Over the past few years of international travel, I have picked up some pretty valuable foodie lessons that I can honestly say, saved me from certain intestinal discomfort.
Tips like; shying away from street food, eating fruits and veggies raw that have not had the skin cut by locals, stay away from pork, and always remembering that everything in the emerging world is free range, including the people. While working in the arctic, this list of do’s and don’ts expanded to include, “how my food is cooked.”
I had taken a short gig teaching some helicopter survival courses to a group of Canadian scientist way up in the Canadian Arctic. And I mean, way up. The village population is around 7500 folks, majority being the native Inuit. The Inuit culture is truly an amazing existence of a resilient people that are living in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Difference in summer and winter temps can swing from highs in the 70 degree (F) range to lows down to minus 50. Winter months mostly dark or with little light and summer months that boast up to 23 hours of daylight.
Upon landing at the airport in early July, I was greeted by a local driving a big pickup truck that he evidently drove to not only collect me, but also pick up some farm animals and supplies from the southern mainland that flew in on the plane with me. After we collected our belongings, we were off for a short village tour and drop off at the hotel.
The hotel was clean, but very much reminded me of being in a mobile home with its thin walls, narrow hallways, simple furnishings and construction materials. The trailer feeling was greatly intensified by the building being anchored to the Earth on stilts and rocking slightly when walking. The permafrost prevents the building of a foundation as we are so use to in the lower sections of the northern hemisphere.
After the first night, or night of daylight as it was, I was awakened around 3 am to the sound of whimpering animals under my room. It took me by surprise and the first thing I imagined was walking out to check and find a mom plus cubs of a polar bear family rooting around. I was warned of a bear that was walking through the hotel grounds as a short cut to the landfill, which is above ground of course. That would put a quick end to my trip, being eaten by a bear on the first night, so I stayed in bed. To my relief, the culprits ended up being a litter of husky strays. Stray dogs were everywhere in the village, a problem that has since been addressed by the local government. So, between the dogs, threat of bears, and blinding daylight peeking into my room through every crack in the curtains, I got little to no sleep.
The next morning, I made my way down the long, dark hallways to find the restaurant on property. After sitting and ordering an espresso, my French Canadian waiter gave me a rundown of the menu. Seemed no different than any other location in North America I have been except of one item, eggs benedict char. (Full disclosure, I imagined bellying up to a plate of raw whale meat or maybe some baby seal that had been bludgeoned to death, and was pretty excited for the prospect of trying native foods that were such taboo in the south.) As the coffee and food arrived, a perfectly poached egg, toasted English muffin, and a big slab of smoked Arctic char, a cold water fish in the salmon family. My goodness, it was glorious. I ordered it every morning for the following week. On Friday afternoon, the class was done and I had an early afternoon flight so I ran down and asked the restaurant if they would prepare me one last order of what became my favorite meal of the day. I was crushed to find out that they were in fact, out of smoked arctic char. Out? How does this happen? I even, for just a moment, imagined myself moving the family there to become the village char smoker. It was that good. Next morning, I headed off to the airport with my trusty local driver. While we were on the way, I expressed my disappointment that the hotel ran out of arctic char topped eggs benedict and what we could have done to remedy this situation. First world problems. My driver, Ted, informed me that the only guy who smoked char for sale had died unexpectedly just a week earlier and that the village was really saddened by his loss. For some reason, I had this immediate thought that hit me like a hammer in the head. We were in the arctic, nearest tree was maybe 1000 miles away, how did he smoke fish? His response was akin to the crux of a horror film. “He burns the pallets that come in from sea shipments.” It was like being being punched in the gut. A small amount of internet searching can share a wealth of information on sea faring pallets that use methyl bromide for preservation. None of it is good. Methyl bromide is a powerful chemical fumigant that is very effective in killing pests. Unfortunately, it has been proven to adversely affect the ozone layer. It is also highly toxic to humans and is corrosive to both skin and eyes. Yummy.
I would have never thought, but here it was. I had just learned a very valuable lesson. Sometimes, its not just what you eat but also, how it was prepared. As a send off, before heading home, we spent an evening fishing for char and I was able to get to eat fresh char, straight from the water, that I caught and prepared. If you ever have an opportunity to travel to Nunavut, I highly recommend it. What a beautiful place with warm, wonderful people. You may just want to steer clear of smoked foods.