I’ve been looking at Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, the two volumes edited by Franz Boas, based on data collected by George Hunt, as part of the 35th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1913-1914. It’s fascinating reading, dense and full of detail of daily life, world view, and spiritual practices of the people who’ve lived on north-eastern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland and islands in-between since the beginning of time. I think that Boas got a lot wrong in his work as an ethnologist — for instance, I believe that the people he considers in these two huge books are more properly the Kwakwaka’wakw ( the Kwakiutl are one band of Kwakwala-speaking people) – and he’s been criticized for his paternalism, his insufficient language skills, and all the errors he made in recording and interpreting the materials he collected. But it seems to me that there is also a wealth of observation in these books and I’m drawn to them again and again. I have both volumes in the original green cloth bindings, the pages fine as tissue. ( I also have the later abridged edition, Kwakiutl Ethnology, edited and introduced by Helen Codere.) It helps to read them at the same time as, or in the literary company of, someone like Agnes Alfred, whose stories and memories are collected in Paddling to Where I Stand, edited by her granddaughter, Daisy Sewid-Smith, and Martine Reid.
I love the stories about food preparation. In the huge Boas volumes, the texts are bilingual and half the page tells you in English, and half in Kwakwala (though I suspect the orthography is dated) how roots were dug and preserved for winter, how herring spawn was gathered, how to roast or dry the various kinds of salmon, including heads, and the elaborate procedures for preserving berries and crabapples. These are still significant foods for those of us living on the west coast. In the kitchens of people I know, mushrooms are drying, canning kettles are steaming, and berry buckets are stained dark purple. Sometimes I try to sound out the Kwakwala, though I suspect I make a terrible mess of it. It seems to be that the style of the accounts is richer for the repetitions that the English only half-preserves.
Listen to a little of how salal is prepared for keeping: Now I will talk about the salal-berry cakes, which are made carefully by the women for their own food and for their husbands, their children, and their relatives…she picks the salal-berries off the branches, and she puts them into the same dishes; and when they have all been cleaned, she takes the mortar box for the salal-berries, and she puts it down on the floor where she is going to work; and she also takes her husband’s stone hammer and places it on the edge or by the side of the mortar-box; and she puts in both hands and takes out the cleaned salal-berries and places them in the mortar-box. When they are two finger-widths deep in the bottom of the mortar-box, she takes her stone hammer and pounds them until they have all burst… She does not make them into cakes quickly but leaves them for two nights in the dish, covered over with a mat, before making the cakes.
And here’s how Agnes remembers making berry cakes, from the chapter “Childhood”: We also picked berries to make cakes. We crushed and dried them on split cedar racks over the fire and shaped them into flat squares so that they could be stored. We made a lot of those cakes because we served them at feasts. We had so many kinds of berries – huckleberries, salmonberries, red elderberries, and salal berries. Another thing we ate was cranberries. We used them all and dried them. That was the jam of the early days. We could eat them all winter long. We also stored them in cedar boxes and preserved them for a long time. The same was also true of wild crabapples. (My note: the names for the berries in Kwakwala are also given but I can’t seem to reproduce the diacritics…)
We spent the morning up the mountain, doing one final picking of blackberries for a second batch of syrup. It’s so delicious and I know how we’ll be grateful for it in winter, over pancakes or stirred into sparkling water to remind us of summer. I also made a batch of peach jam, flavoured with ginger, cinnamon, and a vanilla bean. There was a little left after I’d put the jars into the canning kettle and John drizzled the amber syrup over ice-cream, pronouncing it the best ever.
Over the past month, I’ve made dozens of jars of jam – blackberry, raspberry, gooseberry, and peach – and will gather salal berries this week for jelly. Hot peppers and apples are waiting to be made into chutney. It’s about preserving food, yes, but also about preserving summer, its particular gifts – the slow ripening of blackberries, the scent of peaches, the brilliant colour of the raspberries collected before it gets too hot, and how we are shadowed in our work by the women who have taught us how to collect enough, to prepare our vessels, to take our time, keeping in our minds and hearts the circle of family and friends worth this seasonal effort.