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.[Record]

  • Shelley Boyd
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 ...

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