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Where People Feast: An Indigenous People’s Cookbook

by Annie Watts, Dolly Watts

Dolly and Annie Watts – mother and daughter, respectively – are descended from chiefs of B.C.’s Gitk’san First Nation. From 1995 until earlier this year, they ran one of only two restaurants of its kind in Canada. Called Liliget, which means “where people feast” in Gitxsan-imaax, the Vancouver restaurant was designed by renowned architect Arthur Erickson to invoke a traditional West Coast longhouse, with cedar-plank tables, loose pebble-stone flooring, and First Nations artwork. Liliget served exclusively native dishes and was enormously successful. It closed with Dolly’s retirement this year.

Where People Feast collects 150 native recipes from the Pacific Northwest, as served at Liliget. The book is divided into predictable sections, such as Wild Game, Seafood, Soups & Stocks, Beverages, and Smoked Foods & Preserves. The recipes include such curiosities and delicacies as Alder-Grilled Marinated Elk, Venison Pâté, Stir-Fry Herring Spawn on Kelp, Wild Rice Pancakes, Bannock, Pine Needle Tea, Sopalali Mousse, and Pemmican Balls.

Anthropologists from Claude Lévi-Strauss to contemporary scholars such as Janet Theophano (whose book Eat My Words used household cookbooks to present a history of women’s domestic lives) have taught us that collected recipes can be a repository of culture, providing information on how people behaved and interacted, what they thought and believed, how they lived and died. But this information has to be contextualized and interpreted, and that’s where this book falls short. Two brief essays inform us about Gitk’san traditions surrounding smoking and preserving methods, but aside from a sentimental narrative about berry picking, and a smattering of additional factoids spread thinly across the book’s introduction and the recipes themselves, there is disappointingly little historical or cultural understanding offered for this food.

Furthermore, the book barely mentions Liliget itself. Skip the introduction and you might never know the Wattses ran a restaurant. While its recipes are excellent, Where People Feast misses the opportunity to be much more than just a recipe collection.