that eating is part of one’s cultural identity: “If we are to preserve our Nuu-chah-nulth-ness we must eat Nuu-chah-nulth foods.”

Dawn Foxcroft, spokeswoman for Uu-a-thluk (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Fisheries), sees “a lot of movement [projects, identified needs] in the communities towards a more traditional diet, eating foods from our territories and learning how to harvest and manage these resources.”

“With the cookbook we are also trying to promote the use of the resources—their use in a sustainable and respectful way—so that Nuu-chah-nulth people will go out into our territories and learn about harvesting, learn about management and the value of who they are and where they are from," says Foxcroft. "Also, we want people to go out with their families and learn how to harvest and where to harvest; this is one of the ways that keeps the culture alive and strong.”

Čamus includes a Nuu-chah-nulth Seasonal Round, a wheel that explains the territorial locales, months of the year and foods that are available for harvesting.

The cookbook cautions shellfish harvesters to check for water closures and never to harvest from water suspected of containing pollution.

Good food comes from a cared-for environment. Uu-a-thluk is devoted to the sustainability and management of the aquatic environment.

Each recipe in Čamus has a list of ingredients with instructions for combining and cooking. The cookbook is divided into three sections: ocean (with 39 fish-based recipes), beach (11 recipes) and land (15 recipes). The ocean-based recipes are tilted toward salmon (there are 15 salmon recipes); predictable, given the west coast locale and the long-intertwined history of the Nuu-chah-nulth people and salmon.

Many salmon lovers hold strong preferences between wild Pacific salmon and farmed salmon. Foxcroft finds, however, that consensus is lacking among the different Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations on this issue.

Consensus is not lacking about seafood. Fish, chiton, clam, oyster, mussel, barnacle and sea urchin recipes are found in Čamus. The land section carries recipes for duck, elk and deer. There are also recipes for the popular fried bread bannock (sapnin).

There are some meatless recipes, but Čamus is not a cookbook geared to vegetarians.

The book is an invitation to the adventurous. Some of the ingredients will be outside the average person's food repertoire—for example, salal, fish head, chitons, marinated alaria and gooseneck barnacles. Two recipes even feature whale meat: whale jerk candy and whale in the middle.

Like berries? There is also a seasonal berry chart for salmonberries, salal berries, bog cranberries, thimbleberries, huckleberries, wild strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

The cookbook is peppered with tips like: “Salal berry leaves make a good antacid. Chew the leaf and suck juice from it.”

For the sun-dried berry candy recipe, Mamie Charles of the Hesquiaht First Nation remembers, “We used to use skunk cabbage [timuut] leaves for drying the berries, instead of cardboard.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth recipes indicate a non-wasteful, conservation ethic.

Says Foxcroft, “Nuu-chah-nulth people, like many other First Nations people, traditionally use all of an animal. I think that it is about respect for the animal and the connection to food and where the food is from. For example, when you prepare salmon, people use all of it; people eat the head, eyes, cheeks and skin. Where other people may throw away the salmon head, for many Nuu-chah-nulth it is a treat. Traditionally, the bones were put back in the river or ocean where they came from.”

Čamus offers much: from photos (black-and-white and colour) and illustrations to Nuu-chah-nulth vocabulary with each recipe and a phonetic alphabet at the back of the cookbook; there are sections devoted to canning salmon and underground baking; there is a recipe for kelp chips and a page devoted to kelp facts.

If the aphorism “you are what you eat” is valid, then Čamus is a great way to gain insight into the Nuu-chah-nulth people and at the same time reward one’s health and palate.

Bon appétit!


Kim Petersen is the Original Peoples Editor at The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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