Next to asparagus

“Next to asparagus, it’s my favourite.” I spun around to hear Darcy Repen, mayor of Telkwa, B.C., finish his sentence. What in the world could be even close to home-grown asparagus? Supermarket asparagus is a source of fibre at best. Asparagus snapped off and then steamed and slathered with butter has no close competitor at all in my list.

Mayor Repen went on to wonder aloud where he could get some nettles. Nettles? I knew about them from hearing stories about their exceptional nutritional values; my daughter, the pharmacist, says this: “Whatever spinach has, nettles have a lot more.” I also knew about nettles from hearing conversations between immigrants from Europe who ate them during the hunger year in The Netherlands.

I usually cut and dry a few bundles of stinging nettles and crumble them up as a winter tonic for our chickens. And I knew about stinging nettles from the burning itch that I got when I was weeding them from the edges of a garden without wearing gloves.

As for Darcy Repen, he was in luck: on our farm in Quick we had enough nettles growing at the edge of one garden, along the lane and around the hay barn to feed a small army. So we left British Columbia for a trip to St. John’s, Newfoundland, watching the mayor fill a rubber tub with nettles. He wore gloves.

100-km diet
The distinction between hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural societies is usually considered significant. There is a certain unstated superiority when talking about “down” from “our” world towards those cultures which scavenge, hunt, fish, collect and forage for their provisions. Perhaps our paternalism is disguised through a rosy-tinted romanticism as we watch YouTube clips of folks collecting herbs, fruits, roots and fish from their forests.

I’m pretty sure, however, that – barring those who gather magic mushrooms on Vancouver boulevards and the odd spring dandelion-leaf scrounging exhibition in a yard known to be free of Weed ‘n’ Feed – we think gathering food must be a very primitive, inefficient and impractical way of providing for our needs.

And with those thoughts floating somewhere in my hypothalamus, cerebrum, cortex or appetite, we arrived in St. John’s. On a lovely guided tour of some surrounding regions by a local resident, we saw ocean, boats, gulls, coloured houses, an ATM on a deserted wharf and even blue sky.

The high point of the trip for me, however, was a visit to Bidgood’s, a store and shopping centre located in the Goulds, a community on the Avalon Peninsula that also contains dairy farms. I fell in love with Bidgoods. Not just the friendliest people in the world (who typically call “my love,” and “my trout”), but a selection of goods and foods that were truly local. Here is a list of some of the items I could have purchased:

  • Hand-knit mittens, scarves and sweaters from the outports
  • Cod tongues
  • Cod steaks
  • Salt fish
  • Bottled (canned) moose meat (By the way, one must pronounce the word as “baw’-ld” with a distinct syllabic break.)
  • Live lobster, of course, and every other crustacean and shellfish you can imagine
  • Bottled rabbit (snowshoe hare)
  • Bottled deer (caribou)
  • Frozen rhubarb pieces
  • Frozen wild berries: cloudberries (or bakeapples); blueberries, sour berries, partridge berries and more

Gathering also can support a certain type of manufacturing. In Twillinsgate, NL, Aukisland (as in “Auk Island” – an auk is a seabird) winery makes a number of fruit wines from wild berries. My agricultural interests and journalistic duties forced me to try these wines: I approved; then tried a second time, and a third for scientific accuracy.

Wild pine mushroom harvesting has become big business in parts of B.C. However, in central British Columbia, indigenous people know every berry patch in their traditional territories, but so far none are included in agricultural organizations. This might be a cultural bias, but more likely – in my opinion – one based upon assumptions that hunting/gathering is not a real economic activity.

Perhaps the good people in Newfoundland and Labrador have something to teach us about living on the good earth where God has placed us.  

  • Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc

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