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Comptes rendus critiquesBook Reviews

A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World, Susan Musgrave, Whitecap Books, 2015, 374 p.

  • Shelley Boyd

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Susan Musgrave’s A Taste of Haida Gwaii will make your belly roll with laughter and rumble for food. In 2016 this cookbook won the gold medal in the regional/cultural category of the Taste Canada Awards, and the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award of the B.C. Book Awards. A celebrated writer of poetry, fiction, journalism articles, and children’s books, Musgrave understands that recipes are most enticing and meaningful when shared with a story.

The cookbook is part culinary memoir part community portrait, relating everything from Musgrave’s childhood memories to her role as innkeeper at the Copper Beech Guest House near Masset on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of over 150 islands located off the coast of British Columbia’s mainland. Musgrave purchased the bed and breakfast in 2010, so a large portion of her cookbook focuses on her guests’ meals, including an “Off-the-Continental Breakfast” and Beets Margaret Atwood, a recipe cited as a favourite of Atwood and Graham Gibson (25). I have tried a number of the recipes, and the beets are beyond belief. In addition to sharing delicious food, Musgrave imparts important historical and present-day lessons tied to the creative pleasures of the kitchen.

A Taste of Haida Gwaii introduces a cuisine characterized by improvisation and self-sufficiency because of the remoteness of its location. Musgrave’s ecological mindfulness and delight in cooking from scratch ultimately shape her cookbook narrative into that of a counter cuisine by challenging urban readers to reflect on their own food knowledge, supposedly abundant supply lines, and fast-paced consumerism. More specifically, Musgrave educates readers about the sustainable foodways of the Haida people as the voices of elders and Masset-area residents resonate throughout the book, sharing communal wisdom about the edible landscape. In contrast to the majority of Canadians who rely on restaurants and grocery stores and live disconnected from the ecologies of their meals, Musgrave highlights the seasonal rhythms of procuring and enjoying food, respecting the Haida people’s traditional and present-day practices. Never at risk of romanticizing her island life, Musgrave also lays bare the devastating legacies of colonialism. In the section on deer, for instance, Musgrave recounts European settlers’ and missionaries’ introduction of the animal as a convenient source of protein in the 1800s. Today, the booming deer population is responsible for creating “dead zones” in the forest (157). These same Christian missionaries also brought the small pox vaccine, distributing it only to those Haida willing to convert; those who did not, perished (157-58).

Situated within these broader historical, cultural, and ecological contexts, the cookbook’s central plot is one of humble culinary apprenticeship. Musgrave’s trial-and-error cooking in the kitchen, foraging in the woods, and harvesting along the seashore connect with readers, the majority of whom reside on the continent and have likely never visited Haida Gwaii. Good-humoured lessons abound in picking springtime spruce tips and netting amorous Dungeness crabs. One of my favourite anecdotes “Shucking a Scallop: How I Did It” ends with Musgrave’s guilt-ridden cries as the improperly unshelled body “pulses its way across the kitchen counter” (230). She follows up with the correct method. Citing Julia Child’s cooking advice that “you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude,” Musgrave knows, as both writer and cook, that kitchen mishaps are memorable, and that storytelling is an essential ingredient for any cuisine if it is going to enter the collective imagination (4-5).

The cookbook is divided into eight chapters showcasing Musgrave’s culinary and literary skills as she plays with the genre’s conventions. Chapter one, “For Starters,” is not about appetizers, but about introducing the book’s main characters: Musgrave and Haida Gwaii, which has undergone numerous name changes because of colonization. In 2010 the islands were officially named Haida Gwaii, “meaning ‘islands of the people’” to recognize the Indigenous peoples and their history (9). Musgrave has long described these islands as her “‘spiritual home,’” and her cookbook makes this unique place and its communities tangible.[1] The stories, recipes, numerous quotations (from Indigenous residents, chefs, poets, guests, and even placemats), and visual content (a map, photographs, and illustrations), offer multiple ways for continent-bound readers to encounter Haida Gwaii’s daily rhythms.

Chapters two and three highlight breakfast recipes vital to Copper Beech House, including Musgrave’s famous sourdough bread. Particularly entertaining is the description of sourdough starter as a “pet” that needs to be fed and watered daily. Musgrave literalizes the simile by including several photographs of friends’ pets and her own cat, Boo. The commitment necessary to care for a living starter may seem daunting to urban dwellers with hectic commutes or landlords who don’t allow pets, but the whole process still inspires. The Moon Over Naikoon Bakery’s recipe for cinnamon buns also calls for “traditional, island-time (not fast-rising) yeast” (88). Apparently this bakery’s shortbread cookies were so popular that they stopped making them. In Haida Gwaii it’s not about chasing profits, but about slowing down and savouring life’s processes.

Chapters four and five provide practical tips on foraging from the land and harvesting from the sea. Here Musgrave is especially attentive to colonialism’s devastating impact on Indigenous peoples and island ecology. The section on wild salmon includes a two-page chart on words for salmon in the Haida language, revealing the symbiotic relationship between healthy ecologies and Indigenous languages and cultures. To further underscore this point, Musgrave references Andrew Struthers’s experience of “doing time” in a fish farm from his book The Green Shadow (175). The unappetizing description concludes with chemical-ridden meals being served at Vancouver’s top restaurants. In light of environmental pollution and declining wild fish stocks, Musgrave satirically revises the province’s motto “Super, Natural British Columbia” to “Super. Natural. While supplies last.” (174). The warning is heeded at a visceral level.

Through an ever-changing experience of this island-region’s cuisine, Musgrave acknowledges that most of us “spend our lifetime looking in the wrong places” for our next meal, rather than seeing what is close at hand and nourishing (100). In the past the west coast’s plentiful kelp often “floated through” Musgrave’s poetry but rarely her kitchen, an omission she rectifies through recipes for a seaweed appetizer and Dafne Romero’s Seaweed Lasagne (101).

Chapters six and seven underscore the fact that the inventiveness of island cuisine comes from living in the moment and relishing the unexpected. Chapter six, “Wash Up,” reminds us that despite its remoteness, Haida Gwaii intersects with the twenty-first-century world of consumer convenience and international trade. With the changing tides, lost cargo and drifting items are deposited on shore. Musgrave relates stories of hundreds of bags of Doritos, frozen chicken wings, and Russian beer — all opportunities for a meal. I enjoyed the simulated ocean-flavour of Shipwrecked Chicken Wings and would highly recommend the Citrus Salad with Mint tossed in maple syrup. Chapter seven, “A Rogue’s Galley,” provides another dash of the literary through a series of male characters and their storied recipes. Mad Mike, whom Musgrave met while hitchhiking, makes an appearance alongside a recipe for Salmon in Beer and Alphabet Soup (a recipe that she doesn’t recommend). Sometimes the accompanying anecdote is far more fulfilling than the meal.

Chapter eight offers menu ideas and additional recipes, including a veritable feast prepared for one-time guest Douglas Coupland. Miss Wyoming’s Mango Fandango is named after one of Coupland’s books, but for those of you drawn to literary fare, you will have to wait for Musgrave’s next cookbook (fingers crossed) and hope that this novel dessert recipe is included. Musgrave’s signature Red Pepper Jam makes a fitting and enticing appearance as the closing recipe.

Living on her island home means that Musgrave does not have access to food markets, the “mega church of Costco,” or “Gourmet Warehouses,” but after exploring her cookbook, readers will recognize that Haida Gwaii is far more bountiful in sustainable ingredients and culinary knowledge than what Canadian cities typically offer (14). Musgrave reveals that only in slowing down and paying attention to our natural surroundings, will we discover that community, story, and place are what nourish us.

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