Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Smelt Season

At the Cap-Pele wharf a pod of fishing shacks occupies the ice near the shoreline.  Some of these structures have chimneys and on cold days you can see wafts of smoke drifting over the makeshift village.  The men inside are protected from the chilling wind and stay reasonably warm sitting next to the stove as they focus attention on a hole drilled in the ice. They are fishing for smelts, a cold weather sport that New Brunswickers proudly claim as one of their traditional winter pastimes (next to ice hockey, of course.)  It's a skill that their ancestors learned from the Mi'kmaq people at winter survival school.

Smelt shacks at Cap-Pele
I noticed this bilingual sign posted at my neighbour's house and stopped to find out more about the small fish that is considered a delicacy in this region.   Roger is selling American or Rainbow smelts, (Osmerus mordax) a species that is common along the Atlantic coast from Labrador to New Jersey.  They resemble a miniature salmon and like the salmon, smelts migrate from salty ocean to freshwater rivers to spawn.  Adult fish gather in estuaries in the fall, stay for the winter and move upriver in the spring just before the thaw. 

Roger was a little disappointed when I asked for a two pound bag.  Most of his customers buy ten or more pounds, invite relatives and in-laws over and prepare a huge "smelt feed" for the entire family.  That seemed a bit too much for me, considering that there are only two people and a dog in our household and few hands to do the requisite tasks of decapitating, cleaning and cooking. 

Whole smelts

The fish can be frozen if left intact, but they definitely taste best fresh from the water.  To prepare smelts for lunch, my husband, who doesn't mind doing the dirty work, chopped the smelt heads off, made a long incision down the belly and removed the guts.  I was responsible for the dainty job of dipping the butterflied morsels in an egg wash, and dredging them in rice flour.  Lacking a "friture" in my kitchen,  I simply fried the coated fish in a pan of hot oil for 2-3 minutes until brown and crisp.  It's traditional to serve the smelts with chow-chow, the green tomato relish that Acadian grandmothers make from the unripened fruit of late August.

The result was a nibble of sweet, tender fish surrounded by a light, crunchy, tempura crust.   Beer or a glass of Chardonnay can be paired with this meal to create a very satisfying N.B. winter feast. 

For an in-depth look at the finer points of bait and tackle used in smelt fishing, check out this  New Brunswick forum discussion.  I had no idea that fish are attracted to marshmallows, corn niblets and deer steak marinated in clam juice!

Fried smelts with chow-chow

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The News

Last night around 8:00 pm I looked out the front window and noted that every house on the street was illuminated with the glow of television. Not a creature was stirring as I watched the chorus line of silent screens dance in unison in my neighbours' living rooms.  On cold winter nights folks in the village of Cap-Pele eat dinner early, clear the table, load the dishwasher and settle in front of the TV for hours of news, sports and entertainment.   It's truly Canadian, eh?

We had no television during our stay in South America and we did not miss it.  Here in New Brunswick, however, we have a wide screen high definition TV and a subscription to Rogers Cable that delivers a multitude of channels and viewing options.   

After viewing CBC regularly during the past month, I have to say that broadcasting and advertising practices have changed during the four years that we were away.   Gone are the insightful, often academic experts who used to offer intelligent commentary on current events.  They've been replaced by a line-up of caricatures who rant, hurl insults and dismiss each other while blatantly promoting their own personalities and interests.  The Lang and O'Leary Exchange is a prime-time example of this superficial and rather offensive form of "infotainment."

Hosts Amanda Lang and Kevin O'Leary talk about the day's headlines, each representing opposing sides  - socialist and capitalist viewpoints.  Their conversation touches on events in the corporate sector, government policies and environmental issues.  The CBC bills this program as "smart" "witty" and "thought-provoking."   Have a look at some excerpts. 

 Forget the misleading use of the word "exchange" - this show follows a formula script.  Kevin O'Leary the fat cat corporate player uses tirades, bombast and name-calling to put Amanda Lang the sympathetic socialist in her place.   When she expresses concern for the environment, she's called a tree-hugger.  When she voices union grievances, she's accused of being soft-headed.  Kevin's disparaging remarks reinforce the idea that a ruthless, crass, disrespectful manner is part and parcel of the highly successful businessman persona. Along with his mantras  "Government is bad!" and "Invest in Brazil!" Kevin insists that the pursuit of profit is all that really matters in life.   ( He's reputed to be a billionaire, though this detail is questioned by some sources. ) We do know - simply by watching logos that appear on CBC-  that host Kevin is the CEO of O'Leary Funds.   Could it be that the ads appearing on CBC during commercial breaks, the ones hustling stocks in mining companies extracting bauxite, iron ore, gold and copper in Third World countries are related to Kevin's investment funds? 

 "The CBC was a platform for journalists," O'Leary says in an interview with Jennifer Wells of the Star. "Now it's a platform for a right-wing Attila the Hun guy." He's referring to himself. "There's only one side with me. You get the right side. You get the correct version of the facts."

Shame on CBC for reducing journalism to the level of a mediocre advertorial.  The last thing Canadians need in news programming is an hour-long national public broadcasting corporation endorsement for a high-profile, mercenary, attention-seeking bully. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Shaping a Place

I've just started to unpack the cardboard boxes that were sent via FedEx when we moved from Montevideo, Uruguay.  The sight of boxes sitting on the floor of an empty room brings back childhood memories of multiple moves prompted by my father's Canadian Air Force career.   As a military brat moving from house to house was a routine I learned early and never forgot.  A large cardboard wardrobe box provided by United Van Lines was my first playhouse and for a constantly uprooted child, no house was ever as permanent or secure as that one.

Cardboard boxes have a certain odour after a while, a damp, doggy smell that means it's time to get them emptied, flattened and tossed into the recycling bin.  It's time to accept the fact that this is now home, with a place for every significant thing that made the journey north.    I didn't bring many things with me; after years of travelling light, there are only a few items to list as treasures. 

Unwrapped from bubble pack and layers of a Uruguayan newspaper, a small painting by Canadian artist David Alexander immediately takes pride of place in my study, hanging on the wall opposite my desk.   When I look up from my computer screen I see this tangled landscape, a work painted in acrylics on a wooden panel.  

Painting by David T. Alexander, 2003

It is still fresh, lively and intriguing to look at - I find the best paintings, like best friends, continually offer something new along with their old, familiar charm.  David's artistic oeuvre challenges conventional notions about the landscape by bending horizons, introducing shocks of unexpected colour, abbreviating or exaggerating line to add a degree of unbalance to standard compositions.   He's a forthright individual who likes to shake things up. 

This painting offers ground for the scavenger hunt that informs the process of writing.  When I'm searching for a word, or stuck at an impasse in expression, I go to the ragged edge of that thick forest.  There's no easy place to enter, the underbrush is prickly and the light dim below the canopy.  No marked trails or shortcuts, but with persistence, behind the barrier of trees and foliage, roots and branches, I reach a clearing where the answer lies. 

Tonight David Alexander celebrates the opening of a major exhibition of his work at the Kelowna Art Gallery, and the release of a book documenting his career with essays by six writers.  It's called "The Shape of Place," a great title that suggests the shaping of an artist through exposure to different locations and the shaping of a conceptual landscape perceived and conveyed by the painter.

As I unpack, my new place -  this box of a house - begins to take shape as a home. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Deep in December, it's nice to remember
The fire of September that made us mellow,
Deep in December, our hearts should remember
And follow.  
- lyrics from The Fantasticks, Broadway musical

In the monochromatic month of January, when the landscape is reduced to a white-on-white canvas, I  recall a visit last October to Kouchibouguac National Park.  

Kouchibouguac, about an hour's drive north of Moncton, occupies a large tract of coastal land that includes estuaries, salt marshes, peat bogs, pine forests, barrier islands and sand dunes.   It is an ecological reserve where 225 species of birds, a colony of grey seals, the American eel, stickleback fish,  moose, beavers and other creatures can be found. 

The endangered Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) a shorebird whose population has dwindled to about 140 in New Brunswick is the subject of a conservation effort at Kouchibouguac. This small bird nests out in the open, using "scrapes" on the beach as home base.  Their exposure to predators, high tides and human disturbance reduces their chances for survival.    Each spring, Plover eggs are carefully collected from abandoned nests and sent to the Moncton Zoo for incubation.  When the chicks are two weeks old, they are returned to the park for reintroduction to the beach environment within a protective pen.   Once mature, the birds are released, but their whereabouts, numbers and welfare continue to be monitored by park staff and scientists.  Nesting grounds frequented by Piping Plovers are strictly off-limits to park visitors (and their dogs) during the mating season. 

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

Kouchibouguac Park was created by Parks Canada in 1969 in a commendable effort to preserve the flora and fauna in a sensitive natural area.  Its evolution as a protected place did not happen without controversy.  The conversion to National Park status  involved expropriation of land from private property owners,  the forced relocation of 1200 people and the dismantling of eight villages.   Some area residents were not in favour of the idea, and publicly expressed the sentiment that monetary compensation would never make up for the loss of their family homes.   A series of petitions, riots, demonstrations and legal claims followed. As the confrontation became more heated, the expulsion of the Acadians by British forces in 1755 was cited by protesters, many of whom had French ancestors who were deportees.   The most vocal among the opponents was Jackie Vautour, a Metis man who simply refused to move.   Vautour, who still lives within the park boundaries as a squatter,  has been described by the media as the "Louis Riel of the East."   Official government directives, incidents involving police, tear-gas, assault, pepper spray, arrest and criminal charges have not daunted Vautour's fighting spirit and determination to stay put over a 43 year period.  

Jackie Vautour and his wife
In many ways,  I think Vautour is the most endangered of the species that live in the park.  His natural habitat was forcibly taken away by the government, in spite of the fact that there is no other place on earth that meets his needs or suits his lifestyle.  Unlike the Piping Plover, he is not protected by an Endangered Species Act  or a preservation program and remains vulnerable to attack,  human disturbance or outright expulsion.  At age 82, he is considered a folk hero, a man who dared to stand up to government injustice - one of a rare and dying breed.

It is always a pleasure to spend an afternoon wandering through Kouchibouguac Park, following the network of nature trails, watching the birds and listening to the surf.   Conservation is important - we  all know that - but along with the park's laudable record of environmental stewardship, there's a less admirable chapter of social history that should not be forgotten. 

Monday, January 2, 2012


Over the years we have owned various breeds of canine companions from hounds to Kuvasz to Bouvier-des-Flandres.  Some were expensive, purebred animals and others were mutts from the pound, but in each case, having a dog brought positive energy, fun and exercise into our daily lives.   

While living in rural Argentina, a stray dog adopted us.  She was a smart and slightly crazy Shepherd/Border Collie mix who followed us home one day and decided to stay on our finca, serving as outdoor watchdog.  We called her Frida, for the distinctive eyebrow markings that reminded us of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She was a tough survivor of life on the street and had a few bad habits learned from near-starvation while fending for herself. Although we always fed her well, Frida dug deep holes in the alfalfa field looking for mice to eat.  Her doggie pits messed up the irrigation system and created a serious hazard for the worker who drove the tractor.

Dogs and kids run free on a farm in Argentina
She could be stubbornly independent and aloof, or attach herself to you like a shadow for the entire day.  Frida knew both Spanish and English commands, but was not particularly interested in obedience in either language.  We gradually realized that pet ownership in Argentina does not involve the same type of relationship or bond that North Americans foster with animals.  Finca dogs are not treated like pampered family members; their role is to serve as part of a team in charge of security. The pack sleeps in the shade during the day and stays on high alert at night, barking incessantly.  The standard canine diet is a corn meal mush, and if there are some bones left over from the asado, pack members must fight to get one.  When a dog like Frida makes holes in the field, or chases cattle, the owner shoots off fireworks to scare it away from the farm or even worse, uses poison to kill the animal.   There are no rescue organizations, or spay-and-neuter programs, and every spring, boxes full of puppies are dropped off by the side of the road or drowned in the canals. 

Bert with his new owner
When we decided to adopt a dog from the Moncton SPCA just before Christmas, we encountered a totally different attitude toward pet ownership.   There was a lengthy application  and approval process, completing a form full of personal information and providing character references.  A $225 adoption fee was required, which included six weeks of pet insurance and a microchip implanted in the dog.  We were warned about specific behaviour "issues" noted by staff and volunteers who had handled the dog during his three-month incarceration. Obedience training was strongly recommended.   On the day before Christmas, we were allowed to bring Bert home. 

Despite a rather negative initial report, Bert is proving to be a calm dog with a sweet temperament. We haven't noticed any "issues" other than a tendency to pull when he's on the leash.   He is settling in nicely, getting used to long walks on the beach, a soft bed, a chew toy, a leftover leg of lamb from Christmas dinner, rides in the car and new owners who treat him like a special member of the family. 

At the beach
"I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love.  For me they are the role model for being alive." 
- Gilda Radner