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Rooted to the past

Indigenous food ways are a key part of the culture in Eel Ground First Nation

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Chef Rich Francis cleans a massive salmon in preparation for a fundraising dinner supporting the Natoaganeg Food Centre. Photo: Michael Stemm

Recipes Featured In This Article

Strawberry Sauce

Any fresh berries will work in this sauce for the Medicine Wheel Cured Salmon. Use organic...

Salmon Crackling

Use this crunchy Salmon Crackling to top Chef Rich Francis' Medicine Wheel Cured Salmon...

Salmon Fish Cakes

These fish cakes are simple but naturally delicious. Yields approximately 24 fish cakes....

Chef Rich Francis cleans the largest salmon he’s ever handled, a 40-plus-pound female laid out on a grey plastic folding table on a lawn in Eel Ground First Nation, near Miramichi, N.B. He dispenses with the scales in a silvery flurry before gutting and filleting it.

Chef Francis, a national culinary celebrity after making it to the final of the fourth season of Top Chef Canada, is a leader in Canada’s indigenous food movement. He was in town for a fundraising dinner supporting the Natoaganeg Food Centre in June. The Centre gives cultural and social sustenance to the Mi’kmaw community of just over 200 people, in addition to hearty meals.

“We’re not just about food, we’re evolving into something so much more,” says Erica Ward, a coordinator at the centre. “It’s an amazing project to be part of.”

Housed in a split-level house, the Centre hosts a range of programs: a food bank, meals-on-wheels for elders, a farmers’ market, community suppers, and a youth champions program to develop young leaders. There are community gardens and workshops on subjects such as growing herbs.

“It’s a place for taking care of each other,” says Terri-Anne Larry, a member of the Centre’s advisory committee. Her partner, Ernie Ward, a community hunter and fisherman, procures much of the Centre’s meat and fish.

“Why can’t it be like it was in the time of our grandparents?” she says “They shared everything.”

The Centre provides a welcoming space where people come together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food.

Francis most values food’s ability to bring people together. His life’s work has become what he calls “cooking for truth and reconciliation.”

“Food is one of the most powerful tools we can use to do that,” says Francis, whose father is a residential school survivor. “It was never lost, it was just forgotten. Indigenous food has that amazing ability to reconnect us back to ourselves, our source and our creator. It’s through our food DNA and our food pathways that something becomes ignited.”

He focuses his cooking on the pre-contact era, but, he was trained in kitchens in New York and Toronto, and is also interested in the technical and artistic elements of contemporary cooking.

Chef Francis brandishes a silvery length of salmon skin as long as his arm, that he’ll use to make crackling. He stuffs a big sturgeon with sweet grass and sage, which aren’t just food, but medicine to his people. He says he is excited to share new flavours with the 160 guests attending the sold-out dinner of local wild food.

“There’s no reference point for indigenous cuisine,” Francis says. “Even for our own people.”

The biggest challenge, he says, is the “colonized palate.”

The day before the dinner, he foraged on the side of the highway, picking garnishes such as sheep sorrel and daisy petals.

“The indigenous pantry is out there,” he says, gesturing towards the forest, where Eel Ground locals procure the wild food that is the basis of the Centre’s offerings, including moose, partridge, wild fish, fiddleheads, berries, and more.

The team at Natoaganeg strikes a balance between indigenous and mainstream with dishes such as moose-meat chilli at their weekly community suppers. At first, some locals were reticent to try the unfamiliar wild foods. Now they ask for it.

Judging from the turnout at the event, and the gusto with which diners approached the four courses, there is an appetite for indigenous food beyond Eel Ground. There were many non-indigenous guests, including dignitaries from all three levels of government.

Randy Patles, a staff member at the centre, thought the dinner made many connections. “The fish we ate is from out there,” he says, pointing to the Miramichi, one of the world’s great salmon rivers. “And it’s pretty cool being able to share with everyone, not just Eel Ground.”

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