Canada’s Original Cooking Vessel
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, skilfully 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, likely made of cedar.
In northwest culture, the red cedar was a revered tree, often many storeys in height. It was life giving, being employed 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 the work of the women and they took great pride in it. 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 (pictured at right).
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 – 1920, described how, in the springtime, the tender shoots of the salmon berry bush were added to the water for flavouring. 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 savoured, 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 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 was 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 most bentwood boxes exist in private collections, First Nations’ Cultural Centres and museums.
Excerpted from Anita Stewart’s CANADA: The Food, The Recipes, The Stories (HarperCollins Canada 2008/2014)
Photography courtesy of Robert Wigington.