A lot of my day revolves around the kitchen table, really. (And this is ironic, I suppose, because I don’t even have an actual kitchen table at the moment!) But you know what I mean. A good many hours of my day’s work are accomplished at the counters and chopping boards, over the stove, minding the oven, and hands in hot soapy water at the kitchen sink.
And right here beside me, on the kitchen floor, my daily trek over the years is visibly etched. The enamel paint has worn right through to bare wood from sink, to stove, to fridge, to chopping board. Epic marathons are traced in these grooves.
No matter how smart I might get to thinking I am, or how puffed up I might get about doing “important work,” at the end of my day, there I am … chopping those carrots, scrubbing the potatoes, and otherwise boiling, broiling, steaming, frying, and baking our daily bread. It is a humble and repetitive point of view, to be sure; also, a discipline, and best taken in hand as a mindful practice of gratitude.
I come from a farming “settler” culture, so, somewhere back in the 1970’s when I came to Haida Gwaii, that’s what I brought with me. Although my mother’s generation had left the farms, I knew I was following a familiar path, not far very far back in the past, where food was not taken for granted. What we ate was mostly grown, gathered, and processed, if not by ourselves, then by somebody who lived and farmed very close by.
In the villages of Ontario in my day, there were local butchers, bakers, cheese makers, dairies and the social centre of town (next in importance to church on Sunday) was the Saturday morning farmers’ market in the parking lot of the town hall.
The “milk run” on the local railway, was literally that. The train stopped at every gravelled concession crossroad along the way to pick up the large silver milk cans left by farmers beside the tracks at the rail crossings. The cannisters were loaded on the trains’ flat deck on the morning train and taken to the creamery and dairy in town. The cheese factory really stank to high heaven on a hot summer day, but the locally-made ice cream was wonderful.
My mother and grandmother jammed, jellied, canned and pickled all summer and fall. I remember boiling, frothing pots of crabapples, and raspberries and peaches, and the glowing colours of the jelly jars stored in a dark basement cupboard.
And it was for a re-imagination of all this (or so I believed) that I came to Haida Gwaii in the 1970’s. These were the “hippie” years, and what they featured most for me was a lot of hard work and an intimate connection forged with a fertile land and abundant seas, sun, water and weather.
With the help of a generous 85-year-old neighbour, I learned how to plant, hoe, weed, harvest and store all the vegetables we ate – carrots, potatoes, beets, chard, onions, parsnips, and yard-long zucchinis. Milk came from our neighbour’s ranch, in gallon-size glass jars. Sometimes it was milk from a Jersey cow with heaps of thick yellow, butter-making cream on top.
Peanut butter came in 28-pound white buckets bulk-ordered and barged up from Vancouver. Bread was baked twice a week in eight-loaf batches. The bread dough I put together was extreme whole-wheat– made with molasses or buckwheat honey, and stone-ground brown flour. When baked it had the consistency of a brick and weight of a boulder! Healthy, though … or at least that’s what I said to the kids.
Meat, mostly beef, sometimes pork, came from the local farm slaughter house; we often helped cut-and-wrap ourselves. We helped grind hamburger and brought it home in industrial-sized plastic bags.
The kids caught fish in the river across the field. Lots of trout and coho, mostly. Not having much cash in those days, the salmon the kids caught were important to our winter food supply. We didn’t know how to smoke salmon properly back then, and have since learned how to build a proper smoke house. But we did have a little, tiny plug-in smoker, and we thought it was a treat!
Sometimes we went to dig razor clams on North Beach. And there was the year when there was a massive wash-up of cockles and scallops on North Beach after a big winter northeast storm. The scallops we ate were the size of hockey pucks and we are still talking about them.
Friends often brought us halibut, crab, ling cod, black cod, snapper, sometimes magnificent prawns. As no one in the family is a hunter, we occasionally traded fish for a few roasts of local venison. Oh, and we had chickens too. Fresh eggs every day. One year we raised, slaughtered and cleaned 50 chickens for the freezer.
We went berry picking often in late July and August. The kids got carried and back-packed up and down through logging slash. We took along stainless steel thermoses of lemonade, and thick hunks of brown-bread sandwiches, usually made with loads of that gooey, chunky peanut butter and Gwen’s famous salmonberry jam. We picked enough red huckleberries to fill those 28-pound white buckets and put them away in all kinds of ways for the winter. We had huckleberry cobbler, huckleberry pancakes, huckleberry muffins, huckleberry jam and best of all, huckleberry pies.
At the end of the day, in the fall, we got the kids all outside in the dune meadows (long before they became the Misty Meadows Provincial Campsite) hunting mushrooms. Enormous boletus were the big prize. But there were also slippery jacks, red-capped boletus and a favourite chanterelle patch which was lush and golden … if we got there before Bob Crooks did. The mushrooms were dried on a big rack over the wood stove for soups and sauces through the winter, and were packed in jars with fancy labels for Christmas presents.
Later in the fall we picked cranberries in the bogs. There were two kinds – one a little bush berry and the other a tiny little vine that trails along through the hummocks of the muskeg. It was a lot of work for a few precious pails full, but they were real treasures brought out to the dinner table at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It was a full life of hard work. It takes a lot of thought, planning and effort to grow and gather food. Seeds have to be bought and planted, grown through good and bad weather, the bugs kept off, the fruit and vegetables harvested at the right time, cleaned, chopped, boiled, blanched, packed, and frozen. Everything has to be taken in its “raw” state and processed in one way or another. The main tools were shovel and hoe in the garden, sharp knives, fishing rods, berry pails, running water, wooden spoons, canning jars, freezer bags and busy hands in the kitchen.
It was a very good life, amid an abundance in which I still live, and for which I am thankful. But, from today’s point of view, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is just an amusing reminiscence, and basically a sentimental trip through times gone by – and I’ll grant you there is that aspect to it. Nevertheless, the threads of rural life that were followed through those years by the “back-to-the-landers” are still with us today, formalized in food security “studies” and movements such as the 100-mile diet.
Haida Gwaii is a busy place for life, land and politics. And over the years, I have done a lot of work, in different jobs and roles. But, I find, my fundamental view of what matters most in the the world was keenly shaped by those early days with a young family in Tlell.
And my idea of what I need to do about the issues of the day is still guided and affirmed by what I learn chopping vegetables, and canning fish at the kitchen table