For Lisa Girbav and Stephen Kingshott, an ideal date probably involves harvesting seaweed and seafood in northern B.C.’s chilly waters — and then writing about it.
It’s a practice the Prince Rupert-based Tsimshian couple picked up last winter by starting a blog about their experiences harvesting, preserving, and preparing traditional wild foods. Called güüdisk — a term for harvesting food in Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language — their writings aim to help bolster their communities’ food security while helping Tsimshian readers foster a connection to Sm’algyax, their traditional language.
About a sixth of B.C. residents fish or forage for wild foods, and roughly five per cent hunt, according to Statistics Canada. While slightly below the national average, harvesting wild foods is far more common outside urban centres. And for many Indigenous people, including Girbav and Kingshott, wild foods are vital for everything from food sovereignty to a delicious meal.
Our food systems reporter, Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, caught up with Girbav to learn more about the couple’s work and (of course) their favourite dish.
Their conversation has been edited for clarity.
Why are traditional foods important, and what’s the link between language and food?
Traditional foods are a very important part of our everyday diet, and we eat three to four dinners a week of locally harvested proteins. We also harvest for our parents and close relatives — our siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Growing up, my uncles would provide fish for our family; now we’re doing our part to help provide for them as they reach their older years. This improves our food security and theirs.
Traditional foods are also culturally important, as it connects us to one another, connects us to stories and places, and shows that we as Tsimshian people are utilizing our territory and keeping an eye on the state of our resources. Harvesting is a very specialized set of skills and cultural knowledge that cannot be lost.
"Traditional foods are culturally important, as it connects us to one another, connects us to stories and places, and shows that we as Tsimshian people are utilizing our territory and keeping an eye on the state of our resources," says Lisa Girbav.
Language and food are also closely linked, and a lot of our food products have very specific names in Sm’algyax which don’t translate very easily to English. For example: The common word for herring eggs/roe is xs’waanx — but the name for herring eggs on long-stranded algae/seaweed is legi and the name for herring eggs on short-stranded algae/seaweed is p’atsa. Yet another seaweed product (without the herring eggs) is ła’ask, which is a different species of seaweed altogether!
And it’s more fun to say the Sm’algyax names for foods than the plain old English words.
How do you decide which traditional foods you want to harvest and when to harvest them?
Our blog posts are tuned to the seasons. The Tsimshian calendar months in Sm’algyax (the language of the Tsimshian) translate to the different foods that are in season throughout the year. For example, March is the time to harvest eulachon; April is the time to harvest herring eggs.
We try to keep aligned with the food that is in season and aim to write about one blog post a month. Stephen is the planner — he keeps an eye on the weather, wind conditions, tide, and marine weather, in that order!
When we see a weather window, we plan an adventure. Sometimes it’s based on the foods that are in season, and sometimes we just get hungry for a specific food item, like crab or spring salmon.
Writing a blog as a couple sounds fun (and potentially challenging)! What does your writing process look like?
Each blog post usually starts with a conversation at the dinner table or on the couch.
I then start organizing our thoughts in writing and adding photos. Stephen proofreads. If we have questions we can’t answer, we’ll ask our parents, and if they don’t know, we’ll ask an elder.
This collaboration is very satisfying, and our turnaround time is anywhere from one to three days. Once it’s published, we share our blog in a few harvesting groups on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but Facebook is by far the best for reaching other Tsimshian and First Nations people, including many in Alaska.
What has harvesting traditional foods brought to your daily life, and what have you learned writing about them?
Nutrition! It’s much healthier for our coastal diets to include wild proteins heavy in omegas. Our food does not include added hormones or antibiotics, it’s cruelty-free, we know where it comes from — all that good stuff. And with our social life being non-existent, calling up our relatives and dropping off seafoods is a good opportunity to say a quick hello and check in with people.
With the blog, we’ve learned more Sm’algyax words than we had used before. I have always had an interest in learning and speaking Sm’algyax, and the blog uses the language in such a way that we can incorporate words in our everyday conversation.
What is your favorite traditional food? How do you harvest it?
We were just talking about this the other day at dinner. My favourite used to be herring eggs, but more recently they’ve been replaced by cockles. We’ve invented a few good recipes for cockles — bacon-wrapped cockles and stir-fried black bean cockles, for instance.
Steve’s favourite is smoked black cod and all shellfish, but we haven’t harvested black cod yet because it lives beneath about 200 fathoms of water.
As spring arrives, what foods are you looking forward to harvesting and preparing?
We just had a feed of xs’waanx (herring eggs) and now we’re looking toward harvesting ła’ask (seaweed) sometime in the next month. This is going to be our third year harvesting ła’ask, and I hope we have nice, hot weather, which is very helpful for making a dish called chopped seaweed. It’s a dense, crunchy, layered, bite-size chunk of ła’ask that pairs with txadzemsk (fish soup), but to process it, we need specific environmental factors: The right tides, hot weather, and enough time.
Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer