Our histories never unfold in isolation. We cannot truly tell what we consider to be our own histories without knowing the other stories. And often we discover that those other stories are actually our own stories.
Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle
What are my stories, my histories, my memories? What are the foods that carry these stories, histories, and memories? There are not easy answers but this is part of what I am hoping to untangle a little bit as I cook, write and share here with you.
Saskatoon berries. June berries. Service berries. Whatever you call them, they are one of the special few ingredients still readily available that are indigenous to this place we currently call Canada. They also hold special memories for me as someone who grew up on the prairies.
I remember the coulee on my grandfather’s farm (and, unbelievably, my mom reminded me before I posted this – and long after I had scheduled this post for today – that today is the 10th anniversary of his passing…) where, as a child, we used to pick these berries. His property bordered a gravel pit and on the edge of the coulee you were inundated with the sounds of large trucks rattling down the nearby gravel road to pick up their loads of shattered rock. The landscape was broken, stripped, and busy. But once you descended past the lip of that coulee the sounds faded away and you were in a different world. It was wild down there; quiet, too. A creek ran through the bottom, fading in and out of the tall grasses and willow branches. We would look for water skimmers and grasshoppers down there. Wild roses sprung up all over, splattering the sides of the coulee with color and thorns that would grab your jacket sleeves if you got too close. And there were bushes laden with berries. Saskatoon berries, as we called them.
They always grew down there. We would find them and grab handfuls to tumble into the emptied out plastic ice cream buckets we would take down for the purpose of filling up. These berries were not to be treasured, preserved, or even to be put into recipes; they were for instant gratification. We would shove juicy handfuls into our mouths and, if by chance some made it back up to the top, the berries would be poured over vanilla ice cream.
Throughout Western Canada the berries grow wild. These ones, I picked in an alleyway in Toronto.
Here they are called June berries because of the month they are supposed to be ripe in, but inevitably I leave them until July to actually pick. They are also called service berries which seems a rather utilitarian name for a berry that holds so many memories and so much love.
I like the name Saskatoon berry the best because it reminds me of the Cree people who first harvested and loved these berries. The name Saskatoon is said to be an anglicization of the nêhiyawêwin (Cree) word, misâskwatômina. The misâskwatômina grew wild on the prairies, in the coulees, and on the plains and was an important food source for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. It could be eaten fresh, dried, or mixed with buffalo fat and meat to make a dish called pemmican. Pemmican was a ‘super food’ of sorts, a staple for times of need; it was survival food. Misâskwatômina are loved by the nêhiyaw people.
The misâskwatômina trees in Eastern Canada are largely domestic ones, planted in parks and yards because of their hardiness and ease of care; most people don’t even know that the berries they grow each June are edible. I have neighbors who have misâskwatômina trees in their yards and have never harvested them. But each year I find some to pick in a park or alleyway and the experience transports me back to those coulees a long time ago and thousands of kilometres away.
But memories are complicated and complex. As we grow older we learn new things and come to see the past through different lenses; we awkwardly negotiate the past and the memories of it through what we now know. And what I now know is this: farms and farmers on the prairies have not been kind to the nêhiyaw. In fact, they have often been downright deadly. Unceded land is now owned and farmed by settlers; the nêhiyaw have been forced off and the misâskwatômina have often been plowed under. This violence and also the ways in which both the nêhiyaw and the misâskwatômina remain, the ways in which they embody love and resistance and survival in the face of ongoing removal, these are necessary complexities that must be accounted for.
So, this dish is for my grandfather and for those summer days spent wandering in the coulees as children. And also for the people who wandered those coulees before my grandfather came to own that place, the people who still live on those lands and who still love misâskwatômina. It is for the memories of the past and also for the futures that the berries whisper of. kinanâskomitin.
Skillet Cinnamon Buns with Saskatoon Berries
A nutty yet sweet foraged berry that adds brightness and elegance to the sweet, cinnamon stickiness of these buns.
- 1 cup milk
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 and 1/2 tbsp active dry or instant yeast
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 4 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
- 2 tsps ground cinnamon
- 2 cups Saskatoon berries (blueberries could be substituted)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 cup icing sugar
To make the dough: warm the milk and pour it into the bowl of a stand electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment (OR you can use a handheld mixer OR no mixer, but a stand mixer is ideal).
With a whisk, manually whisk in the sugar and yeast. Let sit until the yeast is bubbling, about 5-10 minutes. If the yeast does not dissolve and foam, start over with fresh active yeast.
Cut the butter into large pieces and on low speed, beat in the softened butter until it is slightly broken up.
Next add the eggs, one at a time, and then the salt.
On low speed, gradually add the flour a half cup at a time. Once it is all added and absorbed into a dough ball, beat on medium speed until the dough is soft and limber, about 6 minutes longer. (If you do not have a stand-mixer with a hook attachment, this step takes a lot more work. You'll have to knead the dough by hand...)
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead it with your hands for 1 more minute. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly greased bowl. Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let sit in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 to 2 hours. I usually turn my oven onto the lowest possible heat and, once it is heated turn the oven off. I turn the oven light on to maintain a low temperature and stick the covered dough inside the oven to rise.
For the filling: mix the 1/4 cup butter with the brown sugar and cinnamon. Measure out 1 cup of berries and set aside.
When the dough has risen enough, take it out of the oven. Lightly oil your skillet.
Take the dough and put it onto a well floured surface. Using a rolling pin, roll it out into a rectangle of about 12 inches by 18 inches, working to make sure the dough is of even thickness.
Spread the filling all over the top of the dough. Then sprinkle the 1 cup of berries on top.
Roll the dough length wise. You should end up with an approximately 18 inch roll.
Slice the roll into 12 equal pieces and arrange them in your skillet with the cut side facing up.
Cover the rolls with a tea towel or plastic wrap again and place them somewhere warm (not the oven this time!) to rise a little longer, approximately 30-40 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 350F (I sat my skillet on the top of the stove while the oven warmed).
While this is warming, I get the glaze going. Take the remaining cup of berries and put them into a small pot with 1/4 cup of water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 10-15 minutes to soften the berries. Then strain the juice out of the berries using a fine sieve. You're not going to get a lot of juice as the berries are quite seedy, but as long as you get about 2 tablespoons you should be fine.
When the oven is warm, bake the rolls for about 25 minutes until they are golden brown. If it looks at some point that the rolls are turning too brown on the top, you can cover the rolls loosely with aluminum foil so the tops don't brown too much.
Remove skillet from the oven and allow to cool.
In a bowl, take the icing sugar and slowly add the juice you've squeezed until you get the desired thickness of icing, approximately 2 tbsps worth. A little more juice if you want it runnier, a little less if you like it thicker.
When the buns have cooled a little, you can drizzle the icing over the top. Enjoy warm.
For the rolls in the picture, and if you want them a little sweeter, I also made another batch of icing (1 cup) with milk and a little clear vanilla to get a white/purple icing contrast going on.