Christmas dinner, island style

  • Dec. 22, 2004 1:00 p.m.

By Mariah McCooey–Islanders have very unique tastes – and I don’t mean gumboots and pickup trucks. Island cuisine, with all its influences, is very distinctive, even exotic, considering the typical mainlander’s fare. For many people on-island, crab, smoked salmon, and venison are not luxury items but staples in the island diet. The availability of such amazing food adds a truly special touch to many Christmas feasts as well, where the usual turkey and stuffin’ is complemented by seaweed, octopus balls, nettles, and poached halibut. And there is certainly no lack of local wizards to transform these ingredients into mouthwatering dishes.
David Phillips is one of Masset’s premiere culinary geniuses, as anyone who has been to his Christmas feast agrees. “It’s an outrageous little event,” he said, referring to his Christmas Eve celebration where he feeds as many as 60 people. “It’s amazing-every surface in the house is covered in food.” He has already begun to plan the extravaganza, which will feature turkey, venison roast, local pork, smoked fish, “a big slab” of spring salmon, poached halibut, clam cakes, octopus balls, three kinds of salad, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts (a personal favourite). “I like them Italian style,” he said, “with a little olive oil and parmesan.” Mr. Phillips is passionate about food. The descriptions are so vivid that I am salivating-over the phone-before he even started on dessert, which is usually pumpkin pie, butter tarts, mincemeat tarts, and cakes. He has been hosting this feast for over thirty years, since the early 1970s. In fact, Mr. Phillips is so renowned that he once turned down a request from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to cook for them in Toronto. “I was already here,” he said, “I didn’t want to stay around Toronto.”
There is a culture of feasts here, whether it’s a Haida celebration or a potluck on North Beach. People come together over food; to beat back the winter drudgery and to share. The Haida tradition of feasting in the winter goes back to time immemorial, and is an obvious influence for all.
Roberta Olson in Skidegate is also well-known for her amazing edible creations in the traditional Haida style. On the menu this Christmas, her lucky guests will feast on octopus balls, ghow, dried seaweed, pepper-smoked spring salmon, cod soufflé, halibut and cream sauce, venison roast, seafood chowder, and wild cranberries. For dessert, there will be nettle and mint tea and berry pie.
“I usually deal with all my own food,” said Ms Olson. She smokes her own fish, gathers seafood, nettles, berries, and seaweed – all skills she learned from her parents, she said.
In Sandspit, Judy Hadcock is the local cook extraordinaire, and cooks not one but multiple Christmas feasts-an activity she obviously enjoys. She does the cooking for several company Christmas parties-in fact when I talked to her she was in the midst of preparing a dinner for the J.S. Jones party. For this one, she’s preparing a traditional turkey and dressing, seafood fettuccini, baked ham, perogies and sweet ‘n sour meatballs. “I love it!” she said, “It’s very fulfillingÂ… always a nice feeling, when a meal is finished and ready – it’s a real sense of accomplishment.” For dessert, she’s making blueberry and apple pie, orange creamsicle cake and a double-chocolate cake. “Everybody’s in to food here,” she said, chuckling, “all I do is cook, cook cook! It keeps me really busy.”
Of course, people come to the islands bringing with them culinary traditions of their own, and these imports are adapted and shaped by the availability of certain ingredients on the islands. Quebecoise Claire Menard of Tlell sometimes makes a traditional French Canadian “tortiere” which she describes as a “many-layered meat pie.” In the old days, she said, it would be made from wild birds, but here she makes it with deer meat. “It’s totally different, but that’s what you have! So you make do.”
So whether you’re having turkey with Chanterelle stuffing, or smoked salmon, or huckleberry pie for your Christmas feast, take a second to appreciate the food that comes from here, and how these islands have influenced your tastebuds.

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