Mastering the Art of Cree Cooking

August 31, 2012
V. Laberge Gaudin

“Freshly caught fish that you cook and eat – oh my god. It’s incredible,” says Véronique Laberge-Gaudin, nutritionist with the Cree Health Board. Surprisingly, though, the presence of traditional Cree foods like fresh fish is decreasing in the diet of many Cree in Eeyou Istchee. And, according to Laberge-Gaudin, that lack is a problem, as traditional foods provide a healthy diet as well as a link to Cree heritage.

“The decrease in consumption has a number of causes,” she explains. “For one thing, traditional food is difficult to acquire. It’s not as convenient as buying something at store, opening it and eating it right away. You have to go to the hunting ground, which can be complicated and expensive. Then you have to find and kill the animal, clean it, cut it, cook it – eating traditional food involves a lot of work!” Another obstacle is that many people simply do not know how to clean and prepare traditional fare. And, of course, the appeal of fast food is felt as strongly in the north as it has been elsewhere, to the detriment of healthy traditional meals.

Laberge-Gaudin’s interest in traditional foods was ignited by discussing nutrition issues with people around her. “Many people were worried about decreasing traditional food consumption and they wanted to do something about it,” she recalls. As there was little professional literature on the topic, she enrolled in the masters program in Community Health at the Université de Montréal to pursue her own research, which focuses on identifying the factors – at the individual, familial, social and environmental levels – that promote or inhibit consumption of traditional foods in Mistissini, Eastman and Wemindji.

“I wanted to see what influenced people to eat traditional foods, and what obstacles stood in the way. There are some constant factors. For instance, if you are older, you are likely to eat more traditional food. But I also wanted to see what factors we might be able to influence,” she explains. “My wish is that we can build on this research, and I’ve tried to carry it out so that we could apply its findings.”

Efforts are being made to encourage people to eat traditional food, of course. Facilities like Murray’s Lodge in Mistissini promote traditional knowledge, including the preparation of traditional foods, and the CHB, the Cree Regional Authority and the Cree Trappers Association are all involved in various initiatives, although there is no global approach for all of Eeyou Istchee. A pilot project at Chisasibi Hospital sees traditional foods being served to patients, but other institutions remain prohibited from such meal plans. “We would like to see traditional meals served in other institutions, and over the long term,” says Laberge-Gaudin. “But currently it is forbidden to sell or serve traditional food anywhere, so you couldn’t give it to children in daycare, for instance. You can only offer it to family members.” Such government policies form another obstacle to traditional food consumption.

Laberge-Gaudin has a lengthy history with the Cree Health Board, and with the nutrition issues facing the Cree. She arrived in 2002, based first in Chisasibi and later in Mistissini. “I wanted the adventure of experiencing another culture, but it has been totally different from what I expected,” she says. “When I began I was the only non-Cree person working on a home care health team, caring for lots of elders, so I learned a lot from my co-workers and clients about working with people.”

“In terms of professional development, you have great freedom,” she notes. “There are so many things to be done, and you are trusted to find ways of doing them. After graduation, I had a solid general training but I still had to define my professional personality. Being with the CHB allowed me to do many things, some more and some less successful, which was a wonderful opportunity.”

Her professional development has been complemented by personal development, she stresses. “The Cree are very warm and generous, and I’ve made so many good friends. And people come here to work from around the world, and are so open and interesting!” From the range of cuisines – the traditional Cree food along with the international flavours brought by co-workers – to the lively social life and an inexhaustible range of outdoor activities, she says life in Eeyou Istchee has been immensely enriching. “I have been touched and blessed by so many good people,” she says. “The Cree have taught me the Cree way, which has completely changed my way of life.”

And, of course, her years in Eeyou Istchee have taught her about food! Asked about her favourite traditional Cree meal, Laberge-Gaudin is faced with a difficult choice. “Moose on the stick. You cook it slowly over an open fire, on stick, a bit like a satay,” she says at first, but memories of other meals assert themselves. “Caribou like that is great too. And so is goose cooked slowly over a fire.” And, of course, the fish fresh from the lake…

Highlights from Laberge-Gaudin’s research into factors influencing traditional food consumption

  • Traditional food choices are the result of multiple interconnected influences based in family, community and the environment, rather than a single factor.
  • People who consume traditional food three days or more weekly are likely to be over 40 years old, to walk 30 minutes or more per day, to not have completed schooling, and to be a hunter.
  • Study participants suggested promoting traditional food at the community or environmental level rather than the individual level. Suggestions included creating a task force, selling traditional food at the local grocery store(s) and restaurant(s), finding ways to pass along traditional culinary knowledge, and implementing services where people can have game clean and prepared.
  • People across generations often define traditional food differently. Many elders do not consider wild game prepared according to a non-Cree recipe as “traditional,” but younger people often consider all wild game “traditional,” including ground moose meat used in a spaghetti sauce.
  • Study participants suggest five main ways to promote traditional foods, including: improving how wildlife is monitored and land preserved, ensuring that all Cree have access to hunting grounds and equipment, maintaining traditional knowledge, evaluating the Mistissini traditional food promotion program, and finally opening discussions on the viability of farming traditional foods, with the aim of perhaps selling it to stores and restaurants, and serving it in public entities such as schools, daycares, and elders centres.
  • All study participants agree that traditional food is an important part of the Cree identity and that eating it helps connect them to their culture.