Traditional foods?

You say Marconi, I say macaroni

How would you describe a typical Newfoundland meal? What are the ingredients? What are the flavours? What are the sensations that you experience while consuming it? Do you enjoy traditional Newfoundland foods? Do your preferences roam across an eclectic and diverse edible terrain?

In an online forum about Newfoundland food, hosted by the Newfoundland Quarterly, readers answered questions regarding the constitution of a “typical Newfoundland meal”, the tastes that remind them of home, and the food traditions that they would pass on to the next generation. A few of the responses were predictable:

“Jiggs dinner is the obvious one for me. Sunday never feels like Sunday unless you cook Jiggs Dinner. Often times when we don’t cook it now, it feels like I missed Sunday and all of a sudden it’s Monday and I’m back to work and I don’t know where the week went. But when we do cook it, it’s a whole day process: the preparation, the actual cooking, the eating, and the clean up, now that’s Sunday to me.” – 35, Client Services Representative

“Pea soup with some paste on it is something I identify with home. And thick too, like the soup has to be almost thick enough that you could stand on it if you wanted to. Cut up a bunch of carrots, turnips and potatoes in it with a paste on top. I always, always, always ate too much too. Mom wouldn’t have it cleaned up and I’d probably be on the couch dozing off. Thick pea soup and a nap, can’t beat it.” – 25, Teacher

“I love Jam Jams. I always, always have Jam Jams on hand. When I was little, I’d always have Jam Jams with my Nan. She’d have a cup of tea and I’d have a glass of milk with them. I’ll absolutely have Jam Jams with my grandkids someday.” – 36, Mother

“Nothing like a feed of fried toutons to make you feel like home.” – 21, CONA Student

Cod tongues, fresh game, fish, seafood, and stews were also listed.

These responses are remarkable not only because they represent the constitution of traditional Newfoundland meals, but because they refer to the ways in which the consumption of particular foods provides one with a sense of home.

“Thick pea soup and a nap, can’t beat it.”

While the survey offers an insight into some local food traditions, one is left to ponder the foods that comprise diets in Labrador, in multicultural households within the province, and how frequently traditional foods are consumed by Newfoundland and Labradorians today. One comment articulates the importance of food preparation styles within the family by noting:

“I’m not sure it has anything to do with being from Newfoundland or being from rural places, I grew up in a very small town, a fishing town in fact and my family rarely ever had fish and we didn’t like Jiggs Dinner. None of us were fond of salt beef and the number of food items needed for the meal seemed excessive, not to mention the clean up required afterword. [sic] So we were not your typical consumers. Instead for me meals that remind me of home and growing up are more centered around chicken and ham, not salty beef or fish. So does the feeling that food gives you have anything to do with where you’re from, or is it solely based on how you were raised and what you specifically are accustomed to? While we do have types of food that are more common here in this province and in rural parts of it in particular, I think its [sic] more of the family atmosphere that gives us the feeling.” – 27, Beautician

Another recalls a Newfoundland-themed meal gone wrong:

“When we lived in residence we of course used to eat at meal hall (Gushue Hall) and the staff there would have themed meal nights. It might be Indian, Chinese, etc. Anyway I remember one instance when they had a sign for the next day’s “Newfoundland theme.” I thought for sure it was going to be Jiggs Dinner with all or at least some of the toppings. We did not however get Jiggs, instead we got, believe it or not, bologna and Kraft dinner. And it didn’t say macroni [sic] and cheese either, it blatantly said Kraft Dinner, keeping in mind that Kraft is a brand name that did not originate in Newfoundland. Now I could understand the argument to be made to have bologna on “Newfoundland” night but I did not understand Kraft Dinner. Who thought that was “Newfoundland” theme? Doesn’t everyone eat Kraft Dinner? I don’t imagine we eat it any more or less than say people from New Brunswick. I always thought that was weird. Am I missing something? Is there a connection between us and Kraft Dinner?” – 26, Master’s Student

The Kraft dinner comment was outstanding to me for two reasons: because it clearly conveys the fact that there are foods that do and do not fit within conceptions of “Newfoundland food”, and because it raises questions about how we come to determine which foods make us feel comforted, at home, or connected to a particular place.

Canadians love Kraft Dinner

While it is most likely not what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of a “Newfoundland” or “Canadian” meal, it should be noted that a 1997 CBC report entitled “Canadians Love Kraft Dinner” estimated that our country boasts the deepest affection worldwide for what is described as “the fluorescent orange meal.” The CBC report indicates that more than 75 million boxes of it were purchased across the country in 1997. In an article published in Agriculture and Human Values – “Discomforting Comfort Foods: Stirring the Pot on Kraft Dinner and Social Inequality in Canada” – Melanie Rock, Lynne McIntyre, and Krista Rondeau point out: “Canadians annually purchase about 90 million boxes of Kraft Dinner, and consumption is spread remarkably evenly across the country, and in terms of age group, gender, occupational status, household income and level of education. Approximately 30% of all respondents in a random sample of Canadians reported consuming Kraft Dinner in the previous 30 days” (2008:167).

The authors argue that the product’s low price, widespread availability, level of convenience, and non-perishable status have positioned it as a common Canadian meal. They also consider Kraft Dinner to be an aspect of Canadian pop culture (2008:167).

“…KD is a type of comfort food; one that is said to symbolize childhood and youth.”

In the 1997 CBC report, Kraft Dinner was described as a comfort food – one that warms, satisfies, and makes the consumer feel at home. The news story features two men – one in Edmonton, and one in Vancouver – preparing versions of the boxed meal. As one man lifts noodle from plate, he exudes his affection for the meal that he learned to cook as a child. Indeed, the fact that Kraft Dinner is so easy to make that even a child can do it, is one part of his rationale for being so deeply enamoured. In their version of Kraft Dinner’s place in Canadian pop culture, Rock et al. refer to the Barenaked Ladies’ song If I Had a Million Dollars (“…We wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner, but we would eat it, we’d just eat more”) to show how the meal represents poverty and comfort simultaneously (2008:168). They continue to draw out this point by emphasizing that the recognizable blue box is differentially perceived by those who regularly prepare it, as a result of their income status. For those who are typically given Kraft Dinner at food banks, the item represents poverty and stress (2008:175). For those who purchase it, KD is a type of comfort food; one that is said to symbolize childhood and youth (2008:168). Rock et al challenge us to consider the ways in which these notions of comfort are communicated and shared. While the dish is undoubtedly popular, their findings indicate that national affection and national consumption are not one and the same.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. If Canadians purchase and donate Kraft Dinner on such a scale, is it worth asking how we come to determine our nation or our region’s defining meals? This should not be read as a suggestion to bestow a special honour upon Kraft dinner, but it does seem curious that popularity alone does not reserve a meal’s place on a provincial or national food throne.

“Haute cuisine de terre neuve”

In her Fall 2009 article “Newfoundland Cooking”, Jeannie Guy writes in the Newfoundland Quarterly about her experiences growing up in St. John’s between the 1940s and 1960s. Her reflections describe the important role that food played in weekly routines within her neighbourhood, and the role that her mother played as a grocery shopper and cook for the household. Like Rock et al.’s description of Kraft Dinner’s common appeal, she asserts that a weekly food routine existed within her family, as well as her neighbourhood. For instance, on Sunday, the noon-time meal was roast beef or roast chicken (turkey at Christmas), with mashed potatoes, boiled carrots, turnip, and, if chicken or turkey had been prepared, stuffing made with Mt. Scio savoury. On Mondays there were leftovers, on Tuesdays there was boiled dinner (or Jigg’s dinner), on Wednesdays there was fish and brewis with scruncheons, on Thursdays it was “bottled moose with potatoes, or rabbit stew, or partridge, or in the spring seal flipper pie. Or sometimes in later years you got modern, foreign kind of food for supper like pork chops” (2009). On Fridays, the family ate cod, which Guy describes as being a part of religious custom, not culture. On Saturdays, lunch was pea soup with salt beef and dumplings. Dinner was salt fish with scruncheons. “We had haute cuisine de terre neuve,” she writes. “A professor at the university had told me.”

“…sometimes in later years you got modern, foreign kind of food for supper like pork chops.”

A recent article in the Globe and Mail notes that traditional ingredients and recipes are currently being utilized and adapted within some of the province’s high end dining establishments. The story mentions that Newfoundland and Labrador’s top chefs are finding new ways to use traditional ingredients, serving to diversify what was once considered to be common fare. Globe writer Ivy Knight argues: “With its bakeapple bogs, wild rabbits and cod tongues, the nouveau cuisine of Newfoundland may be the most exciting thing to happen to our national palate since poutine.” While it is certainly exciting to see local foods being embraced within the area’s fine dining rooms, the story has me questioning whether something similar is going on when people include local potatoes and carrots in homemade curries, local seafood in Asian-inspired dishes, or find ways to blend the tastes that they are used to consuming in ethnically diverse homes by utilizing local foods in “non-traditional” Newfoundland meals.

The taste of place

In her book The Taste of Place, Amy Trubek writes: “Taste is the difference between food as a mere form of sustenance and food as a part of life’s rich pageant, a part of sociality, spirituality, aesthetics, and more” (Trubek 2008:6). Her description of taste brings to the fore the significance not only of the edible features of food to people’s consumption habits, but the ways in which we become familiar with the foods that we regularly eat, as a result of social customs, religious codes and conventions, ethical perspectives, economic status, and our particular locations in the world.

The growing array of diverse restaurants in the capital city’s downtown core, local food festivals featuring a wide range of countries and cuisines, innovative “fusion” dishes blending ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ menu items and the fact that local farmers are now producing many foods previously unseen in the province convey a shift in many of our consumption habits. All of this causes me to question: when does a food become ‘traditional’?

Perhaps that’s a subject for another column.

So tell me. What does ‘traditional food’ mean to you?

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