In my position as chef-in-residence at Hayes Farm, located in Fredericton’s northside, I am given the pleasure of feeding the hard-working staff and students. Every week I’m challenged with developing dishes using primarily what is available and accessible from local resources, gleaned from the wild and the cultivated landscapes of Wabanaki Territory.
As I prepare food, I aim to nourish our workers. The intention behind my work is also to foster a greater understanding of where our foods come from, and how we can reconnect with them.
From April until now, we have used foraged, cultivated, preserved, and shopped ingredients. In doing so, we have followed two principles: All meals must be made with as many local foods as possible, and all ingredients that come from further afield are to be purchased from locally owned and operated grocers.
Often the question of availability comes up when preparing dishes in the early season. The snow is not long melted. Spring planting is underway.
At first glance, from our current perspective, the landscape in the early season is fairly sparse, though this is quite contrary to the ecological reality of our part of Wabanaki Territory. When taking a closer look, we may find that the land is more than capable of producing volumes of food when we least expect it.
Perhaps it is not the land itself. Rather, it is the way we perceive availability.
Presently, with our heavy reliance on imported foods, much focus tends to revolve around the grocery store. Most meals we prepare come from an evening of shopping, piecing together a plan to feed ourselves for the coming week. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner fill our carts, and we tend to eat the same meals every season. Often this comes with a sense of guilt as we become painstakingly aware of the wastage and unethical processes our foods go through to reach our carts.
There is an immediacy to the grocery store, so naturally, it has retained its place as our primary food resource. As a result, it may have pushed us away from utilizing other viable options.
So, in the name of broadening our perspectives, I would like to propose a new annual ritual: the Midsummer Food System Review. The idea is to look back at the previous months, right back to midwinter. To remember the meals we ate, and the ingredients that made them: the market or grocery store visits, and whether the items purchased came from local or non-local sources. Such reflection might reveal new ways to utilize our local food systems which can be advantageous to all of us.
I would like to take this chance to share some dishes that emerged from this kind of attention to our food system here in Wabanaki Territory.
In early April on Hayes Farm, we served carrots that had been harvested in November 2021. We also used shallots, potatoes, as well as garlic, and these foods only scratch the surface of what can be stored if the time is invested when food is fresh.
As spring progressed and flowers began to bloom, we quickly made blossom vinegars. These take little effort to make. We continuously used them in our vinaigrettes for the salads we made this summer.
Dandelions have a diverse range of uses. All parts of the plant are edible, though they are often only recognized as weeds. We used dandelions in whatever way we could, making syrups, teas, as well as pickling the younger buds as capers.
As it grows so consistently when properly picked and pruned, rhubarb graced many of our early season dishes. With this and other ingredients growing in prodigious quantities, it was necessary to find multiple ways to prepare it, sometimes turning to techniques that are not commonly considered.
Baking, frying, roasting, stewing, pickling, drying, dehydrating—all these methods were used to prepare single ingredients, to ensure that their full range of potential uses could be realized.
None of the dishes presented here are a product of my own understanding of food alone. Rather, they are an amalgamation of multiple individuals coming together to share knowledge to create something together.
We foraged nettle. We harvested fresh ingredients. Then, with some other ingredients stored in a colleague’s root cellar, we made a creamy nettle stew, complete with potatoes, fresh rhubarb and chard mignonette, toasted chilli oil, and crispy shallot.
It should also be pointed out that none of the foregoing is really new information. The food preparation knowledge on which these recipes draw has existed as long as there were hungry mouths to feed. It is simply an exercise in showing how our food systems can be celebrated in a nourishing plate of food.
By taking a second look at familiar landscapes, we can learn how food is appropriately picked, processed, and preserved, drawing on a body of knowledge which is essentially communal. The beauty of that knowledge is that it has existed far longer than the industries we currently allow to control our food systems.
So, by understanding food systems, we could greatly improve our relationships with food and potentially bring it back, closer to home.
As our primary sources of fresh food become increasingly inaccessible for those of us on lower and fixed incomes, we may need to weigh some other options for the future. Part of that could mean building stronger communities through our food systems. It could also mean taking a few steps to deepen the impact of our actions on the system itself.
So, how do we elevate our experience of our food systems?
With summer well underway, our gardens are lush from the hard work we put in this spring. U-picks are in full swing, and we look forward to the fresh veggies, and to making the medleys and preserves with what remains, as we did last year.
For us gardeners and backyard farmers, this is the season we look forward to: Harvest season.
Starting a garden is a definite step in the right direction. It provides an immediate view of where your food is coming from, cultivating a stronger relationship with the food on our plate.
While it is a very rewarding experience, our current notions of the harvest season are usually restricted to a particular point in the annual calendar, leaving us with a fragmented view of the food system.
The Midsummer Review is about keeping things practical, about seeking a broader understanding of what grows when, rather than believing that the entirety of our food grows in a particular time and place, ready for harvest and immediate consumption. Why not familiarize ourselves with new things to eat, with new ways to extend their uses in the kitchen or beyond the present to other seasons?
Often, when we as gardeners harvest at home, we tend to do so with the intention of eating the produce immediately, perhaps sharing some surplus with friends. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with this approach, but as we seek to rely more on what we grow as gardeners, knowledge of proper storage techniques is a natural part of that progression. The use of root cellars or at the very least creating relationships with those who can offer the space can address some of the common misconceptions of access to food in the winter months.
I am not suggesting that you dwell on the tomatoes you bought this winter, or the fact that they were imported. But if we look beyond the grocery store and try to understand how our reliance on some parts of the food system can affect others, this could offer ways to improve our current situation, including our health and that of the lands on which we live.
There is so much to learn about the bounty that grows in all parts of our landscape, stretching from the garden, to the ditch, to the forest. In this light, the harvest season encompasses the entirety of the year, regardless of the weather. At the very least, the Midsummer Review and its practical dimension could get you outside and maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about the place where you live, and all the bounty it holds for those who take a second look.
Dallas Tomah is an undergraduate student at UNB. He is currently working out of the Human Environments Workshop funded by RAVEN. His focus is on the issues of food sovereignty and security. He also writes on social justice and rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada.