Book reviews

A Veritable Scoff: Sources on Foodways and Nutrition in Newfoundland and Labrador, Maura Hanrahan and Marg Ewtushik, Flanker Press, 2001, 110 pages[Record]

  • Victoria Dickenson

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 …