Local food gatherings bring a sense of community into the kitchen

Arlene Jung-Meekis travelled from Sioux Lookout to offer a workshop on pressure canning during the two days of events held at the beginning of March, long before physical distancing measures were enacted.

MANITOULIN – This year’s local food gatherings, hosted by Local Food Manitoulin and the Noojmowin Teg Health Centre Child Poverty Task Force, drew an impressive number of food lovers and people looking to learn new kitchen skills and recipes alike from some of Manitoulin Island’s most prominent food producers at events on March 3 and 4.

“This is our third year of running these events. Last year we did cook some food, but the main focus was presentation; the cooking demo style was very popular last year so we wanted to focus on that this year. We have so much access to local experts doing different things,” said Kristin Bickell, project manager of Local Food Manitoulin.

Local food gatherings are events at which people can socialize, learn about the traditional foods in the area, meet Island producers of edible goods and connect with food in personal ways. There are often cooking demonstrations with take-home recipes to share. More than 150 people took part in this year’s two days of events.

“These are mostly about getting together, networking, visiting and eating. There’s so many people making connections, learning new techniques and connecting with each other,” said Ms. Bickell. 

This year’s event spanned two days, an evening affair in Whitefish River First Nation on March 3 and another central gathering the following morning in Mindemoya.

“We’re really excited to welcome Joe Pitawanakwat from last night and Hiawatha Osawamick, and especially Arlene (Jung-Meekis) from Sioux Lookout; she drove 21 hours to be here,” said Ms. Bickell.

Mr. Pitawanakwat’s specialty is traditional teas and medicines using plants native to Northern Ontario, Ms. Osawamick runs the booming Hiawatha’s Catering business that is set to open a restaurant location in Sudbury and Ms. Jung-Meekis led a workshop on pressure canning.

There was a wide variety of offerings at the two events. Noojmowin Teg child nutrition co-ordinator Cody Leeson prepared venison rillettes, Connor Davis and Shane O’Donnell prepared a hearty mushroom soup on Wednesday morning, Danielle Bourgault offered samples and information about her elderberry syrup, Valerie Beaudin prepared mocktails and cedar tea, Ms. Osawamick prepared a wild rice dish and Erica Hare whipped up whitefish pie.

On the Tuesday evening, Gail Jacko led apple cider pressing and on Wednesday morning Maja Mielonen whipped up butternut squash flan, with samples for all.

Throughout the event there was also an interactive corner for all ages but designed with young ones in mind where they could make herb potions and ‘smelly art,’ while in the process learning all about fragrant flora and its uses in the kitchen.

“Our vision was to move more to hands-on, interactive demos, promoting local experts and our new website (LocalFoodManitoulin.com),” said Courtney Kurek, Indigenous foods co-ordinator at Noojmowin Teg and a co-organizer of the event.

As part of a new push this year to draw more people of all ages, Ms. Kurek reached out to her sister Rebecka Abotossaway, who works as an aboriginal support worker alongside Thomas Trudeau at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS).

“We’ve got different students from all grades and classes and they’re all here through the Three Fires classroom,” said Ms. Abotossaway, who was helping to supervise a group of 14 MSS students at the event. “We’re hoping they can get some cultural teachings about food.”

These events have also served as a way of connecting new people to the area with each other. Ms. Kurek said she was talking with a few people who had just moved to Manitoulin and were using these events as ways to meet other Islanders. It’s especially useful in the off-season when there are no farmers’ markets and fewer outdoor gatherings, so these indoor events can serve an important social role as well.