Corps de l’article


In late July 2002, my husband and I arrived in the Labrador Straits via the Blanc Sablon ferry after staying in bed and breakfast inns (B&Bs) across the island of Newfoundland. Our first stop, setting out from our home in St. John’s, was Grand Falls-Windsor in central Newfoundland. Our last stop, before heading back home, would be Battle Harbour, a tiny island not far off the coast of Labrador. Altogether, we would travel over 2,100 kilometres.

Having developed an interest in foodways, and specifically culinary tourism, while studying for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams, I began research on the interplay between government and industry-based culinary tourism initiatives and Newfoundland and Labrador foodways in the summer of 2002. Particularly concerned with how traditional foods were being marketed to and received by tourists from outside the province, the project combined fieldwork with the analysis of electronic and print advertising, government and industry reports, vernacular travelogues on the Internet, survey and qualitative interview data, and tourist ephemera such as promotional brochures and flyers. The fieldwork included participant observation, primarily as a guest at B&Bs across the province, as well as qualitative interviews with tourists, business owners, and employees. All of the B&B hosts knew of my research prior to my arrival and I informed fellow guests upon meeting them.[1] In this discussion, I will focus on two of the B&Bs that so generously hosted me.

As I have studied the development of culinary tourism in the province, I have been increasingly interested in its dialogic aspects. While conducting fieldwork, I witnessed relatively informal social situations that facilitated significant intra- and intercultural exchanges. Such exchanges may also enable communication that supports, personalizes, disrupts, or deconstructs both esoteric and exoteric grand narratives,[2] narratives that utilize a range of vernacular strategies and are bounded by a particular metaculinary universe.[3] In this paper I will discuss the links between food production, place, and identity as manifest in B&Bs on Newfoundland’s west coast and the Labrador Straits, focusing on conversations around the breakfast or supper table that provided owners and employees with an opportunity to perform local identities for their guests.[4]

Tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s most easterly province, covers 405,720 square kilometres, more than three times the total area of the other Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) combined. Its population, however, numbered just over 509,148 as of January 1, 2011, compared to Nova Scotia at 942,506, for example.[5] The majority of the province’s population lives on the Avalon Peninsula, in or near the provincial capital of St. John’s. Other commercial hubs include Grand Falls-Windsor in central Newfoundland, Corner Brook on the island’s west coast, and Happy Valley-Goose Bay in central Labrador. A large segment of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador has until recently been employed in various fisheries, working either off or on-shore to procure and process cod, crab, lobster, and shrimp. The cod fishery—the industry that led to the settlement and development of the province—was severely curtailed by a moratorium on fishing northern cod in 1992. The fishing ban, “an economic tragedy of unprecedented proportions,” continues to this day, and now includes capelin, salmon, and turbot.[6] Since the devastating moratorium, the province has looked toward high tech development, greater natural resource extraction, and tourism as important growth areas to offset the blow of the dwindling fishery. However, even with a promising economic turn and future prospects fueled by a rapidly developing oil industry, Newfoundland and Labrador suffers from emigration, as financially-strapped residents often leave the east coast for the oil fields of Alberta, one of Canada’s wealthiest provinces.

Non-resident travel and tourism spending generated more than $400 million for the province by the end of 2010, representing a steady increase of about $100 million altogether since the late 1990s.[7] Over the last decade, I have witnessed the rapid development of tourism infrastructure as well as award-winning media campaigns that have brought the province to the attention of the wider world. In that time, the province has also worked to establish a brand with wide appeal that distinguishes Newfoundland and Labrador from the myriad other destinations clamouring for consumer attention. In fact, the provincial budget allocation for tourism has more than doubled in the last six years, bringing the figure to $13 million for 2010-2011.[8] Annual tourism campaigns have gone from an almost exclusive focus on “outdoor nature product”[9] to the promotion of nature and culture. For a century, the province has been carving a market niche as one of North America’s last “unspoiled” destinations, offering a striking, rugged landscape with a unique people and culture to match.[10] As the 2009 provincial travel guide message from former premier Danny Williams states:

Surprises wait around every corner and the list of things to do is endless. Hike the stunning coastline, visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, or attend a variety of festivals celebrating everything from traditional music, to live theatre, to blueberries and bakeapples, to squid. You will be in awe of the graceful whales and majestic icebergs, all while meeting strangers who quickly become friends.[11]

Part of the branding of the province, as the above guide indicates, includes a renewed interest in traditional and emerging foodways that reflects both regional historical development and contemporary sensibilities.

My husband and I first drove across the province and into Labrador in July of 2002. The timing of this travel, during the high season, facilitated direct contact with numerous travelers, as well as observation of the local response to the high demand for tourist services. Travel across the province at this time also allowed me to participate in the first wave of tourism following the unexpected influx of airline passengers to Newfoundland on September 11, 2001, and the film and television premieres of The Shipping News, Random Passage, and Rare Birds, international dramatic productions centering on Newfoundland, all of which were expected to have a significant impact on provincial tourism.[12]

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the region of western Newfoundland and the Labrador Straits as it encompasses a number of the province’s major attractions. The island’s Viking Trail, as it is called, begins in Deer Lake and boasts Gros Morne National Park at one end and the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site at the tip of Great Northern Peninsula. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The year 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the L'Anse aux Meadows site, the earliest known European settlement in North America.[13] The main roadway for the area is provincial route 430. Other popular sites on the peninsula include the Port au Choix National Historic site, the Grenfell Historic Properties, and the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve.

Common routes to the area from beyond the province include travel by ferry from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, and flights into Deer Lake. Less frequently, visitors fly into St. John’s and drive across the island via rental car. The aforementioned ferry service to the Labrador Straits is also utilized for trips to see the Red Bay National Historic Site and the restored fishing premises of Battle Harbour. Smaller communities along these routes provide accommodation for the overflow from the busier tourist areas, as well as for travelers stopping en route. Moreover, the Main River region, to the east of the Viking Trail, is popular with hunters and fishers, and thus home to a number of lodges. Recreational vehicle (RV) owners sometimes leave their large vehicles and travel ahead by car, spending the night in a hotel or B&B. Together these factors form a dynamic complex of food needs and desires in the area, ranging from people who need food prepared for every meal to people camping in RVs or tents who are making many or all of their own meals.

As a result of both the popularity of the route and the geographical constraints of travel—one must use route 430 to reach L'Anse aux Meadows—tourists see each other again and again, and sometimes develop friendly relations on the basis of shared experiences. Meeting repeatedly by chance over a period of days or weeks, travelers pass on accommodation, sightseeing, and restaurant recommendations and warnings. In situations of unfamiliarity, travelers also exchange information about traditional Newfoundland and Labrador foods. Recognizing other tourists in the same eating establishment as people who have been encountered earlier in the journey, even without having spoken to one another, can also serve as a confirmation of the validity of dining choices. Such metacommunication occurs not only within the physical confines of the restaurant, but also in the parking lot, as licence plates and vehicles become points of recognition and affinity.

Due to the sheer number of tourists and the relatively small number of restaurants on the Viking Trail, a large proportion of B&Bs offer evening meals upon request. This is also true in the Labrador Straits. Many offer local specialties, and almost all emphasize “home cooking” in their advertising. While these meals may be served restaurant or “family” style, depending on the size of the establishment and the aesthetic of the proprietors, the most popular method is to serve individual portions of the same dishes at one large table. Thus, while everyone is eating the same things (although there may be exceptions made for vegetarians, children, or other individuals with specific dietary requirements), guests are not serving themselves from communal bowls or platters.

Again, depending on space and aesthetic, the proprietors may sit down with the guests, but even then may or may not eat with them. In some cases, one member of the host family may remain in the kitchen, while the other may sit at the table and participate in conversation, whether or not they eat (in the two examples presented here, men sit at the table as women continue to work in the kitchen). However, even in situations where the guests are served “restaurant-style” throughout the meal, the proprietors may attempt to control the social aspects of the meal by assigning seating.

Lucy Long has identified five main strategies for negotiating the production of cultural perspectives in culinary tourism: framing, naming or translation, explication, menu selection, and recipe adaptation.[14] In the examples below, I focus on the strategies of explication, menu selection, and recipe adaptation. “Explication” entails descriptions or explanations of particular foods, often with the goal of providing a native viewpoint of food items. Explication may be employed on menus, in cookbooks, or in person. For example, a number of my interviewees recounted that cod tongues had been described to them by servers at various restaurants or B&Bs, or by other tourists.[15] Menu selection is a process that involves highlighting dishes believed to be most acceptable to, and expected by, the target audience, or presenting unfamiliar foods alongside dishes identified with other regional specialties known to be familiar and popular to a general exoteric clientele. During my fieldwork I was served chicken with partridgeberry sauce, for example, which paired a widely familiar foodstuff, chicken, with the more exotic, locally prized partridgeberry.[16] Finally, recipe adaptation entails “the manipulation of the ingredients and preparation methods of particular dishes in order to adapt to the foodways system of the anticipated consumers.”[17] In Newfoundland and Labrador, recipe adaptation is most employed in poaching or baking fish, namely cod, rather than frying it. Another example comes from the dinner menu of one B&B, which featured stir-fried root vegetables, rather than boiled ones, as is traditional.

Newfoundland and Labrador Foodways

Culinary tourism in the province includes and builds on traditional foodways developed from regional adaptations of English, Irish, and Scottish culinary practices, with the important addition of indigenous flora, fauna, and fruits de mer.[18] There is an Acadian influence, too, as French fishers historically worked the waters of Newfoundland’s south and west coasts, but this has not been as well-documented. In addition, the province is home to native peoples, including the Mi’ Kmaq of Newfoundland, and the Inuit, Innu, and Métis of Labrador.

Area inhabitants have long relied on indigenous plants, utilizing blossoms, fruit, and greenery for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Caribou, moose, arctic hare, and snowshoe hare (locally referred to as “rabbit”) have been the major game animals, with the moose remaining the most important today.[19] Game birds in the regional diet include duck, turr (murre), and partridge (ptarmigan). While imported foodstuffs are available in the province now as never before, hunted or fished game remains an important element of both diet and traditional social activity, as I will discuss in more detail later.

Fish and other sea creatures are perhaps the best-known element of the province’s typical diet—and the most in demand among tourists—followed closely by moose and berries. Historically, cod has been king, and this is reflected in traditional meal patterns and cookbooks. Other fish locally caught and consumed include brook trout, caplin, halibut, herring, and salmon. The seal’s place in traditional Newfoundland and Labrador foodways was established early, in the first half of the 19th century. Flippers, for seal flipper pie, are procured during the seal hunt, which has traditionally taken place each spring. The rich, dark meat is also used to make casseroles and sausage, and is sometimes bottled to ensure a supply outside of the hunting season.[20] Many speculate that the hunt is in its last days due to, among other things, the serious blow of the European Union’s 2009 ban of seal products. Nonetheless, eating seal flipper pie is still an important seasonal activity for many in the province as a traditional rite of spring.

The early focus on harvesting the sea’s bounty took precedence over agriculture. To prevent fishers being distracted from their primary occupation, farming was officially discouraged during early settlement of the area.[21] Large-scale agriculture was also restricted due to a short growing season and unfavourable soil conditions. This is not to say, however, that the cultivation of certain foods has not contributed to culinary practice. Cabbage, root vegetables including beets, carrots, onions, turnips, and potatoes, and small fruits such as currants, plums, and rhubarb have been and continue to be important domestic crops. Visitors to the province witness this continuing horticultural activity in the form of roadside and gravel pit gardens. As John T. Omohundro writes, “[s]elf-sufficiency, a basic axiom of Newfoundland culture for hundreds of years, is still valued by home producers.”[22] Thus, canning and other means of preserving fruits, meats, and vegetables were valuable skills in the early days of settlement and continue to typify domestic practice.[23]

Perhaps the most beloved of the province’s indigenous plants are the wide variety of berries, including strawberries, blackberries, currants, bakeapples (also known as cloud berries), raspberries, squashberries, blueberries, partridgeberries, marshberries, teaberries, gooseberries, and dogberries. As I have discussed in detail elsewhere, berry picking is an annual activity that local residents eagerly anticipate and enjoy.[24] The resulting berry stores are chiefly used in the home, but may also be sold by the roadside or to local grocery stores. Tourists are exposed to Newfoundlanders’ and Labradorians’ use of berries in the jams and jellies that often adorn B&B breakfast tables. These same jams and jellies often add flavour to other traditional dishes and are frequently used as pie filling and dessert sauces. Moreover, they are a frequent topic of conversation, as guests have the opportunity to sample berries they’ve never tasted, and sometimes never heard of, before. It is such conversation, centred on the province’s foodways, to which I now turn my attention.

Foggy Cove Inn

My husband and I arrive at Foggy Cove Inn just before 6:00 pm.[25] The owners, Carl and Anne Young, are working on the evening meal along with hostess Ruth Anderson. A retired couple from Quebec arrives soon afterwards. A family with three young children from out west turns up much later, delaying everyone’s supper, so the rest of us are offered a free glass of white wine. As supper is served, particular seating is suggested to accommodate the children. Our host, Carl, sits down and begins to eat with us while Anne and Ruth continue to work in the kitchen adjacent to the dining room. The meal (which includes local shrimp, salmon, partridgeberries, and root vegetables) is accompanied by water with iceberg chunks that Carl and Anne harvested themselves.[26] In selecting locally sourced products, the hosts showcase the island’s bounty while adapting traditional ingredients to contemporary tastes. Shrimp and smoked salmon with tomato, mayonnaise, and capers serves as an appetizer. The main course, chicken in a pastry shell drizzled with partridgeberry sauce, is accompanied by stir-fried root vegetables and roasted potatoes. The accompanying conversation allows Carl numerous opportunities for explication of these and other traditional foodstuffs.

Thus, while we eat we talk primarily about food--what we’re eating, what we’ve eaten, what we plan to eat, what we could never eat. The always controversial subject of seal flipper pie is raised, and while Carl notes that he grew up eating it, he reveals he never actually liked it and still doesn’t. He adds, however, that you can buy seal flipper pie at Bidgood's, a grocery store in the Goulds that features traditional foods and crafts. A short drive from St. John's, the independent store is a tourist attraction in itself.[27]

After we finish our figgy duff—a traditional bread pudding and a local favourite—Carl directs us into the parlour down the hall from the dining room. He wants to show us part of a Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers DVD as a result of a guest’s question about people camping by the side of the road in areas locally referred to as gravel pits. A musical comedy act featuring three talented Newfoundland musicians, Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers is beloved for their unflinching takeoffs on local vernacular culture and both emic and etic constructions of the “Newfie.”[28] An excerpt from their song “Gravel Pits,” penned by Wayne Chaulk, provides an example:

We loves to go out in the good old gravel pits

We loves to go out there when life gets smelly

We can spray paint our names on the face of the cliff

Go up to the Irving for a coke and chips

Hitches up the camper and out of town we go

Out on the highway with everything in tow

The dog is in the back seat and Grandfather’s drunk

Youngsters in the trailer and the wife is in the trunk [29]

Watching the group perform in mixed company—by which I mean an audience of Newfoundlanders and non-Newfoundlanders—can be uncomfortable as the lines between praise, parody, and censure are often blurred. Audience members respond to the group’s humour from different perspectives. This evening, there is an added layer of complexity, as everyone knows that I am a graduate student at Memorial University in St. John’s, staying at the Inn while conducting research on tourism. The other guests are unsure whether or not it’s proper to laugh at the group’s comic depiction of Newfoundlanders and take their cues from Carl. I, too, wonder what the appropriate response is to lines such as, “The dog is in the back seat and Grandfather's drunk/Youngsters in the trailer and the wife is in the trunk.” With weariness and a full belly pulling me into a rather groggy state, I cannot decide. Instead I ponder the contrast between the fine supper we've just consumed and the traditional gravel pit repast, “a bottle and a pot of moose stew,” which I also know to be delicious.

Following the Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers clip, our host changes the tone by relating the story of a relative, a nineteenth-century Newfoundland sealing captain, and reads a recitation about his heroism in rescuing victims of a shipwreck.[30] He then passes out photocopies of the lyrics to a few Newfoundland songs, including “I’se the B’y” and the provincial anthem, “Ode to Newfoundland,” and invites us to sing with him. With that, we all retire for the evening. It is 11:30 pm.

Shipwreck Bay B&B

Our education was much more informal, although no less instructive, at the Shipwreck Bay B&B in Labrador, which we reach by car following a ferry ride from St. Barbe, Newfoundland to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. At this point, I am sporting a bruised, scabby, and swollen right eyelid from a vicious black fly attack on the hiking trails near Foggy Cove Inn. Sharon and Doug Evans welcome us in anyway. Sharon appears quite outgoing, while Doug's initial reserve masks a gruff, but winning manner. Supper, booked weeks in advance and featuring caribou, will be ready at 6:30.[31]

Retired Floridians, originally from New York, and a trio of friends from British Columbia join us for caribou, cabbage, peas, potato, and turnip, smothered in caribou gravy. We are seated of our own accord at a large table in the kitchen. The arrangement allows Sharon to fully participate in conversation even as she works throughout the meal. The retirees have never had caribou before, nor bakeapples. Sharon explains that there are crucial differences between the caribou and bakeapples in Labrador, and those in Newfoundland. Having lived in both parts of the province, she can distinguish between caribou from Labrador and that from Newfoundland by the way the meat smells while it's cooking, a result of the differences in the animals’ diet in each area. It is obvious that she prefers Labrador caribou. The steaks that we enjoy that evening are courtesy of Doug, who at 73 was still procuring various foodstuffs for the entire Evans family living in the immediate area, at least four households, as well as the B&B — berries, scallops, caribou, fish, and partridge. After supper, in the sitting room, Doug brings out photos of the caribou that we have just eaten, and shows us the bullets he prefers for hunting big game.

As the hour grows late and conversation turns to Canada’s socialized health care system, in contrast to that of the United States, Doug slips away. But the lively discussion carries on as Sharon continues work in the kitchen, where she has been briskly multi-tasking since mid-afternoon. Her reminder that breakfast is at 8:00 am elicits rumblings of fatigue from the guests. We all head to our rooms around 10:30 pm.

The last to sit down at the table for breakfast the next morning (having also been last in line for the washroom), I notice that everyone is sitting in the same chairs as the night before, again with no direction from our hosts. The centrepiece that now occupies everyone’s attention is an impressive display of jams and jellies, all picked and processed by Doug and Sharon. My fellow guests are particularly eager to sample the bakeapple jam.

Labrador bakeapples are believed by many to be superior to those on the island. Newfoundlanders living on the west coast of the island often traveled to the Labrador coast by skiff to pick bakeapples prior to Confederation. Women from Main Brook in western Newfoundland, for instance, accompanied their husbands to Labrador, to pick berries while the men fished.[32] Sharon often takes the opportunity to point out the difference in the bakeapple crops to guests through the foods she serves. If guests tell her that they don’t like bakeapples, which can be quite tart, she immediately asks where they tried them, specifically wondering if it was on the island or in Labrador. Sharon attributes the differences in the taste of Newfoundland and Labrador bakeapples to variations in climate. She explained that the higher summer temperatures in Newfoundland (normally ranging from 15 to 25 degrees) essentially drain the berries of their flavour in a short period of time. Area residents know by the colour of the fruit when it is at its flavourful peak. She explains further, “when I serve bakeapples mine is a deep orange. [. . .], as opposed to yellowish or pale orange. When the berries are nice and orange, that’s when the flavour’s good.”[33] Thus, Sharon encourages guests to give bakeapples another chance, assuring them of a different and more enjoyable culinary encounter. In the scenario Sharon describes, both explication and menu selection are brought to bear, highlighting differences between the two parts of the province that are often elided in tourism marketing materials.

Following the inevitable discussions about berries, icebergs, and Québec separatism, which occur at every B&B we visit, Sharon and Doug’s daughter, Melissa, joins those of us still lingering over coffee. Doug and Melissa provide distinctly Labradorian views on natural resource extraction, highway construction and maintenance, the ferry system, the longstanding neglect of Labrador by Newfoundland politicians, and the handling of fish stocks.[34] Melissa begins shaking her head the moment her father starts to answer a guest’s question about the causes of the fish stocks’ collapse. Father and daughter agree to disagree on where the majority of the blame lies.


While both B&B experiences included the expected meal-time conversation, the stay at Foggy Cove was more structured and controlled. Supporting the widely promoted image of Newfoundlanders as stalwart, resourceful, musically-inclined, and “some of the funniest people on the planet,”[35] the formal, primarily unidirectional presentation of Newfoundland culture and identity was both reinforced and disrupted by the inclusion of the Buddy Wasisname DVD, inviting (or perhaps daring) guests to laugh at the “Newfie” stereotype parodied therein.

A contrasting view of the province was communicated at the Shipwreck Bay B&B. While also supporting the characterization of locals as strong and enduring, the conversation centred on practicalities such as quotidian food procurement, road maintenance, and health care. Moreover, Labradorian identity is at the forefront here. While sharing characteristics with emic constructions of Newfoundland identity, such as resourcefulness and perseverance, Labradorians not only inhabit a unique land, but a singular cultural and political space. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to address this in detail, it is important to recognize that these circumstances affect tourism in both obvious and subtle ways. As previously mentioned, guests at the Shipwreck Bay B&B are presented with a kind of running commentary on differences between the regions, something they may not encounter if their itinerary does not include Labrador.

Certainly, culinary tourism is a process of negotiation. Well aware of etic constructions of Newfoundland and Labrador culture, the individuated nature of tourism in the province currently provides a range of opportunities for its inhabitants to perform their culture as they wish it to be perceived, for as Phillip Crang notes, “Identity politics are at the heart of tourism labour processes.”[36] Thus, the discourse presented at Foggy Cove Inn acknowledges cultural stereotypes, but ultimately emphasizes the most positive aspects of esoterically constructed identity, that of the “true Newfoundlander”.[37] At Shipwreck Bay B&B, Labradorian identity is often presented in opposition to the more dominant, widespread image of the Newfoundlander, while still emphasizing vigour, ingenuity, and conviviality as integral aspects of local identity. Newfoundland and Labrador B&B owners construct and perform public identities as members of unique regional cultures. These oft-competing identities are shaped and maintained through formal and informal metaculinary discourse, verbal and non-verbal communication stimulated by encounters with unfamiliar food systems and the vernacular practices they encompass.

Through the maintenance and enlivening of centuries-old food practices as well as the incorporation of commercial goods into localized identities, Newfoundland and Labrador offers travelers a unique experience.[38] Thirty-something urbanites and retired RV enthusiasts alike find themselves at the same supper table in Labrador and are presented with the same plate of caribou, cabbage, peas, potato, and turnip. They do not completely forget their differences; indeed, their dissimilarities fuel conversation. But for the evening, their talk is enabled by the social conductivity of a shared meal. These brief but intimate gatherings are ideal settings in which B&B hosts may employ various strategies of culinary tourism to act out, and actively engage guests in, local identities. Much more than simply accommodations, B&Bs in Newfoundland and Labrador are sites of dynamic cultural production.