Winter solstice was cold, dry and blue in Winnipeg this past December — very different from Victoria, B.C., where it was cool and overcast as Moosemeat & Marmalade’s Art Napoleon was looking forward to facilitating an evening of Cree-language lessons at Camosun College.
"We have a weird little thing here — we’re completely out of our territory, but there are enough urban Cree here that they’ve formed their own language-and-culture society to be able to take lessons and to gather once in a while and celebrate their ‘Cree-ness,’" the former chief of Saulteau First Nation says.
He says the lessons are one demonstration of commitment to the revitalization of the language. That spirit of commitment to Indigenous ways and culture makes up half of the content of APTN’s Canadian Indigenous food documentary series, Moosemeat & Marmalade, returning for a third season this month.
The series has a basic format: classically trained English chef Dan Hayes (thelondonchef.com) is paired up with Napoleon, a traditionally trained bush cook, educator, musician and speaker (@artnapoleon on Twitter). The two take turns immersing each other in their traditional foods while travelling in Canada and Great Britain. It’s a culinary Odd Couple scenario.
"The way the show is formatted is, when I’m narrating, I’m actually leading the food, leading the gathering of ingredients," Napoleon says.
"Dan does the same for his episodes, and I’m his flunky when we’re doing that."
The show features all the good-natured head-butting and banter you might expect, but Napoleon and Hayes are learning right along with their audience.
"I learn something all the time… you can never know too much," says Napoleon, who co-produces and co-writes the show. "Sometimes I’m learning some of my own stuff that I think I know.
"Sometimes you get humbled by mistakes that you make. You have to recover from your own cooking disasters, and you have to know how to turn a mistake into an intention."
He says there are one or two mess-ups every season.
"Sometimes you don’t get the animal you’re after — there is a hunting element and we fish, too — that’s the reality of hunting," he says.
"So we’re always left with: how do we deal with that in a documentary series?"
One mishap stands out for him.
"I really flubbed on my whitefish dish in Yellowknife, and I made a mistake burning the heck out of something when people were already gathered around the table in the gleaning episode," he says.
"But I recovered it somehow and added something and it didn’t taste burnt and didn’t look black anymore!
"And it actually tasted really good, so it was an absolute fluke."
He says he learned more about modern technique this season.
"Sometimes I learned from Dan. I can always ask him for tips — he’s like an encyclopedia when it comes to ‘chefery,’ so if I get stuck, or if I have questions: ‘Hmm, do you think I should flambé this? Or do you think red wine…?’ ‘Definitely not!’" he says, laughing.
"Anyway, we share ideas and we have those kinds of discussions all the time, even in real life, not just in front of the camera."
Like any eager cook, Napoleon says he learns from everyone he can, even searching Google and YouTube.
"I watch a lot of other cooking shows, including Mind of a Chef and Chef’s Table — anything by Anthony Bourdain. I’m soaking things up like a sponge," he says.
"You just keep going, you don’t stop evolving and you incorporate new ideas into what you’re doing all the time."
For Napoleon, sometimes it means modernizing a dish, because the methods he learned from childhood are so different.
"If you prepare things the old way, which I can do — so-called "primitive" types of cooking — some of those are harder because you have to know the fire, you have to know the wood, you have to know different techniques on how to use that fire," he says.
"What part of the fire? What part of the flame. What kind of wood? Is it coal? Are you using the coals? Are you staking the meat or are you burying it in the ground?
"All of these types of things you have to be aware of, so even that, I’m always refining."
He says it’s not as easy as it might look.
"A lot of people that haven’t done it before are going to find that their eyes smoke right out, they’re going to stink, they’re going to have to throw away their clothes, they might wreck the food by cooking it with the wrong kind of wood," he says.
"They’re going to have singed eyebrows, perhaps, like Dan did in season 2."
Napoleon says his style will never be "fancy-fancy."
"I’m not going to be pulling out the tweezers and plating with little sprigs of moss or anything," he says.
The cook does have a favourite category of food, though.
"I’m more into, I call it soul food — that’s more my style. Jambalaya, goulashes, that kind of food," he says. "Stews, you can be so creative with stews — that’s my kind of cooking."
Here is a dish from Moosemeat & Marmalade season 3 that illustrates the kind of food that both Napoleon and Hayes like to sink their teeth into.
(In this easy recipe, we are using some canned ingredients, otherwise it would not be an easy recipe.)
30 ml (2 tbsp) canola oil for frying
30 ml (2 tbsp) butter (use margarine for vegan chili)
1 large onion chopped
4 banger-style vegan or vegetarian sausages cut into 2.5-cm (1-inch) pieces
3 stalks celery cut into bite-sized chunks
1 medium red or yellow pepper cut into bite-sized chunks (optional)
1 can stewed tomatoes
1 can kidney beans
1 can black beans
15 ml (1 tbsp) chili powder
10 ml (2 tsp) cumin
5 ml (1 tsp) cinnamon
10 ml (2 tsp) pure maple syrup
50 ml (1/4 cup) grated white cheddar or Parmesan cheese for topping
125 ml (1/2 cup) fresh cilantro leaves chopped roughly
5 ml (1 tsp) smoked paprika
250 ml (1 cup) veggie stock
1 organic vegetable bouillon cube
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Fry up the onions, peppers and celery in the oil in a pot over medium heat.
Once onions begin to caramelize, add the stock and sausages, stirring to ensure the sausages don’t stick. Add butter or margarine if more oil is needed.
When mixture has been brought to a gentle boil, add the canned beans and tomatoes (you can drain the beans fully or partially).
Stir the chili well, then add bouillon, spices and maple syrup. Stir to blend flavours, then reduce heat and allow to simmer.
Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking to bottom of pot, until liquid has been reduced. Taste and adjust flavourings accordingly.
Serve hot chili with grated cheese or chopped cilantro.
Note: grated carrots and corn niblets are also nice additions.