Last summer an old friend and I went up to Thunder Bay to visit another old friend. In four days we took in all the sights within driving distance, so that on the ride out to the airport to return home I was told, “Well, we didn’t do the miniputt, but other than that you have now seen everything Thunder Bay has to offer.” It was a wonderful whirlwind trip, and I can’t now set one attraction over the others, but for the sake of this post I will lavish attention upon Fort William. Two hundred years ago, Canada’s interior was being harvested by two great fur trading companies: The Hudson’s Bay Company, and the North West Company. The North West Company established a major way station at what would one day be called Thunder Bay, and today that trading post has been recreated and staffed by actors for the education and entertainment of tourists like me.
The Fort offered free admission on Canada Day, but my canny hostess pointed out that every holidaymaker within ten hours’ drive would take advantage of that special, and the attraction was well worth the regular price. We went the day after Canada Day, and we were almost the only ones: We were outnumbered by the actors playing Native Americans, Voyageurs, Settlers, Farmers, and Company Men. The re-enactors were clearly very proud and enthusiastic about what they were doing, and as we were their only audience, we were treated as honoured guests. Every place we went, people offered us a seat and gave us period-specific food and drink. It might have come to your notice that I’m something of a history buff, so I bored my friends and delighted the actors by having a good chin wag about the ‘recent’ troubles in Europe (I hear Napoleon has escaped from Elba!) and the like.We wandered through every one of the Fort’s 42 buildings. We climbed every watch tower. We toured through the working farm and the native village. We paddled a voyageur canoe. We chatted up housewives, applied for a vacancy in the clerks’ office, and coached an understudy apothecary’s apprentice through his presentation (the poor kid couldn’t have been more than 14, and he was only given centre stage in the pharmacy because so many of his co-workers had taken the day off after the Canada Day rush). We watched a tinsmith tinker and a blacksmith bang. We observed –but declined the offer to join in– as farm hands mucked out the stalls of period-specific livestock. We counted, stacked and pressed beaver pelts into bundles. We danced the era-appropriate dances to traditional music. Then, as the day was ending, we had the best pea soup there ever was, or ever will be. The actors playing the voyageurs had their bivouac set up outside the palisade walls. Two hundred years ago, voyageurs were not particularly welcome within the fort itself, as they tended to have a backwoods mentality with the manners to go with it. I had watched from early that morning as they puttered around with a billy can suspended by a tripod over a low-burning fire. Throughout the day I had seen them sneak through the gates to raid the wood pile under the buildings when the Company officials weren’t looking. As we made ready to leave they offered us a cup of their soup, and I held in my hand a miracle of green goo, as appetizing in its appearance as grade school paste.
It began hours earlier with a potato, a couple of carrots, half a bag of dried split peas, an onion, a pinch of salt, a clenched fist’s worth of pepper, and just enough water added every now and again so that it wouldn’t burn or stick to the bottom of the billy can. This concoction was left to stew and simmer throughout the day, gently prodded from time to time with a spoon until it cooked down to the consistency of mashed potatoes.
Maybe it was the wood fire. Maybe it was the fresh air. If it was either of those things, I doubt I’ll be able to duplicate the simple recipe without making a pilgrimage to the great outdoors. Whatever it was, it was incredible. You could taste each ingredient in turn, and one dovetailed into the other without beginning or end. It worked all areas of the tongue: It was sweet and salty, savoury and bitter, with just a whisper of sourness. If I hadn’t seen the ingredients that went into it, I would swear it was seasoned with something I had never tasted before. It got up into your sinuses, so that the taste stayed with you long after your dixie cup was empty. I had one mouthful of the ordinary, everyday normal pea soup at my grandparents home, and my mind was catapulted back to a better bite, a more vivid experience.
It was, quite simply, the best pea soup –if you can call it soup– I have ever or will ever have.