Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Helping of Heiltsukness


After living for a full four years and a bit with the Heiltsuk I have experienced the seasonal rounds more than once. Many of the local favourites are related to the ocean. They also export some of their specialties to other seafood loving cultures like China and Japan.
When the weather around here begins to act all teenagerish and confused we know the herring are coming. Patches of sun, followed by a deluge of hail, a whiff of wind, sun, then rain and so on... in predictionless patterns March enters the scene. Not so predictionless are the Heiltsuk, though. They are busy getting all their equipment ready, setting up special frames in the water, watching for every sign that the herring are coming to lay their eggs.
There are three ways I know that eggs are collected by the Heiltsuk. There may be more that I don't know about. One way I've seen the Heiltsuk people collect herring eggs is by the hanging of fresh Western hemlock branches in the water. The result, when pulled out of the water, looks like a creamy snow covering the conifer branches. It has always been amazing to me to see children who are normally sugar-obsessed glom on to these branches and pick them clean of eggs. I could be wrong but I think this is the source of the dried eggs that are like sea-flavoured potato chips. I particularly like those.
Very common for collection is the style with eggs on broad leaves of kelp. This one I've seen most often served in feasts as I guess it is easier to store than the branches. It is stored in brine some with the kelp still attached and some without. This can be served fresh from the brine, covered with soy sauce or cooked in garlic butter. This is also the kind that is graded and prepped for export to Japan. They are willing to pay handsomely for good quality as I understand it. Some years, when there are a lot of good-quality herring eggs a nice chunk of money comes to the village. Some years are better than others.
The last kind of collection I know of but don't see as often is collected on a thin, grass-like seaweed. I don't think it's exported either. My personal experience of this Heiltsuk treat is that THIS is one of the cultural foods that needs you to grow up with it. I'm not used to the extreme chewiness of the eggs, even when they are butter fried. I, however, make an exception for the dried eggs. They are more delicate in texture and briny flavour. I'd love to have more of those right now.

Another of the important parts of the Heiltsuk year has just now passed in fishing. Many of those salmon who just months ago frolicked and skipped in the waves are now filling the freezers, smokehouses, and bellies of folk around here. They have as well delighted the long-traveled fishermen who patronize the fishing resort, Shearwater, a hop, skip and a jump across the Pass from us on Denny Island. Of course different salmon come at different times but summertime always seems to be equal to salmon to me around here. And September to October means spawning time.
As the salmon who hung out in the ocean practicing their jumping skills move to the creeks and lakes, a new phase of food collection begins. Fat females are harvested for eggs. The way I've seen it eaten around here is in seaweed soup. Now I'm sure some people would blanch at the thought of eating a soup filled with seaweed and pale pink ball-bearing-like salmon eggs but it really is pretty good. Particularly with the eggs. The cooked salmon eggs add a starchy balance to the faint grassy brininess of the cooked seaweed. And I just find that soup pretty too--dark green-brown scattered with the pale pink dots. Eggs are also collected for a delicacy I've yet to taste—-fermented salmon eggs. Also known as stink eggs, fermented salmon eggs are a traditional food all along the coast. I hear it is quite strong in taste. I've also heard that you can smoke eggs in the smokehouse too. Maybe it’s the same thing as stink eggs.
In mid-spring seaweed-collecting takes place. I myself have a bag of the black shriveled strands. I have to ask what kind it is again but is a very nice-tasting variety. They are good in soups or rehydrate and added to, say, bok choy, It's also very common here to use it as a salty condiment sprinkled over one's rice. After collection and cleaning, the seaweed is carefully set outside to dry on frames, many on rooftops, some on temporary sawhorses. Afterwards, it can be dried more in a low temperature oven to dehydrate it completely for storage.

Other delicacies and collected foods I know less about but I am aware of their presence in the seasonal round. Sea urchin and sea cucumber are collected around here. I don't know what happens to the sea urchin as of yet but I went with the language teacher and my class last year to the fish plant where they were processing sea cucumber for sale. I think it was for the Chinese market. Didn't really appeal to my senses but I'd try it, I guess. I just don't like remembering the thing still moving when it was cut up. In the winter months clams are collected around here. I've had some of those clams in fritters. Greasy but Oh God, they were good. I've eaten a bit of mussels from around here. Don't know if they are eaten much around here. At least not anymore. I know once the Heiltsuk collected Chinese slippers (shellfish) and abalone for consumption but that's rare or even illegal right now I think (abalone at least). I think there is some call to revitalize the abalone population again but I don't know too many details. I'm sure there's more things collected but I've not heard of them.

* The photo of a traditional salmon bbq is property of , a website devoted to one of the most beautiful jewels in Heiltsuk-Oweekeno traditional territory. Please visit the website and see for yourself.

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