I watch, amazed, as an Elder maneuvers her rounded moon-shaped blade back and forth, flawlessly, between the skin and fat layers of a freshly harvested seal during a skinning competition at Iqaluit's annual winter festival (Toonik Tyme). She is one of four competitors, kneeling on the ground, on a blue plastic tarp laid over a hardened layer of ice and snow during the tail end of another Arctic winter. She makes the whole process look so masterfully easy; lifting one piece of flesh at a time, while rocking her ulu smoothly and rapidly in sequence, to divide the meat that would then be shared and distributed freely among a huddled group of festival goers. The crowd cheers the competitors on…before gathering even closer, with plastic bags in hand, to collect their share of seal meat once the competition is done.
This was my first real experience observing, up close, the very important and deeply rooted traditional practices of Inuit culture; not only with respect to the artful execution of food preparation, but also for the intimate and obvious bond that is shared among members of this northern community.
Similarly to what I’ve been privileged to witness in office spaces (where I’ve been able to spend some time during my stay here in Iqaluit), it's not uncommon for people to gather and share the food that is brought to the table. From seal to narwhal meat, Arctic char and caribou, when "country food” is served, almost everyone gathers around.
Iqaluit's Toonik Tyme Festival - Seal Skinning Competition 2017
Millie holds up a piece of caribou meat from a stew bought in and shared at the office.
Unlike the dissociation that is often felt along the concrete streets and spaces of big cities, there's a profound and genuine sense of togetherness and family here…and not just the "immediate family" but the one that includes the community as a whole. This shouldn't be surprising given this community's long and fascinating history,and for nomadic passerby and stranger like me - incredibly heartwarming!
A HEARTFELT THANK YOU TO ALL MY NUNAVUMMIUT FRIENDS WITH WHOM I'VE SHARED MEALS AND STORIES...DESPITE MY DISTANT HOMELAND, YOU HAVE MADE ME FEEL VERY MUCH AT HOME...A PROFOUND AND HEARTFELT THANK YOU TO ALL!
AS SEEN AND EXPERIENCED - BY ME.
For those of you seeking a glimpse into the visitor's food and dining experiences in Iqaluit - here's some of what you can expect...
The Navigator Inn - one of Iqaluit's sit-down restaurants.
I'll begin by suggesting that culinary expectations ought to be adjusted according to the realities that come with being in the "North" (this is the Arctic region afterall). First, it's important to keep in mind that most of the food (other than "country food") is imported from the "South." Food isn't always fresh here given that it often ripens in boxes as it is being shipped up by planes and Sealift (namely, cargo ships that arrive here during the summer months, after the ice melts and allows for passage). Secondly, dining out and grocery shopping is definitely more expensive here than in the south, and with no guarantees that foodies (especially those with fancy palettes) will find everything they may want.
1. Grocery Shopping in Iqaluit
The largest grocery store in Iqaluit is rightfully called: Northmart. Like most grocery stores in other parts of Canada, you'll find just about everything you need there (again, except perhaps for those with more refined palates. That said, we did find lemongrass to satisfy my frequent Pho cravings). As mentioned above, however, prices do vary despite supposed federal subsidies (I paid $8 for 3 apples and noticed that a 1L bottle of Evian water was on sale for $16.79 - on special that day because of a 2 for 1 special...still! Though sometimes filtered with a Brita, I was happy drinking plain ol'tap water).
Marketplace, also known as Ventures or the Arctic Co-op, is located about 0.5 km east of Northmart. It's another well-stocked grocery store - though often well stocked with a finer selection of foods, electronics, books, furniture, and clothing (Northmart carries much of those items too).
Nestled in a building closer to the old YFB airport (aka: the "yellow submarine"that no longer serves as Iqaluit's main airport), is by far my personal favourite: Baffin Canners - the smallest of them all, the coolest (I think) and the most homely. Although providing a much simpler selection of goods to the walk-in consumer (I'm told Canners caters primarily to restaurants), it supplies enough for someone like to be happy (I've developed a particular addiction to the two-ingredient egg/banana pancake...which, if I may, speaks to my not so elaborate palette). Food basics (like milk, eggs, juices, chips and, let's not forget - chocolate) are also available at Iqaluit corner stores.
2. Sit-down Restaurants: There are 4.5
There are fewer than half a dozen sit-down food places to chose from in Iqaluit... there's the "Nav" (a run down restaurant with caving walls and a collapsing floor in one of the city's oldest Inns) that serves fried, and re-fried Chinese food. It's a popular go-to place for lunch, I ate there - once. Then there's the "Disco"- a fine dining restaurant in the Discovery Lodge Hotel which serves a variety of dishes (including my favourite - grazed arctic char..on a good day), and the "Frob" - a charming restaurant at the Frobisher Hotel - a great place to hang and our usual venue for birthday and other celebrations (mainly because of its close proximity the restaurant's neighbouring bar venue - well-known for its trivia nights, and Wings Night on Wednesdays). Although I've become acquainted with the city's Legion (or the "sleeeeeg"as it often called) through my occasional need for beer, cocktails, laughter and dance-offs, the community hall also serve food (mainly sandwiches and"bar food"). Broken up into sections varying in degrees of volume and dance-off accommodation, though not for everyone (wink wink to a certain friend of mine here;), it's not a bad place to unload a little and have a bit of fun. The "Nova" (at the Arctic Hotel) was an option, but will soon exist no more due to a change of ownership which will get rid of the hotel and restaurant all together.
The dining experience in restaurants here is...shall we say...unique..ahem. While I've heard several people (locals and visitors alike) complain about their "hit-and-miss" culinary experiences in Iqaluit's restaurants, except for the hefty prices (yes, I'm always on a tight budget), I have yet to be utterly disappointed (perhaps due to my easy going palette). There are fewer than half a dozen sit-down food places to chose from in Iqaluit. Here are the ones I've visited...
The "Disco" (located in the Discovery Lodge Hotel) is generally considered to be one of the few fine-dining restaurants in the capital. The restaurant provides a pleasant dining atmosphere amplified (in my opinion) by Maude; the ever pleasant waitress who travels back and forth from Montreal. It's menu varies (just like most menus up here) - from salads, burgers and steaks, to (my favourite) Arctic Char. VERDICT: A great place to eat out ang hang - when you're not on a budget.
Then, there's the "Nav" (a run down restaurant with caving walls and a collapsing floor in one of the city's oldest Inns - see picture above) that serves fried, and re-fried Chinese food. It's a popular go-to place for lunch, I ate there - once.