Anita Stewart’s Canada File: Bentwood Boxes
By Anita Stewart
While the world has taught Canadians how to make oatcakes and pasta, pizza and Yorkshire pudding, perfect sushi and great pierogis — while we roast, boil, bake, stir-fry, microwave, pickle, freeze, preserve, pit cook, barbecue, ad infinitum — Canada’s only indigenous cooking method is that of the bentwood box.
For centuries, bentwood boxes, often ornately decorated and of many various sizes, were used extensively by the First Nations of coastal British Columbia, a region so rich in food resources that there is still a saying: ‘The tide is out, the table is set.’
From pre-history the boxes, skillfully made with notched planks of red cedar, were used for family meals or the most elaborate feasts, for storage and even, at times, for burial.
When British explorer/cartographer Captain James Cook first sailed to the wild surf-pounded western shores of Vancouver Island in 1777, his artist John Webber drew portraits of the Nootka people boiling their foods in such a cedar box.
In northwest culture, the red cedar was a revered tree, often many stories 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 three to four 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 – 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, 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 versions of the 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.
Anita Stewart is the Food Laureate for the University of Guelph and founder of Food Day Canada. She holds a graduate degree in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu/University of Adelaide and is a Member of the Order of Canada. She lives in Ontario.