Hunting the origins of ‘Newfie Steak’

Tobias Romaniuk
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The caribou may be the official animal of Newfoundland and Labrador, but there’s another, more elusive animal that has captured the hearts, minds and stomachs of many a Newfoundlander.

Rarely seen in the wild, to the point that many consider it to be a mythological beast, this mohawk-maned creature that lives at the edge of bogs has, in its domesticated, factory-raised form, risen to popularity here in Newfoundland.

The wild bologna may be fictional (or maybe not, it’s still unknown what the Sasquatch eats, and he may be real, too) but there’s nothing fictional about Newfoundlanders’ love of bologna.

The numbers supplied by Maple Leaf Foods are evidence of the meat’s popularity.

Of all the bologna sold by Maple Leaf across Canada — nearly six million kilograms — 60 per cent of it is sold in Atlantic Canada, or over 3.5 million kilograms and Newfoundland and Labrador accounts for 60 per cent of those sales. More than 2.1 million kilograms of bologna is eaten by half a million people every year.

If the entire country shared Newfoundlanders’ love of bologna, Canada would go through 141.1 million kilograms of the stuff each year.

An informal survey of local delis and meat shops found that nobody really seems to know why it’s so popular, although some suspect it’s because the meat was once the cheapest on store shelves. For many, it’s just something that was always on the table at home from the time they were kids.

While much of the country west of New Brunswick has placed bologna firmly into the “lunch meat” category, rarely seen outside two slices of bread, here in Newfoundland it’s so much more.

John Breen, of Breen’s Deli, even suggests it has a place on the summer grill.

“As long as I’ve been around, bologna — baloney, whatever you want to call it — has been around. People barbecue it, they bake it, they do every kind of recipe with it, with bologna,” he said.

Perhaps there is nothing complicated about it. Maybe, as Breen suggests, it simply tastes good, and that’s why people eat it.

“It’s good and tasty. It’s not very healthy for ya, y’know, it’s full of cholesterol and all that stuff because there’s lots of fat but it’s really tasty,” said the deli owner.

And there’s likely the economic consideration, too. Bologna is one of the cheapest meats on the meat shelf, although it has gotten more expensive over the years.

“Years ago it was a cheap meal. It was a household thing, basically. When I grew up we had bologna pretty much every day because it was a cheap meat.”

So it’s cheap and tasty. But where did it come from, and what’s the Newfoundland connection? The search for an answer led to Memorial University, where a history professor may have found a clue, if not the answer.

“It’s sort of an amusing thing,” said MUN professor Peter Pope, who specializes in the 16th and 17th century.

In 1682, English mathematician and writer John Collins published “Salt and Fishery” in which he described various ways of producing and using salt.

The book contained “a good description of the salt cod fishery,” said Pope, who read the book while doing some research. Immediately after that chapter was one devoted to “a fabulous new food from Italy called bologna,” said Pope.

“The first time I read it I couldn’t believe it. Here’s this book partly about the Newfoundland salt cod fishery with a chapter on bologna,” he said.

While the book doesn’t say Newfoundlanders of the 1600s ate a lot of bologna, said Pope, he does find it to be an incredible coincidence.

“It’s very interesting how he describes it. It’s something new to the English, a spicy sausage which you can eat later.”

Although he isn’t sure how this early mention evolved into bologna’s current popularity, he does note that there was always trade between Newfoundland and Italy for salt cod, with the possibility of bologna arriving on one of those return trips.

“I don’t think it arrived in 1682, but the potential was there,” he said.

An attempt was made to further trace these early origins but the trail faded when the professor at MUN who specializes in 18th century history wasn’t aware of a documented rise in the popularity of bologna.

It’s just acknowledged that bologna is popular, and nobody seems to give much thought as to why.

 

The hunt continues for the source of that popularity, but like the elusive Wild Bologna the answer has yet to be found. Perhaps the term “mystery meat” has nothing to do with what’s inside bologna, and everything to do with where it came from. But for mainlanders looking to discover the answer, beware. There is one thing bologna most definitely is not, here in Newfoundland.

It’s not lunch meat.

 

tromaniuk@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Maple Leaf Foods, MUN

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Atlantic Canada, Breen Maple Leaf New Brunswick Italy

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Recent comments

  • Lee Smith
    January 11, 2014 - 19:18

    I'm from Maine, US, and I've always eaten bologna. We used to have a company named Jordan's which sold 5 Lb logs. Fried bologna as a sandwich or for breakfast was a staple. Sadly, the went belly up some years ago. Imagine my delight when vacationing on Grand Manan Island, NB, I discovered logs of Maple Leaf bologna for sale, and the meat tasted just like the old Jordan's. Tragically, when we crossed the border to go home, the &@(%#*+ border guard confiscated the two bologna logs I intended to bring home, and put them in the trash barrel.

  • Johnny Red
    April 05, 2012 - 21:29

    I agree with David. Let us abolish the word newfie once and for all!

  • Tony
    April 05, 2012 - 14:47

    Lighten up Grant. Tube Steak is very common reference for a hot dog weiner. Stop going out of your way for things to be overly PC about.....

  • Arthur
    April 05, 2012 - 00:14

    I am a Newfoundlander living in Thailand and they have a type of bologna here which is made from pork and is very popular.

  • David
    April 04, 2012 - 19:06

    Does anyone out there think, if all African-Americans were so entirely oblivious to being referred to by such a demeaning and condescending term as the N-word, that other people would not still be doing so to this day?

  • Terry Houston
    April 04, 2012 - 10:13

    Ah yes, tube steak. sometimes we would dip it in egg before frying.

    • Claudette
      April 04, 2012 - 12:49

      I grew up on fried bologna and mashed potatoes and I LOVED it. I now live in the US and I have tried numerous times to get my american husband to try this newfoundland dish, but he will not. He don't know what he is missing :)

    • Grant
      April 04, 2012 - 14:33

      RE: Mr Houston, You do realize that Tube Steak is a barely veiled, and fairly well known, reference to a man's genitals. As such is in inappropriate to be used in this way. Poor Humor on your part sir, but as a Troll I don't say you care.