Country Food, Soul Food
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath.
H is a skilled hunter, acclaimed drum dancer, and respected linguist who lives in western Nunavut, in a vibrant community on Victoria Island, one of the territory’s largest. Home is also the gentle slopes of nearby Uvayuq, formerly known as Mount Pelly; on the frozen seascapes surrounding the eastern communities of Taloyoak and Kugaaruk, where he was born and raised. H carries home with him through his skills and knowledges – he is one of very few Inuit today who can build a traditional "iglu" that will keep you warm, and even fewer who still speak the dialects of the twenty-five communities across Nunavut.
We rode across snow-swept tundra, soft and brown, on the verge of bursting forth into the vibrant pinks, purples and blues that carpet the land each spring. The skidoo flew over the rough snow, heading towards an unending white horizon. All this was strange and new to me.
I was born in the tropical city of Singapore; with torrential monsoons and thunder that would rattle your bones. I grew up playing in the rain that would flood the tessellated tiles of our outdoor kitchen, next to the concrete altar where I would pray and burn incense for our many gods. As a child, I was surrounded by generations of family, much like how Inuit are brought up. It was strange, feeling so much, going so fast, yet being perfectly still. The aliveness of it all.
We had come in search of dinner. H said that ptarmigan spend their whole lives in the Arctic. Unlike many other birds, they don’t fly south for the winter. “Clean enough to eat raw”, H said in gravelly amusement. I learned later that the ptarmigan, or aqilgiq, in the Inuinnaqtun tongue, is the national bird of Nunavut, and also, delicious with cranberry sauce.
On the skidoo, we almost ran over a flock of these soft, fluttery birds, their white feathers blending seamlessly into the iridescent snow. Only their shining, jet black eyes gave them away. H had slung his .22 rifle over his thick, well-worn jacket – he removed the gun from its tan, leather case and carefully took aim over the windshield. The first shot cracked through the still air, the bullet seemingly riding the soft cloud as he exhaled, straight into the bird’s neck. Bright red spots splattered the snow; tiny heartbeats shattered into silence. The flock flurried into the air in a roiling cloud of white wings, only to land barely a few metres away, calm once again.
H shot three more birds. He could have easily brought home more, but this was about more than food – “Enough for two dinners, so that I can come out again.” I gathered up the lifeless birds, holding their still-warm necks between my fingers, bodies dangling down. H expertly twisted off each wing with a quick crunch, tossing them to one side. He showed me how to prepare it, starting from the claws. At the belly, I hooked one finger under the skin and tore it clean across – it came apart like loose threads of spun silk. I rolled the skin upwards, gathered it at the neck and twisted the head off with a single wrench. We tossed the entrails toward the broken wings – this would be a rare treat for the foxes and falcons. Nothing would be wasted.
Four smooth, dark ptarmigan breasts, cleaned and ready, remained on the snow. They would have looked perfectly in place wrapped in clingfilm in a grocery store. H rubbed crisp snow into his hands, scrubbing the blood right off. The snow rubbed my hands raw but left them exquisitely clean. H dried his hands off with the feathers from a nearby skin. “Softer than the best towels!” he grinned. I had to laugh. As a child, my parents had taught me that animals were dirty, that I always had to wash my hands after petting a dog. Yet, there I was, towelling off on feathers!
On the way back, we spied a fat, gleaming seal – nattiq – sunning itself next to its breathing hole. Unblinking, the seal gazed at us and slipped below the ice with a soft gurgle. We saw a family of muskox – omingmak – on a faraway hill. “You’re lucky to see them with two baby ones”, H rumbled. Sure enough, against the midnight sun high in the sky, there were two smaller silhouettes chewing the thawing tundra. H’s sharp eyes caught an Arctic fox scampering across the tundra, white upon white. We heard the gyrfalcon screeching shrilly before we saw it, angrily circling a rough-legged hawk. They parried to the beat of powerful wings, punctuating the sky with piercing cries.
H stopped several times to pick up trash on the land – skidoo sidings that had fallen off, plastic bottles and pop cans. We jumped off and threw them into the back of his alliak, a large wooden sled hooked up to carry harvested caribou, moose, and more during hunts. Trash both angered and worried H – this careless disrespect of the land and its animals was not the Inuit way he had grown up with.
Back in H’s kitchen, he put two fresh ptarmigan into a large casserole dish on the stove. Next, red onions, carrots, sweet apples and baby potatoes, with just a pinch of pepper; set to a slow simmer for two hours. We had dinner with cranberry sauce, pickles and steaming, hot tea.
I remembered chatting with an Inuk schoolteacher a few weeks earlier, when the geese had started honking overhead, heralding the coming egg-gathering season. She was laughing in excitement, and shared proudly, “Other people have soul food. We have country food!”
I remembered how in Calgary, at an event I had planned for other students about Arctic Canada, someone had looked at my black hair and yellow skin and asked if I was Inuk. I blurted out, “I’m from the equator!”
Somehow, in a place that could not be further from where I was born, country food brought me back home.