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(Jay Dart for The Globe and Mail)
(Jay Dart for The Globe and Mail)

A closet vegetarian in the North Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by a reader. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines here.

Toting around a bag of food bigger than my upper body, I sometimes feel like a middle-aged mother on the brink of a nuclear war rather than a 22-year-old fresh out of college working a summer job up North for the first time.

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I have become a running joke to my co-workers. They ask me when the next bomb threat is coming. They roll their eyes as they tell me the church picnic was last week. They question if I really am going to take half a banana onto the airplane (the answer is yes).

The truth is, I have a secret. It has nothing to do with feeding a band of children or a confidential awareness of Cold War updates. I am a vegetarian.

No, not one of those full-on, annoying vegetarians who wave pamphlets in your face and leave the room when someone is talking about meat. I’m just your plain ole, lazy-daisy girl who takes her Caesar salad without the bacon bits and picks out the steak in her stir-fry.

I’ve never been a big fan of meat (juicy, bloody steaks gross me out), so I prefer my meals without it.

As a student in Montreal, my vegetarianism went virtually unnoticed, and if it did come up it was no big deal. It is, after all, a city where vegetarians are firmly rooted alongside smoked-meat eaters.

Things became a little more difficult when I returned home to the Prairies, a land where I’m supposed to be more loyal to Alberta beef than to my own family.

But I was never prepared for how my dietary preferences would play out in the Arctic.

In May, I got a job that required me to travel to different communities all over Nunavut. Up here, eating meat isn’t a choice you make; it’s a way of life. As people slowly move from a traditional diet from the land toward a globalized one with goods shipped from all over the world, local meat continues to be a staple. Most people still hunt.

Muskox and seal are commonly found on the dinner table, and it’s not unusual to see a huge narwhal tusk tied to someone’s front porch or a polar bear pelt drying on a roof. One of my friends from Baker Lake eats caribou for breakfast.

I’ve heard it said that vegetarian is Inuktitut for “bad hunter.” You can understand, then, why it might be hard for me to tell people I don’t eat meat.

I’ve secretly scarfed pesto-garlic tortillas smeared with peanut butter in a guest bedroom late at night. I’ve spent $30 on a meal of defrosted baby carrots and mashed potatoes. I’ve had a tense encounter with a hotel chef after eating a suspicious “vegetarian” burger.

So I came to the conclusion it’s better to keep my vegetarianism private. Rather than take on these meat eaters head-on, guns blazing, I decided to assemble my own travelling, self-sustainable, vegetarian kitchen.

I’ve transformed a beautifully embroidered zippered tote, formerly used as my family’s swimming bag in the early 1990s, into a magic goodie bag containing enough supplies to feed a small vegetarian country for a week.

Dried chickpeas and kidney beans, microwave-in-the-bag Indian dinners, instant quinoa soup and freeze-dried silken tofu are some of the staples picked up on my few rare escapades “down South.”

Since fresh, affordable produce is a near-endangered species in most of the fly-in communities in Nunavut, other common items in the bag are a stalk of broccoli and a bag of carrots or, if I’m lucky, a red onion and a sweet potato.

As vegetables and fruit make up the bulk of my diet, I try to stock up when I’m in a more central territorial location with better selection, like Iqaluit.

Now, as my co-workers and I travel from community to community, I have a ubiquitous extra carry-on item, full of protein substitutes and vegetables.

My food bag has been my comfort during this Northern summer. It’s made me feel safe, and given me the knowledge that I will be able to sustain a balanced diet in a sea of meat eaters. Rather than avoiding half of my dinner plate, or desperately eating a ketchup-only bun at a barbecue, I’ve been able to unobtrusively pop something in the microwave or on the stove.

However, this has not prevented me being labelled “the girl with the food bag.” I’m pretty sure the flight attendants all remember me as that traveller trying to stuff my bulging tote into a carry-on bin on a tiny airplane.

I’m also pretty certain the locals wonder what planet I’m from as they watch me haul my massive bag across town. The hotel staff probably wonder who has stuffed her mini-fridge with Tupperwares of lentils.

But hey, at least my food bag isn’t full of anything too threatening. That is, unless you are worried about the attack of the killer broccolis.

All I can say is, should a nuclear war really come, we vegetarians in the North will be prepared.

Megan Alton moves around in Nunavut.

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