A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World
May 25, 2016
Review By Nancy J. Turner
There is an alternative out there to the globalized world of agribusiness, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and processed packaged food, one based on harvesting and using local, especially wild, foods and re-weaving them into our meals in creative and satisfying ways. Recently, a whole host of books — each a feast in itself — has emerged here in British Columbia and beyond, reflecting a growing interest in locally harvested and produced foods that enrich our lives. These foods are celebrated not just for the different nutrients and flavours they yield but because they are integral to our identity, our relationships to our home places, and our ties to history and to First Peoples, whose ancestors have relied on foods produced here, in this place, for millennia. Not only the foods, but the knowledge of when and where to harvest them, how to tend them, how to prepare them, and the best ways to serve them, are part of the collective skills and wisdom of locally derived cuisine. Whether the foods are indigenous, from the sea or the land, or brought from distant places in the past and introduced to local fields, orchards, and gardens, food that is brought to the table from nearby our homes and shared with those we like to be with is an exquisite gift: that’s what these books all impart to us.
It is hard to know which of these books to begin with. Haida Gwaii is close to my heart, however, so my descriptions of the individual books will start with Susan Musgrave’s literary feast, which is both about feasting and can, and should, lead to feasting. It is replete with recipes, many served at Musgrave’s own Copper Beech Guest House (“the best B and B in all of Haida Gwaii,” according to some). These range from scrambled eggs (best unadulterated), to “Crab, chanterelle, caramelized onion and goat’s cheese omelette,” and “Possibly the best granola.” One recipe entitled “Crack cocaine made (relatively) simple” is an attention-grabber for a discussion on yoghurt, and is followed by “Wild blueberry and yoghurt pancakes.” Many others embrace local ingredients and local places: “Rose Spit halibut with wild rose petals,” for example. But the book is far more than recipes. I would say it is a celebration of the people, and land and seascapes and the plants and animals of Haida Gwaii; in Susan’s words, it is a “testament to the people who live in the area that I live and the wealth of food that’s there” [add page number please]. There are captivating and fun photos throughout, and stories both personal and universal. There is much to learn from the book, and not just about cooking. I really appreciated having some of Susan’s Haida neighbours and friends introduced in photos and stories, and there are many other cultural treasures, such as thirty-four words for salmon in the Haida Language, not to mention all the ways of smoking and preparing salmon.
My favourite sections are Chapters 4 “Food Gathering all Year Round” and 5 “Harvesting the Land and the Sea.” These chapters embody the spirit of foraging, including a celebration of edible seaweed — with Haida experts quoted. As well as the more common berries and fruits (salmonberries, thimbleberries, huckleberries and blueberries, wild strawberries, cloudberries, salal berries, bunchberries bog cranberries, Pacific crabapples), and the amazing range of seafood to be harvested on these islands (halibut, sea urchin, chitons, mussels, crabs, razor clams and butter clams, geoducks, cockles, scallops, and octopus), there is also a section on mushrooms (with appropriate warnings), and greens — Sitka spruce tips, sea asparagus, and lambsquarters (I suspect she is probably using common orache, Atriplex patula, which looks very similar), and even stir-fried devil’s club buds. This shrub (Oplopanax horridus) has high cultural and medicinal importance for Haida and other First Peoples throughout its range. In the ginseng family, it is closely related to taranome, the Japanese Fatsia japonica, whose sprouts and flower buds are served as tempura. This book received a BC Book Prize, the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award, in 2016.
Bill Jones is both an accomplished chef (French-trained and author of eleven cookbooks) and a supreme forager. The Deerholme Foraging Book completely focuses on “The bounty of the wild.” It is inspired by the wild food around his own Deerholme Farm in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. I love that the first image inside the book is of Oliver, an alert, eager border collie, standing at the beginning of a dirt road, obviously waiting to go on a foraging adventure. The next photos are spring morels and stinging nettle leaves, close up: two of my personal favourites! Like Susan Musgrave, Bill cites the inspiration of that pioneer forager, Euell Gibbons (1962, 1964), and Bill dedicates his book to him. The chapters of Deerholme Foraging are divided into sections: general information on foraging; ways of processing and storing wild foods; different kinds of wild foods, from forests, fields and seashore; and finally, all the recipes – 110 of them, from appetizers to desserts, which comprise about two thirds of the entire book. Close-up photos, in beautiful colour, of many of the wild foods and the dishes made from them, enhance the book. Most of the ingredients are safe, but I worry about including the possibility of making jelly from pine needles (81, and pictured on the back cover), and even from cedar tips, as an alternative to grand fir needles. Both pine and western redcedar contain compounds that are potentially harmful, and should be regarded with caution (Turner and Von Aderkas 2009). The recipes generally incorporate one or more wild ingredients with more conventional foods: “Mashed potatoes with wild onions;” “Soba noodles with oyster and seaweed jelly;” “Grilled flank steak with wild mushroom rub;” “Poached eggs with English muffins and stinging nettle sauce.” The titles of the dishes alone make one want to create and sample.
Michelle Nelson’s two books, The Urban Homesteading Cookbook and Field Guide to Foraging for Wild Greens and Flowers, are quite different in style. Urban Homesteading is a regular book, bountifully endowed with striking photographs by Alison Page, and with eighty-five original recipes. With a doctorate in conservation biology and sustainable agriculture, and plenty of hands-on, practical experience in foraging, gardening, and food production, Michelle is the perfect person to create this book. The chapters are simply labelled: Note on Ingredients; Foraging; Keeping; Growing; and Preserving. Especially inspiring to me is Michelle’s championing of edible “micro livestock” (for example, “Dark and stormy chocolate cupcakes with cricket flour”) and edible invasive species (lionfish, bullfrogs, European garden snails, green crabs, Japanese knotweed): for instance, “Japanese knotweed chutney on pan-seared trout.” Beekeeping and raising rabbits and quail are other distinctive topics.
The Field Guide to Foraging is a sixteen-page foldout pamphlet — something to slip into your backpack or purse and bring with you on a walk or an exploration of a vacant lot. There are very few native species featured; almost all are introduced and some quite invasive. The photos are attractive and helpful in identifying the plants. A few plants are featured — Canada goldenrod, purple loosestrife — that I hadn’t thought of as being edible, and a couple of others — kudzu and water hyacinth — do not occur in western Canada (to my knowledge), but are apparently extending their ranges northwards into eastern Canada and both are potentially invasive.
Labrador-tea, spruce tips, chanterelles, birch syrup, blueberries, and cloudberries are just some of the wild ingredients of the North American boreal forest that Michele Genest celebrates in her book, The Boreal Feast: A Culinary Journey through the North. Like the other authors here, Michele is a storyteller who obviously loves the outdoors and relishes in connecting with others over the bounty of wild harvested and produced food. Her recipes sound sumptuous; I can’t wait to try some of them: Solstice-cured Lake Trout gravlad lax; Birch syrup panna cotta with rhubarb compote. She focuses on feasting — putting together sumptuous meals, whether for picnics or to be enjoyed by families and friends around the dining table. Although her book is centred in the Yukon, BC northerners as well as those in Sweden, Norway, and Alaska will be able to access similar ingredients.
This Earth is Ours, by Gurdeep Stephens, is not a foraging book, but it belongs, philosophically speaking, with these others. A truly inspirational book, it recounts the story of Nature’s Path, a thriving business founded on ethical food production and dedicated to producing healthy organic food. Developed by Arran and Ratana Stephens (Gurdeep’s parents) “in the back of a restaurant” in Vancouver, and starting with Manna Breads® and Manna cereals, Nature’s Path now employs hundreds of people and produces dozens of different food products. This hardcover book is illustrated throughout, with stunning photographs of flowers, fruits, pollinators, gardens, Stephens family members, and amazing artwork of Gurdeep’s father Arran. It is not a recipe book, but rather a story-telling book about grains and other food and about the success of a remarkable family in creating this nurturing company. As quoted in the Foreword, “The average American now eats more than 150 pounds of added sugar each year, while less than 5 percent of our population is consuming the recommended amount of fibre…. One in three American children is expected to get diabetes” (xi). Canadians undoubtedly face the same challenges. Changing our collective eating habits while encouraging sustainable food production is a key theme of the book. There is an entire section on Envirokidz®, focusing on healthy children’s cereals, and the partnerships Nature’s Path has developed to support projects on wildlife conservation and environmental health.
These books collectively provide a rich compendium of healthy, tasty food, including farm, garden, and wild foraged food, from greens to berries, mushrooms to shellfish. All provide beautiful photographic images of the food plants (fish and shellfish as well) and the dishes created from them. The books also include all the important warnings for foragers, from not getting lost when you are focusing on finding the ideal chanterelle, to being careful in identifying wild plants, to avoiding red tide and food that might be polluted from pesticides or oil. These are important for any foods, but especially critical for non-marketed species that might be harvested by those not previously familiar with them.
Any of these books, which together celebrate local food and a large local investment in foraging, farming, feasting, and feeling, would be of interest to BC Studies readers wishing to diversify their diets, to harvest and prepare their own food, and to expand their library of books on western Canada’s regional cuisines.
Gibbons, Euell. 1962. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Company.
Gibbons, Euell. 1964. Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Company.
Turner, Nancy J. and Patrick von Aderkas. 2009. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. How to Identify More Than 300 Toxic Plants Found in Homes, Gardens, and Open Spaces. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World
Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2015. 374 pp. $34.95 paper
The Deerholme Foraging Book. Wild Foods and Recipes from the Pacific Northwest
Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2014. 276 pp. $29.95 paper
The Urban Homesteading Cookbook: Forage, Farm, Ferment and Feast for a Better World
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2015. 224 pp. $26.95 paper
A Field Guide to Foraging for Wild Greens and Flowers
Michelle Nelson, photos by Alison Page
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2015. 35 colour photos. $7.95 pamphlet
The Boreal Feast. A Culinary Journey through the North
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 256 pp. $28.95 paper
This Earth is Ours. 30 Organic Years along Nature’s Path
Victoria: D&I Enterprises, 2015. 201 pp.