Copyright is held by the author. This is an memoir excerpt.
THERE WAS nothing like it anywhere else. It was wonderful and delicious — or so my mother claimed.
She was referring to “down-home” cooking in Newfoundland, the place of her birth.
One day in 1954 when I was 10 years old I asked her, “How come you never make any of that Newfoundland food?”
“Oh, I’ve just gotten away from it,” she replied.
“Make me a real Newfoundland dinner,” I begged. “Please.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Please,” I insisted, in that whining tone all children seem to possess in their DNA.
“Maybe someday,” she answered, avoiding any firm commitment to doing so.
If you’ve ever had children, you don’t tell them “maybe someday” because they’re inclined to forget the “maybe” part and think that each new day, starting with tomorrow, is that “someday.” I was no different and implored my mother every day from then on to cook Newfoundland food for me.
One evening, after I had asked for the umpteenth time, she lost patience.
“I can’t make you a Newfoundland dinner. It requires ingredients you can’t get here. You can only get them in Newfoundland, and that’s far away. Eat the good, regular food I cook for you. You’re not starving.”
That was true. Children in Korea were starving then, as we were always reminded if our plates weren’t scoured clean at mealtimes, but I couldn’t understand what that had to do with me, living in Canada. It was a big disappointment.
The idea of having a real Newfoundland dinner left my mind until a month later when I walked past a store two blocks away from our house. It was undergoing renovations and a big sign in the window read, “Opening Soon — Gosses’ Newfoundland Supermarket SELLING YOUR FAVOURITE DOWN HOME FOODS.”
I didn’t pray for things often, but thought a divine presence had overheard my wish for a special “down-home” dinner and then fulfilled it by locating that store very near to where we lived. It was an uncanny thing. I ran home to tell my mother the good news.
I raced into the house shouting, “There’s a Newfoundland store,” over and over again.
“Goodness sakes. There’s no need to shout like that. What on earth are you talking about?” Mom said as she laid down her sewing.
“A Newfoundland food store is opening two blocks away. You can buy everything you need there to make me a real Newfoundland dinner.”
I expected her to be pleased at receiving that news, but she frowned.
“It’s right up the street. You don’t even have to take the streetcar.” I figured saving the five cent adult fare each way would be an additional incentive.
“Oh?” was all she said.
She didn’t smile, or say anything. That annoyed me. My mother had promised me that dinner; at least her reply of “maybe someday” seemed like a firm commitment to my young ears.
Mom didn’t know what to say. She probably never imagined there’d be a Newfoundland specialty grocery store in our neighbourhood. What were the chances of that? Newfoundland and its customs were a world away. We didn’t even know any “Newfies.”
Mom’s response gave me the impression she didn’t want to cook “down-home” food at all, and having that store so convenient, irritated her.
I persisted — and persisted.
Ultimately, she realized that resisting the incessant demands of a 10-year-old child was futile. “All right,” she moaned. “When that Newfoundland grocery store opens, I’ll get the things to make you a real down-home dinner.”
I counted the days until that store would open. It seemed like forever, but the day finally arrived. At breakfast Mom announced, “I’m going to the Newfoundland store today, and when you come home from school I’ll have your Newfoundland dinner prepared.”
I was physically in the classroom that day, but my mind had taken flight elsewhere. It lifted off to ponder the upcoming Saturday afternoon double feature movie matinee, the model aircraft kit I wanted for my birthday in two months, and, of course, that night’s special dinner. I was daydreaming and didn’t hear Miss Secord, our teacher, call my name.
“Raymond . . . Raymond . . . Raymond!”
Her shrill voice jolted me back the present. Surrounding students giggled with amusement.
“Oh — yes ma’am?”
Her face was stern, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. She jabbed her finger at me. “I asked you who the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada was.”
I didn’t know.
“Uh . . .”
“If you don’t give me the correct answer you’ll get a detention after school.”
My heart sank. I would be late getting home for that special Newfoundland dinner Mother was working so hard to prepare.
Several answer possibilities raced through my mind: Sir Guy Carlton, John Graves Simcoe or Sir Francis Bond Head. Why didn’t I pay more attention to the history lesson?
Toronto had streets named Carleton, Simcoe and Bond, so all those men were important people. Any one of them could be the correct answer.
I felt a warm flush rise up from my neck. Students around me tittered.
The girls sitting on both sides of me had that self-satisfied “now you’re in for it” grins on their faces. Gloria, the girl sitting in front of me turned around with a smug look of contempt. The best students in our class were girls and they reminded you of their academic superiority at every opportunity. The smirks on their faces made them look like sharks sensing detention blood.
Miss Secord repeated her request. “Well, I’m waiting. Who was it?”
The duration of this event was brief — a few seconds, but seemed like forever as my mind groped for an answer. A lot of things in the city had the name “Simcoe” attached to them. There was Simcoe Street, the Simcoe Hotel, Lake Simcoe, The Simcoe Ice Company and the Simcoe Coal Company. I decided to guess the answer was John Graves Simcoe. All those things must be named after him for a reason. I hoped it was because he was our first Lieutenant Governor.
“John Graves Simcoe,” I said.
“That is correct,” Miss Secord acknowledged with a surprised look.
The tension drained from my body.
“You’re treading on thin ice, Raymond. Don’t let me catch you daydreaming again. Pay attention, or else.”
That school day seemed interminable, but 3:30 p.m. finally arrived and class was over. I burst out of the school front door and raced home.
Upon entering the house, my nostrils detected an odd, unfamiliar scent. It wasn’t the aroma of food. At first, I thought Mom was cleaning house with some new type of cleanser, but she was busy at the stove surrounded by pots, pans and bowls.
“Dinner will be awhile yet,” she said. “I’ll bet you’re looking forward to your special down-home dinner, eh?”
“Yes,” I replied, still uncomfortable about the unusual odour that filled the house when the smell of mouth-watering food should have been there instead. I moved to peek into the array of pots and pans resting on the stove, but Mom whacked my hand with a wooden spoon.
“Don’t be nosy. You’ll spoil the surprise. Go outside and play until dinnertime.”
I went out to the back yard and bounced a ball around, trying to dispel an anxious feeling. It was foolish to worry, I convinced myself. Mother never cooked anything that tasted bad. Newfoundland food was delicious. It had to be. Mom was from there and always raved about how good the food was. She must have just spilled a drop of something on a hot stove burner or overheated a pot to create the unpleasant odour I detected on arriving home.
Finally, she called, “Dinner’s ready.”
I hurried into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Mom spooned something out of a white casserole dish onto a plate and then set it down in front of me. It looked like one of her beef pot pies, which I liked a lot, but it didn’t smell the same. The scent was familiar — disturbingly so.
There was a pastry top all right, plus carrots, onions, potatoes, turnips and pieces of meat in it, but the meat didn’t look like beef.
I poked the food with my fork. “What is it?”
“What’s a flipper?”
“It’s things that seals have.”
Mom talked about seals before and I’d seen pictures of them. They were ugly — like part fish and part hairless dog with cat’s whiskers. Mom said they barked. Which part of them would I be eating?
“It’s like their arms or feet, but they don’t have hands, fingers or toes.”
“It’s a pie made with seal arms and feet?”
“They’re something like the fins fish have, but everyone calls them flippers. In Newfoundland they make a meat pie using dried seal flippers. They have to be soaked and boiled in water to remove the outer skin and the meat from the tendons and bones. After, the meat is mixed with carrots, onions, celery, turnips and peas in brown gravy. Finally, it’s topped with pastry and baked in the oven. It’s like a beef pie. It took me most of the day to make it.”
Whether it was called “flipper pie,” or “down-home pie,” didn’t matter to me. I decided right away that I wasn’t going to like it. I impaled a small piece of the meat with my fork and put it into my mouth. It was stringy, chewy and had a livery taste to it. I detested liver. I stopped chewing and rolled the morsel around in my mouth trying to decide what to do with it. If it hadn’t been Mom’s treasured “down-home” recipe, I would have just spit the mess into the garbage container under the sink. I chewed and chewed the chunk of seal flipper while trying hard to keep a straight face. The awful taste in my mouth competed with the desire not to disappoint my mother who was staring at me, awaiting a signal of approval for what she had expended so much effort and money to prepare. The fact that I didn’t like this meal, which I had begged for so insistently, was galling.
I finished chewing the lump of rubbery, livery tasting seal flipper, and with an uncomfortable gulp managed to swallow it.
“Do you like it?” Mom asked.
“Ummmm,” I mumbled.
I guess the look on my face said it all.
“I was concerned you might not like it,” she said. “Seal meat is not to everyone’s taste. You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to.”
I was relieved at not having to consume that horrible dish, but wondered what I would be having for dinner now. Lunch was a long time ago. My stomach was empty and the anticipation of what I thought was going to be a delicious, savoury meal made it rumble.
“Just in case you didn’t like the flipper pie, I made another Newfoundland dish I think you’ll like better,” Mom announced.
I was grateful she wasn’t angry and overjoyed to learn there was a standby dinner. Mom removed the plate of flipper pie, went back to the stove, ladled something from a different pot onto a clean plate and placed it in front of me.
“This is made with codfish,” she said brightly.
I loved codfish. Mother always pan fried it in batter and served it with French fries, home-made coleslaw and tartar sauce. It was one of my favourite meals. The food I gazed down at now wasn’t the familiar fried codfish I relished so much. It was a white, fibrous paste with pieces of brown stuff mixed in.
“Uh, what is it?” I inquired.
“Brewis. It’s a traditional Newfoundland delicacy,” she announced with pride, implying it was that province’s official dish.
“It doesn’t look like codfish.”
“It’s made with dried, salted codfish. You soak the dried fish and hard bread in water, boil them until tender, then chop them up finely and mix them together.”
It didn’t look, or smell appetizing and reminded me of oatmeal porridge which I also hated. What was hard bread? The loaves of white bread we usually ate were soft, even when a little stale.
“What’re those bits of brown things in it?”
“They’re called “scruncheons.”
I thought she was joking. Reacting to my mystified stare, Mom repeated the strange word with careful enunciation of all the syllables.
“They’re pieces of salted pork fat that’s been chopped up and fried until crispy and brown. After that, the liquid fat left from frying them is drizzled over the codfish and bread mixture.”
A twinge of nausea rose in my throat. Yuck. This recipe was disgusting. Who boils bread and fish for God’s sake? Fish has to be fried, not boiled. As far as pouring salted fat over the mess, that was sickening. I stared down at the plate of brewis for a long time.
“Taste it,” Mom suggested.
It was the least I could do after all Mother’s effort. I lifted a forkful to my mouth and started to chew. I felt my throat contract. There was no flavour — just saltiness. Extreme saltiness. It was so salty I could sense my tongue shrivelling up and cheeks puckering. No amount of effort could prevent my face from twisting. Somehow, I swallowed it without gagging.
“Is it too salty?” Mom asked.
“A little,” I choked, after desperately gulping several mouthfuls of water.
“I was afraid of that. I forgot you’re supposed to soak the salt cod in water for two days to remove the salt and only did it for two hours this morning.” Mom sighed. “I’ve been a long time away from down-home and forgot how to do that cooking right.”
This whole culinary adventure had been a disaster and I wondered why I had been so persistent in asking for food that was awful. The fact that it was so unpleasant after my mother had extolled its excellence for as long as I could remember, bewildered me. I pushed the plate of brewis aside. A strange, sad look drifted across Mom’s face and her eyes glistened.
After a few moments her familiar, warm smile returned. “There’s still some of that roast left over from Sunday. Would you like a hot beef sandwich with gravy, peas, and fried potatoes instead of the special Newfoundland dinner?”
“Yes, please,” I replied.
My mother had been away from the big rock for over two decades. I wondered if Newfoundland cooking, even properly prepared, was ever as good as she made it out to be. In her recollection the taste of it remained vivid, and as the years passed, time elevated the quality of that food into something special and perfect in her mind.
I suppose a person’s memory can do that, but the experience was a life-lesson of my youth. The anticipation of a thing is sometimes more pleasant than the eventual realization of it.