A tasty trip back to Prince Edward Island

Although my mother was Canadian-born, she lived in the United States as a citizen for 75 years. She became a Yankee automatically when she married my Maine-born father, Lucky Frank. I followed, and was fetched up under two distinct but overlapping influences. Except that there was a compelling portrait of Queen Victoria in our parlor, I was not subjected overmuch to the lore and legend of Prince Edward Island, which was always "The Island," because, as Jock MacEachern put it, "What other island be there?"

Her forebear was Norman MacLeod from Skye, known on The Island as "The" MacLeod on the same basis, "What other MacLeod be there?" He was an original Selkirk settler, and certainly ranked with Elder Brewster, who was a great-great-etc. ancestor of my father. Neither made a big thing of ancestry, but Mother spoke of The Norman MacLeod reverently, and my father seldom spoke of Pilgrim Brewster because it was a family disgrace that several times elder Brewster had been delinquent in his pew rent.

I was 6 when my mother took me to Prince Edward Island to show me off to her parents, aunts, uncles, and the clan of cousins and neighbors. On that visit I first encountered some of the few Canadian items Mother often longed for down in "The Boston States." She longed for some Sussex ginger ale, and the US had no Sussex ginger ale.

That summer, back on her girlhood farm, she sated herself on Sussex ginger ale, and I found it full as fine as she said it was. Made in the New Brunswick village of Sussex, Sussex ginger ale had enough ginger in it to be persuasive. I have no notion now if it is still made, but if it be it is the finest ginger ale, and not just because my mother said so. When my mother was 100 and in a home for the elderly, we took our son, her grandson, to The Island to show him the tombstone of The MacLeod, and as soon as we returned I went to tell my mother about our trip. When I came into her room she said, first, "Did you bring me some Sussex ginger ale?" I had done so.

On my first visit I learned, too, about turnips. The Island, Mother had so often said, grows the finest turnips. Since folks on Prince Edward Island eat turnips with every meal, I had some that first breakfast-time and decided I didn't much care for turnips. But to prove I was a good boy I polished off my turnips. So I heard Grampie say, "Ah, look! The lad has et his turnip! Gi' him some more."

Mother had also spoken often of another hankering, Christy Biscuits. "Pity 'tis," she'd say, "the folks down here don't know what a good biscuit is." A biscuit on The Island was a soda cracker in Maine, and Mother meant one corresponding to our saltines. Christy was a big Canadian biscuit baker. They used a different flour and another recipe, and their saltines were superior to those back home. The last time I visited The Island, I learned the whole Christy bakery business had been sold to some international giant and the biscuit of my mother was now like ours in the States. Thus the world gets better and better every day.

An even bigger pang came with Hazelbrook cheese. From my first infant day of memory, I heard my mother repeat that, Oh! wouldn't she love a good hunk of Hazelbrook cheese! Now, so long after, wouldn't I! Hazelbrook! Isn't that a pleasant name? And the cheese was made there in the Hazelbrook Creamery. It was The Island Cheese.

So my Grampie's farm (with "the finest fields on The Island") was near Vernon River, another pleasant name, and Hazelbrook was close. A farmer's co-op was organized at Hazelbrook, originally meant as a receiving station for milk to be evaporated, or condensed, and tinned. This was well before mechanical refrigeration and cooperative ventures. It worked out well. My grandfather had a place to sell his milk, and as he owned stock in Hazelbrook, he got a small but welcome return on his stock. His milk, separated, was taken to the main road by horse and wagon, the cans placed on a roadside platform, and picked up by the creamery team.

Island Cheese was red, as is The Island itself. Red soil and lush green fields and woods. Comparable perhaps to our New York State cheddar, the cheese was of better flavor, and Mother's yearning was entirely reasonable.

Now, nobody on The Island ever came right out and told me so, but the cheese of Hazelbrook was made with cooperative eyes on smuggling. Not, heaven forbid!, a low criminal kind of boundary deceit, but a proper high-quality kind of smuggling based on the fact that 5-, 10-, and 15-pound cheeses were available to be taken to any part of the world where Island Cheese was unavailable.

As a lad of 6, coming back to the States from my first visit to The Island, I was propped on a train seat when we passed through customs at Vanceboro. To the customs officer, I appeared to be a young child eating my lunch.

Likely he noticed that my lunch consisted of Island Cheese, Christy Biscuits, and Sussex ginger ale, but that was normal at that port of entry, and Mother paid no border tax. Every Canadian coming back to Yankee-land, brought Island Cheese, Christy Biscuits, and Sussex ginger ale. Alas, alas! I believe Hazelbrook cheese was sold to somebody like Kraft, and it can no longer be smuggled. I think there is nothing "just as good." And not only because my mother said so.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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