Even when the yellow August sun shines its strongest, the air is cool on Cape Breton Island, and wind is a constant. It tugs at the washing outside Archie and Eva Murphy’s shingle-sided house and pulls at their red-and-white Canadian flag. It whips through their apple orchard and tousles the lettuces in the vegetable patch. It may blow in fresh and sweet off the Atlantic, but a local will tell you that it can roll an 18-wheel truck on the open road or carry a King Lear thunderstorm across the wet green fields of Nova Scotia’s eastern headlands.
The storm that rattled the Murphys’ house last night has made the kitchen feel all the cozier this morning. Water boils for coffee and tea, and Eva tips a jar of her crumbly oatcakes—just sweet and salty enough—onto gold-rimmed plates set out on the big pine table. Soon the kitchen is crowded with family; everyone slathers the oatcakes and pieces of toast with Eva’s rhubarb-strawberry jam. Two grandkids tear through the kitchen. “Scallywags,” Eva says, pretending to be put out.
Soon Eva is busy making her cod cakes, kneading the fish and potato filling by hand. “Fingers were made before forks,” she says. Later, she’ll fry up a few dozen and serve them for lunch with a sweet and sour relish and bowls of creamy corn chowder.
Now grown up, with families of their own, four of the five Murphy children live “away”—off the island—scattered across Canada like so many grains of wheat. But the tide turns in August when children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins and friends, come home for a summer vacation. At this time of year, Cape Breton kitchens are busier than at Christmas. Eva spends her days rolling out thick dough for bannock bread and baking up cornmeal cakes. Five generations of Murphys have eaten in this kitchen, mostly off the land they lived on.
Archie gets up with the sun each morning, as his father and grandfather did before him. Now he throws on a green plaid shirt and trudges over the hill to tend his vegetable patch, trailed by his wide-eyed four-year-old granddaughter Lauren. They walk past the old forge where Archie’s parents used to shoe their horses, past the apple orchard, past the barn where Dolly, a 20-year-old mare, gazes balefully at the ginger barn cats.
Archie’s garden, just a quarter acre, produces more food than he and Eva could ever eat. The root cellar still holds a few odd jars of last summer’s pickled mustard beans and plenty of last year’s potatoes. Archie, like many Cape Breton natives, has a soft spot for his blue potatoes—the same kind his father grew. Corn and beans may have been the staples of New England, to the south, but for the Scottish and Irish settlers struggling to survive the harsh Nova Scotia winters, the potato was the staple. A meal still isn’t a meal without them. “I can never fill up on bread alone,” Archie likes to say.
Archie digs up some of the potatoes and plunks them into an old Maxwell House coffee can to take to his daughter Charlene, who lives two fields over. Later, she’ll turn the tubers into a colorful potato salad for the big family crab boil at her house tonight.
Charlene’s husband, Denis Cormier, will look after the crabs. While the Celts on Cape Breton Island were mostly farmers, the French-speaking Acadians (those progenitors of Louisiana’s Cajuns) were fishermen. Denis’s father used to row out to sea alone in his shallow wooden dory and haul in 200 traps a day. Back then, lobster and cod were king; these days Denis’s two brothers earn a living fishing mostly for mackerel and snow crab. Some locals prefer the latter, with its subtle sweetness, to lobster. Today, Denis meets his brothers down at the docks and then returns home to clean two dozen crabs and simmer a huge pot of dried red kidney beans and “pork scraps”, the thick-cut pieces of salted pork back sold at the market in the nearby village of Cheticamp.
Later, as dusk settles over Denis and Charlene’s sloping fields, Denis lights the torches on the veranda. Several generations of Murphys start to stream in. Before long, the house is packed. It’s impossible to get a sample of everything without going back for seconds: tender crabmeat served with nothing but salt, pepper, and just a drop or two of vinegar; potato salad brightened with scallions and radishes; the slow-simmered beans, sweetened with molasses.
The meal winds down late. The Murphy children slip into telling old stories, the same ones they told last summer. Eva and Archie sit quietly, smiling. At summer meals like this, it’s as if their children had never gone “away”.