I am spending a lot of time meditating in my kitchen. I just wrapped up a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and a generous helping of home fries. While cooking, I cleaned the pans, soaked some dishes and kept wiping down the counter.
This choreographed dancing in the kitchen was something I learned years ago from my mom, Susan, in a fast-food restaurant that my parents ran in Attawapiskat. My mom was the driving force behind this venture due to her years of experience in a hospital kitchen, then later in catering and baking. Although we didn’t make much money, my brothers, sisters and I came away with a lot of experience and more confidence in our ability to prepare food.
Mom’s main teaching for the kitchen implied that if you weren’t cooking, you were cleaning. If you weren’t cleaning, you were cooking. And if you weren’t doing any of those things, then it was time to leave the kitchen.
To my mom, who was born and raised in the wilderness, this lesson applied to every kitchen, whether it was a fast-food restaurant, a commercial food service, a home kitchen, food prep area in a teepee or a makeshift camp in the woods. She taught us by example and whenever we ventured near the kitchen, we were expected to work.
I can remember one of my first tasks she taught me was washing dishes. We didn’t have running water back then in the 1980s, so the work took a long time. I had to heat water over the stove to pour into large bowls to wash the dishes. I then had to drain the grey water into buckets to be taken outside and dumped into a ditch that ran through town.
We had a big family of nine children, two parents and, at one point, my grandfather James. When I was very young, half of our food came from the wild meat dad gathered from the land – geese, moose, caribou, rabbit, beaver and fish. I watched mom prepare many of the dishes and learned the basics of how to make fried fish, moose fry with onions and caribou stew.
Every year during the spring goose hunt, we would all watch as mom prepared Canada goose in a variety of ways. She showed us how to barbecue, skewer, roast over a fire, stew with dumplings, roast in an oven and smoke dozens of these large birds in long stringy strands that looked like jerky. I remember spending days in the family teepee with mom as I helped her clean and cook gizzards and hearts over the fire. These were tasty favourites of mine.
As a young man I began to experiment in preparing other foods, like tomato-based sauces, pastas, then stews and soups. For special feasts mom taught us how to prepare turkey, chicken, ham, beef roasts and all the fixings that go with these meals. At the fast-food restaurant, we learned how to make restaurant-style hamburgers, hot sandwiches, clubhouses and everything to do with fries and poutines. This is also where I learned to make a full bacon-and-egg breakfast as efficiently as possible.
When I came to live in the non-Native world, I learned from friends like Emily McGrath to make Irish stew, casseroles and chili. She also passed on her recipes for Christmas cake and a Miracle Whip chocolate cake. I also learned authentic Italian cooking from my friend Alana Pierini, who showed that simple was best and to always start with the freshest and tastiest ingredients I could find.
Back in Attawapiskat, my siblings continue my mom’s teachings, and they are all comfortable working in a kitchen. My sister Janie Wesley started a catering business to bake, cook and prepare foods for others. She also created the successful April’s Coffee Shop, named after her daughter. Her other daughter Marissa studied culinary arts and is a fantastic chef in her own right.
Thanks to my mom and dad I have some important skills to deal with this pandemic through time in my kitchen. At the end of the day, it is all about staying productive, being positive and providing nourishment and comfort to those you love. Stay safe and happy cooking.