When we moved to Newfoundland in 1978 and settled in a three-story row house on the hill above the Basilica in St. John’s, we changed our location not only in space but in time. St. John’s in the 1970s was on the verge of the new prosperity that oil would bring, but at the end of the decade it was still just a promise, one that would not be fulfilled for 20 years to come. In fact, the city seemed to live 20 years in the past, and I could find in its densely packed treeless streets, random back lanes, and local stores the landscape of my childhood, when I spent long days with my grandmother, watching for the milkman, and running errands to Jennings Carload, the family groceteria on the corner.
There were, in those days, few supermarkets of the kind we knew on the mainland: no Steinbergs, no Loblaws, certainly no “superstores.” Our new neighbourhood boasted instead Mr. Murphy’s store at Rawlins Cross, and Halloran’s butchers, where braces of rabbits swung on hooks outside the door every autumn. Belbins Groceries was tucked behind the old Newfoundland Hotel, and for local foods, if we were willing to drive out to the Goulds, there was Bidgoods Store. At Bidgoods we marvelled at jarred moose and caribou, preserved bakeapples, partridgeberry and blueberry jams, and homemade molasses buns. There were buckets of salt beef and pork riblets, turnip greens in spring, and blue potatoes in the fall. And there was fish, sometimes fresh, mostly salt, or turned into fish cakes or fish and brewis. Fish meant cod, but occasionally there was salmon and trout. There were shelves of Purity cookies—ginger snaps, jam-jams, caraway biscuits and lemon creams, and a vast array of crackers, from round milk lunch to cream crackers and pilot biscuits. More exotic were the hard and sweet breads, dry, solid miniature loaves that would break your teeth unless you soaked them first for hours. Hard bread was the brewis that went with the fish and I never did understand what to do with sweet bread. Purity also made candies with old-fashioned names like bull’s-eyes, peppermint knobs (pink or green, the green being spearmint), and molasses kisses. There were rows of gaudily coloured syrups that I could not imagine drinking with anything, and homemade spruce beer, tasting soapily of resin, that I could appreciate but not like.
Bidgoods represented for us the new-found-land of food, and while we sampled all its delights, we “come-from-aways” or CFAs, as strangers to the island were called, longed for the food of away—green beans, peppers, ripe tomatoes, romaine lettuce and fresh basil, kiwi fruits and pineapples. But Mr. Murphy’s store offered none of these. The produce section boasted potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, turnip, and among the exotics, oranges of course, long-suffering head lettuce, “cello tomatoes” four to a pack like children jammed in a bus seat, and “five-point” apples, the durable Red Delicious that survived the crossing to the island. Sometimes there was broccoli, and in fall, Mr. Murphy would beckon us into the back room and we could choose a long stalk of brussels sprouts. I had never before seen the sprouts actually attached to their stem and marvelled at the tiny cabbages on a pole. For a special treat, Mr. Murphy would offer our young son a bright yellow banana, the strange fruit first shipped north in the 19th century on the refrigerated banana boats, chilled to endure the long trip from the hot tropics to our cold boreal shores.
I also hungered for the familiar exotics of the mainland, for moussaka made with eggplant not potatoes, for Italian bread that was not the unused pizza dough from our local pizzeria (where the pizza maker remembered and also longed for the streets of Naples and great bushels of tomatoes). I scoured Larousse and discovered hitherto unthought-of recipes for turnip (soufflé, for example), and when I returned from trips “home,” I packed my suitcase with rye bread and soft French cheese. Gradually, however, I began to acquire a taste for the local fare. I discovered I liked the sharp tonic of turnip greens, and I revelled in the fall potatoes—yellow, white, blue, and red. Turnip soufflé became a staple, and cabbage replaced lettuce (almost) as a green, delicious sautéed with a little fatback or bacon. I learned the long and most respectable history of salt cod, and not just with brewis or in fish cakes, but à la catalagne with canned tomatoes and onions, or in curry, and with peanuts, Caribbean-style. I loved wandering the docks and acquiring fish (not necessarily cod) from the fishermen (they were almost all men, then). There is nothing better than split and broiled mackerel fresh from the sea, a dish not even to be imagined on the mainland. We ate boiled jiggs dinner and lobscouse, fish and chips where the fish was deep-fried salmon, and on one memorable late evening, flipper pie. The sight of the flippers projecting through the pastry crust, nails and all, was tolerable only after a considerable amount of rum. I never did acquire a taste for the dark oily meat, too reminiscent of the liver forced on me as a child by my health-conscious mother. Throwing thoughts of healthy eating to the winds, we also regaled ourselves with the starchy, filling treats beloved of Newfoundlanders, from chips and stuffing with gravy (an Atlantic poutine), to apple flips, boiled raisin cake, and molasses teacakes so solid they could be used as hockey pucks.
What eating and cooking in Newfoundland 30 years ago taught me was both the appreciation of local foods, and the vicissitudes of locality. Eating locally has of late become a serious business, and Barbara Kingsolver’s recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2008) has earned well-deserved praise as a paean to the importance of rootedness (in all senses of the word) and for its critique of industrial agriculture and food manufacture and distribution. Kingsolver's locale is the southern Appalachians, a place where February may be the hungry month, but rhubarb comes in April, and from then on the soil produces its annual miracles. On the island country, at the edge of the North Atlantic, April comes with Sheila’s Brush, the last of the winter storms that drops four feet of snow, and no plant blooms. In Newfoundland the lilacs bud in June, not April, and there are several cruellest months between winter and spring. The growing season on the island is short, often perturbed by foul weather (think frost in August), and the ground stony and spare.
The native productions are few and hard-won. The heath-like barrens sport berries galore, but not until July at the earliest when the cloudberries glow fluorescent orange in the bogs, and wild strawberries ripen on the headlands. Then come raspberries, and in August, myriads of blueberries, followed by partridgeberries and cranberries that sweeten with the first frosts. In the old days, women gathered chuckley pears (related to saskatoon berries), rowanberries (mountain ash), and elderberries, and some made wines and cordials. They also tended kitchen gardens but their output was limited by both the thin soil and the short growing season. Harvest time presented no cornucopia of sheaves of wheat, ears of corn, or rotund pumpkins. To eat locally during the long winters meant to eat what had been put down, pickled, salted, or stored in root cellars, or what was available in bulk at the merchant’s store. Barrels of flour and oatmeal, dried peas and raisins, biscuit, salted and preserved meats, hard cheese and tinned milk, molasses rather than sugar, tea and rum.
Newfoundland's traditional food culture thus presented a “boil up” of the produce of the kitchen garden, stirred with wild fruits and meats, and bound together with whatever foodstuffs could best make an Atlantic crossing. Like the land, the diet was spare and repetitive, and back in the late 70s I could not imagine a year of eating locally the produce of the Rock. This is the diet that Maura Hanrahan and Marg Ewtushik document in their bibliography of writing about Newfoundland's food culture, A Veritable Scoff: Sources on Foodways and Nutrition in Newfoundland and Labrador. The authors (Hanrahan is a medical anthropologist and Ewtushik is a health care and dietetics consultant) have ransacked libraries and archives, and compiled an excellent annotated listing of articles, books, and manuscripts that tell us what people ate, how they thought about it, and the consequences of their dietary choices. They take pains, as they note in the introduction, to nuance the history of Newfoundland and Labrador’s foodways. When the province joined Confederation in 1949, there was a sense, among central Canadians and perhaps among some Newfoundlanders, that the people were starving and only the union with Canada would prevent catastrophe. What Hanrahan and Ewtushik document is that while Newfoundlanders may have had a restricted diet, and while that diet had certain deficiencies, starvation was not the rule. Indeed, they show that Newfoundlanders and many Labradorians shared a species of early industrial diet, poor and mean, with seasonal scarcity, but at least supplemented by the gifts of land and sea.
Given the respective backgrounds of the authors, the bibliography is strong on nutrition and diet studies. They include many nutritional studies undertaken in the pre-war period, after Newfoundland had been adversely affected by the Depression. Reports of beriberi, rickets, night blindness, even scurvy were common, and the diseases were the results of dietary insufficiencies. Cod liver oil, orange juice, and whole wheat flour were distributed to combat these deficiencies, but many Newfoundlanders could not accommodate to dark flour, tomatoes, and milk. Refraining from comment, the authors note that Newfoundlanders’ diets did improve after the Second World War, but the general increase in calories at that time was due to an increase in sugar, salt, and fat. (You can buy Tunnock's chocolate marshmallow teacakes in Newfoundland's many “groc and confs”—grocery and confectionary stores—and anecdotal evidence suggests that many people substituted soft drinks for milk or juice once Coke and Pepsi products became widely available.) Infant feeding studies investigating breast feeding and use of formula also form an important section. Many Newfoundlanders continued to adhere to evaporated milk-based formulas well into the 1990s, after these were largely abandoned a generation earlier in favour of commercial infant formulas. The section on Nutrition Surveys is fascinating as it documents changing notions of healthy eating from 1930 through to the present.
I was happy to note as well that despite the emphasis on more scientific studies, traditional foodways poke through. “Rough food,” the wild fruits and game so enjoyed by people today, was historically considered the “healthiest” (44) by many Newfoundlanders. Blueberry wine was served at Christmas, prunes were eaten on Wednesday and Saturday. Hanrahan and Ewtushik are also assiduous in ensuring that information about diets in Labrador is included, and they relate the oft-told story of Clarence Birdseye’s revelation that food can be frozen and remain “fresh.” The rest is history, at least as far as North America’s frozen food industry is concerned. They document studies related to Aboriginal foodways and diet, beginning with a 1917 survey and ending with Hanrahan’s own 2000 study on water and food security in Black Tickle, Labrador.
The authors unfortunately do not include cookbooks, due to the sheer number of such publications, but Elizabeth Driver's excellent bibliography, Culinary Landmarks (University of Toronto Press, 2008) goes a long way toward remedying this lack. I would also have been delighted with a chronological index to the entries, since as a historian I am most fascinated by the way in which the questions we ask about what we eat have changed over time. I would not hesitate, however, to recommend this book to culinary and social historians as well as those interested in regional culinary traditions, for the overview it gives of change and persistence in food habits and diet. What emerges from the entries and detailed descriptions is a picture of a society with a food culture of subsistence, often deprived, reprising the feasts and famines of an earlier time well into the 20th century.
Much has changed in the 20 years since I first moved to St. John’s. This summer the farmers’ markets boasted—along with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes—swiss chard, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet corn, zucchini, local strawberries, and yes, romaine lettuce. Supermarkets now have sushi counters, all the eggplant one can eat, and the exotics of our globalized food culture. The impact of that culture has fundamentally changed the traditional seasonal regime, transforming the everyday dishes of scarcity and restricted means into festive special-occasion foods. Plum or figgy duff, boiled dinners, fish and brewis, and turnip greens now mark a regional culinary culture. Consuming local foods marks one as a Newfoundlander, and you can order a Purity Goodie Box online, chock-full of Newfoundland favourites like hard bread, strawberry syrup and jam-jams, enabling the mainland Newfoundland communities in Toronto, Calgary, or Whitehorse to maintain a culinary link with home. Home cooking is also in transformation. Come-from-aways and Newfoundlanders who have left and returned have brought back new ideas about local ingredients and their preparations. Restaurants, groceries, and bakeries are dedicated to local cuisine and riffs on it. Traditional berry wines are now being reborn as Rhubarb-Chardonnay or Blueberry Shiraz. A veritable scoff, indeed. And Bidgoods in the Goulds? Still the best place for jarred moose.
Victoria Dickenson is Chief Knowledge Officer, Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, and the former Executive Director, McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal. She obtained her Ph.D. in Canadian history from Carleton University in 1995 and is Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University and at McGill.
See http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/about%20the%20book.html. Mark Bittman, food writer and chef, has also added a gloss about shifting from animal to plant food, thereby eating healthier, reducing greenhouses gases, and improving animal welfare. As he notes, we cannot possibly treat livestock humanely because we eat too much of it. “Eating Food That’s Better for You, Organic or Not,” New York Times, March 21, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/weekinreview/22bittman.html, accessed August 12, 2009.
There are today several wineries on the island, producing wonderful fruit wines from the local berries. Blackcurrant wine makes an excellent local substitute for cassis.
Aficionados of Newfoundland cuisine will already know Cooking Up a Scoff, volumes 1 and 2, excellent companion volumes to Hanrahan and Ewtushik. Unfortunately the authors published too early to include one of my favourite reference cookbooks, For Maids Who Brew & Bake: Rare & Excellent Recipes from 17th Century Newfoundland, based on excerpts from old English manuscripts and Newfoundland letters, and sold at the Colony of Avalon shop in Ferryland, the site of Lord Baltimore’s first venture in the New World. And for those interested in contemporary takes on traditional foods, I recommend Downhome Magazine for some tasty recipes submitted by readers (see http://www.downhomelife.com/index.php).