Food historians and researchers of food history have always been interested to determine the “fat” First Nations used for cooking.
Now we know for sure that British Columbia’s Coastal First Nations’ source of “food fat” was, and to some extent still is, the long prized eulachon. Rendering them into “grease” was accompanied by ceremonies, and it was an important trading commodity.
Eulachon, members of the smelt family, are pelagic (they spend most of their lives in the open ocean), mostly swimming from the mouth of the Russian River in northwestern California north to the Bering Sea.
Like salmon, eulachon are andronomous (they ascend rivers from the sea to spawn), but since the specie is approximately 20 cm. in length, it cannot penetrate hundreds of kilometres inland to reach natal streams.
Eulachon spawn in the lower reaches of certain large and medium-sized rivers from April to June, and take advantage of the flood tide of the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Eulachon was a basic part of Fist Nations bands diet.
They were eaten either plain, or as a staple with dried berries, chopped sea weed, or dried for later use.
When Alexander Mackenzie approached the Pacific Ocean of his cross continental expedition in 1793, he was guided by southern carrier Indians who acted as traders between coastal and interior tribes. They brought, grease, highly desired by the interior Indians, and exchanged it for furs.
Indian bands of Bella Coola and Nass River neat the Alaskan Panhandle maintain the annual grease-making tradition.
The catch today varies between 50 – 60 metric tones but losing its importance as food. Most of the catch goes to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland to some traditional Indian families.
Due to heavy fishing in the 1950’s and 60’s, stocks had declined, but today, according to officials of fisheries department the bounced back.
Many people call eulachon “candlefish”, because it is so rich in ils that, when dried, it can be fitted with a wick and burned.