Where the Farm Meets the Sea

On Canada’s Prince Edward Island, the rhythms of life are punctuated by home-cooked meals made with crops from agricultural lands and fish caught fresh from the surrounding waters

By Melissa Buote

Published on September 14, 2013

PEI harbor
PEI Harbor

With a cloudy thump, my mother dumps more flour into the spongy pile. When the dough has formed, she presses into it with the heels of her small hands. "Clarice made dough the same way," she says as I watch her knead it into a plump, perfect dome. "You do it so often, it's more of a feeling than it is a recipe."

That feeling isn't just tactile; there is a sentimentality mixed into the food my mother has cooked through the years. From Sunday dinners to summer picnics, it's been a familiar sight: my mother, Marion, kneading dough or mashing potatoes according to recipes learned from my father's mother, Clarice Buote, on Prince Edward Island, or PEI. Now, at my parents' house on PEI, where I've traveled from my mainland home in Halifax, she's at it again, making cinnamon rolls, cooking from a weathered green cookbook filled with family recipes. Notes about when we ate what and how we felt about it are scrawled in the margins. Every page is a yearbook, echoing the warmth of dinners past. The rolls—a family favorite—will cap off one of the many bonfires we enjoy in the summer and fall months; today our aunts and uncles, cousins and friends are gathering for a mussel and corn boil on the beach.

Prince Edward Island is tiny. When I was growing up a few hours away in rocky Nova Scotia, the Island, a Canadian province on the Atlantic coast, seemed like a mere sandbar to me. On this strip of rockless red sand tucked between the chilly Gulf of St. Lawrence and the relatively warm Northumberland Straight, a nonstop drive along the All Weather Highway from tip to tail took us less than four hours. But Islanders know that PEI's diminutive size belies its abundance: Fishermen pull pristine seafood from its cold waters, and its rich soil yields impeccable potatoes and other produce.

Every summer and Christmas we would arrive on the ferry from Nova Scotia to visit my grandparents, Clarice and Ernest—Grammy and Grampy to me. So many of my memories of those visits are tied up in ghostly recollections of Grammy's soft, wrinkled hands, her wry smile, the wispy curls of her hair—or the sandpaper bristle of Grampy's whiskers. But even more, as I grow older, I recall the wet, earthy smell of simmering potatoes; the way the thick, salty steam of a boiled dinner of ham and vegetables would hang in the air; the clunks and scrapes of wooden chairs as we gathered at the old kitchen table in the small white house that overlooked Rustico Harbour.

My father grew up in that house in the 1940s and '50s, back when the place was a working farm. My grandparents didn't have electricity until 1956. That meant that meals like boiled ham dinners and fish cakes were prepared on a wood-fueled stove out of necessity. And that necessity became tradition. They made simple foods from the animals and vegetables on their farm and seafood from "the Crick." They'd cure the seafood in piles of salt chips they kept in the barn for use year-round.

PEI family gathering
PEI family gathering

The Crick is North Rustico, a fishing village on the North Shore of the Island. The town sits on a tiny creek that empties out into the harbor, a series of small weatherworn fishing shacks, neon-bright buoys, and deceptively strong, splintered lobster traps spanning the curved wharf. A corps of fishing boats bob alongside the wharf in the summer and sit sentry on the nearby gravel in the winter. The only time those boats are absent is when their owners are off catching the cod, mackerel, and lobster that make up so much of the local fare. The fresh fish gets hauled to local restaurants like the Water-Prince Corner Shop in Charlottetown, the capital, where the velvety seafood chowder is chockful of haddock and halibut, lobster and crabmeat and scallops, or to the Blue Mussel Café on the edge of Rustico Harbour, where my sister and I like to dig into creamy gratinéed seafood bakes. Casual seafood eateries like these two dot the towns and villages that run along Route 6 on the North Shore, and tucked in among them are small bakeries serving homey desserts: moist caramel-topped bread pudding, lemon meringue tarts, and molasses cookies like the ones my Grammy would have sitting on her counter, a sweet ending to our rustic Island meals.

The coastline on the North Shore where the harbor snakes in toward where my grandparents' old house was, and where my parents' house now sits, has the same gentle, ragged slope as the rest of PEI, like a sand castle that's been kicked over by the Atlantic. There are no rocks; the sharpest things you'll find are mussels, clamshells, and the Island accents: tree for "three," ting for "thing." Fields, like the one that runs down to the shore from beside my grandparents' house—where my sister now resides—are filled with dozens of varieties of potatoes: long, brown-skinned Russet Burbanks and tan Century Russets; sweet, yellow-fleshed Yukon golds; smooth-skinned Superiors and round Emmas. Outside of Anne of Green Gables, the eponymous heroine of PEI native Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic 1908 novel, potatoes are the Island's signature export. And to a woman like my Grammy, the only way to eat a potato was to boil it.

Grammy and Grampy lived on the North Shore their whole lives, adding 14 children to their home in Rustico. My father Vernon, the second-oldest son, longed for adventure; he left as a teenager in the early 1960s and joined the navy and then the air force. Along the way he married. My mother, a native of Manitoba on the mainland, laughs her familiar, throaty chuckle as she tells me about her first time cooking for my grandfather. She made spaghetti. When my Grammy, who was on a trip, called to say hello, he told her, "She's trying to kill me."

My grandparents, you see, were steadfast in their use of traditional Acadian recipes; those boiled dinners, meat pies, fish cakes, beans, chowder, and bannock—a biscuity quick bread that Grammy would make when she ran out of the real deal—stuck with them. Farm-to-table cooking was a way of life, from the early 17th century when French colonists like my ancestors first settled in the Atlantic Canadian region then called Acadia, through their expulsion at the hands of the British, who had taken control of the area in the early 1700s, and their eventual return to settlements throughout the East Coast. Rustico is one of the oldest Acadian settlements on PEI, home to generations of Buotes (pronounced BEE-oughts) since François Jean Buote returned from exile in 1780.

Aside from the high school French that every good Canadian learns, the language has, for the most part, fallen by the wayside in my family and around the Crick. But the uncomplicated one-pot frontier-style cooking has remained at the heart of Island kitchens. There are two elements to each dish: simplicity and starch. After all, on PEI, the potato reigns supreme. Scalloped potatoes are made creamy with a basic mix of flour, butter, and milk. Fluffy fish cakes meld the briny smack of salt cod with a hearty potato mash. A cold salad of smashed potatoes relies on little other than the yellow flesh of an earthy Russet. And soups, like the fricot my grandmother made, have huge chunks of tender potato.

My mother watched Grammy boil chicken and shred the warm meat into that fricot's thin, fragrant broth. A versatile soup made with almost any meat or fish, fricot is the quintessential Acadian food: easy, adaptable, and comforting. Grammy seasoned it with summer savory, a pungent, peppery herb with a delicate, piney zest. She learned, too, to make the meat pie that Grammy's own mother had passed down: onion mixed with shredded beef, pork, chicken—and sometimes freshly hunted rabbit—with a crust that falls somewhere between flaky and bready. My mother made those pies until she got it just right, then started gentle tweaks, like adding some cooking water from the meat to the crust. She made each recipe her own, working the ubiquitous potato water into the cinnamon rolls, and cracking an egg into the mashed potatoes during the final mash to give them a silky texture.

On Grammy's table, we would almost always find those meat pies, along with fresh rolls and soft butter, chunks of cheddar, jars of mustard pickles, and a tangy green tomato relish we called chow, all of it meant to be eaten with whatever was cooking in her murmuring pots. That might be a boiled dinner, the deeply salty, rosy pink ham stewing atop stocky neck bones alongside potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. Or a seafood chowder, stovetop beans, or that chicken fricot with its pillowy dumplings. If there was a crowd—there often was—the kids would be relegated to the living room where we ate around the coffee table in the shadow of my Grammy's collection of tiny spoons. I would sneak into the spare bedroom where a cabinet full of porcelain dolls smiled down at me, or dress up in musty fur coats with my sister in the cavernous downstairs closet.

There was adventure to be had in those rooms, but it was outside where the fun really started, at bonfires on the shores near the string of houses my grandparents, aunts, and uncles lived in, or in the overgrown woodland my Grampy owned. Down on the shore, denim tucked into tall black boots, my keen-eyed father and uncles would find telltale holes in the mud. Each step would squish or gurgle, eclipsed by the gritty sound of a shovel breaking ground. Soft-shell and razor clams would squirt their discontent as they rattled into the puddle of seawater at the bottom of the heavy steamer pot perched on a makeshift stovetop of angle iron or rocks. While they dug for clams, my brother, sister, and I would go down to the creek to catch eels and flatfish. We'd take the haul back to our grandparents, where in the minute it took for my sister to squeal with horror over the idea of eating an eel, Grammy would have it butchered and pan-ready.

Eventually the vacations ended, we kids grew up, and, like all good Islanders, my father returned for good. There is an old rhyme that my cousins used to chant in sing-song voice: "I was Prince Edward Island born and Prince Edward Island bred, and when I die I'll be Prince Edward Island dead." It's no surprise to us that the mud on PEI is so vibrantly red; it's like blood in the hearts of the people there.

For me, though, it's the quiet sensations of my grandmother's kitchen—the ones that seemed like background noise back then—that are at the starchy heart of my own devotion: the purple stains of a blueberry grunt, sticky fingers from a crumbling date square, the yeasty smell of all-purpose dough, the aroma of simmering salt cod sloughing off some of its puckering flavor before it's mixed with russet potatoes for fish cakes. It may as well be potato water that runs through my own veins.

PEI fish sign
PEI fish sign

My mother has nearly finished baking the dozens of rolls she's made for this night's bonfire, hair falling into her eyes as she leans into the hot oven to pull out a fresh pan. I drive the short distance down the winding dirt road that leads to my Aunt Geri's house, a bowl of potato salad on my lap, ears of corn bouncing around the backseat. Much like they did when I was a kid, my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends dot the shore where we've lit our fire, digging and shucking, children laughing at the decades-old hijinks of my Uncle Selwyn. My mother joins us with a tray of fresh cinnamon rolls, and we all tear into the feathery pastries, fingers sticky with brown sugar and butter.

For our dinner, we shore up our supply of freshly dug clams with bags of briny Raspberry Point oysters collected by our fisherman friend Scott Linkletter from the cold northern waters in the national park. Each deep-cupped mollusk tastes like the Atlantic. The corn, a fresh, creamy haul, is simmering, while clams, scattered willy-nilly over a blackened pan, sizzle in the heat, sputtering saltwater that jumps across the pan before disappearing in a sigh of steam. Mussels sit in a pot with a splash of boiling seawater and a glug of beer. We pull them out, snapping the top shells off and using them to scoop the meat out of the bottoms. As I eat, savoring the taste of the sea on my tongue, I am grateful for my parents' devotion to Prince Edward Island. Standing here, with ruddy stains on my bare feet and a curl of smoke in the air, I feel echoes of my childhood and know that I, too, have come home.

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