I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I am a vegetarian (well sort of—I eat fish). And I am also a cook. This is a very strange combination, I have found—as it turns out, it is not widely accepted for someone to be both. There are vegetarian cooks out there, but I think they mostly cook in vegetarian restaurants.
I have spent a great deal of time trying to analyze my choice not to eat meat and because I cook, I often have to explain it to people. What it comes down to for me is animal welfare—I have a problem with factory-farmed meat, with the conditions the animals are raised in, and with the disrespectful manner in which they are killed. A family or couple of friends, however, a family or couple of friends going out and killing one animal that lived well, and then actually going through the process of butchering it themselves, and then sharing it, is a whole other thing to me. Personally, I won't eat something that I couldn't kill myself. While I have respect for those who get their own meat, I am pretty sure that I would not be able to— – so I don't eat it. ( I can kill a fish, so I eat fish.)
And so here is the contradiction that I can't really resolve: I love cooking, because I love the happiness that good food brings to people and I love making food that people want to eat. I love the dialogue that is generated by people who have just had a good meal, and I love how food connects us all.
With that in mind, the contradiction I'm referencing is that, while I don't personally want to eat meat, I still want to make food that people will like, and realistically, this is meat. People want meat, they crave it, are excited by it and they expect it. So I am a vegetarian that cooks meat. For money. I am certainly no trailblazer—I might even be a sell-out, a hypocrite, a spineless something, I don't know. These are the things I think about all the time, wondering if I am doing right by myself, by the world, by my definition of right and wrong.
What is making me think about all these things in particular, and particularly now, is that it is hunting season—certainly a very northern ritual that I have observed with intrigue since I moved here from "down south". My first fall in Dawson, I remember being dismayed as I walked down Third Avenue, where someone had left their truck parked with buckets of moose parts covered with tarps in the back... and the ravens had found a way in. I remember looking up as those birds flew around the Pit with entrails dripping from their beaks thinking, "Oh my god! This is a scene from a horror movie. ...But it's also so funny ... This is why I live here!!!"
During a time when virtually everything we eat is laced with corn and chemicals, and packaged or processed to look nothing like what it is, it is pretty unique that, at this time of year, many people in the Yukon are going out to get their own food, forming a connection to what they are eating that most Canadians will probably never have.
Another unique aspect of this season is the sharing and intensified sense of community that surrounds eating and meals. After all the tourists and seasonal workers have left, suddenly everyone knows you again and you won't have to answer the question, "What are the winters like?" for a very long time. A certain closeness is formed with the ones who remain. You see it as people head out together to get their moose, or as they come back weary-but- content from the river with a truckload of fish. There is sharing, passing food around, and potluck meals. At this time of year, it seems that all anyone wants to do is cook together, and it's amazing.
Still an observer of the season, I was recently drawn in with a heartwarming gesture: a local chum fisher/favorite bar patron/friend brought me a whole chum salmon to say thank-you for an appreciated meal. I didn't have time to cook it fresh, but it's my weekend now and so I will be making something delicious to honour this lovely exchange. And certainly I will be making enough to share.
So for me, cooking meat is a contradiction... but isn't so much in life? In the end, all we can really do is what feels right to us, and for me that is to cook for people and not to push my own hang-ups onto them (and I expect the same). I wish I could afford to use only ethically-farmed meat when I cook, and hopefully someday I will be able to. And basically it's my greatest wish that there be no gigantic slaughterhouses at all, and that people only killed as many animals as they needed and shared what they couldn't finish. It will probably never be, but in the Yukon it could come close.
Fresh and Fast Fish Stew
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 onion, minced
3 – 4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and grated
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander seed
1 tsp. paprika
1 large can whole tomatoes, chopped + juices
1 lb. fresh (or thawed) fish, skinned, de-boned and cut into chunks
2 jalapeño peppers, seeds removed, cut into small dice
2 tbsp. fish sauce
Fresh cilantro, chopped
Heat the oil in a large, deep pan; add the onions, cooking until translucent
Add the garlic and spices and cook until fragrant, then add the tomatoes and their juices, the fish, the peppers, and the fish sauce
Add enough water to make a soupy sauce and cook until the fish is cooked through
Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve with fresh lemon slices and your favorite cooked grain.
Allie Haydock is a graduate of culinary skills at George Brown College in Toronto. She lives and cooks in Dawson City.