I grew up on a damp, cold, rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s how my mother always described it. She loved her damp, cold, rock, and the lessons that she and my grandmother taught me as a child on Cape Breton Island now reveal themselves in layers like a finely peeled onion or the unravelling sleeve of a hand-knit sweater.
Islanders are known to be a loyal breed, firmly rooted with a deep sense of who they are and where they come from. Like many before me, I came to love the island while simultaneously yearning to leave it.
The one place I never wanted to leave was my grandmother’s house. As a child I spent many an hour with my grandmother. She lived in a house that my grandfather and great grandfather built just before the Second World War when she was a young bride.
My grandmother’s house was like a well kept archaeological dig site just waiting to be explored. Always eager to indulge my curiosity she let me rummage through boxes and photo albums, rifle through dresser drawers, crawl in under the eaves upstairs, and wander through the basement to glimpse what was left of my grandfather’s drafting materials and carpentry tools.
During these expeditions I caught sight of the lives of my grandparents, their parents before them, and my mother and her siblings as children before and after the war. Black and white photographs, baby shoes, baby teeth, school records, letters and trinkets, all steeped in story.
Those stories and the memories of the food we shared while I listened have followed me from island to island, from the east coast to the west, and continue to shape the narrative of my life.
My grandmother believed that the reason one ate dinner was to get to dessert, and that everything tasted better with more butter and even more salt.
We ate fish pan-fried in butter, potatoes creamier than any my mother could compete with, corned beef and hash, beef stew with dough boys thick and moist, and biscuits with homemade strawberry jam. We drank hot chocolate with breakfast, and ate bread and molasses for lunch. We baked little loaves in tiny pans perfect for my small hands and small stomach. We washed and hulled berries, and chopped the occasional vegetable.
On summer days we took the car for drives around the lake and stopped for ice cream which we ate side by side at picnic tables or in the car with the radio on. We’d visit the local bakery for fresh bread and just-out-of-the-oven rolls, and continue home with bellies full of ice cream and the promise of the meal to come.
My grandmother knew all the stories of all the families who built and lived in the houses along the way.
On winter nights we curled up together in bed under a winter down we called “the hulk” due to its impressive weight and sizeable volume. Reaching for the smooth part of her rough hands, I would snuggle in and ask her to tell me another story. Breathing in the faint smell of hand lotion and tobacco, I would close my eyes and listen intently, hoping to fall asleep before the story was complete and her snoring ensued.
She told me stories of her childhood in Ingonish County. Stories of my mother and the neighbourhood children. And stories of her days working in a bakery and a restaurant kitchen.
She told me that someday I would also tell stories.
I no longer eat corned beef and hash, or beef stew with dough boys. I don’t drink hot chocolate with breakfast or bake little loaves in tiny pans. But I can still taste them. And I can still hear my grandmother whisper, “Okay Jeckie, I’ll tell you a story.”
Jessica Miles is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Victoria. Her research explores food, identity, and social movements. Her grandmother’s name was Isabelle (MacIntyre) Beaton.
Jessica Miles est étudiante au doctorat et chargée de cours au département de sociologie de l'Université de Victoria. Ses recherches explorent le rapport entre alimentation, identité et mouvements sociaux. Sa grand-mère s'appelait Isabelle (MacIntyre) Beaton.