A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World is a cookbook run through with tangential veins of storytelling and permeated with rich character. A scrapbook-style compilation of recipes, legends, photographs, narratives, and local knowledge novelist, poet, and first-time cookbook author Susan Musgrave has amassed since moving to Graham Island in the late seventies, reading A Taste of Haida Gwaii feels akin to exploring the Canada’s enigmatic westernmost archipelago with a funny and insightful personal guide.
“I’ve always liked the stories around food—and there are so many stories here,” says Musgrave. The inspiration to document west coast food narratives struck after Musgrave took ownership of Masset’s historic Copper Beech House bed and breakfast, and found herself baking sourdough loaves and jarring preserves to share with guests. “When I took Copper Beech House, I started picking berries and realizing how much people liked to eat locally,” she says. “It’s very satisfying when you’ve spent all day outside cold and wet and you come back with something you’ve picked or caught yourself.” Musgrave’s cooking tips reflect the unpredictability of nature. “When I say ‘a leg of roast venison,’ it is hard to say ‘a 3lb leg because when you go out to shoot a deer you don’t know how big his legs are going to be,” she writes. However, while some of her recipes hinge on local delicacies, such as k’waa (salty herring roe on kelp), and fresh spruce tips, the majority of her ingredients can be hunted down at urban grocers (think venison, razor clams, octopus, and halibut) if foraging is entirely off the table.
Honestly, you could only ever make Musgrave’s chocolate chip shortbread recipe, and A Taste of Haida Gwaii would still be worth adding to your collection on the merit of her matter-of-fact and darkly funny writing alone (“I didn’t learn to cook until I had left home and was living in sin and in too many rooms with the English professor from Berkeley I’d met in the mental hospital where we’d both found ourselves committed” she says by way of introduction). “I didn’t know at first what kind of voice to use, and then I realized if I could just be myself, that was the trick. And then it was so easy, because writing nonfiction is where my sense of humour usually comes out,” she explains. The book’s breakfast section alone veers from relating a history of salt, to confessions of Musgrave’s trepidation around omelettes, to a comparison between yogurt and crack cocaine, and an aside about how her youngest daughter once tried buying cigarettes from a frozen yogurt shop when out with her mother for a birthday treat. In short—it’s unexpected, entertaining, and leagues apart from the average cookbook, in a wonderful world of its own.