Beach House Diaries: Eating the Pictou Island Way

Pictou Island food

Eating is an essential part of any vacation experience, and beach house escapes are no different. What seems like just an act of sustenance at home – a routine fork-to-mouth moment – suddenly becomes a gustatory event, which is why travel guides to popular locales are fattened with restaurant reviews. Even the food you prepare yourself somehow tastes better, and that's good news for me given that Pictou Island doesn't have a single eatery.

It also helps that classic beach feasts -- be they corn boils, clam bakes or barbeques -- tend to be on the simple, side since "complicated" is beyond my capabilities. For starters, I don't have electricity at my beach house, and though dining by candlelight is very romantic, making dinner that way is not. Moreover, while I do have a propane stove, I'm missing a microwave (that's a problem when pizza pops are your go-to dish); plus my foursome must make do with a bar-size fridge recycled from an old RV. Oh, did I mention the nearest supermarket is 45 minutes away by boat?

When we first began weekending on the island a decade ago, I figured the only way to surmount these obstacles was to approach menus like an army quartermaster. Meal plans were dutifully drafted and detailed lists drawn to cover every drop of milk, every shake of salt; groceries were then bought at home, with meats divvied up and frozen in advance so they could unthaw gradually. The job was tedious, but if your own waterside retreat is off the beaten track -- or you merely want to avoid repeat supply runs ii you may feel inclined to do the same.

Over the years I got tired of the military-style precision, and I know my kids got tired of not being able to impulsively eat a cracker lest it be earmarked as a crucial ingredient in the next day's lunch. So I finally loosened up. Today my cupboard is stocked with a few well-chosen canned goods and a smattering of spices. Beyond that, I rely on a repertoire of basic items that can be whipped up in myriad ways. Frankly, I could write a cookbook by now on 1001 ways to serve an egg (if I run out, my neighbor Anne has a coop full of cooperative chickens).

I've learned to make the most of the island's natural bounty, too. Elsewhere locavores brag about their "100-Mile Diet," but 100 yards will pretty much do when your place sits in the seafood-filled Northumberland Strait. Mussels and scallops are plentiful, as are oysters (try the award-winning ShanDaphs that Pictou Island native Philip Docker raises nearby). Ditto for lobster, which happens to be as versatile as Forrest Gump's shrimp. After all, you can broil it, sauté it, stir fry it. There's lobster chowder, lobster rolls, lobster salad, lobster benedict...

When lobster season ends (dates are staggered in the region to protect the stock) what grows in island gardens is glorious enough to inspire a committed carnivore to rethink vegetarianism. Although I've frequently been told that I'm all thumbs, not one of them is green. So I haven't yet tackled gardening myself. Nevertheless, I have been the grateful recipient of other Islanders' produce -- Gretchen's huge, lewd-looking zucchinis; Jane's beautiful radish bouquets, the leaves of which make a stellar salad; Evelyne's tiny, addictive tomatoes. The list goes on.

The last of these ladies has also encouraged me to forage for chanterelle mushrooms; however, I don't trust my ability to ID them. You see, the woods here yield poisonous lookalikes and I'd rather not spend my vacation dead. On the other hand, I will happily spend hours bent double in a berry patch picking my beloved wild blueberries. In addition to being impossibly tasty, blueberries are rich in antioxidants. Plus they are said to improve memory in aging adults: that could come in handy over time considering that this is a place I never want to forget.

Next: Traditional Blueberry Grunt Recipe

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Each week writer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb will report on summer beach house life from her vacation home on Pictou Island, Nova Scotia. Follow along for a glimpse of the shore, plus tips on what to pack, how to entertain guests and how to relax at your own beach house.
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