This October, Amanda Swinimer will wear a wetsuit to “shop” for Thanksgiving dinner. Starting from the west coast of Vancouver Island, the marine biologist plans to swim about 300 metres into the nippy Pacific and fill her net bags with wiggly bull kelp. Then she’ll swim back to shore. It’s a remarkably sustainable harvest, she explained to the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her home in Jordan River. The kelp regenerates continually, and can grow up to 30 metres in five months, making it the fastest-growing organism on the planet, she said.
While the kelp is still wet, Swinimer will wrap the fronds around a wild salmon—caught by her husband—and slow-cook it over an open fire in their back yard. They’ll serve the fish with mashed potatoes and kale from a neighbouring farm. It’s not quite a zero-mile meal, but it’s close. Thematically, she said, Thanksgiving is a poignant time to harvest wild foods.
“It’s about celebrating the abundance of what’s available to us,” said the former Ontario suburbanite, recalling her delight in her first forest harvest, many years ago. “A lot of people here eat salmon for Thanksgiving as salmon is in abundance this time of year. It’s free, it’s healthy, and it’s delicious.”
Canada’s Thanksgiving tradition lacks the firmness of the American pilgrim turkey tale. Instead, according to the Department of Canadian Heritage website, the holiday has celebrated everything from Martin Frobisher’s survival of his hunt for the Northwest Passage in 1578, to “the cessation of grievous disease” in 1850, to the First World War’s Armistice Day. Finally, the date was permanently set as the second Monday in October by the Department of Canadian Heritage in 1957, with the rather amorphous proclamation, “For general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favoured”. Harvest festivals were also traditional among many First Nations.
Sure, the holiday’s history is complex, but it’s always incorporated a topical edge. Given many Canadians’ 21st-century striving for local eating, a hand-harvested, wild Thanksgiving seems congruent with tradition.
Thankfully, there’s still enough time to harvest and integrate wild B.C. food into the holiday. Swinimer offers Vancouver Island workshops on kelp harvesting through her business Dakini Tidal Wilds, but the ocean is open to all who want to try their hand at it, unguided. (For tips on how to harvest seaweed safely, see Jennifer Hahn’s Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine [Skipstone].) Seaweed, with its salty, distinctive taste, works well dried and flaked in mashed potatoes, Swinimer said, or in a traditional turkey stuffing.
Furthermore, Jason Tonelli, the 36-year-old owner of Pacific Angler (232 West Broadway), promises that anyone can catch a Thanksgiving salmon by the weekend. That’s what’s for dinner at his house this holiday.
“We’re smack-dab in the middle of a full salmon migration,” he told the Straight in a phone interview from his store, noting that until early November, pink, coho, Chinook, chum, and some sockeye salmon are pulsing up the Fraser and into the Seymour, Capilano, Chilliwack, and Harrison rivers. “You’ll see about 500 people on the Cap River on the weekends, and if you go over the Lions Gate Bridge, you’ll see 20 or 30 boats at the mouth of the river. We have a pretty urban fishery.”
Pacific Angler, too, offers monthly how-to-fish courses, but Tonelli suggests that folks can “walk in and walk out [of the store] ready to catch a salmon,” with gear and a licence for under $200.
Apart from seaweed and salmon, B.C.’s other two obvious Thanksgiving wild foods to harvest—meat and mushrooms—are not recommended for novices. Not only are the activities potentially dangerous for humans (think stray bullets and poison), but inexperienced hunters and harvesters can have a negative impact on forests.
For next year’s Thanksgiving feast, though, Chuck Zuckerman suggests learning how to hunt for grouse and deer—both of which are huntable in the Fraser Valley within a short drive of the city. He’s the president of the Port Coquitlam and District Hunting and Fishing Club, which offers courses in hunting and federal rifle certification.
“Most people on Earth gather their own food. Hunting is normal, ethical, and moral,” he told the Straight in a phone interview from his home, mentioning that he grew up in the nature-free Bronx. “Yes, you are taking a life, but you’re using everything, and it’s humane, and you accept responsibility for your actions. If you’re eating meat from a grocery store, you’ve got to know that someone had to raise it and slaughter it. If you’ve ever been in a slaughterhouse and seen the rivers of blood, it might turn you into a vegetarian.”
Of course, Thanksgiving feasters of 2011 can still enjoy the flavours of the wild without getting cold, wet, or bloody this week. Swinimer’s seaweeds are available at Finlandia Natural Pharmacy & Health Centre (1111 West Broadway) and through her website; she’ll ship in time for the holiday if you order by October 2. Venison and other wild meats are available at Hills Foods in Coquitlam (1–130 Glacier Street; call 604-472-1500 for hours, which can be limited). Misty Mountain Mushrooms offers fresh and dried B.C. stocks, from chanterelles to matsutakes (130–13900 Maycrest Way, Richmond). And wild B.C. salmon is abundant in stores and at Vancouver farmers markets, which end between October 5 and 23.