Calm Before the Storm
By Ed Staskus
There is plenty of good better best even better seafood chowder on Prince Edward Island, since there is plenty of seafood on all sides of the crescent-shaped province. There are cultured mussels and lean white halibut and wild-caught lobster. They go into the chowder. It comes in cups and bowls. Some of the bowls are bigger than others and can be meals in themselves.
Or more than a meal in themselves.
“We had a large bowl of chowder last year, but I don’t see it on the menu anymore,” Frank Glass said to the young man who was putting glasses of water down on their table.
“We have a really good seafood chowder,” he said, pointing to the menu.
“Is it a big bowl?” asked Frank.
The young man sized up an imaginary bowl with his hands.
“No, the chowder we had was in a bowl about twice that size,” Frank said.
“Oh, you mean the big ass bowl.”
“What kind of bowl?” asked Vera Glass, sitting across from her husband. They were at a table at one of the windows overlooking the Clyde River. On the far bank the red roof of the PEI Preserve Company, where jams and jellies are made, glowed in the rolling up of dusk.
“That’s what we call it in the kitchen,” the young man said. “We don’t call it that on the menu, obviously. If you want it, I can ask, and I’m sure we can make it for you.”
“You’ll just clear the decks and whip it up, even though it’s not on the menu?” Vera asked.
“Sure,” said the young man.
“Sweet,” she said.
Vera and Frank Glass were at the Mill, a snug as a bug up-to-speed restaurant in New Glasgow on Prince Edward Island. It is neither a small nor big roadhouse, seating maybe fifty diners, right on the road, on a zigzag of Route 13 as it runs south from coastal Cavendish through New Glasgow to Hunter River. There is a performance space on the second floor. A deli case just inside the front door is always full of fruit pies and meat pies. The building is blue, two–story, and wide front-porched. It is kitty-corner to the bridge that crosses the snaky river. The Mill describes itself as “carefully sourcing seafood, steaks and entrees served in a rustic yet refined space with scenic views.”
That’s hitting the nail square on the head.
It was the night before Hurricane Dorian slammed into PEI, even though it wasn’t a hurricane anymore when it did. It was a post-tropical storm, which is like saying you took it on the chin from a cruiserweight rather than a heavyweight boxer.
“Under the right conditions, post-tropical storms can produce hurricane-strength winds,” said CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland the day after the storm. “Dorian serves as a good example that the difference between a hurricane and a post-tropical storm is more about the storm’s structure and not its intensity.” On Saturday morning, moving north, it sucked up energy from another weather system moving in from the west. The winds spreading over the island grew to hurricane strength during the day and the storm unrolled over a larger area than Hurricane Juan, the “storm of the century,” had done in 2003.
“Look who’s back,” said Vera, looking over Frank’s shoulder.
“Good, maybe she’ll be our waitress.”
“She looks better tonight, not so spaced.”
“Didn’t she have to go home the last time we were here?”
“I think so.”
“Hi, how are you?”
“Good,” said Michelle. “I see you two have made it back again.”
“This is our third time here in three weeks, although we’re leaving for home on Sunday,” said Vera.
“So, you’ll be here for the storm.”
“It looks like it.”
“In Ohio, Lakewood, which is right on the lake, just west of Cleveland,” said Frank. “We get thunderstorms that come across Lake Erie from Canada, but nothing like what we’ve been hearing is going to blow up here in your neck of the woods.”
Hurricane Dorian hit home like a battle-ax.
“The result was much higher rainfall and more widespread destructive winds across PEI with Dorian compared to Juan,” said Jay Scotland, the weatherman. On Monday Blair Campbell, the chief executive officer of PEI Mutual Insurance, said they logged the most claims ever on Sunday, the day after the storm. More than four hundred policy holders called in property damage.
“These are damage claims in the frequency and magnitude that we have not seen before,’’ he said.
Fishing boats from Stanley Bridge to Covehead were smashed submerged sunk.
“Sobeys in Charlottetown this morning was worse than Christmas time,” said Michelle. “You couldn’t get anywhere with your cart. Everybody was buying dry cereal, canned fruit, ready-to-eat, and cases of water.”
Frances MacLure was stocking up like everybody else.
“So far I have just bought batteries,” she said. “I have two radios and I’m going to make sure one of them is going to work. It’s always nice to be able to keep in touch if the power is out for any length of time,” she said.
There were sandwich makings on her list, as well.
“Just for a quick bite if the power goes off.”
“Everybody was buying batteries,” said Michelle. “The last time a hurricane came to the island, power was out for more than a week.”
“We are very concerned, we’ve certainly spent the last three days in readiness, in going through all of our checklist and checking our equipment,” said Kim Griffin of Maritime Electric as the weekend approached. “There is a lot of greenery and foliage on the trees, that is a concern to us. So, we are really asking our customers to make sure they are prepared and ready.”
“When was that?” asked Frank.
“About fifteen years ago,” said Michelle. “Summerside has its own power, but if it goes out in New Brunswick, this whole part of the island won’t have any power.”
“Do you still have that moonshine cocktail?” asked Vera.
“We do,” Michelle said.
Vera had an Island Shine and Frank had a pint of Charlottetown lager.
“Are you going to have the big chowder?” asked Vera.
“Yes,” Frank said.
“I’m going to have a small bowl of soup and the ribs,” Vera said. “What about going halves on the lamb and feta appetizer? It’s good with everything.”
“Sure,” Frank said. “You can’t go wrong with the ribs, and the mac and cheese they come with. That cheese from Glasgow Glen, it’s good. I had it the last time we were here.”
“I hope Emily has the sweet potato curry soup tonight,” said Vera. “Curry is my number one favorite thing in the world.”
“What about me?”
“You’re close, maybe third or fourth.”
“That close, huh?”
“You don’t like curry, which is a problem. It drops you in the standings. I think Emily is a curry person, like me. She probably does a great Fall Flavors menu.”
The Mill’s owner and chef Emily Wells was born in England and lived on the continent before coming to Prince Edward Island in 1974 when her parents bought Cold Comfort Farm. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada, committed to local healthy food and ethical food production. She has worked in restaurants in PEI and Ontario for more than three decades and is a key contributor to the River Clyde Pageant. The pageant is about the tidal river, and features great blue herons, trout puppets, schools of dressed-up jellyfish, bridge trolls and mermaids and fishermen.
“I love it when you put curry in things, but sometimes all of a sudden you don’t taste anything else. I feel like you can taste everything in her soups.”
“It’s like her chowder, it’s chock-full, but nothing’s drowned out, all the parts stand out,” Frank said. “It’s not too busy.”
“Everything here is always better than I expect, even though I always expect it to be good,” Vera said.
“My boyfriend is a chef at the Blue Mussel in North Rustico, and it’s hard for us to get a day off in the summer on the same day, so we hardly ever eat out,” Michelle said.
“After eating here and at the Mussel, we don’t always want to go, anyway, but we ate out in Charlottetown a few weeks ago, and the chowder we got was mostly a milky liquid, with so little fish in it. We poked around for whatever we could find but ended up asking for another loaf of bread. We got it to dunk into the chowder, because there were hardly any pieces of anything.”
From one end of Prince Edward Island to the other pieces of preparation for the storm were coming together.
“We have been busy as a team,” said Randy MacDonald, chief of the Charlottetown Fire Department, the day before the storm. “Our team has been making preparations for tomorrow.”
He said chainsaws and generators were on hand. “We may see trees down, branches down, large branches taking down power lines, that sort of thing.” Rapid response cars, trucks, and ambulances were gassed up full and staff was on the alert, ready to go.
While the tempest was rolling up the coast, Michelle didn’t only rush to Sobeys. She took matters into her own hands, in her own kitchen, in her own house. “I live just down the road from here, next to the Gouda place. I send my son there for pizza, since he can walk over.”
The Gouda place makes artisan cheese.
“I’ve passed my name and my expertise on to Jeff McCourt and his new company Glasgow Glen Cheese,” said the former Cheese Lady, Martina ter Beek.
Glasgow Glen Farm slaps out skins from scratch, down the line doing the dough to sprinkling homegrown veggies and meats on the pie, featuring their own made from scratch gouda, working behind the front counter at two long tables just inside the door, wood firing the pizzas in a brick oven.
In the summer there are picnic tables on the side of the gravel parking lot, a grassy field sloping away from a pile of cordwood.
“I made chowder,” said Michelle. “It was a fishy stew, like Mel does. I ended up using cod, clams, and scallops. I made everything else, clam juice, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes out of my garden. Once the potatoes were almost completely cooked, I took the pieces of cod and sat them on top. I put a lid on it and all the flavor of the cod went into it, yeah.”
She didn’t need any bread to help her chowder out, either.
While Vera pulled gently at her baby back ribs, Frank started scooping out his large bowl of broth and seafood.
“How’s the sinkhole?” Vera asked.
“So far so good,” said Frank. “It’s sort of like a Manhattan clam chowder, like the Portuguese make, and like a seafood goulash at the same time.”
“Like a cioppino.”
“Like a what?”
“That’s the official name of it,” Vera said.
“Anyway, I can taste bay leaves and thyme, and there might be some oregano in it. It’s loaded with stuff. She must have hit the motherload at the fish market. There are mussels, halibut, lobster, a chuck of salmon, and shrimp.”
“Emily probably uses whatever she has on hand,” Vera said.
“On top there’s a red pepper rouille, almost like a pesto, which gives it a kick.”
“Are you going to be able to finish it?”
“I’m going to give it my best shot.”
Halfway through their meal, when Vera spotted a plate of maple mousse walking by, she said to Frank, “That’s what I want to try for dessert tonight. It’s frozen mousse, like ice cream. I thought it might not be good for sharing, but that thing is more than big enough.”
“All right,” said Frank, “since that Anna kid is a wizard. First, we eat well, then we face tomorrow, no matter what happens.”
The Mill was almost vacated evacuated when they paid their bill of fare and left.
“You wouldn’t know a hurricane is blowing in,” Frank said to Vera as they lingered in the front lot after dinner, leaning against the back hatch of their Hyundai, watching the no traffic on the quiet road, the starry northern sky inky and still above them.
When Saturday morning rolled around, it started getting dark, and by noon it started raining. It got windy and windier. The Coastline Cottages and the Doyle houses on the other side of the park road lost power in the late afternoon. Churchill Avenue in town was shut down. The Gulf Shore Parkway east from Brackley was shut down. Roads in all directions were shut down, as utility wires and branches blew away. Fences were flattened, roofs torn off, and hundred-year-old trees toppled.
The damage to the Cavendish Campground, seven-some miles away from where Frank and Vera were staying, was so bad it was closed for the rest of the year. An arc from Cavendish to Kensington to Summerside was walloped. Islanders tarped their roofs, sawed up tree limbs, and hauled away debris for days afterwards. On Sunday morning all the trails administered by Parks Canada everywhere on PEI were shut down until they could be assessed.
After their cottage lost power, Frank and Vera packed for their drive home the next day and tidied up while there was still some light. “At least we know the mondo bridge is as sturdy as it gets,” said Vera. When it got dark, 19th century-style dark, they popped open the remains of a bottle of red wine and spent the rest of the night riding out the lashing all-out rain and gusting big ass wind.