Growing up in a beach house on the shores of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, you can imagine the sumptuous seafood that found its way to the dinner table. The Gulf is where freshwater rivers meet the saltwater sea, offering us Cod, Flounder, Atlantic salmon, trout, mussels, clams and more. Sometimes it was fried on the stovetop, baked or broiled in the oven, or better yet cooked on the open fire and served with a side of potatoes and wild berries. You can’t beat eating a meal in the great outdoors.
While the Saint Lawrence offered up her treasure, it was the dining experience that made it seem magical, especially during the short, spectacular Canadian summers. Many neighbors joined together for a communal backyard barbeque. If folks really got “in the mood”, they would pass the word: “A neighborhood bonfire cookout was happening tonight”. As the adults prepared their food, kids of all shapes and sizes gathered firewood. Driftwood, dried on the hot sand gave us the biggest pieces.
The Gulf is where freshwater rivers meet the saltwater sea, offering us Cod, Flounder, Atlantic salmon, trout, mussels, clams and more. Sometimes it was fried on the stovetop, baked or broiled in the oven, or better yet cooked on the open fire and served with a side of potatoes and wild berries. You can’t beat eating a meal in the great outdoors.
Years earlier, some of the stronger adults managed to drag several large logs to the corner of the beach. The adjacent forest supplied kindling coupled with a heap of beach grass to get the fire started. A natural cove at the end of the beach, guarded by native evergreens and bedrock, sheltered us from the wind. Oh yeah, the wind. While it was lovely to have a gentle breeze blowing in off the water, keeping the blackflies at bay, that same wind could turn into a “nor’easter” whipping up waves so big they pounded the beach, spraying the windows of homes along the shore. The bay was dotted with several small islands which helped ships line up for their entry into the port.
OK, back to the bonfire cookout. Soon, the big black kettles would arrive, placed upon the cooking end of the fire. If we were really lucky someone would bring fresh lobster to share. Some parents, who were always thinking of the finicky eaters, included a package of hotdogs.
Heartier souls might bring along a family recipe from the home country as a side dish, introducing us to more exotic fare. That was another beautiful part of living in a remote area.
You met folks from all over the world who came to the “silver ore rush” seeking their fame and fortune. After dinner, folks might “walk it off” with a stroll along the beach. Once things were cleaned up and the fire kicked up a notch, it was storytelling and homemade music time.
It wasn’t long before people brought out their instruments. Accordions, guitars, tambourines, ukuleles, harmonicas or whatever you could find to make a pleasant sound. “Play us that song about “the sea captain’s daughter”. Later, the songs grew more somber and reflective as children fell asleep in their parents’ lap.
Later, my own family would emigrate from Duluth to the North Shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Growing up on beachfront property has given ample ammunition for stories …about cooking fresh clams over the campfire. How the campfire evolved into a bonfire (bon feu = good fire) as neighbors gathered, creating their own hometown band. You can’t beat a singalong under the stars. Musical accompaniment by accordions, guitars, tambourines and clapped hands.
Those storytellers, nursing an extra whiskey or beer, might tell a tale about their grandfather coming over from Ireland, looking for “the land of milk and honey”. In fact, odds are his ship passed right by these shores. If you look out there now you might see him, standing on the deck of a laker or freighter bound for the big city. Can’t you see him waving at us? Why he sees our fire on the beach. Lakers traveled the St Lawrence Seaway all the way to Duluth, while seagoing freighters headed for Germany or Japanese steel mills. Some ships were simply parked, waiting for a tugboat to guide them into harbor. All this grandiose storytelling led some to wonder if their own relatives, who emigrated years ago through Quebec City, might have seen this same glorious shoreline as their ships headed upriver.
Located on the 50th parallel, Port Cartier was originally an old fishing village named Shelter Bay. If you venture straight north from Maine, you will find this little corner of the world. During the late 1950’s, Port Cartier was “upgraded” to “suburbia in the woods” US Steel rolled in, developing the entire east side into a company town on Quebec’s Cote Nord (North Shore).
Since the majority of fathers worked for the same employer in this “company town”, it was quite likely you lived up the street from the guy who parked next to you at the office. Sure, a few mothers also found jobs in the secretarial pool or as school teachers and nurses.
However, it was quite common in this “Leave it to Beaver” era, many women stayed home to raise their children. Another luxury of small town living was the proximity and small size of neighborhood schools. Everyone went home for lunch as mom served up soup and sandwiches. Even the working fathers came home for lunch each day. So meals were always a family affair.
While folks today host backyard barbeques and fire pits, it’s hard to replicate the sensation of sitting on the shoreline, enjoying food fresh from the sea with friends and neighbors.