Growing Up Growing Food

Growing up, I was fortunate to see first-hand where food comes from. While I didn’t grow up on a farm, I grew up in very close contact with one. Our Lasqueti Island homestead has been in the family for 65 years, and four generations of Johnsons have called it home. Due to its isolation – especially the lack of daily ferry service, the fact that the ferry isn’t equipped to carry vehicles, and the absence of public electricity – residents need to be resourceful and self-sufficient.

My family kept a very large kitchen garden, cultivated fruit trees, raised livestock, harvested wild berries and mushrooms, fished, hunted, and collected shellfish from the beaches around our farm. I remember, back in the far reaches of my childhood, my aunt milking one of the black and white dairy cows (though I don’t actually remember drinking the milk). We would often fetch eggs from the chicken house. My mother used to send us off to the beach for the day, and we would bring back little pots of limpets which she would then cook up for us on the wood stove. I remember catching my first salmon. My sister had received fishing rod and reel for Christmas, so my great Auntie Carmel and great Uncle Bud took us all out on their boat the Valkyrie. I got to use one of the deep sea lines that was attached to the boat. We all caught salmon, and when we got back to the farm, we had to go to the beach and learn how to clean them (though I’m not sure I did much of it myself). We fished several times as a family (always an adventure, especially the time our golden retriever tried to follow us by swimming behind the boat). Clam digging was a regular summer event, and when my uncle started his shellfish farm, oysters became plentiful at family gatherings.

I remember this one time that my family slaughtered a bull. I must have been really young, because I seem to remember that we kids weren’t allowed to be there when it happened (one of my siblings or cousins will probably correct me on this!), perhaps because of the potential danger from the bull (these were free-range cows, so it wasn’t like he was in a small pen or anything) or because the adults just didn’t want us getting in the way. I remember that there were lots of people on hand, and they had to use a really, really big tree at the top of the hill to hang it. When I was about 12, I watched my uncles slaughter lambs at the end of the summer, though I skipped the part where they handed the organs to us kids to hold while they finished cleaning out the carcass. I also watched chickens being slaughtered: they really do run around after their heads have been cut off. We thought it was so funny that my mother decided that we should each have to pluck one of the birds. That was bad, but not nearly as bad as watching the chickens being cleaned out. For years after that, every time we ate chicken, I asked my mother if it was one of the “Lasqueti” chickens because I was determined I was never, ever going to eat those disgusting creatures. There was a sense of amusement, curiosity and pride for me that surrounded these events. Not many other kids at school could say that they had seen what I had seen, and writing an essay on “how to slaughter a sheep” in grade seven seemed like great way to cause my teacher some concern. (I ended up handing in an essay on “how to cook a can of soup” instead). As I look back  now, though, I think that part of the amusement was a way to deal with seriousness of what was happening, rather like giggling while being disciplined or scolded; it may have been a relief from the stress of a solemn situation.

Food on Lasqueti was actually the source of a huge annual family gathering – a special cultural ritual we all shared in. The Johnson Family BBQ was quite an event.  Neighbours would be invited and extended family was always present. While my grandfather Lance (and later my great Uncle Andy) tended the fire, over which a whole lamb would be roasted along with fresh-caught salmon, the kitchen would be a-buzz with pie-making (blackberries picked by the kids, of course, or early Transparent apples), vegetable peeling and preparation of various other dishes. Huge pots of clams would be steamed and served with garlic butter. The whole day was a celebration of all the land and sea had to offer.

Skye. With a zucchini. Circa 1983. Photo by Araby Gillespie.

Of course, food production wasn’t limited to the farm on Lasqueti. In Parksville, on our large lot, we had blackberries, golden plums, and apples. For a time when we were young, my mother kept a huge garden. For several years, we also raised rabbits for meat. The does and bucks were our pets, but the offspring were for eating. A family friend would come over and do the slaughtering for us, and we shared the meat with them. We didn’t actually watch, but afterwards, there were fluffy rabbit tails to be had. I couldn’t wrap my head around eating the cute little bunnies, so I told my mother that I didn’t want to eat them. Thankfully, she never tried to trick me into it, and I only ate my first rabbit when we were in Paris a few years ago. On a few occasions, we also kept the orphan lambs from the farm on Lasqueti in our backyard in Parksville. The lambs needed to be bottle fed multiple times each day, so sometimes, when there was no one living on the farm full time, they needed to come over to Parksville. These lambs were given suitable names like “Lambchops” “Burger” and “Shanky”, which helped remind us of what they were going to end up as at the end of the summer. (This practice came to an abrupt end when an ex-alderman that used to walk by our place thought the by-law enforcement officer should be made aware of the back-yard attraction that thrilled neighbourhood kids.) Just before moving away from home, inspired by hearing Whim Van der Zalm talk about tomatoes on the radio, I took it upon myself to overturn some of the backyard and raise an amazing crop of tomatoes from seed.

All of this first-hand experience has shaped my attitudes about life, death, animals and food. I laugh when I read stories and Internet anecdotes about people that don’t understand that the meat they buy in plastic wrap at the grocery store actually came from a living, breathing animal.  I grew up being very sensitive to loss (you should have seen the tears when my first pet fish died!), but not so sensitive that I couldn’t kill fish that we caught out on the water. My faith has brought me the understanding that we’re called by God to be good stewards of creation, that we may use the gifts of creation (minerals, trees, land, air, water, animals), but we need to do so with reverence and responsibility. Sure, cut down trees to build houses, heat homes, and make paper, but don’t cut them down faster than they can grow back or over-harvest from any one area. Raise animals for meat, but keep them healthy and happy while they’re alive, and make their death as quick and stress-free as possible. Despite the fact that growing up, I made choices not to eat certain animals that I knew before they had become “meat”, I didn’t morph into a vegetarian. Quite the opposite, actually. My background has given me the fortitude to do very difficult things I never, ever thought I would be able to do, things that I will write about in my next blog.