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The 1960s in the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada, was a decade of profound social and political transformation. A relatively remote geographical region, with an unforgiving winter climate, the Canadian North had long avoided the kinds of widespread settlement seen in the provincial South. However, the Yellowknife gold rush in the 1930s, followed by increased military and government presence in the Arctic during World War II, brought a growing number of southern Canadians, as well as recent immigrants, to the territory. The 1930s to 1960s also saw the centralization of northern Indigenous peoples in the NWT through deliberate housing and social welfare programs developed by the new and powerful federal agency for northern development, the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources.[1] Government interest in the North was spurred on by further opportunities for oil and gas extraction, mining as well as persistent Arctic sovereignty interests.

In this article, I explore three cookbooks from the 1960s NWT. Favorite Recipes and The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook are both community cookbooks, while the third, Northern Cookbook, was published by the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources.[2] Community cookbooks in the territory were rare in the mid-20th century. In fact, in Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825–1949,[3] Elizabeth Driver was only able to recover two NWT community cookbooks, both of which were from 1940s Yellowknife (and, incidentally, both were put out by the Daughters of the Midnight Sun). Although a separate analysis of the evolution of The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook across its many different editions[4] (1941, 1947, 1958, 1960, 1968, 1970) would make an interesting paper in its own right, this article will focus on three NWT cookbooks released within the same period − the 1960s − in order to examine three different perspectives on northern life through the words and recipes of northern women. All three cookbooks can be read as literary texts as well as cultural artifacts “in the spirit and tradition developed by feminist scholars over the past few decades, a tradition of discovering and recovering previously unknown, unvalued, or undervalued texts.”[5] I read these artifacts through a feminist and postcolonial lens to understand the “gendered nature of colonial space” and the ways in which these cookbooks articulate those dynamics as well as act as potential sites of resistance.[6] Furthermore, through an analysis of the recipes and the positionalities of their writers, I explore how the North was imagined and offer insight into the colonial geographies of food and community in the Canadian North of the 1960s.

A description of my own positionality also bears mentioning. I am a non-Indigenous, second-generation northerner, born and raised in Yellowknife. I am also a social and cultural geographer and have had the opportunity to work in communities across the Canadian North, including Inuvik, the setting for one of the cookbooks I will discuss in this article. As a result of my personal and professional experiences, I am familiar with the sociocultural context within which these cookbooks were written and with many of the Yellowknife − and Inuvik − based recipe contributors and their extended families.

Reading community cookbooks

While community cookbooks were initially conceived to raise money for community-oriented causes,[7] they serve an additional and significant purpose: to understand “how their women compilers saw themselves and project[ed] their values.”[8] More than simply a reflection of the society in which they are published, “these books demonstrate the participation of the women who wrote them in the creation of that society.”[9]

The community, or charity, cookbook thus provides a textual forum “that allows women who might otherwise remain anonymous to historical inquiry to express themselves in published work.”[10] Though hardly anonymous in their respective communities, the contributors to the three cookbooks used the cookbook format to illustrate three different, but significant, perspectives on northern life, perspectives that were seldom included in the published texts of the day, especially those of Indigenous women. In light of this, the information gleaned from these three northern cookbooks offers an important historical, autobiographical snapshot of northern women, their day-to-day lives, and their engagement with the changing sociocultural context.

Favorite Recipes

Favorite Recipes was published in 1963 by the women’s auxiliary at the Anglican Church of the Ascension in Inuvik, NWT.[11] Inuvik, which means “Place of Man,” was built between 1956 and 1962.[12] The town was initially conceived as an alternate location for residents of Aklavik, a nearby hamlet subject to frequent flooding. However, increased military presence in the Arctic in response to the Cold War, as well as growing oil and gas interest in the Beaufort-Delta region, meant that the creation of the new town served many different objectives.

Alongside the new Anglican church in Inuvik was Alexander Mackenzie Territorial School, a school that provided education not only to the new non-Indigenous residents of Inuvik but also to Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, and Métis students, most of whom were required to live in one of the two church-run hostels: the Catholic Grollier Hall or the Anglican Stringer Hall. This context is important, for it illustrates the church’s significance in the community and its dual role as place of worship and key implementer of the federal government’s Indian Residential School System, a system now resoundingly accepted as a dark and painful part of Canada’s history. This context also illustrates the conflicted positionalities of the recipe contributors, most of whom were Indigenous women.

How to eat frozen fish

Cut frozen fish up with saw or axe. Peel the skin off and cut up with knife.

This is good to eat with salt and blubber.


The cookbook begins with a brief chapter on fish. Simple, no-fuss recipes are provided for everything from smoked fish to frozen fish eggs. Following the fish chapter is a generous one on meat and wild game, the third longest chapter after those on cakes and cookies. Every possible preparation of wild game is offered: Roasted Muskrat, Stuffed Muskrat, Boiled Muskrat, Muktuk, Fried Whale Meat, Boiled Porcupine, Oven Roasted Lynx, Boiled Smoked Beaver, and Ptarmigan Soup. The length and prominence of the fish and meat and wild game chapters point to the nutritional, cultural, and social-economic significance of these proteins in northern community life.[14] Foods such as these have long supported local food security in the Canadian North, and continue to do so today.[15]

The absence of time-related information reveals an approach to food preparation free of the contemporary obsession with time (for example, 30-minute meals). Recipes are prepared according to feel and written with the assumption that one would leave a dish simmering away on low heat for hours while going about other daily tasks. In the recipe for Boiled Bear Meat, cooks are instructed to “Cut up the brisket and boil until soft in a large pot with salt and water.”[16] Significantly, this cookbook was one of the first of its kind; recipes that would otherwise have been passed down from mother to daughter in front of the fire or stove were now illustrated in printed form, by what was the first generation of northern Indigenous people in the Beaufort-Delta region to be taught to read and write at residential schools.

Detailed recipes for imported dishes like English Lamb Chops with Curry Sauce are provided on the same page as Roast Muskrat. Imported recipes, however, are adapted to reflect the availability of provisions in the tiny northern town. Reading through recipes for Spinach and Lima Casserole and Italian Spaghetti, I was struck by the absence of fresh ingredients. A recipe for Goulash is particularly eye catching: 1 Kraft Dinner – cooked; 1 cup chopped celery or flakes and celery seed; 1 large onion; 1 lb ground beef; 1 can mushroom soup; 4 strips bacon.[17]

A well-known Depression-era recipe for Apple Pie (Without Apples), invented to make do when apples were deemed unaffordable,[18] finds new significance in Inuvik, where apples were rarely available, let alone affordable:

Apple Pie (Without Apples)

  • 2 cups apple juice or water

  • 2 tsp cream of tartar

  • 1 ½ cups white sugar

  • 20 Ritz biscuits

Combine juice, cream of tartar and sugar. Boil together. Drop in Ritz biscuits and boil for 2 minutes more. Do not stir. Pour carefully into unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust. Bake 30 minutes. Serve warm.[19]

A good friend of my father’s who was born and raised in Inuvik in the 1960s once told me that, as a young girl, she thought fruits and vegetables came naturally in canned form, because the only fresh fruit she ate were oranges at Christmastime.

Some recipes combine imported ingredients with local ones. For example, Cabbage and Blubber Fat combines an imported vegetable with local blubber, while Pounded Dry Fish Pudding calls for dry fish with sugar, grease, and cranberries. A recipe for Snow Muffins reads at first like your standard muffin fare, save the last ingredient − 1/2 cup of clean white snow. Another beloved northern dessert that can be found in the cookbook is Eskimo Ice Cream. The recipe contributor writes: “Grind up cooked meat. Melt tallow and while still warm mix well by hand. Keep adding meat until not able to stir anymore. This is good to eat with meat and bread.”[20] Here again the integration of local and imported ingredients in the northern diet is clearly demonstrated. The flour to make bannock or bread was of course introduced by European or southern Canadian newcomers to the North. Nevertheless, these recipes, though combining traditional and nontraditional ingredients, are as much a part of Indigenous cultural identities in the Inuvik region (and across Canada, as Lisa Myers points out[21]) as is eating country food like caribou or char.

As mentioned earlier, the majority of the recipe contributors to this cookbook are Indigenous women.[22] Bertha Allen, then a young Gwich’in woman, contributed many of the cookbook’s recipes. Allen, who died in 2010 at the age of 76, was a respected Elder and an advocate for Aboriginal and northern women’s economic and political equality. Over the course of her lifetime, she worked hard to maintain the Gwich’in culture by playing an active role in teaching traditional arts, crafts, cookery, and language to others. Hence, Allen and other women were not passive bystanders in the wake of change. At the same time, they were supporters, and most likely members, of the Anglican Church, a key agent in the advancement of colonialism in the North, one that actively changed and reinforced gender roles that entrenched women in the domestic, private sphere.

Favorite Recipes, rich in Indigenous contribution and recipes for country food, not only is a testament to the important role of Indigenous women in the church and the community as a whole, but is also a demonstration of profound sociocultural change. This cookbook reflects their experiences through recipes that are firmly grounded in traditional life but at the same illustrate a rapidly changing environment, one that both necessitated and encouraged the integration of traditional and nontraditional ingredients and recipes. Women, in their roles as knowledge holders, providers, mothers, and partners, were at the heart of this change, especially at a time when families were experiencing tremendous upheaval as a result of the Indian Residential School System.[23] This cookbook, its recipes, its contributors, and its roots as a church fundraiser provide significant insight into the experiences of Indigenous northerners and their view of the North at that time.

The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook

The Daughters of the Midnight Sun (DMS), formed in the late 1930s, was a women’s collective in Yellowknife that sought to promote and support various community initiatives, such as the community library, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the Stanton Yellowknife Hospital. Dr. Stanton’s wife, Ruth Stanton, was a key participant in the Daughters of the Midnight Sun and in the 1960 edition of The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook, a fundraiser for the hospital.

The objective of the organization was “to contribute to the betterment of the community and to enjoy friendship with each other having no regard to racial, religious or political prejudices.”[24] In light of this objective, it is interesting to note that no Indigenous women are listed among the cookbook’s recipe contributors,[25] an absence that suggests social exclusions in the quickly growing community.

Yellowknife is most often described as a frontier city, one that grew from the gold rush and administrative expansion in the North. However, the Yellowknife town site was built within the traditional territory of the Yellowknives Dene. As new people moved into the growing community, many of the Dene were marginalized and literally pushed to the sidelines as Dene-only communities were formalized in N’Dilo and Dettah in response to racial tensions in the community.[26]

By 1960, Yellowknife was bustling with people from all across Canada, and even the world. The names of recipe contributors reflect this diversity: Danish, Norwegian, Ukrainian, German, English, and French. The racial unity the DMS aspired to speaks perhaps to its desire to distance itself from common “racial” prejudices of the day, such as those of longtime Canadians towards recent immigrant groups like the Polish and Ukrainians or those towards Germans, who, at that time, were subject to discrimination as a result of the First and Second World Wars. The cookbook is filled with recipes that reveal a diversity of origins and a sense of inclusion: German Orange Date Cake, Dream Cake (a popular cake from the Brovst region of Denmark), and Swedish Meatballs.

The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook illustrates the contributions of women in a “frontier” town, expressing themselves and forging a new kind of community with women from different backgrounds. DMS members’ good standing in the community was reflected in part through the advertisements from prominent businesses that are found through the cookbook, which “participate in the textual projection of a special kind of middle class community.”[27] These women were an accomplished lot, clearly involved in the “betterment” of their community, most of them married to prominent men in the community: doctors, lawyers, pilots, business owners, and government administrators. Today, their family names can be found all over the city on road signs like Borden Drive, Bromley Crescent, and Otto Drive. Yet the cookbook and its recipes hint at contributors’ anxieties about maintaining a sense of status and identity as middle class women of more cosmopolitan, southern Canadian origins amidst a more rustic, northern reality.

In this vein, northern cookery is limited to a brief mention at the outset of the cookbook, with a female raven named Rowena (Figure 1) introducing the section and implying, accordingly, that northern ingredients were something of a curiosity, not the stuff of everyday cuisine: “this is what Rowena recommends as appropriate recipes for those who wish to try their hand at northern cookery.”[28] Not even the northern recipes are offered by Indigenous contributors, but, are instead versions of southern recipes with northern proteins or berries swapped in: Baked Lake Trout, Rabbit Stew, Rose Hip Catsup, and Northern Egg Nog (here, the “northern” ingredient is likely powdered milk). The continued use of southern recipes, albeit with “swapped in” northern ingredients, conveys the contributors’ need for some familiarity amidst a relatively new physical and culinary context. A social distance is maintained throughout the cookbook with its recipes that are clearly grounded in Euro-Canadian food traditions.

Figure 1

Rowena recommends, The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook.

The Daughters of the Midnight Sun, Yellowknife, 1960

-> See the list of figures

The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook depicts a growing northern community with residents from all across Canada and the world. People who were forced to overcome differences that would have kept them apart in larger communities relied upon one another for friendship and support in a small place like Yellowknife. Yet it is who is not represented in this cookbook that is most striking, and this absence bears mute witness to emerging racial exclusions in Yellowknife at that time. In this cookbook, “northern cooking” meant overcoming the obstacles of locally available groceries to cook treasured and refined recipes from home, not learning to make traditional country foods. Hence, this cookbook can be interpreted as a text depicting a second important experience of the North at the time: that of transplanted women on the frontier, trying to create a sense of belonging for themselves in a new and radically different environment, drawing on those recipes that embodied the homes of their childhoods and their families in an effort to assemble a home in a new place and yet, at the same time, relying on social distancing in order to assert themselves in a new landscape.

Northern Cookbook

Until 1967, the NWT was governed by a territorial council stationed in Ottawa, comprised entirely of non-Indigenous people, despite the fact that the territory’s population was predominantly Indigenous. That same year, upon the recommendation of the Carrothers Commission, the council was moved to Yellowknife, which was subsequently named the capital city of the rapidly changing territory. This phase of devolution meant the transfer of many federal employees from Ottawa to the Canadian North.[29] To promote northern settlement and perhaps ease the transition some federal employees now faced, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development issued Northern Cookbook, authored by Eleanor E. Ellis, who had travelled in the North but relied mainly on the experiences of those who had “pioneered the north.”[30]Thus, significant parts of Northern Cookbook read as a general introduction to the Canadian North for prospective newcomers. For example, the preface to the chapter “Pointers from Pioneers” makes clear that:

. . . the north is not just a land of ice and snow, populated by hunters and trappers and husky dogs, with primitive plumbing and none of the niceties of civilization. Many northerners live in modern homes with picture windows, wall-to-wall broadloom, and daily mail service. There are beautiful schools, hospitals, churches and museums, large supermarkets, and more skidoos than dog teams. There are prospectors and miners, lumbermen and oilmen, teachers and preachers, boat builders and stone carvers, stenographers and storekeepers, doctors and nurses and newspaper editors. Many of these people would be at home in the salons of New York or Paris or Rome, but most of them are living in the north because they like it. The north is experiencing a period of rapid development and booming economy, and the smokestacks of industry are etching new silhouettes on the skyline.[31]

Though not technically a community cookbook, when analyzed next to the other two cookbooks, Northern Cookbook presents a significant and necessary piece in the overall “geographical imagination” of the Canadian North.[32]

Ellis’ principal aim in writing Northern Cookbook, dedicated to “the people of the north,” was to “record facts about some of the wild game, game birds, fish, fruit and vegetables available in Canada’s North . . . and to suggest methods by which these foods may be prepared or served.”[33] The timing of its release, as well as its instructional style, however, suggests the book had two additional objectives: one, to be a guide to home cooks who would be relocating to the North from the South as a result of the government transfer; and, two, to instruct northern people (particularly Indigenous people) on nutrition and home economics, as a complement to other government initiatives aimed at “educating” northern people on matters of public health and domesticity.[34] In this vein, the book begins with a breakdown of food’s key elements − protein, carbohydrates, and so on − as well as a description of Canada’s Food Guide, a framework better suited to a typical southern diet than a northern Indigenous one. There is also a detailed description of cooking terms like “bake,” “blend,” and “chop,” alongside which hand-drawn illustrations provide added context, perhaps for those who cannot read English. Scattered through the book are cartoon caricatures of northern Indigenous people, displaying a popular imagination of northern people as jolly, childlike, and comical (Figure 2). For example, one drawing features an Inuit woman and a small child bringing a large platter topped with a caribou head baked in a pie to an Inuit man, visibly hungry and waiting with his tongue out of his mouth, an ulu clutched tightly in his hands.

Figure 2

Caricature of Inuit family.

Northern Cookbook, Eleanor E. Ellis, Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, 1967

-> See the list of figures

Many of the cookbook recipes betray an author who, though well intentioned, was out of touch with the availability of certain products in many northern communities. A recipe for Chicken Gumbo, for example, calls for sliced okra pods and fresh tomatoes, neither of which was easily found north of 60 in the late 1960s, and even now would likely be difficult to find in most settlements. Positanese Fish Soup calls for saffron, chopped parsley, and sliced leek even though most of the fruits, vegetables, herbs, and seasonings available at the time were frozen, canned, or dried.

Much of the writing in this cookbook conveys a very romantic geographical imagination of the North. For example, subsistence hunting is described in nostalgic terms as an activity situated in the past. The “Wild Game” chapter begins:

Wild game hunting offers excitement and a challenge to man’s primordial instincts that is seldom experienced elsewhere. When, after hours of stalking or tracking, the hunter is confronted with a moving target at the end of his gun sights, he is momentarily transported back to the dawn of time [emphasis added] when his worth as a man was judged by his skill as a hunter. A well placed shot, a clean kill and he has proven himself to be a capable provider. . . . It is too bad that this lofty accomplishment is so often met with disdain when the hunter returns home with his spoils. Many housewives quiver and turn pale when confronted with a choice cut of wild game.[35]

Interesting, too, that wild game is described in Northern Cookbook as a traditional food of northern Indigenous people and a cooking prospect that induces queasiness in the “modern housewife.” The quotation above paints a picture of women’s feelings towards the consumption of wild game that is out of touch with how most northern women felt (and continue to feel) about preparing country food, especially when compared to the detailed recipes for country food provided in Favorite Recipes.

Northern Cookbook conveys popular northern narratives of the time: first, a romantic view from afar of the North as frontier, a vast wilderness rich in untapped resources and a wild landscape full of adventure;[36] and, two, an often patronizing view of the North as a place where an unsophisticated people live, in need of the discipline and domestication that only benevolent southern Canadians could bring.[37]

Writing colonial space through cookbooks

In this article, I have explored three cookbooks that depict northern life and cookery in the 1960s’ Canadian North, each illustrating a significant narrative of the North. The two community cookbooks − Favorite Recipes and The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook − convey a changing North through the eyes of, respectively, northern Indigenous women and non-Indigenous, settler women, many of whom made the North their home A third cookbook, Northern Cookbook, echoes the dominant narrative of the North at the time − the North as frontier.

A more expansive future work could, and should, present the complex dimensions of northern colonial geographies described by these cookbooks and their contributors. For the purposes of this article, however, I sought to glean from these cookbooks the experiences of different northern women at a time of significant sociocultural and political transformation in the Canadian North. The three cookbooks provide a valuable textual form through which we can analyze the positionalities and perspectives of northern women in the 1960s.

For the women who contributed to Favorite Recipes, the cookbook provided a new medium for knowledge sharing, particularly of recipes, given that the written word, published text, and writing down of recipes (rather than the oral transmission and demonstration of recipes), were all relatively recent phenomena for Indigenous women in Inuvik.

Meanwhile, in The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook, there is little mention of northern foods and no contributions from Indigenous women. The recipes convey their contributors’ desire not only to assert their identity and roots through food, but also to maintain certain class distinctions. The recipes in this cookbook can be read as a “home-building” exercise through the sharing of recipes across many (though not all) cultures and the adaptation of recipes according to the food products available in local stores.

The absence of Indigenous contributors in The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook, a cookbook that aimed to depict cookery in a town initially constructed to extract gold on Indigenous homelands, suggests a city with a more advanced degree of social and racial stratification than Inuvik. Inclusions and exclusions were likely also guided by the specific communities each cookbook sought to represent. In the Yellowknife case, the recipe contributors were members of a business-oriented women’s group, at a time when there was little, if any, organized Indigenous business in the city. Meanwhile, the Inuvik cookbook was a fundraiser for the Anglican Church, a Christian denomination that had been widely accepted in the North, especially by Inuvialuit and Inuit communities.[38] If a group like the Daughters of the Midnight Sun had existed in Inuvik, it might have displayed a similarly exclusive membership roster. Likewise, if the Anglican or Roman Catholic churches in Yellowknife had released community cookbooks in the 1960s, one would expect their contributor list to include Indigenous women.

In both Favorite Recipes and The Daughters of the Midnight Sun, the recipe contributors “talk back” to dominant narratives, such as those found in Northern Cookbook, through their respective assertions of identity and culinary knowledge. In particular, Favorite Recipes offers a profound counter-narrative to dominant textual representations of the North, where Indigenous voices and perspectives were often marginalized or even silenced. In The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook, one gets the sense that the recipe contributors wish to reject the image of the “wilderness wives” to which Ellis speaks in Northern Cookbook. Meanwhile, the women of Favorite Recipes, a far cry from the cartoon characters in Northern Cookbook have no need for Ellis’s education on how to make goulash − they are doing just fine on their own.

In many ways, Indigenous cookery “provides a symbolic reclaiming of a knowledge base of regions through food.”[39] It is especially important to recognize the agency inscribed in Favorite Recipes and to “focus on the pressure exerted by the spatial frameworks of the colonized within these texts, in order to try to construct a different perspective.”[40] Northern women were not spatially confined in the way described in other colonial contexts,[41] but they were socially confined within the dominant discourse of northern life − one that privileged visions of a harsh wilderness or promising resource-development frontier, much more along the lines of Ellis’ Northern Cookbook. In the 1960s, the North and its inhabitants were still cast in mystery by neighbours to the south, the dominant trend being one of outsiders looking in and writing for northerners, rather than northern residents writing their own lives in their own words. In this vein, The Daughters of the Midnight Sun Cookbook and Favorite Recipes are both exceptional, the latter even more so because the voices of Indigenous women were particularly marginalized vis-à-vis colonial geographies, which the documentation of early Artic explorers[42] and the patriarchal norms of missionaries[43] had shaped and which northern social policy later entrenched.[44] Thus, the autobiographical insight provided in Favorite Recipes is of historical significance, especially if one considers that the cookbook was released mere years after the establishment of the town of Inuvik, by recipe contributors whose generation, by and large, was the last to be born on the land. The recipes in Favorite Recipes assert local knowledge and a connection to place that only Indigenous women could have, despite the disconnecting experiences of residential school and settlement. The recipes symbolize a profound degree of agency and resistance during a time of significant change.