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Petites Madeleines

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

  • Judy Corser

Corps de l’article

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 her I’d thrown lobster shells into the poultry yard along with the other kitchen scraps. That accounted for the red colour of the yolks, and she thought it very peculiar that I wouldn’t have known it. We were “from away” and, apparently, it showed.

We learned a lot about the way Islanders ate, an interesting blend of the three meals a day we were used to in the rest of Canada and the particulars that might have harkened back to Scottish or Irish traditions. Here, folks had what amounted to five meals a day. There was “breakfast” before going out to milk the cows, which was strong tea and a piece of pie or a baking powder biscuit left from the day before, as well as a hot breakfast later, after animal chores were completed. “Dinner” was served at noon, a hot meal with the whole family sitting down for roast beef or salt hake with potatoes, fresh mackerel, which was generally poached in summertime (as Tilly put it when I complained about the oiliness of the fish when fried, “Oh, August mackerel, so lovely and fat!”), mashed turnip, and raisin pie. “Supper” consisted of leftovers, biscuits, sandwiches, cheese, jam or preserves, and a simple hot dish if there was company—a sort of “high tea” in the original sense, as a working man’s meal, accompanied by hot sweet tea and served around 5:30 pm. They didn’t eat cabbage or sweet potatoes or kale, and “cucumber” was pronounced “cow-cumber,” in the old Essex way. Tilly’s daughter-in-law Gladys Banks confided to me once, while we were sitting in her kitchen talking about food, as we often did, that she’d been told by a neighbour, the wife of a “transport” driver who went on a regular run to Boston, that “down there, they do like sweet potatoes, he says, why, they eat more sweet potatoes than they do turnip!”

Then there was an interesting fifth meal event, called “lunch” and served about 9 or 9:30. Lunch usually consisted of leftover baking powder biscuits, “preserves” (mostly wild cranberry or homemade strawberry cooked very simply with sugar) or “punkin” marmalade, sweets (the ladies competed heavily in the squares department), and sometimes small sandwiches; these would be made with homemade bread if it was just the family, or with bought bread if there was company. Company also meant that the canned meats such as “bully beef” or Klik or Spam would come out. If there was a “time” planned, this lunch would expand to include pickles, the local “chow” made with green tomatoes, and many more sweets and squares to fuel the visitors, musicians, card-players, and dancers. Hot sweet tea, simmered on the woodstove in the kitchen accompanied every meal; King Cole was the standard brand. I rarely saw coffee taken in the home. Wine or liquor was never served. If you drank, you drank; not indoors or in the company of women and children, but on the back step with the rest of the men, where a bottle or “teddy” of rum—also the name that moonshine went by, and the reason you could buy molasses in five-gallon containers at the hardware store—would be passed from man to man.

I learned a lot about local food during my time at Annandale. I learned that lobster was always boiled and eaten cold, never hot, and was much preferred with sweet pickle juice than with garlic or butter; that a chicken killed, plucked, and fried inside of an hour or two wasn’t fresh, but tough as nails, having been caught in the stage of rigor mortis—a story that provided no end of amusement to any of the locals we mentioned it to. I learned that in the “old days” pork was fried and packed down in quart sealers and preserved with a covering of freshly rendered fat; that lobsters were so plentiful at the turn of the previous century that young Tilly and her brothers and sisters would load up their wagons at low tide, and her father would plant the lobsters in with the corn and potatoes for fertilizer; that there were apples in our orchard that corresponded to an old hand-lettered sign in our kitchen with names like “Linda” and “Wolfville” and “Red Rome.” Before I left the Island, I was proud to help the good ladies of the Annandale United Church put together a local cookbook, everyone contributing.

I acquired quite a taste for that black English tea, well mellowed with canned evaporated milk, and often looked for it after I’d left the Island, although rarely found it. Not long ago, though, I was picking up a few things for my mother at an Easy Foods (a Western arm of the Loblaws empire) in Edson, Alberta, current home of a another one of those bang-up Alberta oil-and-gas booms. What did I see on the shelf, only a few boxes left? King Cole Brand Tea. The Prince Edward Islanders were still coming out west where the jobs were, but this time they were bringing a little bit of home with them.

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