Coast Salish food and cooking: a taste of yesteryear

A Cowichan Tribes chef consults knowledge keepers on the tools, techniques and relationships of the old food world.

Jared Qwustenuxun Williams is a chef, a food sovereignty advocate, the elders’ kitchen manager with Cowichan Tribes, a storyteller and a writer, among other things. There is a glossary of Hul’qumi’num words at the bottom of the article. 

Aaa siem nu siiye’yu,

I have been given the great honour and responsibility of sharing stories of traditional and modern Coast Salish foods and how they relate to the lifestyle and world of the hwulmuhw mustiimuhw. These stories have been shared with me in the hopes of keeping our food system and food history alive. 

To best explain how our culture is rooted in our food system, I have decided to start at the beginning — with the foods of yesteryear. In my next articles I will tackle the changes that came with colonization and the culture of food today. 

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Food is necessary to live, and it is also so much more than that. Food is culture, food is medicine, food is economics, food is spirituality and food is relationships. As a chef, I know this well. And yet, in my interviews I was quickly humbled by all that I still have to learn. 

The cooking tools of yesteryear

To get a fuller picture of the food systems of yesteryear I spent time with my respected elder Luschim (Aarvid Charlie) and good friend Qutxulenuhw (Tim Kulchyski). Luschim is a knowledgeable Cowichan elder who has spent years working to educate hwulmuhw people about our foods, language and culture. Qutxulenuhw is a good friend and mentor, who is the respected junior biologist with Cowichan Tribes. Both are great sources of information and inspiration. I have to admit after interviewing every one of my sources for these articles I sat back and reflected on how much I had learned in such a short time. We all need to spend more time with elders and knowledge keepers.

Let’s take the talk I had with Luschim, for example. We talked about xthum, our word for a bentwood box. A bentwood box is Coast Salish technology made from wood that is steamed until pliable and bent into a box shape. The boxes come in many sizes and are used for a variety of practical and ceremonial purposes, including cooking. A water-tight box is used like a cooking pot. Ingredients go in the pot, and it is heated with rocks from the fire. I quickly learned how little I knew when Luschim stated that cooking boxes were made from maple or alder, and not cedar. Cedar boxes leach cedar oil, which can give food a less desirable flavour, he explained. 

He told me about another technology, qwthalus, a wooden bowl that “could be used for cooking or serving.” Just like with a bentwood box, the chef would cook the food by adding hot rocks. 

I was amazed at the concept of the cooking bowls of yesteryear. “There were big ones for cooking our food, and by a big one I mean like eight or 10 feet long,” Luschim continued. Then, as he usually does, he answered my question before I even asked it. He said, “they were really well looked after, otherwise they’d crack. So the cooks had to look after it really well.” 

As our conversation went on, he even talked about how when the people of yesteryear held a Stl’un’uq they would, “clean their canoe out and then boil the fish and many other things in it.” This cooking technique “can be used to cook for hundreds of people,” he said.

An amazing diversity of techniques and preparations

When I talked to Qutxulenuhw, he was just as passionate about our old cooking techniques. “What has always impressed me about learning about the older foods, about learning about their preparation, is just this incredible level of understanding, and this amazing diversity in the way foods were prepared.” When I heard Qutxulenuhew say that I almost laughed. It’s just so amazing how much our elders knew. 

Let’s take stl’umkw’ for example. Qutxulenuhew explained that, “it’s fish eggs that are buried in the ground and left for an extended period. If you leave it for quite some time in an anoxic environment — so, in an environment with no oxygen — it ferments in a very specific way.” Hwulmuhw people had a wide variety of pressed and fermented foods that were compared to cheese. Qutxulenuhw went on to say, “there were so many different foods” prepared in similar ways.

coast salish pit cooking jared qwustenuxun williams
This is one of my first pit-cooks, many years ago at a camas celebration. Both Luschim and Qutxulenuhw were present and helped make sure I could complete the task. I remember packing in a pile of leaves from the truck to where we were going to put in the pit. I put the leaves on the ground at the site and turned around to get another load when Luschim spoke up. He told me, in the way elders do, that I should never put the leaves on the ground. He asked if I’d put my pots and pans in the dirt and then cook with them. I learned then that you always carry a blanket and place it below the leaves, or anything else that holds value. I can remember Luschim saying, “If you don’t have a blanket, use your coat.” This picture brings back many lessons. Photo courtesy of Jared Qwustenuxun Williams

Flavours of the past

As a Western-trained chef I am always searching for the spices or flavours of yesteryear, and I am not alone in my fascination. Qutxulenuhw told me about some flavour profiles in our old foods. “In yesteryear foods were either so ridiculously fresh that the taste was therefore paramount — that’s the best that food is ever going to be. Or it’s super hard smoked, harder than the hardest beef jerky. You can’t have anything that compares to it today. At the same time the flavours were so nuanced.” 

As Luschim explained, the techniques of food preparation have important consequences for the flavour. He told me about how the choices of methods and materials, when pit-cooking, impact the final product.

A steam pit cook is a traditional cooking technique used in yesteryear in which a metre-deep hole would be dug in the ground. The hole would be filled with a fire consisting of maple and alder wood. As the fire burns about a hundred fist-sized stones, of igneous rocks, are placed into the fire to heat up. The stones heat up for a few hours, or until kwimul (glowing red). Once the stones are hot, the wood, ash and soot are removed, leaving only hot stones in the pit. Then layers of leaves and seaweed are added to encase whatever food is being cooked. With greenery below and above the food, a mat or blanket is then placed over the pit and any soil, sand or gravel is placed back over the pit to allow it to cook. The cooking process takes anywhere from three to 12 hours, depending on the food being cooked. Once cooked, the pit is exhumed and the food is served.

“When we pit-cooked all we had was leaves,” Luschim said. “You can either layer your pit with seaweed, kelp, maple leaves, or ferns — whatever you have handy. Some preferred fireweed, as it gives it a nice kind of minty taste. I like to put the fireweed in the cavity of the deer, it kinda treats the whole carcass,” he said. The result is that it “tastes really different from a deer when you don’t put anything in there.” 

Other, subtler choices affect flavour, too, Luschim said. “There is a big difference in taste when you cooked in gravel versus cooked in dirt, whether it’s a steam pit or a cook on the surface.” He added that gravel and sand were preferred for their cleaner taste. As a cook that steam-pit-cooks in dirt more often than not, this insight amazed me. I have so much to learn. 

An incredible bounty

One of Luschim’s stories that stuck with me was about the bounty of the duck hunts of old. “We caught ducks by the hundreds, probably thousands.” He explained that families would travel seasonally to the swamps around Sumas Lake, in the Fraser Valley, before settlers drained the lake in 1920 to make more farmland. 

It is said that they would gather there, “lots of us Quw’utsun hwulmuhw, and many others, waiting for the ducks to arrive,” Luschim said. “We’d put our nets up and catch them by the hundreds.” 

Right as I was wondering how to cook and preserve a thousand ducks, Luschim filled me in. “We’d light a long fire and barbeque them slowly. If you want to, you can save the fat by catching it in a ts’e’luwi’, meaning shells — probably geoduck shells. You could save that oil in a bentwood box. Barbeque the duck really slowly. After you get so far, you can put it in the smoke house and finish smoking it, just like your salmon. That’s a method that’s almost pretty much lost now, I guess.” 

After he said that, my mind started thinking how I could get some ducks to put in my smokehouse. Then in classic elder style he rooted our duck conversation in reality. “There was a place in Blaine, [Washington] called Xwul’xwul’uq’ — another place where we caught ducks by the thousands. The duck net is called xwul’xwul’u and that’s why that place is called Xwul’xwul’uq’. It’s a big long spit that curves back on itself. If you look at it on a map, right where that spit starts from the mainland toward the point is called Xwul’xwul’uq’.” Our place names are great indicators of our strong connection to the land and food it provided.

Food is medicine

I want to highlight the strong connection between our foods and our medicines. Both Luschim and Qutxulenuhw said it directly: “Our food is our medicine.” Qutxulenuhw explained, “Instead of taking massive doses of medicines, which are strong on their own, it was a different way of thinking, where food was actually your medicine. If you were lacking in something, elders would always know and get you to eat some urchins or the gills out of a crab,” for example.

When Luschim referred to the duck fat that was captured from roasting ducks, he explained that it was a medicine and noted that’s why we’d keep it in boxes.

‘That’s your Thrifty’s, that’s your Save-On-Foods’

But what was captured in all of my discussions around this topic, even beyond this project, is the sheer abundance of yesteryear and this deep connection to our culture. Qutxulenuhw gave an example of this in the story of tushnets, the Saskatoon berry. 

“Even though we have a lot of Saskatoon berries here, the preferred place to get Saskatoon berries was in the Interior,” he said. “These places with lots and lots of sun and heat and just the right amount of rain to kinda make sure that the berries were sweet. [Tushnets] was one of the early terms we used for sugar, because that was one of our sweeteners.” 

But Qutxulenuhw really brought it all together when he said, “All of these things were done with these extra layers of culture, these extra layers of familial relations, up in the Interior. So if you were going up the Fraser River to collect sockeye, as an example let’s say, way up to Yale, [B.C.] At that same time you would be collecting and either preparing or trading berries up there. You’d be bringing resources from here to trade with you and vice versa. All of that really creates its own diversity, where all these foods become a part of the culture. Because that’s your Thrifty’s, that’s your Save-On-Foods.”

Even in these two short conversations my view of old world foods was spun around and turned on its head. From alder bentwood boxes and massive maple cooking bowls to cooking in gravel and sand over dirt, I was fascinated and awestruck almost the entire time. I am honoured and proud to share these stories of the foods of yesteryear with you and I can’t wait to get started on our next segment: how foods changed during contact.

I raise my hands to all those who follow these stories and learn how special and magical the world of hwulmuhw foods can be.

Huy tseep q’u siem nu siiye’yu, huy tseep q’u,

Qwustenuxun, grandson of Qwustanulwut

Hul’qumi’num words

  • hwulmuhw – First Nations person
  • mustimuhw – people
  • xthum – bentwood box
  • qwthalus – wooden bowl
  • Stl’un’uq – large event that lasts several days
  • stl’umkw’ – fermented salmon roe
  • tushnets – Saskatoon berries
  • Quw’utsun – Cowichan
  • ts’e’luwi’ – shells or dishes
  • Xwul’xwul’uq’ – place name near Blaine, Washington
  • xwul’xwul’u – duck nets
  • kwimul – red hot

This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

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