Thanksgiving redux

turkeyToday, I went shopping. There were mounds of apples, corn, plums, cabbage, tomatoes, turnips, carrots at the market on Blenkinsop. It was a treasure house of food. Much of it is grown locally.

I’m grateful. I’m grateful that the present isn’t the past. When I was a kid, stores didn’t have a cornucopia of exotic food—mangoes, papayas, red, yellow, green peppers—and even if they had, we couldn’t afford them.

We ate a lot of local food. Bush rabbits were a favorite. A .22 shell cost half a cent. If we were a good shot, we only needed one .22 shell to kill a rabbit. Then we took it home with, hopefully, two or three others, and we skinned them, gutted them and gave them to our mother who made rabbit pie with carrots and turnips and gravy. We caught perch at the dock. My father was a commercial fisherman so we always had fish. We also ate a lot of ducks in the fall because the ducks got caught in the nets and drowned. My father sent boxes full of ducks. My mother and I sat on the back steps, plucked and cleaned them. We didn’t have the sense to just slit open the breast, take out the meat and throw the rest away. If my father was lucky at hunting, we ate venison.

When my father and his uncle were trapped in their winter fish camp by an early breakup, they were down to some flour and lard. They had been trapping muskrats on the side so had traps in place. They started skinning and eating the muskrats. My father said they stood them up, heads still on, around the side of a pot of boiling water. He was pretty thin by the time he arrived home.

Now, I go to the Blenkinsop store and buy ground lamb, chicken thighs, the occasional steak. I visit Fairways and buy lamb shoulder chops from New Zealand. Fairways is a local chain. It has large Chinese vegetable sections and aisles of ethnic food. There are things I’ve never eaten. Taro root, bitter melon, chicken feet. I believe the fresh green pod peas are flown in from China. My grandmother and mother grew peas in their garden. We sat on the steps shelling them into a large bowl. Once we ate them there were no more peas until the next summer. Nobody flew peas half-way around the world.

We got some things it is impossible or nearly impossible to buy today. Icelandic skyr, a sort of yogurt but for the initiated, far superior. Blood sausage made locally when animals were slaughtered. Lifra pilsa, liver sausage. Friends of ours would sometimes bring the first milk a cow produced after a calf was born. It was considered healing for people who weren’t well. Most of these things, and others, disappeared with the disappearance of the small farms and dairies and the more stringent health rules.

However, for all the things that have disappeared, there has been a cornucopia of food because of cheap transportation. Grapes in December. Unbelievable! Mangoes, not just one, but many kinds, all year long. I had never tasted a mango until my wife brought one home when we were first married.

Today, I saw trays of something I didn’t recognize. They were trays of sweetgrass, organic, locally grown. What next, I thought. I bought some mushrooms. My mother never bought mushrooms. I don’t know if they were there to buy. Now, there are rows of mushrooms, brown, white, exotic, wild. I bought the white ones. They were on sale. My step-grandmother, Katherine, was a mushroom expert. With her advice, it was possible to pick the large white mushrooms in the cow pastures. I learned to pick those and to pick morels. The mushrooms could be hung up on strings across the ceiling of the kitchen. They were fall decorations. Here, on Vancouver Island, I used to pick chantrelles and oyster mushrooms. Now, I just put mushrooms into a brown bag in the grocery store.

We made the most of what was available. Wild raspberries that grow well in old brush piles, high bush cranberries in swampy areas, wild plums, Saskatoons, wild strawberries (finicky little berries that were intensely flavorful), pin cherries, chokecherries. Here, I only pick blackberries. In the stores, for exorbitant prices, there are commercially grown raspberries, blackberries, strawberries. Still, expensive or not, they are available and there are worse things to spend your money on.

We are blessed. High prices for food, or not. We live in abundance. So much so that we waste too much. My mother and grandmother, my step-grandmother, wasted nothing. Having enough food on the table for a family was a challenge. It required knowledge, skill, experience, work.

When I sit down for supper at my daughter and son-in-law’s tomorrow evening, I will be grateful, not just for the food we will eat at that meal but for all the meals that I have eaten all year. Thank you to the farmers, ranchers, orchardists, fishers who take big risks and who work hard to produce these meals. Blessings upon you. May the rain come for those who so desperately need it. May it stay dry for those who need it. May the storms over the water not be too fierce. May your prosper.

On the Way to Iceland

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Travelers on the way to Iceland usually stopped at the Faroes. The descriptions of the Faroese and their houses are similar to what is later described in Iceland but with some surprising differences. Symington, like travelers before him, gets off the boat at Thorshaven and keen observer that he is, has this to say about the town.

“Houses, stone for a few feet next the ground, then wood, tarred or painted black, and generally two stories in height; small windows, the sashes of which are painted white; green turf on the roofs. The interiors of the poorer sort of houses are very dark; an utter absence of voluntary ventilation; one fire, and that in the kitchen, the chimney often only a hole in the roof. Yet even in these hovels there is generally a guest-room, comfortably boarded and furnished. In such apartments we observed chairs, tales, chests of drawers, feather-beds, down coverlets, a few books, engravings on the walls, specimens of ingenious native handiwork, curiosities, etc. This juxtaposition under the same roof was new to us, and struck every one as something quite peculiar and contrary to all our previous experiences. The streets of Thorshavn are only narrow dirty irregular passages, often not more than two or three feet wide; one walks upon are rock or mud. These passages wind up steep places, and run in all manner of zigzag directions, so that the most direct line from one point to another generally leads “straight down crooked land and all round the square.” Observed a man on the top of a house cutting grass with a sickle. Here the approach of spring is first indicated by the turf roofs of the house becoming green. Being invited, we entered several fishermen’s houses; they seemed dark, smoky, and dirty; and, in all, the air was close and stifling. In one, observed a savoury pot of puffin broth, suspended from the ceiling and boiling on a turf fire built open like a smith’s forge, the smoke finding only a very partial egress by the hole overhead; on the wall hung a number of plucked puffins and guillemots; several hens seen through the smoke sitting contentedly perched on a spar evidently intended for their accommodation. In the corner of the apartment; a stone hand-mill for grinding barley, such as Sarah may have used, lay on the floor; reminding one of the East, from whence the Scandinavians came in the days of Odin.

Faroese boatman

Faroese boatman

In passing along the street we saw strips of whale-flesh, black and reddish-coloured, hanging outside the gable of almost every house to dry, just as we have seen herrings in fishing-villages on our own coasts. When a shoal of whales is driven ashore by the boatmen, there are great rejoicings among the islanders, whose faces, we were told, actually shine for weeks after this their season of feasting. What cannot be eaten at the time is dried for future use. Boiled or roasted it is nutritious, and not very unpalatable. The dried flesh which I tasted resembled tough beef, with a flavour of venison. Being “blood-meat,” I would not have known it to be from the sea; and have been told that, when fresh and properly cooked, tender steaks from a young whale can scarcely be distinguished for beef-steak.”

This description is one of the best I’ve read simply for its details. Symington sees a man on the roof of a house with a sickle cutting grass for his livestock. Spring is heralded by the roofs of the houses turning green. He actually gives us a description of cooking being done and of both plucked birds and live chickens in the house. He tries the whale meat and describes it as tough beef.

The Faroese are less well known than the Icelanders. That may be for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps, in part, it was their greater willingness to be part of the Danish empire, partly because it was the Icelanders who had the sagas, partly because Iceland excited a great deal of curiosity during the 19th C. because of its geology. However, the Faroes have always been a safe harbour, a stopping point on a dangerous journey, and Icelanders have, through the centuries, sought shelter in Faroese harbours. The climate is just enough different that grain can be grown. There has been enough prosperity that as Symington describes, there are a variety of crafts, often admirably done in spite of the dark, dank, unhealthy living conditions.

It is a shame that the visitors who came to Iceland were more interested in the geology than the people. Because they come from wealthy, often noble families, they have little or no interest in ordinary people and if they comment on the fishermen or the paupers, it is dismissively. Even Ebenezer Henderson, the minister who comes to distribute Bibles is a snob, interested only in associating with individuals he considers worthy of his attention. His Christ would have been quite comfortable in the temple of the money changers.

The scientific reports that came of all the expeditions to Iceland have long ago become irrelevant. The mechanisms of the geysers have been revealed, the rocks, classified. Quite by accident, the simple fact that there were no commercial inns or hotels, meant that the people where the travellers stayed were described. That, ironically, is what is valuable.

It is impossible to separate the Faroes and Iceland. Historically, they are joined. Politically they were joined. They are bound by custom and circumstance. Symington is quite right to call his book Faroe and Iceland.

It is by comparing the Faroese and the Icelanders that we can obtain a deeper understanding of our ancestors. Too often we talk and write of Iceland as if, somehow, it was separate from all the islands between it and Europe but nothing could be further from the truth. Ships and sailors seek shelter. They seek trade. They establish social and business relationships. It is in these other places where we can get a glimpse of what our ancestors were and were not like.

Icelandic census, 1855

1855mormonhouse
Icelandic census, 1855

The population is 64,603.

52,475 live by farming

5,055 live by fishing

“There were…65 persons deaf and dumb, and 202 blind.”

“There was not then a single watchmaker on the island. The extreme paucity of common tradesmen—less than 11 to the 1000—indicates a very primitive pastoral state of society amongst the islanders; home wants being generally supplied by home skill.”

Clergymen, professor and teachers at the college, and employes at churches 2,365

Civil officers 454

Do. Out of office 140

Farmers who live by agriculture 52,475

Farmers who depend chiefly on the fisheries 5,055

Tradesmen as follows:
Bakers 10
Coopers 35
Gold and silversmiths 80
Carpenters 61
Blacksmiths 80
Masons 6
Millers 4
Turners 8
Boat builders 38
Shoemakers 18
Tailors 27
Joiners 174
Saddlers 46
Weavers 20
Men who live by other industrial occupations 103
Merchants and innkeepers 730
Pensioners, and people living on teir own means 356
Day labourers 523
Miscellaneous occupations not classed 586
Paupers 1,207
Prisoners 2

This census was taken the same year that a group of Icelandic Mormons left Iceland.

Remember, Symington is reporting this in 1862; however, the census was in 1855. Personally,

I’m amazed at some of the figures. How did they define weavers? Nearly every farm had some weaving done on it. Were there people who did nothing but weave?

730 merchants and innkeepers. There were no inns as we know them. There was the hotel in Reykjavik and something, I believe in Akureryri but all travellers tales are of sleeping in tents, churches or farm houses. Were there really 730 Danish traders and their minions?

How can it be that there were only 46 saddlers when horses were the main mode of transportation? Did most farmers make their own saddles?

Gold and silversmiths are a mystery. Apparently, Icelanders used Danish silver coins to make jewelry. There’s no silver or gold in Iceland. The jewelry was worn by the women. Some of it may have been traded to the Danes. But, seriously, there were 80 people making their living from being silver and goldsmiths?

Given that Iceland had a home schooling system, the 2,365 clergymen, professors and teachers at the college, and employees at churches seems excessive. That’s a lot of men living off the rest of the population. Many of them were not well paid, of course. Many clergymen lived in poverty. There were itinerant teachers and the clergy took an active part in seeing that children could read and write. You couldn’t get confirmed if you couldn’t read and write and if you didn’t get confirmed, you couldn’t get married. Also, if you didn’t get confirmed, it was a public disgrace on your family.

What do you know about your great-greats? Were any of them goldsmiths, coopers, saddle makers?

Bakers? Who were these bakers in 1855? There were stoves in the Danish traders houses but none or very few in Icelandic houses. The trade ships brought wood but it was so expensive that it was only for wealthy farmers and for the Danes. They also brought coal but it was so expensive that it was bought by the pound to be used in a forge. I’d sure like to know who, in 1855, was a baker? With what? Grain was dreadfully expensive. People on the farms made flat bread or baked rye bread in the ground in areas where the ground was hot enough. Maybe some Icelandic historian will enlighten us.

Do any of the readers of this blog have family stories that might help explain these figures?
(From Andrew James Symington, Faroe and Iceland)

Lake Winnipeg in Winter

SONY DSCIt snowed last night. The morning was pristine white. The snow here is soft, fluffy, dry unlike the wet heavy snow of the West Coast.

The sky was white, fading into blue and everywhere there were blue and grey shadows and by early afternoon the low spot at third and centre was filled with water. Trucks and cars going through it went splash, splash and the water rushed away in little waves.

At the lake’s edge there was wind, cold enough to make me wish I’d brought a scarf. The reflection of the snow and the drifting  crystals turned the horizon white, made it endless as if there was nothing in the distance but infinity. The bare corrugated ice of the race track once free of snow,has drifts stretching across it.

There is no risk of being lost in a white out because the wind is gentle, sending the snow scurrying over the lake’s surface. On both sides of the track there are high ridges of snow that were ploughed to provide barriers for cars hurtling around the curves during the Ice Festival.

The dock is crusted with ice and frost. In the distance are poles marking fishing nets. There are three sports fishing huts, incongruous with their sharp edges in a world where the wind curves everything except the cast up blocks of ice that form ridges here and there.

Walking on the race track is easy, the surface dark and rough, not like the ice that has been polished smooth by the wind. The drifts are not yet deep. The point at the north side of the bay is blurred by the frost in the air.

SONY DSC

As I trudge over ice and snow, I think of my father and his father and his father, all working on the ice as commercial fishermen. I think of the first settlers, confounded by ice like this, hard enough and deep enough to support cars and trucks, ice that had to be chopped and chiselled until four feet, sometimes six feet down until water appeared and nets could be set.

It is here that the local people, the Cree, the Saulteux, appear, faint figures in the crystal mist. Native people showing the Icelandic settlers how to push a net under the ice with a pole and to push that pole with another pole and another pole so as to get the net stretched out and then to painfully, slowly chisel away another hole so both ends of the net can be secured.

It is then some genius created the jigger, that simplest of tools that allowed nets to be run under the ice. On ice like this, trying out a new invention that would mean fish to eat in the dead of winter. And when it worked, men making more jiggers so more families could survive the hunger winters for the idea of easy hunting for meat is a city myth. My great grandfather went many times to hunt for deer and moose and came home empty handed. Fish was more dependable.

I stand with my back to the wind and I think of all the nets my father set and lifted in a lifetime, all the frozen fish we packed, shipped to market.

But also on the ice faintly in the haze are others not so fortunate. Those who were lost in blizzards and froze to death. Those who walked all night on frozen feet and had to have them amputated and spent the rest of their lives on their knees clearing land and doing chores.

Anyone brought up on the shores of Lake Winnipeg who goes out on the ice is never alone for a host of images surrounds with him. Even when it’s a fine day with a light wind and a blue sky.