Holding an eagle wing against her heart, Roberta Olson stands in her dining room and quietly recites a Haida prayer for her guests. Clad in a black robe with red appliquéd native designs, the tiny woman has just spent the afternoon with her two young cousins and brother in a hectic cooking session in the kitchen of her home—in the First Nations community of Skidegate in remote Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, BC). The teenagers, Wynona and Cohan, sing a traditional welcoming song. Then it’s time to eat.
On a table set amid an impressive collection of Haida carvings, prints and needlework from the islands’ world-renowned artists, a parade of dishes arrives to feed a dozen diners from Germany, France and Canada. First up is fresh seafood chowder, then a mixed appetizer platter of naaw (octopus), kaaw (herring roe on kelp), skuu (black dried seaweed) and Salmon Three Ways, including a dried and smoked version called gilgii. The main courses open with Dungeness crab salad topped with crisp, slightly salty sea asparagus. Close on its heels, a silky smoked sablefish, then cod soufflé followed by venison stew with chanterelle mushrooms, grilled vegetables and Tomato Joe’s organic tomatoes grown on a nearby islet. Baskets of warm, homemade bannock bread are passed around. Every ingredient on our plates was hunted, harvested or fished within a few kilometres of this seaside house.
“I come from a long line of hunter-gatherers,” Olson says, “and I gathered everything you are eating here tonight.”
Olson, whose Haida name is Keenawii, is a grandmother and respected matriarch among the islands’ almost 1,000 Haida First Nations people. She grew up in this lush rainforest off the northern coast of British Columbia, learning from her grandmother how to harvest from the wild. She became a renowned cook, often marrying traditional Haida cooking with contemporary French and Asian trends.
About a decade ago, friends urged her to share her talents. She started small, putting out the word that she would create traditional Haida feasts for visitors. Book ahead, bring your own wine, and Roberta will whip up Haida Gwaii’s best meal in her small house near the totem poles and traditional canoe carving shed of Skidegate. Roberta has filled the bellies of the Princess of Japan, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki and guided former US President Jimmy Carter around the area. She has even presented a meal at the famed James Beard House in New York City, NY, as part of a “Village People” cultural fundraiser.
Besides delicious local fare, Olson offers a rare chance for travellers to connect with Haida people and their culture when they visit the islands. She’s unpretentious and frank, welcoming questions about anything from how to cook bear meat to the troubles faced by modern Haida and their struggle to retain their culture. She talks about the hope and expectations for the grand new Haida Heritage Centre that recently opened in Skidegate, for which she was asked to help create the menu for a traditional cuisine café.
But Olson’s big brown eyes really light up when she talks about her childhood days strolling with her grandmother along the seashore and in the forest to learn the annual harvesting schedule, which she still follows. She begins in February, picking dozens of varieties of seaweed from the rocks and shallows. May, she explains, is the time for herring roe, which she gathers as soon as it is spawned onto wide strips of kelp. Often she fishes for salmon herself or she buys it fresh from a relative just down the road. Then she dries it on racks or smokes it in her backyard smokehouse.
“I have to know exactly where everything on my table comes from,” Olson says. “That is our traditional way.”
After the main courses, one of the guests unpacks a guitar he brought with him and launches into a lively set of Stompin’ Tom Connors country tunes. A local gallery owner who regularly dines with his wife at Olson’s pulls a harmonica from his shirt pocket and joins in. More wine is poured, and we move onto the patio overlooking the ocean for dessert.
In summertime, berries are on the chef’s mind. Daily she heads out with buckets, harvesting wild huckleberries and blackberries, as well as the raspberries and black currants she grows herself. Tonight’s meal ends with shortcake topped with tiny wild strawberries bathed in whipped cream.
In the north, summer twilight lingers. Salt air mingles with the smell of coals from the barbecue grill. Half a dozen bald eagles swoop across the rugged, stony beach.
“Toss them the salmon scraps from our meal,” Roberta suggests. “It’s natural recycling.”
We watch the birds dive, grab and soar. This could have been a beach feast of a century ago, and it’s a rare gift for an outsider to be included by someone who so generously loves to pass on knowledge and traditional experiences to another generation. Olson just shrugs modestly.
“I’m doing this because it makes people happy.”