Out Front

Karl Wells
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Annual flipper supper tradition brings back sealing memories

My dad made terrific seal flipper dinners. Before his passing in 1978, he was one of the volunteer cooks at the annualxWesleyxUnited Church seal supper. When I was a tadpole I'd tag along to the church kitchen to watch dad carefully clean the meat - a tedious but critical step - chop the vegetables and cook everything together in large roasting pans. It was a yearly ritual - and I do mean ritual - that Dad dearly loved. In 1931, at the age of 14, my father had been sent to the seal hunt to help supplement his family's income. Times were very hard in the outports and more trips to the Front followed.

I thought about Dad a lot recently. Some of the registered seal eaters of my family attended a flipper supper at Cowan Heights United Church. Appropriately, it's a church with a maritime theme - an anchor cross above the altar, ceiling beams slightly reminiscent of a ship's wheel, and, a dory pulpit.

A classic, generous seal flipper dinner prepared and delivered from the busy kitchen at Cowan Heights United Church. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

My dad made terrific seal flipper dinners. Before his passing in 1978, he was one of the volunteer cooks at the annualxWesleyxUnited Church seal supper. When I was a tadpole I'd tag along to the church kitchen to watch dad carefully clean the meat - a tedious but critical step - chop the vegetables and cook everything together in large roasting pans. It was a yearly ritual - and I do mean ritual - that Dad dearly loved. In 1931, at the age of 14, my father had been sent to the seal hunt to help supplement his family's income. Times were very hard in the outports and more trips to the Front followed.

I thought about Dad a lot recently. Some of the registered seal eaters of my family attended a flipper supper at Cowan Heights United Church. Appropriately, it's a church with a maritime theme - an anchor cross above the altar, ceiling beams slightly reminiscent of a ship's wheel, and, a dory pulpit.

The supper was supposed to have been held months ago but the church's roof caved in. (Thankfully, nobody was injured.) The roof has since been fixed. About 100 people attended at $15 each. One of the bow-tied, white-shirted gentlemen serving told me the proceeds would help pay for the church's new roof.

Before I sat down for my dinner, I took a peek inside the kitchen adjacent the dining hall (where a group of mostly white-haired folk were already digging into their flippers.) Inside the bright kitchen it was busy but everything seemed under control. Roasting pans filled with seal flippers, as well as pans with high, golden-brown pastry were being pulled from the oven.

The aromas made my mouth water. Men in short-order-cook hats were scooping up mashed turnip and potato, cutting rectangles of hot pastry, pouring gravy from jugs and handing off well-laden plates of food to a line of patient U. C. Men's Service Club servers.

Marathon journey

While we were enjoying our dinners, my sister Betty reminded us of how much our father loved to regale anyone who would listen with stories about his trips to the seal hunt. One of his favourites was the story of how he and fellow sealers actually got to St. John's to sign on to a ship. My dad, Leonard Wells Sr., was born and raised in Wesleyville, a famous Methodist community at the northern end of Bonavista Bay.

Wesleyville was also known as the home of famous sealing captains with names like Winsor, Bishop and Blackwood. In the Dirty Thirties, Newfoundland's cod fishery had collapsed. The seal hunt became an important source of income for families. Dad and the Wesleyville men, along with sealers from nearby outports, would actually walk from their communities to Gambo, at the opposite end of Bonavista Bay, where they would take the train to St. John's to board sealing steamers.

My sister recalled Dad's journey this way:

"At the time there was no road from Wesleyville to Gambo (and even if there had been, cars would have been rare.) Hare Bay would freeze over in the winter, so the boats couldn't operate there. Imagine walking 60 miles over the ice. Apparently, there were families along the way who would put them up for the night and feed them. But I don't imagine they could depend on those accommodations. I believe I heard Dad speak of men being frostbitten - not surprising with the wind from the North Atlantic in March month."

Rhoda Dawson, a painter from England, lived in Newfoundland during the years my dad was a seal fisherman. Here's how she described the scene my father would have met upon his arrival in St. John's (as excerpted from Peter Neary's biography of Dawson:)

"In St. John's the seal hunt assumes larger proportions, and attracts crowds of men to the city in the early spring, some on foot, some coming by train, others by schooner from the southern harbours, to sign on board the sealing steamers which go out to the ice in March.

They will leave on the same day, to avoid unfair advantages being taken and to obviate argument, and return singly in about six or eight weeks' time. The men who join are thus sure of at least board and lodging (and the food is good now-a-days) for nearly two months, and the chance of anything from $8 to $80 share-out at the end."

Close call

I'm sure my father never made anywhere near $80 for his two months' work, especially on his first trip in 1931. As a kid of 14, Dad was given chores like having to light cigarettes for the men as they prepared and stored the precious seal pelts. Their own hands would be so full of seal flesh and grease they couldn't handle a cigarette themselves. On one trip, Dad actually had to bunk on a pile of seal pelts.

Then there was the time he fell through the ice. Somehow he lost his footing and went arse over kettle into the frigid North Atlantic. Thank God he was quickly fished out. (Here's the part that always gets me.) He then promptly stripped stark naked, wrung out all of his clothes, put them back on and made his way back to the ship. I remember thanking my lucky stars that the arduous seal hunt was an experience I would not have to endure.

Rhoda Dawson described the scene in St. John's after the sealers returned from their dangerous ordeal:

"All the various local bodies had their annual flipper suppers in May or April, even the Cathedral. The steamers always brought a load home, and each man expected a share including the stokers, cooks and stewards who were paid on a different basis. I remember there was trouble on one steamer, the stokers complaining that they had not had their fair share of flippers, assuming a threatening attitude and being ordered off the deck by the Old Man (captain.) No sooner were they off the ship on one side than they were clambering up on the other, till he was obliged to give way and allow their demands."

It's not surprising that memories of that period in my dad's life were so vivid for him. I'm sure there are men, wives, sons and daughters across Newfoundland who can share or repeat similar ones. For people who'd participated in the seal hunt, an opportunity to enjoy a meal of flippers must come with a flood of personal recollections. I know that's the way it was for my father. Every time he handled a seal flipper to clean it, cook it or eat it, the sealing stories spilled out of him.

Fading tradition

As my family continued to dine at the long table covered in white-as-snow paper cloth, we were happy to be able to give voice to Dad's stories once more. I wish he could have been there with us.

He would have enjoyed everything about it, and, like my brother-in-law, probably would have asked for seconds.

Unfortunately, these events will soon be a thing of the past. Very few younger Newfoundlanders have acquired a taste for seal. They know little about the important role sealing played in our history and cultural life. For my siblings and me, it was something we grew up with.

The significance of the seal hunt and its history was told to us by our grandparents, my father, and countless others when we were growing up. We were fed seal meat once or twice a year from the time we were able to eat solids.

My dad, proud Newfoundlander and proud sealer, would not have had it any other way.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute magazine. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Out Front, Cowan Heights United Church

Geographic location: St. John's, Wesleyville, Newfoundland Bonavista Bay North Atlantic U. C. Men Hare Bay England

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