Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways
Types of Cooking
In the past, both men and women participated in cooking, although sometimes the type of item to be cooked affected who did the processing and cooking. McClellan describes the different types of cooking and food processing:
Throughout the area, fish and meat were cut and, if not eaten fresh, dried, fermented, or frozen; berries were preserved in grease, or dried, but sometimes frozen; roots were stored where they would keep cool or frozen. Cooking was done by grilling, roasting, stone boiling, paunch [animal belly] boiling, and—in more modern times—stove boiling [McClellan 1975:207].
To practise stone boiling, which was necessary when containers could not be placed directly over a fire, people would place water and food in a container, such as a spruce-root or birchbark basket, and then add hot stones, which caused the water to boil and the food to cook (Crow and Obley 1981:506; McClellan 1975:209). McClellan writes, “Boiling was the preferred method of cooking in the old days, because people drank the soup, which was especially desirable before the days of tea. Many people still like boiled meat the best” (McClellan 1975:210).
Drying was a popular preservation technique, as was mixing grease into the food to seal it from the air so that it could be stored in the food caches throughout the winter (McClellan 1987). The late Mrs. Myra Kaye, a Gwich’in Elder, remembers how grease was used to preserve food: “After bringing the roots home, they were peeled, cut into small pieces, and pounded. This was put into fish oil and they made something like pemmican with it” (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009:102). In the summer and fall, meat and fish were dried on pole frameworks (McClellan 1975); the practice of drying meat and fish still occurs throughout Yukon. It was essential to store as much food as possible so that families could make it through the long winter months.
While baskets and bags were used to gather and cook food, individuals throughout Yukon also made wooden plates prior to the arrival of newcomers. McClellan describes how people in the southern Yukon “used hollowed-out wooden bowls as common food dishes; from these they transferred their individual portions to piles of clean brush—‘grandma’s dishes’—which could be thrown away. As a Tagish woman pointed out, if each person had a separate wooden dish it would be ‘too much to carry’” (McClellan 1975:279). Myra Kaye remembers that her Gwich’in relatives “got [birch]bark to make plates or bowls” (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009:102). Cooking spoons and ladles were also often made of wood, though both Tlingit and Tagish families used sheep-horn soup ladles, some of which were used for special occasions and were highly decorated (McClellan 1975:281).