Zen and the art of campfire cooking


The other day, I was carrying groceries home and thinking about how heavy food is when you have to lug it a few blocks. But I remembered that, compared to traditional Arctic distances, a trek from North-Mart is not that bad. Fifty pounds of fresh char, over rocky ground, can be a bit difficult. Those readers whose duty it was, as kids, to carry such catches may know what I mean. Fish, even gutted, is mostly water - which we all know is heavy.

Char in turn reminded me of ducks and geese, which we bagged in the fall. Other wonderful past catches included clams, berries, caribou and that eternal staple of life, seal meat.

The world may turn in its uncertain ways, but no introduced festival has yet overtaken the traditional Inuit festival times (such as qaggiq and quviasugvik) in importance - the times when Inuit especially crave "soul" food. For food is NEVER just sustenance for Inuit, but a way to renew oneself emotionally.

We've just finished with the winter festival season; but, personally, autumn food preparation is my favourite activity of the year. I like to cook. Best of all, I like cooking outside, over a campfire. I used to feel sad about it when I lived in the south, in the city, since campfire cooking was virtually impossible for me there. But I've moved north again, and I'm looking forward to hitting the hills once winter releases its grip a bit.

There is nothing like cooking outside, especially in the Arctic; the taste and scent of such cuisine is somehow different from oven-cooked food, as though the open air alters its chemistry for the better. And there's quite an art to it.

First, you have to gather several bags of Arctic heather, moss or twigs, depending on how much smoke you're willing to put up with. The heather alone will do it, though, since the resinous stuff grows everywhere (most visitors mistake it for lichen), and it burns like mad. You need three square rocks, roughly of equal size, as much like pieces of brick as possible. There are the matches, of course, and a bit of Kleenex makes great kindling. You'll be there with some very fresh ice water, tea or coffee of choice, some thinly stripped fish or caribou, and one large, flat rock. You won't use shale, because it cracks, and your rock will be nice and dry - assuming you don't want the moisture in it to heat and make it explode. (Children used to be allowed to play with this process so as to get it right; don't worry - nobody lost any eyes).

You'll pluck some fur from your parka, holding it up to determine which way the wind is blowing, then arrange your rocks in a semicircular shape, the open side away from the wind. The semicircle is just wide enough to accommodate a pot or kettle.

You start the fire - not a raging blaze, just at a level that it stays under control. Once you're sure it's not petering out, you place water to boil above it. You keep feeding the fire a little kindling and stoking it once in a while.

Eventually, you place the flat rock to heat near or in the fire, set the water aside once it boils, and fry some fish or caribou on the rock. Make some bannock afterward if you so choose (I always so choose). Throw tea or tea bags in the hot water, and holler for your friends to help you polish off the feast. Clean up by burning all non-toxic garbage, throwing sand onto the hearth. You need rest after all that hard eating work, so it's time for tea and scary stories, or (if anyone has the energy) playing games of strength.

Oh, and if cooking away from the community, don't forget batteries for your flashlight, as the darkness comes sooner now (unless you like stumbling around marshlands after dark; it's happened to me). Oh yes, and sand works best for cleaning your bannock bowl in a running stream. And don't forget to bring some freshly campfire-made bannock to your less adventurous family and friends; they will thank you, even if there is sand in it. But I digress.

Want to do all of this indoors? You'll avoid the mosquitoes, smoke in your eyes, and sand in your bannock - but you'll miss that wonderful smell of burning heather, and the glorious colours of an Arctic sunset, unlike any other in the world.

And there's the mood. You'll miss feeling as though everything fits in place, as though comfortable in your own skin - that mood of a human doing what humans have always done, are supposed to do, since humans have existed.

And don't forget to eat as much as you can, because the more you eat, the less you have to carry home.


(That is all I have to say.)