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Bloor-Annex BIA Parkettes - DTAH, Toronto, ON


Food is medicine

Text by Millie Knapp

Catherine Cayer takes me to a small flower bed near her mother’s porch on Kichi Mikan in Kitigan Zibi. She pulls a lettuce leaf from between the petunias. I eat it. “I don’t plant it there. It just grows,” says Cayer.

The mosquitos remind us to keep moving. She wears a ribbon skirt and carries tobacco in her left hand. We put tobacco down by the thimbleberries to give thanks to the Creator. 

Lettuce pops up among the petunias. The lettuce grows all over in patches where there’s rich dark soil. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Millie Knapp

While Cayer knows plenty about edible plants, her specialty leans toward medicinal plant properties. “I’m more of a make-medicines-for-people-with-cancer—for people when they need cleansing and detox. That’s my concentration when I pick these plants,” she says about people’s requests for her to make medicines from plants.

She points out clover flowers she remembers eating as a child. “They’re sweet when they’re pink. They’re white right now but they’re not sweet. They’re not ready but you could eat them if you had to survive,” she says.

Catherine Cayer sets tobacco down by the thimbleberries to give thanks to the Creator. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Millie Knapp

She mentions how honey can be made from clover. “They would boil it down until it was just a little bit of water left and that would be your honey from the flowers.”

Dandelions grow from the spring to the fall “so people can make salads with that if they had to survive, or they can just eat it because it’s healthy.” 

She mentions how sorrel, dandelion, and yarrow combine well in salads. “This [sorrel] is vinegary just like the wild lettuce. That’s why it would go good in a salad with dandelion and yarrow.”

As we come to a patch of blooming milkweed, she remarks, “They’re going to turn to pods. When they’re between half an inch to one inch, they’re edible. They boil the pods just like corn on the cob. They look like little cones and there’s white cream inside. Before they get too hard and full of cream, you boil it and it’s like corn on the cob.”

She notes how the entire plant is used. “The stalks, you use that too. You boil it to make soup. The whole plant is good.”

Catherine Cayer taste tests sugar plums. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Millie Knapp

She adds plant medicine knowledge about milkweed’s properties. “In the fall, when it has the milky creamy stuff, the hairs like a corn, it’s used to treat psoriasis, poison ivy, all kind of eczemas and skin problems,” she says. 

Cayer grew up foraging on the Anishinabeg original territory with her family. Her twin sister, Kathleen Cayer, joins us as we tour their mother’s yard in July, spotting edible leaves, herbs, and berries.

They describe foods and childhood memories. “My sister says, ‘Cotty, come and eat this. This is good for you and come and eat that.’ She just knew which flowers were good to eat,” says Cayer.

Dewberries turn dark purple when they’re ready to eat. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Millie Knapp

They spent time with their father, mother, sisters, grandmother, and grandfather on the land in their territory. “They told us, ‘Go pick this, go pick that, go pick this, go pick that.’ We were always sent on a mission. We’re gatherers. We learned to gather a lot of stuff as kids: medicines, birch bark… We had to climb mountains and go through swamps to get birch bark. What else?” 

“We would come home with big bowls of wild strawberries, raspberries. Now, you’d be lucky if you get a cupful. It’s getting scarce,” says Cayer.

Their mother, Anne Cayer, 83, still picks berries in the bush. The family travels to La Verendrye Park around 120 kilometres away from Kitigan Zibi to pick blueberries. 

“We’re not afraid of the bears. We’ll go way out in the big fields. She’d be so far in the bush. I’d be like, ‘Mom, come on. There might be a bear coming. Doesn’t bother her. She said, ‘They’re not going to bother us,’” says Cayer.

For Cayer, food is medicine and for sharing. 

Kathleen Cayer checks the high cranberry bush. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Millie Knapp

BIO/ Millie Knapp, Anishinabe kwe, writes about mino pimadizawin, the good life, and arts and culture.