Over the last two weeks, I’ve been traveling around the island of Newfoundland, Canada, in my museum persona, facilitating a series of workshops for heritage organizations—but of course, finding time to eat and think about food along the way. The traditional foods are still found in many places here—both in restaurants for visitors like me, but also for everyday people—in the same way that many Ukrainians still eat borscht almost every day.
Newfoundland is the easternmost province of Canada—but in fact, only became a part of Canada in 1949 and maintains a distinct identity. Newfoundlanders mostly perch on the outer rim of this rocky island, with only half a million residents in the entire province; 60,000 in the provincial capital, St. John’s. Aboriginal peoples have lived here for thousands of years, while Leif Erikson and a band of Vikings landed at L’Anse aux Meadows in the year 1000. Irish, English, French and Scottish immigrants shaped the province and its traditions.
I was struck by the ways in which scarcity and abundance, two facets of food in Ukraine, also operate here. Almost anything from the sea was freely and easily available, gained by your own labor. One woman told me her family ate lobster easily once a week! Cod was king here, until overfishing lead to the cod moratorium of the 1990s, bringing drastic change to many fishing villages. I picked up a reproduction of the 1958 cookbook, The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes, composed of recipes sent in by women from all over the island to a flour company sponsored radio show. The variety of seafood recipes is astounding: baked flippers (seal) with vegetables, fish and tomato scallop, baked cod tongues, fried cod heads, stewed grilse, herring fried in oatmeal, fried squid, matelote of eel, fried capelin, fried smelt, fried clams, fried mussels, oyster stew, lobster cutlets…the list goes on and on.
One night in Twillingate I tried fish and brewis, a dish that exemplifies the simple, resourceful eating. It can be made with either salt cod or fresh fish and is just hardtack or hard bread soaked overnight in cold water (as the salt cod would be as well) and then both boiled separately and combined, and served with scrunchions, small cubes of salt pork fried golden brown, and the fat and cubes poured over the dish like gravy.
Amazingly, I heard a radio program where local chefs and others were discussing how hard it is to get local fish for restaurants here in the province because of various regulations. And in St. Alban’s, a local radio station read out the various opening and closing seasons for a host of seafood: whelks, scallops, sea urchins and more, many of which are now shipped to Japan and other places.
The forests also provide sustenance. Although moose were not introduced onto the island until the 19th century, there are now thousands, and moose stew appears on many menus. Berries grow in abundance, although this year’s dry, hot season has produced fewer than usual, said one gatherer. The berries have their own particular Newfoundland names: what Scandanavians refer to as cloudberries are known as bakeapples, and partridgeberries are better known as lingonberries. Crisps and crumbles, jam and jellies, pies and even a partridgeberry cocktail make sure that the gifts of the short season last throughout the year.
Old-fashioned root cellars still dot the landscape and those crops that last through the winter are most commonly grown here. Those traditional food preservation methods find their great expression in the Jiggs Dinner, named after the mid-20th comic book character in Molly and Jiggs, for reasons that are now lost in time. A Jiggs Dinner (served at what we call lunchtime) includes several variations, but the one I had at the Cozy Tea Room in Twillingate(highly recommended by several locals) included salted beef (corned beef), pease pudding (dried split peas boiled down into a stiff paste), boiled potato, carrots and cabbage, pumpkin pickle, a dumpling, and an onion bread pudding. Delicious! And sure to sustain you in a long day’s physical work at home or on the boat.
At one workshop we began talking about food, and one participant remembered her mother “bottling” everything: flippers, turr (a shore bird), capelin (a small fish), herring and more, ensuring that the family would have enough to get through the long winters. The Treasury cookbook has a recipe for preserved moose:
Wash moose meat and cut in small pieces. Place meat in jars, add 2 teasppons salt and enough boiling water to fill jars within one ince of top. Seal jars and loosen slightly. Process in boiling water for 4 hours or in a pressure cooker for 1 ¾ hours at 10 pounds pressure. [No instructions provided for getting that moose in the first place].
When we talked about seminal events in the 20th century lives of Newfoundlanders, many workshop participants remarked that the Great Depression had little effect on their families’ lives here—because people lived on what they could catch, gather or raise, and had little other money; they could manage in the same way they had often had. (Above, moose stew).
But managing with what they had didn’t mean doing without sweets. I discovered the English and Irish traditions of great desserts still in force here, including many types of steamed puddings. Here’s one recipe from the cookbook for a cranberry pudding (as I assume cranberries might be easier for Pickle Project readers to find than bakeapples or partridgeberries).
1 cup fresh chopped cranberries
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup boiling water
½ cup granulated sugar
½ light molasses
1 egg, well-beaten
1 ½ cups sifted Cream of the West (the cookbook sponsor) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Put cranberries and butter in a mixing bowl; add boiling water. Then add the sugar, molasses and beaten egg. Stir until well mixed. Add the sifted dry ingredients. Pour into a well-greased one-quart pudding bowl, Cover tightly. Steam for 2 hours. Serve with a foamy sauce.