A Feast of Living Off Canada’s Northern West Coast

“Most of us know someone who has taken up cooking with a vengeance. They love cooking. The only trouble is cooking doesn’t love them back… Still, our mistakes make the best stories, and that’s why we should not think of them as failures.”

–an excerpt from A Taste of Haida Gwaii, by Susan Musgrave

Bordering on a genre of its own, Susan Musgrave’s cookbook-cum-community memoir, A Taste of Haida Gwaii is filled with the author’s joyful confidence in the unpredictable nature of things. But that’s simply one of its many charms. Musgrave lives in Masset, which is a village in the Haida Gwaii Islands on the northernmost coast of British Columbia. With amicable enthusiasm, A Taste of Haida Gwaii offers seasonal foraging how-tos, personal asides, anecdotal advice and chronicles of life, history and tales from “the edge of the world.” A wonderful book embodying the nature of remote living, this collection bursts with cookery experience and personality aplenty.

From how to forage for razor clams or find chanterelles to making hands-free cloudberry jam or chili with venison, you can be assured to gain a lot of know-how and know-what about food in A Taste of Haida Gwaii (minus any stodgy rigidity). But don’t expect any ingredient or recipe to come without some illustrious offshoot information.

Take salmon, for example: if you’re curious about catching a salmon, types of salmon, smoking salmon or brining and canning salmon, this book is for you. And if you’re curious about learning words for salmon in the Haida language (Musgrave includes a table of more than 20), little known facts about fish (like poet Ted Hughes’ theory that they were attracted to pheromones from female anglers), or the author’s mixed feelings towards salmon steaks (and memories of fishing with her dad), this book is also for you.

For Musgrave the discussion of a recipe or ingredient inevitably extrapolates outwards into a well-spun yarn. Like the night of griddle cakes followed by a fire at the Whale Museum, the octopus (yes, octopus) wedding cake, or the monster halibut that ate a whole canoe.

Musgrave invites you to hear her stories like a friend — unpolished and cheeky misadventures included. As she relates tales of local fame about the delicious Moon Over Naikoon Cinnamon Buns, you can almost imagine being in her kitchen, watching floured hands shaping the “soul-feeding” dough, anticipating the delicious results now made even better by knowing the background story.

And yes, it’s still a cookbook, so you can follow the included recipe to make your own batch at home.

Where Musgrave doesn’t have a story, she’s done her research. Sea asparagus is “an edible halophyte,” she informs, “a plant tolerant of salt or salt water” also called “crow’s foot greens” in Nova Scotia. Her topical detours are informative and thoroughly entertaining even if, at times, a bit roundabout.

I’m not usually one to spout off about cookbooks, but A Taste of Haida Gwaii can barely be called just that. It’s frank, it’s creative, and does indeed give the reader a glimmer of what life on those remote islands might be like.

Musgrave honours the gratifying connective experiences we have with food in this book. And whether you’re looking for a solid resource or a good laugh, A Taste of Haida Gwaii can supply you with both.

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