Muskox strip loin, Mushrooms and Pearl Onions simmered in Red Wine
Ground Caribou and Mushrooms simmered in a Garlic Sour Cream Sauce
Northern entrées by Pammy’s great4granddaughter
The Canadian Museum of History is built as a grand curvilinear that grasps the Gatineau bank of the Ottawa River opposite Parliament Hill. In the museum’s Canada Hall a great journey is simulated through many centuries and over vast distance via icons of Canada’s social history. Under the ceiling’s super high dome the adventure starts at a sod longhouse, part of a Viking settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland around 1000 AD. Basque ship, whaling station, Métis settlement, Voyageur camp, Ukrainian church, grain elevator, Chinese hand laundry, the many turns and tides of the Canadian historical experience are replicated. Finally, at the far end of the trek through Canada’s history, the visitor is invited to sit, sip tea and listen a while to tales of the frozen northwest in the warm welcome of the Wildcat Café.
The Wildcat is faithfully reproduced and featured at the museum because it was at the core of the pioneer community of Yellowknife and remains a symbol of identity in the Northwest Territories. In this expanse of more than a million square kilometers of the Canadian northlands just 41,000 people face tremendously challenging climatic extremes. (Nunavut, which was carved from the Northwest Territories in 1999 and stretches to Alert, 800 kms from the North Pole and the northernmost permanently inhabited point in the world, has twice the area of NWT, just 31,000 people and even more challenging conditions.) In the harsh northern frontier, prospectors, bush pilots, miners and trappers created places where they could exchange information and stories. The Wildcat was a popular gathering spot, part of the core and colour of Yellowknife. Built in 1937, an early owner also ran one of the two taxis then operating in town. His was the bigger car and he contrived a head-on collision with the other cab to drive his competitor out of business.
The Wildcat was popular but not always prosperous. It served at various times as an eatery, a Chinese restaurant, an ice cream and soda stand. Once it featured steam baths next door. Each new venture told of a previous failure. Finally, in the 1970s a volunteer group undertook to restore the log cabin, now one of the last remaining buildings in what had been the commercial centre of Yellowknife in the 1940s, and reopen it in 1979 as a restaurant featuring northern fare such as caribou and char.
It was this enterprising revival that caught the interest of the Museum of Civilization, which was itself re-housed in the sweeping cantilevered vision of Métis architect Douglas Cardinal in 1989, though it traces its origins as one of North America’s oldest cultural institutions back to 1856 (and was renamed the Canadian Museum of History in 2013).
Icon it might be, but the Wildcat wasn’t protected by any heritage or museum budget. Enthusiasts for heritage restoration proved over time not as adept at restaurant management. What the museum didn’t know – Yellowknife is a long way off and there are no direct flights – was that the restaurant had fallen on hard times again even as they were building the full-scale replica in Canada Hall. There was a danger that the Wildcat would be closing just as the Canada Hall exhibit was opening.
Then Pammy’s great4granddaughter took a hand. Kerrin had lived a decade in Yellowknife. A single mom with a fresh teaching degree from McGill, she’d come to teach at the school named for John Franklin. Her ancestor had once encountered the famed northern explorer. Returning in 1827 from two years of exploration in the Arctic, Franklin stopped at Bytown (now Ottawa) and presided at a ceremony at the entrance locks of the Rideau Canal on August 16. Pammy was among “as large and respectable gathering of spectators as had ever been witnessed at this place” for Franklin’s show. The intrepid adventurer, who would later return on a fourth expedition to the far north and disappear completely, laid the first stone of the great work that Colonel By and his men, the sapper Pammy among them, would strive mightily to build over the next five years.
Kerrin’s address — Trail’s End, Northwest Territories — spoke of vistas in the Canadian landscape that few have witnessed. Born and bred in Montreal, a big city girl, she came to know the midnight sun, the great life forms, the northern lights, the huge expanses and ice floes. “The north grows on you,” say those who know. “Eventually you have to decide whether you will spend the rest of your life there or get out.” Kerrin sank roots. She would stay.
Teaching was her vocation, cuisine her passion with some strong family antecedents. A grandfather owned one of the signature restaurants in mid-twentieth century Montreal. Her stepmother acquired the Grande Diplome of the Cordon Bleu Paris Cooking School, still on Kerrin’s kitchen wall.
The Wildcat was a summer project, mostly months she was off from her primary occupation teaching art and drama to mostly Inuit high school students. Arctic summers are much like those in the rest of the country, with the exceptional delight that the sunlight and the days often stretch twenty hours or longer. Yellowknife has more sunshine each year than anywhere in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, or the Maritime provinces.
The distance from the replica tea room at the Museum to actual operation of the Wildcat is captured in this monologue from Kerrin’s unfinished play about food and family, Wildcat Capers. The lights come up on Cook. She is pounding caribou and occasionally swatting flies. She is wearing the patch. It’s 4:00 at the Wildcat and the restaurant is prepping for dinner.
Cook: “Veg! Veg, veg, veg! Damned ferry. Damned veg. Always a problem. Friday afternoon, four o’clock, the food order shows up – no potatoes – no corn. Brunch tomorrow and no potatoes for home fries – no veg for tonight. Fucking produce guys. Only a lunatic opens a seasonal restaurant during break-up. Where does one find 100 lbs of potatoes at four o’clock on Friday afternoon in Yellowknife? Co-op! Not supposed to shop for the restaurant at the Co-op. Costly. But what’s a girl gonna do? Boy the flies are bad today! Anyway, Danica has the car again and she’s not answering the phone. Again. It’s nice she’s still here but why does she always have my car? I am not taking a taxi to the Co-op for potatoes and veg. Twenty dollar taxi for a twenty dollar grocery bill. Well it would be down south but this is Yellowknife and the ferry isn’t in. Fucking ferry. I can pick up potatoes at Extra foods tomorrow morning and get down here before . . . No. No I can’t. Shit! Veg, veg, veg! Ok – I got carrots, celery and onion for sure. A nice mira-poix for the dinner veg? Could stuff peppers. Never been a pepper person, only in chili and spaghetti sauce. Anyway peppers stuffed with rice and served with rice and fish won’t wash, not for 16.95 a plate. God it’s hot in here. Turnip! There’s turnip left from Gord’s stew. Turnip and carrot mash. I love that. A Christmas staple at home. My favorite thing on the plate – besides the beet salad. Best thing about Christmas is the cold turkey and mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread the next morning. Plain, just salt, pepper, mayo. Marcus puts stuffing and cranberries on his, which I personally think is a mistake. (Calling backstage) Tara – could you please bring in those turnips (pause) they’re in the bag in the produce cupboard? Turnip and carrot mashed with butter salt and pepper. And beets. We have beets. A mound of turnip and carrots with beets on top. Beets warmed in melted butter with salt, pepper and . . . dill. Great! I’ve gotta use up that dill. I have a car load of the stuff. It will be tasty and look great on the plate! Bridget always said we eat first with our eyes. Dad always said it better taste good too. I can please both. But he’s right. Nana judged restaurants on how clean their bathrooms were. Daddy by the bread. Now I can pee in a dirty latrine but I insist on fresh rolls. (Again to backstage) Tara could you bring the beets too? They’re in the box under the rotten onions. Fucking produce guys. I want a credit for those onions! And the romaine!”
Kerrin ran the historic Wildcat for four seasons, for another year had her own eponymous eatery, then set off to a new frontier. Yellowknife is a pioneer town still, with a population just shy of 20,000. Only Whitehorse in the western Yukon Territory is larger, by a few thousand people, in the whole of the immense Canadian north. But Yellowknife is the NWT capital and by far the largest city in the eastern territories. Kerrin was ready to experience traditional Inuit communities. True north.
She gave notice to John Franklin, sold the house at Trail’s End and Kerrin’s Restaurant. Danica and Marcus helped stow fifteen years of accumulation and Molly the dog in a convoy of north-beaten vehicles that took the four of them almost 5,000 kilometres over seven days to near the parental home in the Nation’s Capital.
The following links will bring you to Part 2 of this series, Kangiqsualujjuaq, Part 3, Umiujaq and Part 4, True North.