Long Necked Beer Bottles and an Old Polenta Pot

by Eileen Truant Pedersen

Roaming for berries in the Late 1930s

It was Huckleberry Heaven in the mountains above Trail BC in 1939, a year and a half after my mom and sisters arrived from Italy. Anita: “We awoke at 2:00 in the morning, dressed—mommy in daddy’s oversize coveralls; strapped homemade boxes on our backs—daddy made a smaller one for me; picked up two family friends and hiked for hours across and around mountains to the sweet spot overlooking the city. We had to cross a large rocky area to get there and I did so on my hands and knees. I was 12; mommy was 32.”

“The boxes had lids. We would fill a pail with huckleberries and dump them into our backpacks. We carried extra pails and buckets in case there were more berries than fit in the packs. Sometimes the women took off their coveralls, tied the bottoms off, and put more huckleberries in the legs.”

Honestly, I get that they were young, fit from working the fields in Italy, and had boundless energy. What I don’t get is how they managed to bring all those berries home again after a long day of climbing and picking, especially traversing that crop of rocks. And home in time for supper. Then, as you pickers know, the berries needed to be cleaned and stored.

There was no such thing as a freezer then and I doubt they even had a fridge. But they did have canning jars which they saved for the wild mushroom harvest (“seggamini” as my mom called Shaggy Manes–I remember the cleaning marathons in the 50s). Enter the brown long-necked beer bottles. Anita described the painstaking effort of cramming huckleberries into the narrow openings. Once filled and capped, they went into a hot water bath after which they’d last til next year. Everybody moved when the one tasked with extracting the huckleberries shook them out into a bowl. Not much of the juice ended up in the bowl. We ate the berries with fresh whipped cream from the Trail Creek Dairy. Pies hadn’t been invented yet; huckleberry jam had.

We spent a lot of time in the Great Outdoors and I loved it. Berries, mushrooms, asparagus, and hazelnuts—all harvested in and around Trail. Our house was right next to Trail Creek, where my dad fished for trout. The promised fishing rod for my eighth birthday did not materialize so I was unable to accompany him as I wanted to. I have since forgiven him. He is probably pleased about that.

Cascades Fishing Trips and Old Fashioned Polenta, 1950s
The old Cascade Highway linked Rossland and Christina Lake BC through two summits in the Monashee Mountains, Rossland Range, since the early 1920s. ‘Highway’ is a bit of a misnomer as it was pure dirt, dangerously narrow and heavily rutted, and, wound around sharp corners as it ascended and descended the summits. The scenery was breathtaking and the trees went on forever. At the bottom of the first summit was Big Sheep Creek, where the fishing was good. That’s where we stopped.

We set out at 3 am, before the crack of dawn. Relatives followed and upon arriving out came the card tables, stools, cooking utensils, coffee pot and the large cast iron, round-bottomed polenta pot with the thick wooden stick to stir the polenta. The polenta pot sat perfectly in the top of an empty 5 gallon metal ‘drum’ from Trail’s Star Bakery. My dad had cut a hole near the bottom front for the wood cook fire plus a small hole in the back for the smoke to escape.

After set up, we dunked fuiassa (pannetone) in coffee for breakfast. The men headed to the creek with their rods, worms, and wicker baskets. The women visited and knitted or crocheted while us kids, all two of us, roamed the bushes and played. My mother told us we could catch a squirrel if we threw salt on its tail. We tried.

At mid morning the women fired up the polenta stove, heated the water, and stirred in the cornmeal, eventually adding more water (a little at a time, which makes for a lumpless polenta), until it was so thick you could hardly stir it with two hands. It was now dense enough to plunk upside down onto a large wooden board, where it fell out of the pot into a perfect mound. Before serving, I had the honour of slicing the polenta with a long piece of white thread pulled taut between both hands. I ran the thread from the back, between the polenta and the board, and pulled it towards me about two inches. Then sliced up. Repeat from front to back and from side to side.

By now the fish had been cleaned, gutted, and fried on the camp stove, tails and fins in tact. There is nothing that compares to crispy fish tails fried outdoors. We ate with gusto. We shared cooked vegetables and radicchio, and finally desserts and another cup of coffee. There was always furlano cheese.

Our families picnicked EVERY Sunday somewhere. Commonly, at the Colombo picnic grounds towards Salmo, which also had a creek running through it. Our picnics began at the Milk Creek Dairy on the way to Rossland in the 1940s. The dairy was owned by a family near our home town in Italy. Previous to that, Anita tells me a few families trekked along Trail Creek from our house to find a spot to have a picnic. And previous to that, in San Martin, the families had watermelon picnics near the Tagliamento River.

I do believe this outdoor business is in my bones. Downhill and cross country skiing, camping and hiking trips and trekking in the Himalayas with my son have been immensely satisfying over the years. Then I stopped. There was always ‘something else to do’ first. Last year I came to my senses and ended the practice of waiting for “The Right Time”. I chased Kootenay waterfalls and old growth forests and plan to refresh my spirit in the Great Outdoors again this year.

Eileen Truant Pedersen is an adult educator, writer, and retired school teacher who loves kids, music, dancing, and photography. She is the author of “Set in Stone~A History of Trail’s Rock Walls”, about the 100s of rock walls and their builders, mostly Italian stone masons. Her son and grandsons are based in the Northwest Territories. She returned to her home town of Trail, BC 20 years ago.