In St. John’s, Newfoundland you kiss a cod. In Dawson City, Yukon, you “do the toe.” I’d like to tell you I don’t know which is more gross, but I will say that between putting a mummified toe to your lips versus kissing a frozen fish, the toe definitely takes the cake.
The story goes that an eccentric local named Captain Dick found a severed toe in a cabin and for reasons I’m not very clear about, he plopped the toe into a glass of champagne and dubbed it the Sourtoe Cocktail. Now, people use whiskey for their special toe cocktail.
Nowadays, you can find Terry Lee set up from 7-9 pm at the Sourdough Saloon at The Downtown Hotel in Dawson City. We were fascinated by Terry and his story.
In the early 70’s a friend convinced him he needed to go live in a Buddhist monastery in order to reign in his wild ways. He became a monk and even spent 6 months in Tibet where, under normal circumstances, westerners were not allowed to go.
Upon his return to Canada, he and a friend purchased a large boat and set off to sail around the world. While in the Caribbean he was approached by a guy who offered to buy the boat for more than twice what they’d paid for it.
They sold the boat and he headed up to Dawson where he stayed and eventually retired. And now, on special occassions, Terry Lee sits behind a small table in the pub, a box of blank certificates on the bench seat next to him, a registry of all people who have “done the toe” set out in front of him and the legendary toe sitting on a pile of salt on a silver platter, waiting for the next poor sucker to kiss the toe.
Terry Lee, Toe Captain
Now, I must tell you that in the days leading up to this moment, the group I was with kept telling me we were going to do the Sourtoe Cocktail and when they told me that it involved having a drink in which an actual human toe sat, and where said toe must touch your lips, I could not, for the life of me, imagine what that would look like, why anyone would do it and why on earth I should do it.
I’ll tell you why I did it: peer pressure, plain and simple.
When I arrived and saw that famous toe for the first time, let me tell you, it was a disgusting sight – black and toey. For some reason, I thought it would be the texture of skin, but no. When digits no longer have blood coursing through them and they are kept in pickling salt – not to mention swished around in booze on a regular basis – they look very little like an actual toe. More like a nasty case of frostbite.
So the moment came and it was time. One of our group members (whose name also happens to be Erin) opted to go first. We watched as she readied herself at the table across from Terry while he recounted the instructions, including how you must not allow the toe to pass your lips and reminds you that there is a $2500 fine for swallowing the toe. Can you say, “EWWWW?” However, last year someone from New Orleans did swallow the toe. At the time the fine was $500 and he happily paid up. It was clearly not an accident. No one swallows that thing by mistake. But what it did do was put Dawson City in the spotlight by various media throughout the U.S. and Canada. In the end, aside from the fact that the pub was left toe-less for a little while, it didn’t hurt anyone – except the moron who decided to swallow it in the first place. That must give a person bad heartburn.
Sign on the wall next to Terry Lee
Terry and Erin sending kisses to the Toe
After Erin, I took the plunge. Mike, my host while in the Yukon, handed me a glass of whiskey – something I never normally drink, but you cannot even imagine having something any weaker than that if you’re doing to dip a dead toe in it and drink it.
I watched as Terry picked the toe up from the salt, where he had laid it after Erin braved it a few minutes earlier, and plopped it into my drink. I recall the words of a woman who had done it just as we arrived. “Just don’t look at it!” she’d said. A shame I didn’t listen.
I looked down at it and it was not a pretty sight. But Erin had done it and Kat and Mike promised to do it after us. The pressure was heavy. I had to bow to it.
Terry gave me the same short speech he’d given to Erin and with my pals cheering me on, I picked that glass up and put it to my lips, poured the drink down my throat, feeling it burning all the way down. The toe stayed at the bottom of the glass, which meant I had to tip the glass further up to ensure it slid down and touched my lips. I felt it hit my mouth and then I banged the glass back down on the table. Done. I did it. I did the toe. I actually did it. And it was surprisingly anti-climactic.
Here I am doing the toe
As he does every time someone finishes their Sourtoe Cocktail, Terry picked it up out of the empty glass and proceeded to wring it out in a paper towel, squeezing it for a minute or so with one hand before replacing it on the salt. Then it was Kat’s turn. Then Mike’s.
A couple of new friends who partner with the Yukon Convention Bureau (hosting this FAM tour), Adam and Jasmine, witnessed us doing this ridiculous tradition. We asked them if they’ve ever done the toe. “Oh my God, no!” was their response. Funny, but we met a few locals with the same response. I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve been suckered in.
Proud members of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club: Terry, Mike, Erin, Kat and Erin