Q & A with Susan Musgrave: A Taste of Haida Gwaii, Food Gathering and Feasting on the Edge of the World

Musgrave has more than 30 books to her name, spanning fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books. Shannon chats with her about her first cookbook.

Musgrave lives on the edge, literally and figuratively. She runs Copper Beech Guest House in Massett, Haida Gwaii, teaches poetry at University of British Columbia, and has more than 30 books to her name, spanning fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books.

Some titles include: Forcing the Narcissus (1994), Things That Keep and Do Not Change (1999), What the Small Day Cannot Hold (2000), When the World Is Not Our Home (2009), Obituary of Light – The Sangan River Meditations (2009), Origami Dove (2011), Cargo of Orchids (2000), and Given (2012).

Yet she’s discovered new consciousness, and terrain writing a cookbook. A Taste of Haida Gwaii, Food Gathering and Feasting on the Edge of the World (Whitecap Books, 2015), is a striking collection of local recipes, narratives, and poetics in practice.

Her first ever cookbook, A Taste of Haida Gwaii, Food Gathering and Feasting on the Edge of the World, offers a sense of wanderlust, nourishment and new Musgravian insight, a prolific writer who always wanted to be a restaurant critic.

Clearly, Newfoundland and Haida Gwaii hold vastly different geographies and climates, yet as far-flung places on opposite edges of the world they both hold a unique exoticness. From one isolated island to another, I am curious about how location plays a role in your gathering, cooking and feasting? 

You can forage anywhere. Downtown Toronto, Vancouver — you just have to know what to look for and where to find it. Every field, forest, swamp, empty lot and roadside can be a health-food market with free merchandise. New York City’s parks have had to ban the practice of foraging altogether since too many people started food gathering, and depleting the resources.

I like Jean Paul Sartre’s definition of a genius. Not someone with a gift, but someone who invents in desperate situations. Things can get desperate on Haida Gwaii, when weather sets in, and the few grocery stores start running out of food. You learn to be inventive.

What inspired you to write A Taste of Haida Gwaii’s Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World? 

I love being out in the woods, out on the water, out on the beach, and food gathering gives me a sense of purpose. Clambering over logs, over deadfalls, getting drenched by ocean waves — you get a good workout as well. I love food, and eating. I (sometimes) love writing. It seemed to make sense that I would write — not a cookbook but a love story with recipes.

What are some of the unique challenges of food writing versus poetry? Or, on the flip side, what do they have in common? 

All writing is hard. Poetry comes from a different place altogether —  a deeper and darker place for me, anyway. I had fun writing about food.  I could be irreverent.  Writing about food gathering appeals to the storyteller in me. I write in a number of different genres and each genre connects to a different part of my nature.

The Toronto Star ran an article where you mentioned that you and your third husband Stephen Reid, also a writer and convicted bank robber, had once proposed a cookbook, The Crook Book – Famous Criminals and Stories About Food, that never came into fruition. Also, you mention in A Taste of Haida Gwaii lusting after the dream of writing a Sicilian cookbook, Blood Oranges, after a short working holiday in Italy. Will there be more cookbooks in the works? 

One, at least, is percolating.

One of my favourite recipes is Razor Clam Linguine, both for it’s funny intro about following your friend Bob around the summer kitchen by candlelight after a few glasses of Krim Crawford (recoined after the famous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), and how it keeps changing every time it’s made. Which recipes out of the book were the most challenging to write? What are your favourites/staples? 

Razor Clam Linguine is definitely one. My sourdough bread  — I make about 12 loaves a week and end up giving a lot away. I like the Venison Stew with three kinds of onions and a shot of Jameson’s. Welsh Griddle Cakes. Anything made with wild roses.

Were there any recipes left out of the book?

Not recipes, but a lot of writing about specific ingredients. I like to learn things when I write, and I found that every single ingredient you use could be the subject of its own book. I had 9 pages on the subject of paprika, for example. I always thought paprika was that tasteless stale red stuff you sprinkled on devilled eggs. Until I talked to a Hungarian!

I wrote a dissertation on olive oil, pages about different kids of salts and peppers, varieties of vanilla. In the end I had to cut most of this out. Otherwise the book would have been twice as heavy!

What’s the most popular recipe?

Hard to say. The sourdough bread — though you have to be brave to take it on. I read recently someone has set up a babysitting service so you can hire her to feed your starter. My bread takes three days from start to finish. Some people might find that daunting.

The double chocolate torte, based on a recipe from Smitten Kitchen, is a favourite as well.

When you were writing A Taste of Haida Gwaii who did you imagine your reader to be?

Everyone loves stories about food so I imagined pretty well anyone — buy especially those with an interest in Haida Gwaii. Local people — some bought 12 copies each to give as Christmas presents. My friend Meredith gave it to all her relations “so they would understand why I live in this most amazing place.” Many islanders contributed to the book, through stories, photographs (there are over 350 photos in the book) recipes, advice, anecdotes. If  I wrote it with anyone in mind, I wrote it for my community.

As proprietor of Copper Beech House, a bed and breakfast on Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, you’ve hosted many esteemed authors, prime ministers, adventurers and artists. Who was your most audacious guest? Why does food play such a significant role in our travel experience? 

Audacious? Hmmm. Rufus Wainwright and his partner Jorn Weisbrodt stayed last summer and they were a lot of fun. But they were not unpleasant or difficult (audacious can mean more than one thing!). Food plays a significant role in our lives, not just when we are travelling. Maybe when we are travelling food is a comfort to us? Also we are more receptive, our senses are taking in so much that is new. So when you have a great meal, it is so appreciated, on so many levels.

How does your role as a poet influence your musings as a food writer? 

Everything’s connected. I don’t necessarily know how, and I’m not sure that I want to. I trust the subconscious, where the magic happens.

How does the land play a role in your work?

I don’t think of myself as separate from the land, actually. I am of it, if that doesn’t sound too conceited! I never understand the idea of people having workshops to “reconnect with nature.” What’s the problem? You go and sit in the woods. You don’t talk. You don’t think. You watch and you listen.

Doesn’t matter where I go, I feel connected to the land much more than the human population. The west of Ireland is my other favourite place in the world. I have to stop myself from being greedy — wanting to be somewhere where I am not.

What are some of the traditional recipes of the Haida people you’ve discovered?

I touch on some Haida delicacies in the book. K’aaw (herring roe on kelp), oolichan grease (oolichans are traded with the people from the Nass), sea urchins, seaweeds and kelp.  Traditionally the Haida people ate salmon. They preserved their berries in wooden boxes filled with oolichan grease.

What I love about A Taste of  Haida Gwaii is the constantly sense of curiosity. The conversations between the locals, and the attempts to try something new. Whether you are out clam digging, trying to hot smoke salmon for the first, or making Shipwrecked chicken wings, the sense of remaining open to possibility is a constant theme. The recipes are filled with colour, flavour and flair. How does food writing differ from prose writing? 

Do you mean writing fiction?  Because food writing is prose, isn’t it? I don’t think about categories. I just write. It took me a while to find the voice I needed for this book — I was trying to be so serious in my descriptions of everything and it started sounding like a textbook. I realized I could just write like me.  I mean, the way I would tell a story, not the way some food-writer-out-there-whom-I-imagined would write.

We first met during my MFA program at UBC, as you were my thesis advisor for Still No Word, published last spring by Breakwater Books. I always say that I’d never have come out as a poet without you. You make poetry a brave and brazen invitation, a place to witness, and edge walk. What initially drew you to poetry? Who were your teachers (informal, or otherwise)? 

I started writing poetry when I was young (14) and rebellious and not allowed to have a voice at home. Writing was a place where I could say what I wanted to say. I just kept doing it.  My parents had me committed to a mental hospital when I was 15 and it was there Robin Skelton, a writer and a professor who started the Creative Writing Department at the University of Victoria, came to visit me. He read some of my poems and told me, “You’re not mad, you’re a poet.”

Any poet I love, or have loved, is an influence on me. The list is endless. Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Ted Hughes. Randall Jarrell. John Berryman. Sharon Olds. Jane Hirsfield. Norman Dubie. Patrick Lane. Lorna Crozier. Tom Wayman. Stevie Smith. ee Cummings. Allen Ginsberg. I could go on and on.

How does teaching play into your work as a writer?  

I love everything to do with words, with language. I really love editing. The UBC students are very good — they have to be to get into the programme. I learn so much from them. It’s about learning, isn’t it?  School (the first ten years before I rose up) discouraged me from learning. Now I have an insatiable desire.

What are you currently working on? What’s next? 

Makes me think of the cartoon — guy with a hood over his head sitting in the electric chair inside the recording studio at a radio station. Announcer says to him, “So, where do you go from here?”

In January I started reading Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening. For two and a half months, every morning I chose one word, or a line or an image from his daily teaching, and wrote a poem. I stopped on my 65th birthday, March 12th. Partly because my six-year-old twin granddaughters were coming to stay for two weeks and I knew I wouldn’t have the time or the right state of mind. What I rediscovered is that writing poetry, for me, is a cure for depression. For January and February and the first half of March writing poetry did something to my brain so that I spent that whole time without being depressed. I can’t say there’s ever been a stretch that long in my life where I haven’t succumbed.

The curious thing is — I know that writing is what keeps me “sane.” So why do I forget that writing is what I need to do?

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