With Grunting Admiration

Rhonda Lee McIsaac

Who knew that xaaguu halibut heads were hard as rocks? Nuni Lily Brown did. Many large xaaguu heads crackled and creaked under the pressure of her hands and sharp knife skills. She had passed this knowledge down to her son, Dullskin Brown, and this week he showed a new generation the skills of xaaguu head processing to make the tastiest jam soup from xaaguu kaajii halibut head.

The xaaguu head is like a road map that is best read by someone who knows where they are going. Brown says he cannot recall the first time he filleted a fish but he does remember watching his mom and aunties do it. He is now teaching others and passing on this important knowledge.

Look closely at the xaaguu head. Follow its lines. Using cool water wash away any fish slime or dirt and grit that may be on the head. Keep your cutting board and knives clean and sharp with water and a sharpener nearby. Keep the meat and cut away the xangii eyes – another delicacy. “There isn’t quite the fight as there would be if they were sockeye eyes” says GwaaGanad Diane Brown. It is not the cleanest or easiest job to do but it is rewarding.

“No wonder no one does this anymore, it’s so tough!” exclaimed Sian Nallewag, who was learning the new skillset. Nallegwag is the Food Coordinator for School District 50 with the Local Foods to School Program and quickly caught on after processing the first halibut head and went on to do four more. Others followed suit and were left exhausted with the strain of the knife-work required to process the heads. Each head produced at least one pound of meat.

“Sucking on the cartilage is the best part” added Gyaa XaagaayUance Lauren Brown, Health Director at Xaaynang.nga Naay the Skidegate Health Centre. Unsurprisingly, there are words in Xaayda Kil that describe this very thing: k’uk’.k’ang, k’uugang, and hlk’uuk’wang all mean ‘sucking the marrow from halibut head bones.’

“At least we will have four other women to help us survive the zombie-apocalypse,” she cheered, looking down the table at the other participants who were busy working their knives through the fish heads. GwaaGanad laughed and thanked the younger women for taking on the lessons.

“You boil your water and scald the meat and bones. Grate a potato into the mix” added Dullskin Brown gently urging the group back to work.

“Add the onions and add the potatoes. Cook until the potatoes are soft” and your jam is done, he added with a smile.

At the end of the workshop, the remaining xaaguu heads were cut up, vacuum packed and distributed to Hiit’aGaniina Kuuyas Naay the Skidegate Youth Centre and Xaaynang.nga Naay for their food programming.

2 Comments

  1. Great article Rhonda Lee McIsaac, I am going to put a link to it on the “Haida Gwaii Local Foods Project”. I especially love Lauren Brown’s “zombie-apocalypse” comment. I laughed out loud reading that.

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