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Petites Madeleines

Salt Hake, Tea, and Preserves: Prince Edward Island in 1980[Record]

  • Judy Corser

In August 1980, we packed up our 1974 Ford pick-up—bought from a young cowboy from Black Diamond, south of Calgary, for the grand sum of $750—and headed for Prince Edward Island. This was to be a fine adventure. My husband, a journalist, had landed at the Calgary Herald after the Montreal Star folded in 1979, and we’d quickly grown tired of Cowtown. It was boom time. You couldn't go fast enough, jump high enough, or get up early enough. There were line-ups to everywhere, a restaurant, a nightclub, a cinema—even just to buy a paper! We thought we had things figured out, that we’d go where life was a little slower, a little quieter. We could read, contemplate, grow a garden, maybe even write the book that each of us felt we had inside us. Besides, we'd owned our own home in St. Lambert, near Montreal, and we couldn't afford the booming prices in Calgary. In Prince Edward Island we were going to a house and small acreage we'd bought practically unseen—if you can call stabbing around with a borrowed flashlight in the frozen dark of the farmhouse the previous January seen at all—from a small-print ad in the back of Harrowsmith magazine, for $12,000. When we boarded the ferry from Pictou to Wood Island, we started to get a glimmer of what we were about to experience. The ferryman looked us over, squinted at our Alberta plates, and said, “Say, ain't you folks going the wrong way?” He had a point. When we got to our new home, the outskirts of Annandale, Kings County (population about 11 if you counted old Roy Howlett who lived on the isthmus leading to Annandale point on Boughten Bay), we found that we were among the handful of younger people in the area, most of the younger Prince Edward Islanders having left for Western Canada to find work. The older folk were mostly farmers and fishermen and retirees, locals who’d left the Island to work “away” but had returned to finish out their years in familiar parts, or widowed sisters who had moved back into the family farmstead with a couple of aging bachelor brothers, life picking up the family patterns as they'd been back before marriage and relocation to what was always known locally as “the Boston states”—New England. Prince Edward Island was a special kind of place. For one, there was still a great deal of traditional music around, music played by local folk who'd gather for “a time,” an evening get-together at someone’s house, generally someone who owned a pump organ or piano. Guitars and fiddles and spoons would round out the musical evening. Someone would sing and many would dance, generally the country step-dances that probably hadn’t changed much since the original settlers had come to the island from Ireland or Scotland. And there was the food! I’d always been interested in food and the ways in which it both shapes and is shaped by people. One of my early experiences, after we’d acquired a few hens, was the horror of finding out the eggs the chickens laid had bright red yolks. After a few false starts talking this business over with our 90-year-old neighbour, Tilly Banks, when I kept referring to chickens and she kept looking at me quizzically, keeping her mouth firmly shut—Prince Edward Islanders were never ones to talk when they could have been listening—she finally brightened when I mentioned eggs and said, “Oh, you mean hay-ens!” All had come clear to her: chickens did not lay eggs, “hay-ens” did. She laughed when I told …