The Traditional Food of Newfoundland
Battered by North Atlantic storms and often shrouded in fog, the cooks of Newfoundland have developed dishes aimed at repelling the cold and the damp. For centuries, most of the people on The Rock were poor, so their traditional food is basic. The island’s soil is generally of low quality and the growing season is short, so root crops dominate. And, then, of course, there’s fish.
The Ocean’s Bounty
The explorer John Cabot landed at Bonavista on Newfoundland’s east coast in 1497. His crew reported that “the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets.” Lower a basket over the side of the ship and haul it back up loaded with cod.
But overfishing caused the cod stock to collapse in the early 1990s. However, there are many Newfoundlanders who say the big villains in the disappearance of the cod are seals: “Well, they ain’t eatin’ turnips are they?”
But, there is still cod to be had, as well as other seafood.
Cod is so much a part of Newfoundland that when an islander says fish, he or she means cod; the two words are interchangeable.
Cod tongues, and cheeks are, so it’s claimed, a sought-after delicacy. They are deep fried and sprinkled with small pieces of crispy fried pork fat known as scrunchions. It’s an acquired taste they say. My one experience of the dish did not lead to acquiring a taste for a second helping. Quite fatty, I recall. Perhaps, I got a bad batch.
Seal flipper pie is traditionally made during the Lenten season, which coincides with the annual seal hunt. The flippers are pan-fried and then roasted with onions, root vegetables, pork fat, and a good slosh of Newfoundland Screech (rum).
The Smithsonian Magazine does not sound overly enthusiastic about this dish, “The meat is dark, tough, gamey and apparently has a flavour similar to that of hare.” And, that flavour may explain why seal flipper pie is usually served with a liberal amount of Worcestershire Sauce.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation adds that the dish is “something you either like or dislike, with no in-between.”
Fish and brewis (pronounced bruise or brews) is another old-time favourite on The Rock. There are only three ingredients, Purity Hard Bread (it’s a hard biscuit that can be used to drive nine-inch nails into a ship’s timbers), salt cod, and pork fat. The bread is soaked overnight in water; it is now brewis. The salt cod and brewis are flaked and fried with pork fat (there it is again).
From personal experience, I would put fish and brewis somewhere behind pickled beets as a pleasurable food. I don’t like pickled beets, but it’s said that ex-pat Newfoundlanders crave fish and brewis.
Sunday dinner in Leading Tickles or Joe Batt’s Arm (they are real places) would likely involve salt beef, cabbage, and root vegetables. It’s called a Jiggs Dinner or boiled dinner.
The name comes from an American comic strip called Bringing Up Father that began life in 1913. One of the characters was an Irish immigrant called Jiggs who regularly ate corned beef and cabbage. As many of Newfoundland’s European settlers were from Ireland the Jiggs name resonated on the island.
In the past, Newfoundlanders preserved meat by salting it so that it would last through the harsh winter.
After soaking, the salt beef (about two and a half pounds) is put to boil in a pot with a cloth bag containing about half a pound of split yellow peas. Let that simmer for a couple of hours and add six potatoes, five carrots, two parsnips, a turnip (rutabaga), and a head of cabbage – all chopped. Another 20 to 30 minutes of simmering and then remove. Mash the peas with butter and black pepper and serve. Gravy, sweet mustard pickles, and pickled beets are considered acceptable garnishes.
This produces a massive dinner, which is a good thing because families tended to be large in Newfoundland’s past. And, leftovers could be served up as hash, which Newfoundlanders call couldn'ts, as in "couldn’t finish it."
If a scoff (Newfoundland word for a good feed) of Jiggs Dinner doesn’t keep out the winter cold nothing will.
And for Dessert
Figgy Duff is a rib-sticking pudding that, of course, has nothing to do with figs. For etymologists, figgy comes from an old Cornish word for raisins and duff is a corruption of dough. The ingredients - flour, butter, raisins, brown sugar, molasses, and breadcrumbs – are mixed together with ginger, allspice, and cinnamon. This is then boiled in a pudding bag and served with a generous drizzle of hot rum sauce.
In a similar vein, there is the bakeapple that, naturally, has nothing to do with apples. It’s a fruit that grows in peat bogs that some call a bog berry or swamp berry. But the marketing people got hold of these unappealing names and named it cloudberry. It goes in pies, tarts, and jams.
It's an expensive delicacy because pickers have to bend double to pluck them off the low shrubs on which they grow, all the while fighting off clouds of mosquitoes.
There’s a theory that the name comes from a French explorer of long ago who asked “baie qu’appelle?” – “What is this berry called?” Phonetically, and massaged by a Newfoundland accent, brings us to bakeapple.
Those unfortunates who are not born on The Rock can still become honourary Newfoundlanders. After dinner in many establishments visitors can take part in a screech-in ceremony; it is not optional. Dressed in oilskins, gum boots, plaid shirts, and Sou’Westers, inductees are addressed by the Master of Ceremonies.
“Do ye all want to be Newfoundlanders?”
The inductees reply “Indeed we do me old cock and long may your big jib draw.” (A nautical term about favourable winds).
Then everybody gets to kiss a cod on the lips, eat a slice of Newfie Steak (Baloney), and throw back a shot glass of screech.
After all that fun, the inductee is handed a certificate to honour her or his elevated status as an honourary Newfoundlander.
Come From Away Cast Perform a Screech In
Moose appears on numerous menus because the island is almost overrun by the ungainly critters. They were introduced 100 years ago and now number more than 100,000.
Fussell’s Thick Cream is exactly what its name suggests; a sterilized cream packed in cans. It is a Newfoundland staple and periodic shortages nearly bring the pitchforks and torches into the streets.
In 1851, Newfoundland had an exhibit at The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in England. The Rock's display was devoted entirely to cod liver oil.
You Haven't Lived Until You've Eaten Newfoundland Fries; You May Not Live Long Afterwards.
“On the Menu This Easter in Newfoundland: Seal Flipper Pie.” K. Annabelle Smith, Smithsonian, March 27, 2013
“Jiggs’ Dinner.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 2015.
“Iconic Canadian Food: Figgy Duff – Getting Figgy with It.” Marlene Cornelis, Food Bloggers of Canada, undated.
“Cherished Berries from the Rock.” Cinda Chavich, Globe and Mail, March 27, 2007.
“Screech In” Upalong.org, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor