by Allison Reimer
Cooking is an art form. While the primary function of food is to fuel our bodies, when it’s thoughtfully prepared, it has another purpose that is just as important: it fuels our souls.
This is what I’ve learned from watching my Ama (Helen Webber) and her best friend, Marie Woolsey, craft hearty and delicious meals for guests, staff and grandkids alike. Food has the power to bring people together, to dig up long forgotten memories, to provide comfort and to bring joy. Yes, I’m a foodie, but how could I not be? I grew up on the recipes from the award-winning Blueberries and Polar Bears cookbook series!
This year we are celebrating two milestone anniversaries: both Churchill Wild and these revered cookbooks turn 25 years old in 2018. The Churchill Wild family would not be where it is today without the cookbooks written by Helen and Marie, so as we take a look back at how their ideas came to delicious fruition, try not to take a bite out of your computer screen.
Little did Helen and Marie know that when the first book of the series, Blueberries and Polar Bears, was launched, it would serve to whet the appetites of families around North America, and later, the world. It’s a cookbook with a taste of their life stories, which makes it a page turner both in and outside of the kitchen.
While Helen and Marie shared all their favourites in this first volume, the recipes centred around wild game, northern fish and tundra berries were the most popular, with Jalapeño Goose Breasts being the biggest hit among guests who visited Helen and her husband Doug’s northern Manitoba wilderness lodges. Beyond that, the books include stories of polar bear encounters, exploring the Manitoba Arctic, and hilarious mishaps in the wilderness. I guess you could say it’s a berry, “beary” good book.
Helen and Marie put did all the legwork to promote and sell Blueberries and Polar Bears. With 5,000 copies in hand, they knocked on countless retailer’s doors while road-tripping across Canada. They learned to get crafty at tradeshows, casually cooking cinnamon buns in an electric turkey roaster behind the booth and luring people in with the scent, a well-executed trick commonly used in real estate. Very effective with cookbooks too!
During the first few years of the business, Helen and Marie’s books were featured in newspapers and radio stations across Canada. The cookbooks were also featured in magazines such as Chatelaine, Winnipeg Women, Canadian Living, Farmlife, and Uphere. By 1995, they had a second book, Cranberries and Canada Geese, and the wild ideas kept coming. By 2000, Black Currants and Caribou was in print, bringing more recipes and laughter to our tables, and in 2002, Icebergs and Belugas rounded out the collection.
The personal insights shared by Helen and Marie about life in the north, and the unique situations they came across while living in a remote area inhabited by polar bears, make these books even more special. Along with their recipes and stories, photos of family, the lodges and life in the north draw you into a world of adventure and beauty.
Helen and Marie pioneered Arctic gourmet cuisine at many northern lodges and delivered a first-class dining experience in the middle of nowhere — but their skill set extends far beyond the kitchen. They are both unstoppable forces who have carried out an array of tasks including but not limited too driving snowmobiles, unloading and loading airplanes, fending off polar bears, pumping water, refilling generators and driving boats. (Helen also has her private pilot’s license, so let’s add ‘flying airplanes’ to the list!) Helen and Marie have done it all — and they did it with limited resources, children underfoot and, sometimes, a long-distance friendship. I come from a line of strong women, there is no doubt about that!
So where are they now?
During the off-season, you can usually find Helen and Marie vacationing in Arizona or visiting family. They still contribute to the success of Churchill Wild’s culinary story and are often spotted out on the tundra, harvesting berries for tasty treats such as Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce, Sour Cream Pancakes with Blueberry Sauce, homemade Cloudberry Jelly, and more. Their cookbooks are the backbone of our culinary experience.
Helen and Marie also continue to innovate, taking classics such as cinnamon buns (Blueberries and Polar Bears, p.39) to a whole new level of divine — I affectionately now call them Ooey, Gooey, Klabooey Cinnamon Buns — and there are rumours of a new cookbook featuring all their updated creations. Over the past 25 years, they’ve sold more than 100,000 copies of their cookbooks.
That’s what I call delicious success!