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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

The white chicken of the North

BY Sonny Orr Feb 26, 2024

The men all gathered in the evenings. The smoke from pipes lit after a fine supper filled the tiny room. No one had much to say. The black hard tobacco was satisfying to the palate after a lengthy meal of beow bangeek, or ptarmigan pancakes. The night before, smashed stomach and heart soup with smoked ptarmigan breasts dipped in bear grease came a close second for that belly ache, after a long day outdoors tending to the ptarmigan nets that scattered the willows surrounding Great Whale River. 

The evening debate was quickly settled as the number one recipe for cooking the willow ptarmigan was voted on. This scene was typical 100 years ago and was repeated every winter for as long as there was tobacco to smoke and ptarmigan to harvest.

Jump to the 21st century, the ptarmigans have returned in numbers that can only be described as astronomical in scope. They have flocked to the skies in such numbers that the tactics for the hunter have been reduced to drive-by hunting outside of town, while in-town hunting is by slingshot, which is less dangerous than firing a shotgun in your backyard every few minutes. Yes, the use of the childhood weapon of choice is back, the venerable stone propelled by the natural rubber of an inner tube. Remember those things, they were inside a tire before the tubeless ones were invented. This was the choice of many a marksman (marksperson) when it came to urban hunting.

Today, the social lament is how to capture those flying lumps of protein without using anything made of steel, lead or depleted uranium for the pellets used in shotgun shells. As our ancestors used to argue about, why waste good lead on a bird that is so easy to catch. 

Back in the day, the nets crisscrossed the willow patches that grew abundantly in the lands surrounding the tiny villages. The bird provided daily sustenance for our cooking pots and would be harvested right after being caught so that its succulent meat was still warm and its feathers easier to pluck. On average, it took about 30 seconds to clean a bird and about the same amount of time to gut and cut it up according to the way the men had decided the day before over a few pipes and teas.

The ladies who worked as cooks for everyone had a special long thumbnail that they sharpened daily so that they could butcher the small birds with ease. A bird could be processed in about a minute, from just harvested to ready for the cooking pot. 

Today, it takes about 10 minutes per bird, and a few more to stuff them into a plastic storage bag ready for the freezer for future eating. 

Families are now returning to the ways of our ancestors and contemplating bringing back land nets to capture the birds – as it was in the past has become today’s mantra. Who can get me shotgun shells that are light enough not to rip apart the delicate flesh and with enough pellets to knock down a few at a time to save on buying more shells?

The slingshot is starring in social media and making a great comeback. The need to gather stones for projectiles is becoming a summer event. Picking and storing enough smooth stones to make up for a 10% average hit-to-miss ratio, so 10 stones equal one dead ptarmigan. Unless you are well schooled in the silent way of hunting, which just so happens to be fun and very affordable, and with the added bonus of hunting in your backyard. The methods have shifted from hunting on mass and netting thousands daily to drive-by hunting to backyard hunting.

All we need now is a 1000-page cookbook with all the recipes our ancestors would argue about and settle on the best ones, the ones that will make it onto video and finally onto our supper plates. As it was in the past, the days were filled with the same thing to eat every day, cooked in different ways, and varied enough so that our palates would never tire of the white chicken of the North – the ptarmigan.

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Sonny Orr is Cree from Chisasibi, and has been a columnist for the Nation for over 20 years. He regularly pens Rez Notes from the cozy social club in Whapmagoostui where he resides.