By GRAHAM HICKS
It was the simplest of ideas, taking much work.
Mackenzie Brown — a young Cree artist/musician/activist who describes herself as having a “moccasin in both worlds,” was chatting with food entrepreneur Brad Lazarenko in his Culina To Go within the lovely, fully re-invented Oliver Exchange retail/hospitality centre.
Why not, she suggested, an evening of First Nations food, culture and stories here in Edmonton, introducing the wider community to a rich culture that has always been here, but usually presented within a political context rather than pure cultural enjoyment.
Lazarenko, being Metis himself, thought this a splendid idea.
Planning for Pe Mitso — Cree for “let’s eat” — began in earnest. Two other indigenous chefs happily joined in, the renowned Shane Chartrand of the River Cree Resort’s SC Restaurant, and a newcomer to the Edmonton culinary scene, Scott Iserhoff of Pei Pei Chei Ow Catering.
Each — Chartrand, Lazarenko, Iserhoff — presented dishes combining urban contemporary influence with traditional indigenous offerings.
The Feb. 9 evening was enjoyable on many levels. The venue — the attractive Foundry banquet room on the second floor of the Oliver Exchange — was new to most of the 100-plus guests, who purchased tickets online.
The sharing of indigenous culture was informal and comfortable. By happenstance, most of the tables of eight were shared between those with indigenous heritage and those without. The ambience was such that light-hearted “cross-cultural” conversation was the norm.
Warrior Women — Mackenzie and her mother Matricia Brown — sang and drummed. Cree-Metis Elder Elsie Paul told funny stories of cultural misunderstandings, particularly the mangling of Cree language by well-meaning non-Crees.
Food was still the main attraction — given the fine reputations of both Chartrand and Lazarenko. Iserhoff’s wild, smoked mushroom broth was full of depth and showed the dexterity of sage, much used in indigenous cuisine. Alas, the soup was lukewarm, but delicious all the same.
Lazarenko’s Three Sisters salad — a mix of corn, squash and beans as fresh and as interesting as all Culina foods are — had a difficult-to-describe taste that turned out to be a sprinkling of nutritional yeast: For the first time, I could discern the mysterious umami. “Try it on popcorn,” suggests Brad.
Chartrand also used crisped-up sage to great advantage, sprinkling it on top of an Asian-like medley of chopped, ash-coated Arctic char, garlic, mushrooms and other northern-climate veggies atop a bountiful squash puree.
Iserhoff’s blueberry cheesecake was disappointing. To be true to his mother’s recipe, he used Cool Whip and store-bought Graham Crackers. Cool Whip might be “authentic” as in mom’s cooking, but it’s thick and gluey and is no substitute for real cream. With a few fusion quality upgrades, this dessert would have been more worthy of such an occasion.
The Sunday evening gathering was delightful, exploring and learning about a deep, enduring culture through the eyes, the ears, the taste buds and the heart. Pe Mitso 2020 is the first of what the organizers promise will be an annual affair.
“Wichewin!” says Mackenzie on her website. “Come with me! Let me take you on a journey, dancing in the in between, celebrating culture, the heartbeat of mother earth and the stories of the land.”
Lazarenko’s latest Culina adventure, Culina on the Lake in the Hawrelak Park skate-shack, is now open Fridays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can support the venture through its Indiegogo Culina fund-raising campaign.
Congrats to Chartrand’s second-in-command at River Cree’s SC Restaurant. Chef JP Dublado first won Edmonton’s Great Kitchen Party cook-off, then he won the People’s Choice awards at the subsequent Canadian Culinary Championships in Ottawa.
As we write, NAIT’s culinary team is competing in the international Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany. The California Pizza Company has announced it’s coming to Edmonton. Just what we need, more pizza! The Woodrack coffee shop has left 109 Street to re-locate in what was the side lounge of Packrat Louie/Lyon in Old Strathcona. The Godfather of Edmonton’s craft brewers, Alley Kat, has been sold, fortunately to local ownership. Hathaway’s Diner, the city’s most honest roadside-style diner, is up for sale