Top News

Joan Sullivan: From sustenance to celebration

Book cover
Book cover - Submitted

The Traditional Newfoundland Kitchen
by Roger Pickavance
Boulder Publications
$34.95  308 pages

This volume has a thick, flexible, oversize format similar to kindred cookbooks, but this is a collection of recipes unlike any other. As author Roger Pickavance asks, in his Introduction, “How can traditional Newfoundland food be defined?” It depends on many factors, like what is available, what can people hunt or grow or import, how do they prepare it, and for whom, and what event? From sustenance to celebration, food is harvested, seared, baked, and shared into culture.

It’s a thorough survey, with 26 chapters whose titles include “The Kitchen and the Meals,” “Wild Meat from Land and Sea,” and “Cakes,” illustrated with archival photos of Sunday school picnics, tea with Prime Minister William Whiteway, and period advertisements. It closes with three Appendices, including formal names and measurements, and an Index.

But, to start, in determining a definition for traditional Newfoundland cuisine, Pickavance settled on a time period, not coincidentally one infused with societal and economical changes. It begins with the 1850s, when the invention of affordable free-standing cook stoves (and baking powder) allowed an expansion of cooking from very basic game roasts and flat breads, and ends with the Second World War, when the influx of Allied soldiers and European immigrants introduced their respective tastes, fads, and seasonings.

Even so, the recipes are both communal and idiosyncratic.

Everyone, for example, put flour in their white and raisin bread, but how much is “a good bit” of flour? Pickavance, who arrived in Newfoundland from Welsh Borders in the late 1960s and was quickly taken by the menu around him, conducted the bulk of his research one-on-one in outport kitchens, and the intimacy and personality shows.

Of course, in that era people often cooked for very large families and so the quantities of ingredients needed to be rejigged.

Pickavance has tackled all this and has distilled his research into a cross-sections that allows for both a workable and often familiar recipes and such specifics as “Dumplings without any fat” and “Dumplings with some fat.” All the recipes are just that, recipes, but he has also framed them with deft, readable explanations including, for example, how one community considered eel a great delicacy while the next shunned them as inedible.

There’s an entire chapter on cod. “Because cod was so central, it was simply referred to as ‘fish,’ a habit that persists to this day (apparently contradictory phrases like ‘we have no fish, but we’ve got lots of halibut’ are still heard).” No part of the fish went to waste, and the associated recipes include pan-fried fillets, stew, salt fish with drawn butter, hash, brewis, cheeks, tongues, and britches.

 “Fish Other Than Cod” includes the “divisive” eel, herring, mackerel, and salmon, opening with “Capelin”: pronunciation, physical description, traditional usage, and cooking methods are all discussed: “As capelin straight from the water curl up as they are being cooked, many people preferred to wait at least overnight before frying them.”

There’s a huge social aspect to preparing and eating food, and Pickavance integrates this, as well. What was people’s main meal of the week? Often “Boiled Dinner,” aka “Sunday dinner,” “cooked dinner,” “corned beef and cabbage,” and “Jiggs’ dinner,” whose “etymology ... is not clear. The most likely explanation is that it was the favourite corned beef and cabbage meal of Jiggs, the central character in George McManus’s long-running cartoon strip which started in 1913.”

These curious, learned asides are one of the pleasures of reading this book.

Pickavance sounds completely at home in the kitchen, as a guest and as a cook himself (he has personally tested all these recipes, and looks forward to such more adventurous meals as “boiled seal’s head.”)

He notes so many interesting things about so many recipes. “Bang Belly has had diffuse and diverse meanings, everything from flat pancakes through dumplings to boiled puddings and cakes. I most often heard it in the sense of a lightly sweetened cake ... one of the few cake recipes that uses baking soda, which works only in the presence of some acidic ingredient, molasses in this case.” Other common flavourings, “sometimes called essences,” include vanilla, lemon, peppermint, and almond.

There are historical notes embedded in cuisine. Consider the “1915 Cake” which is all about wartime rationing and frugality, composed without eggs or butter. Even what goes on top of that cake held cultural resonance.

What the Americans called icing the British called frosting and Newfoundlanders adapted both terms.

Just as they hunted game and filled root cellars, more of the activities chronicled in these pages. And of course, no book of Newfoundland appetite is complete without “Jam-jams (The hole in the middle of the top biscuit seems to be a Purity [Factories] addition)” and “A Pot of Properly Brewed Tea (8 teaspoons tea, heaped if you like strong tea, otherwise about level).”

 

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

Recent Stories