From A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World, published in 2015
When applying to be Haida Gwaii’s new Marriage Commissioner, one of the questions I was asked was, “What qualifies you for such a position?” I replied, honestly: “I’ve been married three times. Third time lucky because he’s spent most of our 25-year-marriage in prison.”
I got the job (just in case anyone reading this is dying to get married.)
What qualifies me to write a book about foraging and feasting on Haida Gwaii? I will quote someone else’s words to avoid having to eat my own: “If you don’t have an area of expertise, claim one.” — From the chapter “The Cookbook You’ve Always Wanted to Write” in “Will Write for Food” by Dianne Jacob.
My job of choice would be not Marriage Commissioner or writer, but food critic. I’ve written one restaurant review and I am including an excerpt here lest the editors of the Michelin Guide happen to read this book and wish to offer me gainful employment. I’d like to say, “Will write for food,” but it would be great if I could get my airfare and hotel paid for, also?
The review was entitled, “Ondaatje on the Hook: The Poet as Restaurant Critic.”
We weren’t brought menus, which meant the chef was going to surprise us. As an appetite-whetter we were served small bowls of delicate savoury broth with a sprinkling of herbs, croutons and the first chanterelles of the season. With this came a bottle of Cotes de Saint-Mont 1998 which Patrick [Patrick Lane, my guest] said, “has a plum quality with the edge of a knife.” At least, I think that’s what he said. By the time I had fished out my notebook he’d forgotten his exact words – very important when it comes to nailing down the qualities of a fine wine. He thought he might have said “an icy edge” but I’m sticking to my story: a plum quality with the edge of a knife. I’m the one who has been asked to take over The Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic’s job this week, while she is on hiatus.
Our waiter, noticing our almost-empty glasses, tops us up, and I notice we’ve made a serious dent in the bottle before we’ve even finished the pre-appetizer course. “Nice and tight,” Patrick declares, of the croutons, “like a woman. Keeping the tension in the crouton is hard work.” Then, after a reflective pause, “I should be writing this!” Little does he know. He is.
Next comes a Dover sole so delicate it could slip through your breath (my line, not Patrick’s.) “This sole looks like Ondaatje on the hook,” Patrick says, not to be out-done. At least, when I look at what I’ve written, it appears that’s what he said. It could have been “Ondaatje on the book” but that wouldn’t have made sense. Unfortunately, not much is making sense by this point. The evening seems to be slipping from our hands.
Finally, Patrick says something normal. “This is the best Dover sole I’ve had in my life!” I can tell he means it because he has even eaten the skeleton.
That was the last note I took.
I know we had a second bottle of wine, and that it was red: I meant to make a note of the name. At that point I decided to pace myself, which meant making sure I drank glass for glass with my companion so I would get my share, and as a result I am unable to remember the nuances of what we had to eat. I can safely say that Pierre can cook lamb so it melts in your mouth; you don’t even need teeth in order to eat it.
They say the mark of a good writer is one who can make you drool and your gastric juices begin to ferment by describing the smells and tastes of a memorable feast. I’d like to be able to describe our final course in the kind of elegant language a sober restaurant critic might use, (“then came an apple upside-down tart with warm thyme-infused honey”) but by this time we had dropped the last vestiges of the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. Dessert was something with puff pastry, poached pear and blackberry sauce. No little seeds that get caught in your teeth, either. It was yummy. I would have asked for a second helping but that might not have been…. professional.”
Living on Haida Gwaii, “a remote archipelago” that lies equidistant from Luxor, Machu Picchu, Nineveh and Timbuktu, I can’t just row around the point to have dinner at the Deep Cove Chalet, anymore, but I have learned to fend for myself, and for my guests at Copper Beech House, in the culinary department.
I should add, too, that from the point of view of a Haida Gwaiilander, it is the rest of the world that is remote. Perhaps that is being Haida Gwaii-centric, but where else can you count twenty-five eagles perched on the same rock, or lie out under the stars in August and watch the Perseids, the Northern Lights and forked lightning all at the same time? When the storms start howling and the plane doesn’t come in, and the ferry is stuck in Prince Rupert and supplies are running low in the Co-Op and the Government Liquor Store, there’s no place on this earth I’d rather be.