Radical Fare: Episode 1- Women of Seal
Outdoorswoman, chef, and educator Lori McCarthy is a vocal proponent of preserving food traditions in Newfoundland. Foraging, hunting, and making just about everything you can make for yourself, her freezer is full of enough lamb, hare, and moose to last months. Legs of cured meat, fox pelts, antlers, pickles and preserves, herb salts and drying seaweed make her shed look like a Baroque composition, or a well-rounded trappers cabin. But recently she's been working with a new protein source, seal.
Like all rural Newfoundlanders ( McCarthy grew up in Bauline North on The Irish Loop) she's known flipper pie, and sealskin boots and mitts since birth, but the tender, near black meat of the seal loins has grabbed her attention recently and she'd like to see more people cooking them. Like a flat boneless roast, anything from a light sautee with garlic and cranberries to braising with root vegetables and gravy complements the rich flavour. In preparation for National Seal Products Day in Ottawa this May, where McCarthy will be helping to prepare the gala dinner, she's been brainstorming new recipes. Inspiration's struck in the form of some Syrian Flipper Flips that happened a couple of years back.
The flips, created by Syrian Newfoundlander Abir Zain, were served at a seal dinner prepared by Chef Amy Anthony as an example of the exciting food fusion happening as Syrian refugees settled into their new home and incorporated cultural foods in fun, and unexpected ways. A big hit, the idea of evolving food traditions like the fusion flips appeals to McCarthy. “The way we use foods changes as technology and society change”, she said. It doesn't mean turning our backs on foods though. “Food security is a big issue here, and we have access to seal meat. Not just access, but at a time of the year where food is scarce, nothing is growing and the ice is in”.
Dependence on seal as food and textile is nothing new to Neevee Padluq, an Inuk seamstress and administrator from Iqaluit. She teaches others how to make sealskin ski-doo mitts at the St. John's Native Friendship Center, and has been working with seal her whole life. “Seals have been a part of the Inuit world for thousands of years,” sayid Padluq. “ I was lucky to watch my grandmother skinning and working with seal skins. Skins are used for boots, mittens, parkas, pants, tents, even children's sleds. Every little part is used, even the bones for traditional games. The fat is fuel for traditional lamps or fermented as a dipping sauce called misiraq.” All the meat is eaten.
Full use is an important topic to tackle in the Newfoundland hunt, but first, we must address the false narrative that there are 'two hunts', an Indigenous subsistence hunt and a commercial hunt. Indigenous hunters also live in the modern world, not in a time capsule, and need to earn money from the pelts of the animals they hunt for food. Outrageously high Northern food prices ensure the importance of country food, but also ensure the need for cash for the expensive necessities of modern life (like toilet paper, diapers, rent etc. ). “ The majority of commercial seal hunters are Inuit” Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril stated in a 2016 interview.
This has been ignored to disastrous consequences for the Inuit. International seal bans have been added to a list, including forced relocation and residential schools, of things that have gravely harmed the Inuit way of life. Decimated Northern economies experience poverty, addictions, and suicide as endemic, heartbreakingly predictable results of the loss of culture, land, and self-sufficiency. The collaborative efforts of Inuit and European descended hunters as well as sealing advocates are slowly healing the 'two hunt' misconception. Arnaquq-Baril's documentary Angry Inuk has brought international attention. This brings us back to the full use discourse.
Eating more seal, not just the traditional flippers but loins, ribs etcetera, helps remove the outdated stain from international impressions and shows the modern Newfoundland hunt as what it is. Hunters today are licenced and trained in humane hunting methods. International scrutiny has made this perhaps the best-regulated hunt in the world. The oil is used for supplements, full of good fatty acids, and the waste fraction helps heat the Carino seal processing plant. The meat is gaining status at some high-end restaurants as a new locavore superfood, and flipper pie is still a church supper classic with the golden generation. Lori McCarthy thinks it's time to get more of it in home kitchens of the young.
Beyond international opinion improving, and it doubtlessly would from more seal meat consumption, among those who benefit most are the Newfoundland general public. Seal is healthy, affordable meat that can lend itself to tacos and pastas. Embracing more of it would reduce our dependence on pricey, questionably produced and processed imported proteins. The blubber and pelt make up the vast majority of the seal carcass, but with the looming possibilities of a food insecure and climate troubled not-too-far-off-future, making use of as much of the seal meat as possible is just smart. Or, as McCarthy put it, “a healthy dose of common sense”.