Enjoying toutons and a good yarn

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.”

Fresh from the oven...
Fresh from the oven…

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.”

Not like the swarming, faceless crowds

When we moved from Toronto to Newfoundland almost three years ago, we thought we no longer had to worry about dodging bullets.  Did we leave the city and all its perils behind only to find similar dangers in outport Newfoundland?

Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers produced a beautiful song called “Saltwater Joys.” One of the stanzas goes, “Some go to where the buildings reach to meet the clouds, where warm and gentle people turn to swarming, faceless crowds…”

Part of the culture shock of moving to the Great Northern Peninsula has been adjusting to the ‘faces’ of rural Newfoundland.  People in these communities expect to be recognized and acknowledged.  Everybody knows everybody’s business.  Not so in the cities, where the swarming, faceless crowds are the norm.  For instance, in the three years we lived in Toronto we were very careful not to look at other drivers, because Toronto drivers have been shot for doing that kind of thing.  Eye contact is to be avoided if at all possible.  A city driver—especially in Toronto—cultivates a certain detachment from other traffic; he or she is intent on only one thing, getting to his or her destination alive and as fast as possible.  Likewise, a pedestrian doesn’t engage anyone in conversation on the streets or in the malls because chances are, he or she will either be asked for a handout or ignored.

When we first moved to Northern Newfoundland, people were a little upset when I passed them on the road or in the mall without so much as a wave or a hello.  I might as well apologize now because it’s probably going to happen again.  Most of the time my mind is set at full-throttle, mentally ticking off the next item on my to-do list.  I have no sense of direction either, so I might be ignoring you because I took a wrong turn and I’m lost.

The first time my daughter and I ventured out to the store in Raleigh–just 10 kilometers away–we got lost.  You laugh?  On the way to Raleigh, we noted the narrow, pot-hole roads; the 60 km/h speed limit and the fields and marshes; but on the way home, the scenery changed.  In the interval between our arrival at, and departure from, the corner store, the speed limit had mysteriously gone from 60 to 70 km/h; a bridge appeared out of nowhere and, finally, we passed a sign that indicated Pistolet Bay Park was one kilometer ahead, and that’s when we realized we weren’t traveling to Ship Cove.

If you understand my ignorance of the customs and culture of this area, it might help you better understand the tourists that will be flocking to Northern Newfoundland come summer.

I’ve learned if I’m driving behind a local driver and he suddenly veers to the side of the road, chances are he’s letting me pass because he’s driving too slowly, or he might be scoping out someone’s pile of wood, or he might have spotted a moose along the edge of the woods and wants a better look.  I’ve also learned that if a truck is following at high speed and the driver is flashing his lights, chances are he’s trying to stop me to ask me something.  It’s all trial and error, but mostly error, I admit.

Not so very long ago, round about six o’clock of an evening, three of us were driving along a local road, radio on, when we spotted a vehicle up ahead with brake lights on, moving ever so slowly.  I figured the driver had spotted a moose and had slowed down to have a look.  I cruised up behind him, waiting for him to move off the center of the road so I could pass.  Meanwhile, I was scanning the bushes on the passing side of the road to see if I could spot whatever it was he was looking at.  The vehicle moved to the right and I passed. Suddenly my daughter gasped, “He fired a gun just before we passed!”

“He did what!” I cried.

“He stuck a gun through the window and fired into the bushes, right across the lane, just before we passed,” she said.  “I saw the barrel and I heard the pop.”

“You mean we could have been shot?” I asked.


It just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl, at least, not yet.  And, please don’t shoot me!  I’m still learning!