We’ve made it to the Rock!
Today marks the final stop on our “Capital Meals” tour: St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Literary fare tied to the sea is central to St. John’s, as are stories of human tragedy. E.J. Pratt’s poem “The Ice-Floes” relates the events that befell the Greenlander in 1898 when a number of men perished after becoming stranded on the ice during the seal hunt. As a young man, Pratt watched from St. John’s harbour as the dead were brought ashore. Gales had caught the sealers off guard, separating them from their ship and isolating them on the ice pans. Many died from the brutal cold before they could be rescued. The men’s tragic sacrifice was made simply to provide for their families:
And the rest is as a story told,
Or a dream that belonged to a dim, mad past,
Of a March night and a north wind’s cold,
Of a voyage home with a flag half-mast;
Of twenty thousand seals that were killed
To help lower the price of bread;
Of the muffled beat…of a drum…that filled
A nave…at our count of sixty dead. (27-28)
Trying to earn a living by the sea brings immense challenges, particularly when the fishing industry is faltering. Traditional foodways may be sidelined when government policies promote other sectors. John Smith’s poem “Newfoundland” touches on these changes as witnessed over time:
This was first a shore where they dried fish
and drew fresh water in casks.
Then there were streets of narrow houses
navigating as they could the precambrian rocksides.
Now there is a university because it is government policy
to invest in growth industries. (71)
The search for economic opportunities often means moving away from Newfoundland, but even in these cases, memories of foodways shape relocated families. David French’s famous play Leaving Home (1972) explores the Mercer family following their relocation to Ontario after the Second World War. During the initial dinner scene, the mother, Mary Mercer, serves potatoes, fish, bread and butter—traditional Newfoundland fare transplanted to their Toronto home. The father, Jacob, provokes his son by trying to get him to drink screech: “At least I’d take a drink with my own father, if he was alive. I’d do that much” (103). Struggling with the loss of his original home and sea-faring traditions, Jacob enters the opening scene by singing and dancing a Newfoundland jig. The lyrics celebrate a humble life where the sea is one’s source of identity:
I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her,
I’s the b’y that catches the fish
And takes ’em home to Lizer.
Sods and rinds to cover your flake
Cake and tea for supper
Codfish in the spring of the year
Fried in maggoty butter. (100)
One of the most detailed accounts of daily meals is Jeannie Guy’s personal essay “Newfoundland Cooking,” which was originally published in Newfoundland Quarterly (fall 2009). Attending Memorial University in the 1960s, Guy discovered through her Sociology professor that her local community consumed “haute cuisine de terre neuve” (394). Her foreign professor was fascinated by the fact that Newfoundland families consumed the same dishes on particular days of the week, depending on the mothers’ schedules and domestic chores. While Sundays meant a noon meal of roast beef or chicken (followed by leftovers at supper), Mondays were the day dedicated to laundry, so there was “no time to be fooling around cooking fussy stuff” (392). Leftovers were served again as well a homemade bread, sweet mustard pickles, or rhubarb pickles. Ironing days on Tuesdays meant a “boiled dinner” or “Jiggs’ dinner” — which was corned beef and cabbage (393). Other regular meals included fish and brewis (codfish and hard bread) with scruncheons (fried cubes of salt pork). The predictability offered both comfort and a common language for the children who knew that the phrase “‘Go home! Your mother got buns!’” meant that freshly baking was waiting (394).
Jeannie Guy mentions that tea buns were a family tradition, and indeed, the cookbook Fat-Back & Molasses: A Collection of Favourite Old Recipes From Newfoundland & Labrador, which was recently given to me, contains numerous variations of tea buns, many of which suggest they were passed down through the generations by watching and doing. Some of the recipes do not include oven temperatures or baking times. Others provide minimal directions, or list certain ingredients that aren’t incorporated during the process. I’m tempted to try my hand at baking what sounds like a comforting food. It seems making tea buns ought to be second nature.
Victory Meat, a collection of contemporary Atlantic Canadian fiction, contains a number of stories set in Newfoundland where meals carry disruptive, even dark significance. In Michael Winter’s “Second Heart” two grown sons, Gabriel and Junior, go moose-hunting with their father, but the brothers secretly flout the strict regulations. After packing a suitcase with his mother’s pickled onions and beets, mustard pickles, tomato chutney, 40 pounds of blue potatoes, and last year’s moose steaks, Gabriel is arrested at the airport on his way home to St. John’s. At the end of the story, the second moose heart, wrapped in newsprint and hidden in the truck’s cab, becomes the tell-tale sign of the illegal hunt, the wasted meat, and the sons’ betrayal of their father’s ethical standards. Following his arrest, Gabriel receives a letter from his mother: “Your Dad said there was a smell coming from the back of the truck” (92).
Lila, the young girl in Libby Creelman’s “Cruelty,” lives in St. John’s near Monkstown Road, and although the food featured in this short story is not typical Newfoundland fare, it communicates the complex nature of families and their hardships. Lila befriends a young boy named Alfred when her family is invited over to his house for dinner. In comparison to Alfred’s single-parent home, Lila’s family appears relatively more refined. Lila’s mother, Marian, grew up in Kingston, Ontario, and is distrustful of the outdoors and disappointed with Newfoundland springs. The mother constantly upholds rules about safety and restrains the physical exuberance of her young daughters, especially since Lila’s father suffers from chronic back pain and cannot bear to be touched or jostled. In contrast to Lila’s upbringing, Alfred is free to climb the tree in his muddy yard. Whereas Lila’s mother won’t let Lila go trick-or-treating, Alfred proudly displays his plastic grocery bag (suspended from his tree) that contains several Oh! Henry bars: “‘I’m the only kid I knows still has Halloween candy’” (101).
Lila is amazed by how well Alfred’s mother handles a jackknife to cut her son’s hair or to open tins of food, stretching one tin of tuna into several sandwiches (109). Despite the family’s meagre income, Alfred’s mother has “relaxed rules about food” compared to Lila’s mother, and allows the kids “to carry off whole bags” of Mr. Christie’s cookies (107). In Alfred’s climbing tree, the two children play unusual games focused on causing and tolerating pain, yet Lila is drawn to both him and his family. In Lila’s household, there are far too many rules restricting behaviour and physical contact. Family difficulties are not shared, and the only meal that readers witness is served in a hurried, frustrated fashion. Lila’s mother “drops the supper plates” in front of her daughters and “hurls the pots and pans into the sink…. Everything she touches she seems to hate” (104). Sadly, Alfred’s games of cruelty allow Lila to feel closer to her own father whose chronic pain deprives his daughters of his presence and attention.
To conclude our sampling of Newfoundland, I thought a joyful, popular tale of home-cooking was in order. Alan Doyle, the lead singer of the band Great Big Sea, recently published his memoir Where I Belong, which traces his childhood in Petty Harbour, just south of St. John’s. Last fall, The Globe and Mail included an excerpt from Doyle’s book in which he revels in his mother’s cooking: “Mom’s homemade bread fuelled the Doyles on Skinner’s Hill. Our delicious but often Spartan meals were always well rounded with heaps of it” (Doyle). In the excerpt, Doyle asks his mother for her recipe, which is given by way of a conversation. Be prepared to make a lot of bread if you follow her measurements:
How to make my mother’s bread
Alan Doyle: How do you make a loaf of bread, Mom?
Jean Doyle: Alan, honey, I don’t know how to make a loaf of bread. I only knows how to make eight.
Alan: Mom, I’m trying to put your recipe in my book. Can you help me out? What ingredients do you use?
Jean: I use a bag of flour.
Alan: A whole bag?
Jean: A seven-pound bag…. (Doyle)
I had hoped to read further into Doyle’s food-related memories, but it seems Where I Belong is a popular book with Vancouverites. All 12 copies in the Vancouver Public Library were signed out, and 14 holds were in place! Clearly literary interest stretches from sea to sea.
We will leave you to contemplate the literary fare of the Rock— its seal hunts, moose hunts, brewis, tea buns, mustard pickles, and Oh Henry! bars. But before we say farewell to St. John’s and the end of our “Capital Meals” series, we invite you to take in Tableaux’s upcoming post featuring a Newfoundland recipe.
We welcome your thoughts or recommendations of other literary fare that you may have sampled from St. John’s. Post below or tweet us @canlitfare.
St. John’s Sampling Menu
Creelman, Libby. “Cruelty.” Victory Meat: New Fiction from Atlantic Canada. Ed. Lynn Coady. Toronto: Random House, 2003. 93-111. Print.
Doyle, Alan. “A Hot, Buttered Slice of Fond Memories from Alan Doyle.” The Globe and Mail. 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 8 May 2015. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/music/a-hot-buttered-slice-of-fond-memories-from-alan-doyle/article21320951/?page=all>
French, David. Leaving Home. 1972. Modern Canadian Plays. Vol. 1. 5th ed. Ed. Jerry Wasserman. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2012. 97-120. Print.
Guy, Jeannie. “Newfoundland Cooking.” Reader’s Choice: Essays for Thinking, Reading, and Writing. 7th Canadian ed. Ed. Kim Flachmann et al. Toronto: Pearson, 2013. 391-394. Print.
Jesperson, Ivan F., ed. Fat-Back & Molasses: A Collection of Favourite Old Recipes from Newfoundland & Labrador. 1974. St. John’s: Jesperson Publishing, 2006.
Pratt, E.J. “The Ice-Floes.” The Atlantic Anthology. Vol. 2/Poetry. Ed. Fred Cogswell. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1985. 25-28. Print.
Smith, John. “Newfoundland.” The Atlantic Anthology. Vol. 2/Poetry. Ed. Fred Cogswell. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1985. 71. Print.
Winter, Michael. “Second Heart.” Victory Meat: New Fiction from Atlantic Canada. Ed. Lynn Coady. Toronto: Random House, 2003. 77-92. Print.
Written by: Shelley Boyd