‘Tis the season! It’s still snowing here in Victoria, very applicable for Yuletide. Eat, drink, be merry. Everywhere people are visiting friends, going to parties and enjoying traditional dishes and mouth-watering treats over the holidays. But have you ever wondered how Indigenous peoples survived and what their diet was during the long, cold winters of North America? Or, in places like Russia and Scandinavia?
Not only wondered at their survival in freezing temperatures (and surviving they did!), but marvelled at their rich knowledge of flora and fauna?
Speaking of special dishes, when you’ve travelled and seen a bit of the world like we have, you not only encounter ‘primitive’ food markets but enter a time-tunnel and see how things used to be for all of us, long ago.
On these expeditions you need to adjust and adapt to the local food, e.g. sometimes a local delicacy such as in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, sheep eyes in couscous. Or with the Massai of eastern Africa, where I drank “cocktails” of milk and cow’s blood, and elsewhere in Africa munched on fried termites.
[In order to survive, in my boyhood in the Lowlands during WWII we lived on potato peels and flower bulbs, or roots of non-toxic plants. Hunger always triumphs over ‘revulsion’. I know! When some people here in the West say they’re hungry, they mean they have an appetite; many have never experienced real hunger.]
Speaking of markets in far-away lands, if you live in a city in North America you may have a Chinatown. In which case there’s no need to travel to Timbuktu or Harar, Ethiopia to come across foods which for us may be unappetizing.
Here in Victoria’s Chinatown there’s a vast selection of traditional foods, often dried or in powder, as well as many (the so-called aphrodisiacs) which deplete our global rhino, bear or shark population, just to name a few. Of course many nations have been on protein-source diets which we may find unpalatable (such as dogs, considered a delicacy in some parts ofthe Far East.) Recently in the Mekong valley forests, another source of protein was discovered: a spider, the size of a dinner plate.
Going back to those long, cold winters, what were the food sources for Indigenous peoples? Of course there was meat preserved from the hunt, wild fowl, or smoked and dried fish from the oceans and rivers.
Any plant life that could be, was dried, or roots gathered or cultivated (like the primordial carrot which the English call “Queen Anne’s Lace”). There was great knowledge of berries, innocent and not-so-innocent plants, toxic and non-toxic, healing and medicinal ones, plus how to find much-treasured honey. There were smaller forms of Maize, and other earlier versions of what we know as corn, another staple of their diet.
Then of course we came along with our know-it-all attitude and began to ‘proselytize’ the Indigenous peoples, here and elsewhere, upsetting many a “corn” “apple” or whatever-cart, and in the process caused lots of cultural conflicts and irreparable damage.
Much of what we know today, we originally learned from the Indigenous peoples. But their practice of working the land was more what we’d call Horticulture, compared with our Agriculture. (Or Agribusiness.) Our agriculture exhausts the soil. Horticulture sustains it. That’s the big difference.
Tables are turning - - now at the rate we’re depleting our food supplies around the world, we are learning from Indigenous Elders about their vast knowledge of Nature.
So in the future instead of parents telling their children, “If you don’t eat your Brussel sprouts, you’ll get no plum pudding”, we may hear “If you don’t finish your steamed locusts, there’ll be no chocolate-dipped ants for you!”
Or our future gourmet meals may contain grubs, lizards, scorpions, beetles, locusts, worms and other protein-containing delicacies.
Bon appétit! Henri