Queen Elizabeth may think tea and crumpets at the Palace is tasty, but she probably hasn’t tasted tea and toutons, poor dear. All my life I’ve measured how civilized a social gathering ought to be, by comparing it to Tea with the Queen, but no more! If Queen Elizabeth hasn’t tasted toutons, more’s the pity!
My love affair with these delectable morsels began not long ago when a lovely lady by the name of Rose invited me to tea. As I at down at the table she took the toutons from a sizzling cast iron frying pan and stacked them on a plate. When the kettle boiled she poured steaming hot cups of tea and placed them on the table along with a tin of Carnation and a bowl of sugar. On the platter, next to the toutons, were crisp fried pieces of salt pork.
“Just butter the toutons and drizzle molasses over them,” she said, pushing the containers nearer to me. I helped myself to a touton—buttered it and drizzled the molasses over it—then took a bite. If there was a heaven on earth, it was in Rose’s kitchen that morning!
When I first set foot in Newfoundland in ‘77, Len took me to see his Aunt Mamie and Uncle Newton in Kelligrews. Never in my life had I seen anybody just walk into someone’s house without knocking, but that’s what Len did. Where I grew up—in the city—you phoned ahead to arrange a visit, then you knocked on the door and waited for it to be opened. Walking into someone’s house without knocking was a culture shock for me! That evening Aunt Mamie cooked up a scoff of Fish ‘n’ brewis; something I had never heard of. As I ate, I wondered how someone could take pieces of hard bread—like hockey pucks—and turn them into something so good; but she did, and the scrunchions and onions complimented the delicious meal!
My first sit-down meal at the home of my future in-laws was also a bit of a culture shock. The kitchen was full of visitors, young and old, and the table couldn’t accommodate everybody so the men sat down to eat first. I was a visitor—and didn’t have a clue what to do in the kitchen anyway—so I was told to sit down with the men. I didn’t understand much of what they were saying to each other, so I sat quietly and hoped nobody would notice me. Platters of fish and potatoes, vegetables, salads and soups were passed around, and if I didn’t want something, I passed it along.
Suddenly, Len’s mom handed me a loaf of fresh-baked bread and a knife. I had been away from my home in Vancouver for a couple of years, and hadn’t seen homemade bread in ages. I looked at the loaf in my hands, then at my plate heaped with food, and decided I didn’t want any bread.
“No thanks,” I said, and passed the loaf along. The table of men—and the women standing around the table—erupted into laughter. I looked at their laughing faces in total confusion. What had I done?
Len’s mother took the loaf and the knife and held the bread to her bosom, cutting slices skilfully and handing them to the men. Len explained, “You’re the woman, you’re supposed to cut the bread.”
Tea in Newfoundland, especially in the outports, remains a ‘homely’ way for friends to get together. In the city, having tea with a friend is more of a formal occasion. When you invite someone over, you arrange a date and time and your friend arrives at the designated hour, and woe betide if you show up early or late.But in the outports, it’s a gentler life, which goes without saying, really.
All things considered, when it comes to having tea, I think Queen Elizabeth and I might agree that tea and toutons in Rose’s kitchen exemplifies the age-old adage, “Life’s simple pleasures are the best.”