Food is fundamental. As Felipe Fernández-Armesto has written, food “has a good claim to be considered the world's most important subject. It is what matters most to most people for most of the time” (Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food [New York, 2002], ix). We are what we eat, both materially and discursively, both in terms of the ecological networks that provide us with sustenance and the identities that define who we are as social, cultural, and historical beings. This article examines early contacts on the Northwest coast, using food as a lens on cultural and environmental encounter. Drawing on oral tradition and on accounts of explorers such as George Vancouver, this article treats the newcomers ethnographically, setting their behavior within the context of European cultural practices, and treats aboriginal societies historically, showing them as active participants in processes of change. Across tables and hearths, aboriginal people and the newcomers created a space in which static notions of race played a surprisingly small role. Instead, differences were seen as having to do with subtler concepts like generosity, cultivation, and taste. As with the belief, shared by Europeans and aboriginal people alike, that the strangers they encountered might be cannibals, these early encounters created what Gananath Obeyesekere calls a “dialogical misunderstanding” upon which would be laid the shaky foundations of empire (Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas [Berkeley, CA, 2005]). By using food to ground the face-to-face encounters between native and newcomer and by placing indigenous understandings of encounter at the center of the story, this article seeks to describe some of the specific mechanisms, material and rhetorical, by which colonialism dispossessed.

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