Bentwood box cooking as was found among the First Nations of coastal British Columbia is Canada’s only indigenous cooking method. From pre-history the boxes, skillfully made with planks of red cedar, were used for family meals or the most elaborate feasts. Often ornately decorated and of many various sizes, they also were used for storage and even, at times, for burial.
When Captain James Cook first sailed to the wild western shores of Vancouver Island in 1777, his artist John Webber drew portraits of the Nootka people boiling their foods in such a box.
In northwest culture, the red cedar was a revered tree, often many stories in height. It was life-giving, being used for a myriad of practical uses from canoe building to blanket weaving. In this case planks were removed from the tree with yew wedges and a stone maul. They were scored and then placed into a pit lined with hot stones and seaweed. The steam started to rise and more seaweed was piled on before the pit was covered with mats. Left for several days, the wood became pliable. The planks were removed and bent around a wooden base carved to fit perfectly into notched grooves that would tightly seal the bottom of the box. The boxes were then either pegged or sewn with strips of cedar taken from the long, graceful limbs of the tree.
Bentwood box cooking was women’s work … completed with pride.
Depending on the size of the meal, at least two of these handmade boxes were filled with water to soak and tighten for 3-4 days before cooking. Four to five hours before cooking, a fire was lit on the shore and potato-sized beach rocks were placed into it. They absorbed the heat of the constantly tended fire. The rocks had to be dense and compact. If not, they could fracture violently when placed into the box to heat cold sea water, blowing apart the painstakingly made cedar box. The rocks that did not split were precious and were saved in a cedar basket to be used over and over again.
A branch of alder, a soft, pliable tree that is used often today for smoking salmon, was cut. With a stone knife, it was then split part way up, making a pair of rudimentary tongs.
The hot rocks were then picked up with the split alder branch, washed in the first of two boxes and placed in the second with fresh water. Franz Boas, the anthropologist who studied the coastal First Nations from 1880 to 1920, described how, in the springtime, the tender shoots of the salmon berry bush were added to the water for flavoring. In mere moments the water foamed and boiled. Seafood was added — prawns, scallops, clams, chunks of salmon, cod or snowy white halibut — and a woven mat was placed over to hold the steam. As the food was savored, more was added and the cooking continued till finally the delicious brothy liquid could be consumed. Within minutes, sweet tastes of the Pacific were retrieved from the box.
Over the centuries other foods also have been cooked in the bentwood box, notably a wild berry “jam”. Salal, a member of the Heather family with the Latin name, Gaultheria shallon, was one of the most relished. Crushed salal berries were added to the box and small, hot pebbles were arranged in a layer on top. More berries are added and the small stones were stirred into the liquid bringing it to a boil and thickening it. While the contents of the box were cooking, a wooden rack was made and placed over a fire. Layers of skunk cabbage leaves (Lysichitum americanum), also known today as “Indian waxed paper”, were arranged on top. The berry mixture, minus the stones, was then transferred to small four-sided cedar containers set on the leaves. There the fruit would dry to a leathery consistency before being stored in another bentwood box.
Today there are few places where one can experience true bentwood box cookery. One rare restaurant that has attempted to duplicate it is Sooke Harbour House on southern Vancouver Island where owners Frederique and Sinclair Philip have commissioned a number of specially carved boxes which are used for steaming seafood at table by special request.
Sooke Harbour House
1528 Whiffen Spit, R.R.#4,
Sooke, British Columbia
Canada VOS 1NO
Tel: 250 642 3421
Fax: 250 642 6988
Anita Stewart is a distinguished Canadian f&w journalist and activist.