This reflection is on the one and only cookbook that I have read cover to cover. I have read -- well, not every word, because I have not read the index -- almost every word. And I can say this: this is a cookbook as more than a cookbook, as a piece of literature, with recipes. And it is a terrific book. It's full title is A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World (publisher Whitecap Books) and it is authored by Susan Musgrave.
Let me be clear. This was a gift and it arrived some time ago. I read about half of it, then got into life's little zoo-eyness -- and just returned to it a bit ago to complete it. I am very glad I did. It is calming, it is engrossing, it is humorous and serious, and it is about how we live in the world without being pretentious or bothersome. While it is a book about living in a particular place -- one I had never heard of until the gift arrived -- it is also, I have to admit, about living. And, though I may have vaguely heard of Susan Musgrave before reading this (I am not sure), I now know her as a Canadian poet who runs a B and B in a far away place called Haida Gwaii. There she has hosted Margaret Atwood and Pierre Trudeau and David Suzuki; clearly I am the last to know (kidding). I am amazingly grateful for the gift of this book and for the gift of Musgrave's words.
Where is Haida Gwaii? Here is what it says right inside the book: "a remote archipelago that lies equidistant from Luxor (6200 km), Machu Pichu (5000 km), Ninevah (7600 km) and Timbuktu (5000 km). If this does not help, Haida Gwaii is in the Moresby Islands. If this does not help, these are the once Queen Charlotte Islands. And, if you still need help (as I did), think British Columbia and then go kind of west. Kind of un-cosmopolitan and need a US reference? south of Alaska's border with BC, but not by much. As noted on page 9, the phrase Haida Gwaii means "islands of the people in the Haida language.
Who is Susan Musgrave? She is a Canadian writer with 19 books of poetry (the best title, I have to admit is Origami Dove and I shall be reading that soon), four works of fiction, and much more, including children's books. I have a faint idea I have heard her voice on CBC since google tells me she "defended" a book of poetry in the 2006 version of Canada Reads, but I might be making that up to make myself feel better for only now encountering her work. Not the least interesting thing about her, which she seems to assume everyone who reads the book I am thinking about here, is that her husband spent a some time in prison, for bank robbery. I did not know that. Again, perhaps the last to know. This is her homepage where you can learn that being married to a bank robber is not the only interesting biographical detail relevant to Musgrave. One thing that is definitely clear: Susan Musgrave has both a sense of humor, a love of life (that includes both foraging and cooking), and an amazing way with words.
Musgrave also runs a B and B, as I noted above. It is called Copper Beech Guest House. Originally owned by a friend of Musgrave's, who was the host of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau, she purchased it at his death in 2010 or so.
Finally, what about the book beyond what you have read so far? Musgrave weaves together a variety of strands -- about her life in Haida Gwaii and the area's history and topography with reflections about foraging and foods. Ranging from clamming to uses of wild rose petals, from salmonberries to salmon, from rhubarb and cloudberries to spruce tips, she takes one out into the landscape of Haida Gwaii. By including both things that drift in -- from shipwrecked and more -- and purchased items, she gives a sense of eating there by both happenstance and intention. (The things that drift in -- again quite literally -- are amazingly odd ranging from doritos to booze. There is a wry humor and deep seriousness to what Musgrave tells about this place where she has chosen to live since the 1970s, and where, oddly, I felt recognized (despite the reality that I have never and will never live in such a fireplace). Her recipes, like the multitude of photographs on every page, bring forward a full life in an isolated place and its values, a full life that truly shows us (as Musgrave says somewhere but I cannot now locate), that those not on Haida Gwaii are really those who risk isolation in some sense, who are away.
I liked this book so much I started looking at travel plans. I am probably not going to make it -- but in my imagination, I have already. And some day, I may make the recipes, which range from hot smoked salmon to some delightful things to do with chanterelles. And, Musgrave's attitude toward quinoa -- well, that probably tells me the most about my own need for some serious food self reflection. How much, she seems to ask, are we driven by fad -- and fad by the power of marketing -- and how much by where we are, what we want, and the jovial possibilities of our environs.
Thank you, Susan Musgrave. Thank you, Betty, for the gift.