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Preparing feasts creates frenzy at festival

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MOOSEHIDE, Yukon - Take one moose, add a half-ton of potatoes, garnish with
50 pounds of onions to taste and stir. Serve with 5,000 pieces of bannock.

Succinctly, this is the recipe used at the Moosehide Gathering for feeding
1,500 people over four days. The biannual event, dating back to 1993,
celebrated its seventh anniversary on July 29 and is becoming renowned for
the free dinner feasts.

The festival originally started out as an annual affair by the Tr'ondeck
Hwech'in First Nation in the Yukon. Given the magnitude of food
preparations involved for generously feeding more than 1,000 people over a
weekend though, organizers scaled back their efforts to every two years.

Overseeing the kitchen duties is the band's "on-call" cook Nora Van Bibber.
With previous experience as a restaurant manager in Dawson City, she later
prepared food at different functions for the Tr'ondeck Hwech'in.

"Now they want me all the time," Van Bibber said during her second stint at
Moosehide.

There's little time for Van Bibber to partake in the festivities. With
about seven hours, she starts from scratch with maybe a few leftovers from
the previous day. Watching any of the dancing and other cultural activities
is out of the question.

Scribbling the day's menu on the back of a paper plate, uncooperative
weather has changed some plans.

"Okay, this morning I saw the rain and said 'Cancel the salads'," she said,
gazing at the dark clouds.

All she could do was guess as to how many people might arrive and hope her
calculations were correct. When you're cooking for hundreds each day,
there's little opportunity to revise the amount as the afternoon marches
on.

Moosehide is a rejuvenation of the Han tribe who regularly conducted
celebrations until the end of the 19th century. One hundred years ago
however, Chief Isaac, anticipating the loss of his people's culture with
the start of the gold rush and contact with explorers, took the ceremonies
to the nearby Upper Tanana tribe in adjacent Alaska. There he requested
these practices be kept until such a time they could be returned to the
Han.

Following the gold rush, laws prohibiting potlatches and then residential
schools destroyed the local heritage and language for most of the 20th
century. The village of Moosehide was abandoned in the 1950s.

Presently a few people have returned to live year-round to re-establish the
tradition of the area that's two miles north of Dawson City, accessible
only by the Yukon River. Patricia Lindgren of the band's heritage
department explained why Moosehide is regaining its popularity.

"The Han people were a really rich First Nation back in the day," said
Lindgren whose great-great grandfather was Chief Isaac. "Today with our
self-government we are becoming dominant once again."

Tr'ondeck Hwech'in, in 1998, was the first of the 14 bands in the Yukon to
sign a treaty. The deal calls for 1,000 square miles and $21 million ($16
million U.S.) over 15 years.

Besides the moose, another traditional food served is king salmon and over
the four days 65 fish will have been used. These low-fat entrees plus a
choice of vegetarian dishes, in addition to contemporary foods, provided
ample variety.

The trick with so many people is to have a small army of willing
volunteers.

At the cook's disposal are more than 20 others who were recruited on a
daily basis. Some of them didn't know they would actually be helping as
they themselves were expecting to be guests.

Quantities of the food become staggering upon examination. Consumed were a
dozen turkeys, 10 hams, 100 pounds of hamburger for the pasta's meat sauce,
numerous boxes of produce and finally, 120 pounds of flour for the bannock.

"It's creative," Van Bibber spouted as she poured a can of tomato sauce
into an awaiting five-gallon vat of chili.

All of this activity occurs in a 100-square-foot kitchen area with two
stoves. At least this year there was running water added in what was the
village's old schoolhouse.

"A drain is a kitchen thing and it's wonderful," praised the chef about the
renovations. "Slop buckets are not."

With just one generator for the stove, cooks had a choice of using either
the burners or the oven, but not both. Van Bibber opted for the burners
knowing the secondary food preparation area was outside.

There it was her husband Steve who operated the barbeque pit that's
protected from the rain by a tarpaulin. After the charcoals were fired up
and allowed to retain their heat by simmering for hours, this makeshift
food area became another busy site.

With the salmon baking on the grill, Steve, who spent the morning cutting
the moose meat into chunks, worked on his stew. Later he minded the pots of
boiling water for the spaghetti.

Crunch time isn't as frenzied as the previous day when 500 attended, the
largest crowd the gathering had ever seen. Nora's method of counting heads
isn't scientific, rather, she tallies the number of plates used. Still,
with two hours to go, there were glitches to overcome.

"My jello isn't setting, that's a crisis," Nora blurted out.

As the Van Bibbers minded the food, coordinating the entire affair was
Luene Maxwell. Moosehide might be one of the few events where the hosts are
responsible for getting their guests to and back, so Maxwell coordinated
the boats between the village and Dawson City.

Like the dinners, entrance to the gathering is free and so too are the
rides.

"You have to rely on people's generosity in order for them to give up their
boats to use," Maxwell said.

The day's steady downpour conveniently came to an end just as the cooking
and preparations were finished. That allowed the food to be presented
outdoors without having to make other arrangements to feed the more than
300 who did brave the elements.

With the volunteers cheerfully making their final strides bringing the pots
and pans to the buffet table, there was the reality that some of these
acquaintances won't be renewed for another two years. Kitchen stories of
the day's aches and pains are shared as if they were war wounds, moments
only to be appreciated in the heat of battle.

In its exhaustion, there's almost a fear about the tales of the cooking
staff being exposed. As the Yukon tourism board already promotes Moosehide,
Nora wondered if more publicity is necessary.

"Great," she said with both enthusiasm and sarcasm. "Then there will be
more people to cook for."