With harvest season on our doorstep, thoughts turn to gathering and preserving for the colder months ahead. Our ancestors expended a great deal of time and energy keeping food in different ways. From fish to berries, wild and domestic crops and game were prepared in different ways with the purpose of having edible food for the lean months ahead.
First Nations people smoked and dried fish, made oils, and dried berries and seaweed without the use of salt, sugar and jars and our pioneer forefathers and mothers brought with them their European ways of preserving. Fish and meat, fruits and vegetables were canned, pickled, dried, salted, fermented, made into beverages, or where it was cold enough, frozen.
On the West Coast, one of the most proliferate and important food sources has been salmon. As the different varieties of salmon would make their appearance throughout the season, people found it necessary to find ways of preserving it.
“Processing the salmon harvest has been going on for hundreds of years, (William Sovde, longtime logger) Natives dried it (salmon) for their own use and for trading. Early settlers salted it for export.”
In ‘Nootka Sound Explored’ author Laurie Jones tells us that prior to the establishment of canneries, there were several Japanese owned salteries on the west coast of the island. “Herring and later chum salmon were dry-salted and shipped out to markets in China and Japan… the salteries were exporting fish as early as 1902.”
Smoking fish as a means of preserving has also been practised the world over for centuries. Explorers were surprised to find the Nootka people of the west coast of Vancouver Island smoking and preparing fish right in their own dwellings. The people of the Nimpkish area were also known to smoke large quantities of fish in their homes.
The smokehouses at U’dzo’la’s on the Nimpkish River were described to Leonard Hamm the following way: “The smoke houses at U’dzo’la’s were the biggest I ever saw… big enough for four families, with four levels of hanging racks. The fires were carefully tended, so that they did not burn too hot.
Maybe six or seven hundred fish hanging at one time. There was a big flat piece of metal put over the fire, so the smoke would to up around the edges, not go straight up the smoke hole.”
The process of smoking the fish is described thus: (from Raincoast Kitchens). “Every day, over two hundred fish were brought in, cleaned, filleted and hung up to dry. Those prepared the first day were hung closest to the ceiling of the house, those prepared the following days were hung on lower levels… my job was to turn those which were already hung up. They would have to be turned several times each day.”
In ‘The North American Indian’, Edward Curtis notes that “on account of its keeping qualities, dog-salmon (chum) was the principal storage food, and was used through the winter whenever the weather did not permit fishing.” He goes on to say that the blubber and flesh of whales (that were sometimes stranded on shore or hunted) was also smoked and preserved, and the oil was stored.
Captain Cook observed that porpoise was commonly processed by the Nootka on the west coast, “the fat or rind of which, as well as the flesh, they cut in large pieces and having dried them, as they do the herrings, eat them”. He also noted that the oil from sea animals was used “in great quantities”.
Another fish prized by the native people of the northwest were the eulachon
(smelt), whose nutrient rich oil was rendered into a grease that is said to have medicinal properties, and would be used to ward off colds and flu in the same manner that cod liver oil has been used by Europeans. Eulachon oil was also an important trade item and a source of wealth. In the 1700s a vast network of eulachon “grease trails” stretched from Alaska to the Fraser River, even crossing the northern Rockies.
Eulachon have also been called ‘candle fish’, as they are so full of oil that when dried, placed upright, and lit, the fish would burn from end to end like a candle. Eulachon was often dried and smoked as well.
“The return of the eulachon meant the beginning of spring and a renewed food supply, (What’s Cooking America) literally saving lives and earning them the name “salvation fish” or “saviour fish.” They were the first fish to arrive in the river after a long cold winter when most of the stored food supplies had been depleted.
The oil or grease made from eulachon was rendered in various ways by individual tribes, but mainly the process was to fill a pit or box with the fish, allow them to decay for a week or two, then add boiling water so that the grease would rise to the top so that it could be skimmed off. At room temperature, the grease is solid like butter and would be eaten with other fish or berries. Bread could be dipped in the oil for eating also.
Florence Tickner, whose family were settlers in Knight Inlet, describes how when the eulachon run started, they ate the fish fresh until they couldn’t eat any more and how her family always had a stone crock containing eulachon in brine, which would be eaten later. “Preserving food in those days often presented a challenge” she relates: “Mother used jars and put up berries, salmon, deer meat and deer stew. Many people had a smoke house, and smoked salmon, cod, halibut, deer and eulachon.”
Differing from the native people, settlers brought with them the idea of leaving salmon in a brine before smoking it. The brine was usually a combination of brown demerara sugar and pickling salt, with the amount of each being varied, depending on how ‘candy-like’ a person would want their fish to turn out to be. The number of days the fish stayed in the brine and the length of time for smoking the fish varied from individual to individual, as did the addition of certain other flavourings like maple syrup or whiskey. Many people still smoke their own salmon and everyone has their own unique recipe.
Salmon and other seafood was often also ‘jarred’ or canned. It wasn’t long before the commercially minded saw the potential in processing large amounts of salmon for canning, and by 1910, there were about 80 canneries were operating along the coast. Clams were also processed for canning.
Aside from fish, seafood and wildlife, another important indigenous food source was berries. “There were plenty of berries: blackberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, blueberries, saskatoons and wild strawberries. Indian women showed settlers the value of other berries such as the fruit of salal and Oregon grape.” (Women of British Columbia). Before the advent of jars, native women were preparing berries for keeping. ‘Currants, salal berries, raspberries, red elder berries or a mixture of them were steamed or boiled, then placed in cedar frames, spear on rack and dried slowly over a fire.’ (Raincoast Kitchen). These would be formed into cakes for keeping and eating later.
Women settlers were often challenged in making preserves, as finding containers took some ingenuity until glass jars were available, and even when they did become available, were considered to be a luxury.
“We used whiskey bottles” recalls one woman pioneer… “we had to sterilize them [and] to make containers for jam, we tied a string around the bottom of the neck of each bottle, dipped that in coal oil and set it alight, then plunged the bottle into a pail of cold water. Usually the neck snapped off neatly.” (Women of British Columbia)
Sealing jams and preserves was another task; settlers could use the hard, glutinous substance in which store-bought bacon was preserved. Pieces of cloth, cheesecloth or paper could also be used. If possible, enough jam was made to last the family through the winter.
The West Coast rainforest also abounded with edible mushrooms which came into fruit at different times of the year due to the mild climate, and these could be dried by hanging them in strings over a wood stove.
Cultivating fruits and vegetables opened up many more possibilities for variety of food and accessibility when the growing season was over. Root vegetables could be stored in a root cellar or house.
“We had lots to eat; potatoes, carrots, parsnips turnips and beets were in the root house… we had over one hundred fruit trees in the orchard, cherries, plums and apples.” (Jean Turner, Raincoast Kitchen). Jean recalls that her mother kept a very large garden and would put away five or six hundred jars of preserved fruits and vegetables before the winter. Certain varieties of apples would also remain edible, if kept in a cool place, throughout the year.
Many vegetables were pickled, and cabbage could be fermented and made into sauerkraut. Captain Cook believed that sauerkraut was a ‘cure-all’ and made it a staple aboard ship in the late 1700’s. German and Eastern European settlers brought the tradition of sauerkraut with them to the west. “Barrels of freshly pounded cabbage were kept for about a fortnight in a warm kitchen or stable and later transferred to a cellar or larder where they were kept for the whole winter.” (Pickled, Potted & Canned, Sue Shephard)
Today, many food preparation techniques have been continued or revived, despite the advent of refrigerators and freezers. Numerous people today still smoke or jar fish and wild meat, pick mushrooms and berries and make jam because they enjoy the process and enjoy the taste of food that is both wild and prepared by hand. Many of us take pleasure in giving and receiving gifts of food made from favourite recipes for preserving, and with Thanksgiving around the corner, we can be thankful that much of the wild fare our forefathers in this area enjoyed is still available to us today.
‘Raincoast Kitchens’ is a wonderful collection of old time recipes produced by the Campbell River Museum, and available in the Museum Shop. Books like ‘The Women of British Columbia’ are available in our Archives collection.
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