A Miser’s Feast

As soon as I walked through the door into my in-law’s house I was lured to the stove by a mouth-watering aroma. Lifting the lid I saw diced potatoes, turnips and onions in a light broth.  How could something so seemingly ordinary smell so wonderful? “What’s this?” I asked, turning to my mother-in-law. “Stewed potatoes,” she remarked.

In the six years I had lived in Newfoundland, I had never tasted stewed potatoes.  If it is true that every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose the silver lining on this cloud was that my mother-in-law had cooked this pot of soup for her ailing husband, and I was invited to share the meal.  Later, talking to others, I learned a meal of stewed potatoes was common years ago; quick and tasty, and enjoyed by kids and parents alike.  I suspect the not-so-secret ingredient in a good pot of stewed potatoes is diced salt pork.

To cook Stewed Potatoes, dice about 1/2 cup of salt pork fat and saute in a frying pan until crisp. Add onions and saute. Add diced potatoes and turnips and just enough water to cover the vegetables. Cook until tender. Optional: when the vegetables are half-cooked, add a bit of cod and cook until tender.

Truly, it is a miser’s feast. And why a miser’s feast? Because it costs so little to make.

*****

Every St. Patrick’s Day I remember my dear old Irish granny.  Peggy was Irish but grew up in Wales, and my mother always said when it came to food, my grandmother never wasted a thing. For instance, if a goose were cooked, then the goose feathers were stuffed into mattresses and pillows; the large wing pinion was used for sweeping the hearth and the smaller wing feathers for brushing flour or oatmeal while baking.  No part of any butchered animal went to waste.

Looking through a Welsh cookbook on soups and savories, I was intrigued to find a recipe for Cawl: a basic dish of meat, root vegetables, potatoes, onions and cabbage.  Cawl is considered to be the national dish of Wales, but here’s the interesting part; in North Wales, Cawl is also called lobscows, from the English for ‘sheep broth’.  Coincidentally, the Newfoundland cookbook “Fat-back & Molasses” includes a recipe for Lob Scouce.

Just think about it.  Many Newfoundland residents trace their ancestry to England, Ireland and Scotland, but here is a national dish from Wales that has made its way into kitchens on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. It intrigues me that my Irish granny, raised in Wales, cooked lobscows, while someone else’s granny in Newfoundland served a similar meal called lob scouce. Fascinating stuff!

Browsing through the Welsh cookbook, I see the people of Wales made use of potatoes, onions, and bacon on a regular basis.  The Miser’s Feast in their cookbook is very similar to the stewed potatoes that Len’s mother served his dad, except the Welsh used bacon rather than salt pork. the following is very simple and well worth trying.

Cover the bottom of a heavy saucepan with whole, peeled potatoes and a sliced onion. Cover with water and a little salt and pepper, place the lid on the pot and bring to a boil. Place bacon slices on top of the onion and potatoes; replace the lid and simmer slowly until the potatoes are cooked through and most of the water absorbed. Enjoy.

The Welsh, like Newfoundlanders, are very fond of onions.  Their recipe for Onion Cake (so called because, for lack of a baking dish, a cake pan was used) is delicious; I’ve tried it.

You will need about two pounds of potatoes, one or two onions, salt & pepper, and one cup of beef stock.  Butter the inside of a baking pan generously.  Peel and thinly slice potatoes and soak them for a few minutes to draw out the starch.  Drain and dry in a clean cloth.  Cover the bottom of the dish with a thick layer of potatoes, then a layer of finely-chopped onions, season, and dot with butter.  Continue until the dish is full, finishing with potatoes and dotting the top with extra butter.  Add beef stock.  Cover with foil and bake in a hot oven for about an hour, when the potatoes should be soft and cooked right through.  Ten minutes before the end of cooking time remove the cover to brown and crisp the top.

*****

When March winds and blowing snow batter your home, get out the pots, pans and potatoes and have a go at something new.  Taste and see; you might find a miser’s feast your family will cherish forever.

Crows Making Tools?

Sacred Bay and the surrounding islands are chock-full of pack-ice, and looking out my front window I’ve been wondering, why are there crows on the ice in the tickle, and what they could be doing?   (Dictionary of Newfoundland English: TICKLE  A narrow salt-water strait, as in an entrance to a harbor or between islands or other land masses, often difficult or treacherous to navigate because of narrowness or tides.)

Harbor Island Tickle and Harbor Island: a favorite nesting site for sea birds.
Harbor Island Tickle and Harbor Island: a favorite nesting site for sea birds.

In British Columbia we saw plenty of crows and thought of them as noisy pests.  I guess I never attributed much intelligence to birds of any kind.  However, one of the more enlightening experiences of my life was at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, where I saw Vending Machine Chickens.  When I dropped a quarter into a coin slot and looked into a glassed-in pen, a live chicken sprang up and, with its beak, tapped out a cheerful tune on a toy piano.  As soon as the tune ended the vending machine coughed up a little ‘bird treat’ and the chicken was rewarded for playing the piano.   I thought that was pretty fascinating stuff.

Some people consider crows a bad omen and most probably think they don’t have a grain of sense, but I wonder if that can be true.  For instance, these birds clean up road kill, eat insect pests, and alert us to ‘big doings’ in the woods or along the shoreline.  They alerted me early one morning to a lone coyote tracking southwest on the ice towards Tucker’s Cove.  I’m pretty sure, too, that if or when a polar bear makes his way across the ice to Ship Cove on a seal hunting expedition, the crows will be the first to let us know.

Crows have their own highly evolved language and society; living in close-knit families of at least nine birds, with the leader acting as lookout, stationing itself at the top of the tallest tree while others forage or attend to crow business.  If you hear a crow scold, he is warning of an approaching predator, a fox or an owl.  A rallying call means the predator is closing in.  An assembly call is sounded when it is time to mob the enemy.  Then there is the dispersal call, which is the crow equivalent of “scatter!”

Crows on the power lines awaiting their daily snack.
Crows on the power lines awaiting their daily snack.

A video circulating on YouTube demonstrates an unusual friendship between a crow and a kitten.  An elderly couple in Massachusetts found a stray kitten in their yard.  They tried to feed it but it was too wild and they feared it would starve.  Then one day, along came Moses, a crow, and he fed the kitten worms and insects; even going so far as to insert the food into the kitten’s mouth.  If the kitten ventured onto the street, Moses cawed and flapped until it returned to the yard.

Behind our house, we have a family of crows living at the edge of the wood.  If I crank open the casement window in the dining room and toss a piece of toast on the snow bank, within minutes a crow is perched on the top of the nearest tree, scoping out the ‘find’.   Soon, two or three crows are perched on tree tops around the yard, but they keep their distance.  When Len and I get up from the table and all the dishes are cleared, only then will they flutter to the ground, waddle cautiously to the piece of bread, and carry it into the woods.

Most interesting of all, in the Coral Sea east of Queensland, Australia, on New Caledonia Island, there are crows that actually make tools by modifying pine needles and leaves, or by sharpening twigs, which they use to lever bugs out of crevices or grubs out of logs.  One crow in captivity took a piece of wire, fashioned it into a hook, and used the hook to pull a bit of meat out of the bottom of a piece of pipe.

So, it seems to me, whether we like to admit it or not, crows are pretty smart creatures, and might be up to a lot more than we know.  If my ears and eyes were as sharp as a crow’s, I might be able to see and hear what they’re doing out there on the ice at Harbour Island Tickle.  One guess is they’re fashioning implements: knives, forks and spoons, out of bits of ice, in anticipation of the annual seal hunt.  I mean, if their Australian cousins are making spears and hooks in New Caledonia, then their Canadian cousins ought to be just as enterprising.

You can take the crow away from his resources, but you can’t take the resourcefulness away from the crow.  At least, that’s my guess.

Of swimsuits and knitted socks

The difference between weather in eastern and western Canada was never more evident than in my choice of clothing for a weekend outing.  I pulled on long johns and tucked them into my homemade ‘Nan Tucker’ knitted socks, preparing for my first winter’s excursion on a snowmobile to cabin country.  I packed a knapsack with extra-warm clothes, first-aid kit, and a digital camera.

Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.
Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.

In March 1969, our church youth group chartered a bus to Cultus Lake, British Columbia.  I packed an overnight bag with a swimsuit and towel, transistor radio, hairbrush and a Brownie camera for a weekend at the beach.

The trip took us an hour east of Vancouver towards Chilliwack.  Along the Trans Canada highway we passed dairy farms with cattle standing along the fence-lines swishing their tails and chewing their cuds.  Raspberry and strawberry farms with their gridline-pattern rows ran as far as the eye could see, holding out the promise of a harvest of fresh fruit.  Mennonite farmers waved as they stood in the middle of fields of glorious yellow daffodils.  Gradually the farmland gave way to fir-covered hills, and then the hills slid into the background and the mountains reared up, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as we followed the highway to our destination.

At the lake, sun gleamed off the water as we scrambled off the bus and changed into swimsuits.  The soft spring air and the clear, cold water were thrilling.  We picnicked by the campfire and sang songs and imagined the legendary ‘Bigfoot’ coming down from the mountains to the campsite.  Cabins, framed by a brilliant riot of daffodils and tulips, stood back from the beach, while playgrounds on lush green lawns were alive with the shouts of children.

Cultus Lake was no stranger to visitors, and fishermen came from afar to fish for Rainbow Trout and Sockeye Salmon.  The Cultus Lake sockeye salmon is an anadromous fish—that is, a fish that lives part of its life in fresh water before migrating to the sea.  That day, I watched fisherman casting their lines, waiting for fish to bite.  I listened to their laughter floating across the water as they traded fish tales.

*****

Now, forty years later, the Newfoundland landscape lay concealed beneath a heavy blanket of snow as a shower of snowflakes fell like eider-duck feathers from the sky.  I followed Route 430 west and found the rendezvous site on the side of the road.  Within minutes I was pulling a heavy helmet over my head and hoisted myself onto the back of a snowmobile, hanging on for dear life and bouncing over the barrens; amazed that there were traffic signs on the trails in the middle of the wilderness.

At Stock Pond, we pulled up to ‘Da Tilt’, a cabin owned by Carl and Millicent Tucker, in the center of a magical wood of moss-hung trees and snow-laden branches.   As he got off the snowmobile, Carl asserted, “I think it’s time for tea!”  Millicent greeted us at the door and, as we took off helmets, mittens, scarves, caps, coats and boots, put a kettle on the cast-iron stove to boil.  In the kitchen, we drank scalding tea and nibbled on buttered buns, watching a grey jay tilt his head and peer through the window, begging for morsels of bread.

After tea, Millicent brought forth a platter of fisherman’s brewis and, while we ate, Carl told stories of fish and fishermen, dog teams, seals on ice, and life on the Northern Peninsula when he was a young man.

After lunch we piled onto snowmobiles and headed to Pistolet Bay to go smelting.  Alyssa, Carl and Millicent’s granddaughter, and Len, lowered their hooks into the icy water.  Alyssa pulled up smelt after smelt, while Len only managed one rock cod, which came up with jaws flapping.  “You can’t have that one, Len,” advised Carl, pulling out the hook and forcing the foot-long cod back down through the ice.  A group of snowmobilers dropped by and one feller in a space-age helmet, noticing Len’s lack of success, insisted on showing Len the way it’s done by hauling in three smelts in the space of a minute.

Back at the cabin, we warmed our toes by the wood stove as other cabin-dwellers and snowmobilers dropped by to visit.

Looking back, I’d say that whether we pack an overnight bag with swimsuit and towel, or long johns and worsted socks, there is something in all of us that yearns to get back to the land; back to simpler ways.

Baby program an effective method of birth control

“Don’t expect any grandchildren from me!” yelled my 16 year-old daughter.

We were parked on the side of the road, wind blowing, rain pelting on the roof, rush-hour traffic whizzing by on route 430.  Amy had the back door of the car open and she was trying to wrestle the baby out of the car seat with no luck, and the baby had just reached the screaming stage.

I think it is safe to say that, at that moment, I really didn’t want a grandchild anyway.

“It’s not scanning!” cried my daughter, waving her hand over the baby and getting no results.  I wasn’t sure what the results were supposed to be, but judging from the look on her face, they weren’t happening.

Never, in all my child-rearing years, had I ever waved my hand over a baby and expected it to stop crying.

“I can’t get the baby out!” she yelled.  “This is going to be a ‘missed care’ and I’m going to fail!”  I elbowed her aside and unfastened the seatbelt and the harness.  The baby’s cries were pitiful, but they were as nothing compared to what would happen next.  I took hold of the baby and lifted it out, handing it to my daughter.  It began to scream and, I must confess, so did she.  “You didn’t support its head!” she yelled.  “Its neck is probably broken!”

Talk about trauma.

The Tories have come up with a plan to encourage Newfoundlanders to have more children.  They are paying $1000 per baby and a parental leave subsidy of $100 per month added to EI insurance to sweeten the deal.  It sounds good, but I’m about to let you in on a little secret; the government’s bid to increase the population may never fly, owing to the Baby Think It Over Program introduced into Newfoundland high schools.  If my daughter’s weekend experience is any indicator, the RealCare Baby II—a realistic infant simulator—is at sixes and sevens with the Tory’s aim to encourage more births.

The Baby Think It Over program was implemented to help students make educated decisions about child rearing.  It works to a point, but only to a point.  For instance, when I first heard the baby cry, all the old nurturing instincts flooded back, until I took the baby in my arms.  That’s when the reality hit; this ‘baby’ was no more than an intractable doll.  A real baby is soft and flexible and nestles its downy head into the crook of a parent’s shoulder; a real baby interacts with the caregiver; cooing, smiling, and making eye contact.  Amy found this baby to be all drudgery with few rewards.  “It’s just a machine,” she protested, although I’m willing to bet it might have mollified her somewhat if she had received a government cheque in the amount of $1000.   

The baby’s cries were very real; when she arrived there were plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from friends and relatives.  Even the cat was interested; she tried to help the baby by lying down beside it and purring and flexing her claws while it had its bottle, and to be fair,  it sounded exactly like a nursing infant; when it was rocked, it murmured and cooed, reminding us of the sounds our own children made.  We even gave her a name, Annabel Lee, after the poem by Edgar Allan Poe.  “It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you may know by the name of Annabel Lee; and this maiden she lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.”

Wherever we went, we took Annabel Lee with us, but never was she more colicky than on Thanksgiving Sunday when we took her to turkey dinner at her uncle and aunt’s.  She wasn’t about to let Amy enjoy the meal.  She cried for her bottle; she cried for a burp; she cried for a diaper change, she cried to be rocked, and, as we were going out the door, she cried even more lustily, forcing Amy’s uncle to remark, “That’s one cross youngster!”  Interestingly enough, though, the baby barely squawked at the church service that followed.

Danny Williams has been heard to protest, “We can’t be in a situation where our population is shrinking,” but I’m thinking Mr. Williams hasn’t heard about this Program; otherwise, he might have consigned Baby Think It Over to the same sad fate as Poe’s Annabel Lee.

As sure as you’re born, this program is probably the most effective form of birth control in Newfoundland today.

We should listen to what they have to say

I enjoy reading Agatha Christie mysteries and, if I had a library at home, there would be wall-to-wall mysteries adorning the walls.  I like Agatha Christie’s mysteries because they’re set in England, but it wasn’t until I moved to outport Newfoundland that I noticed something very interesting about her novels.  Some of the dialect spoken in her books is used right here on the Island!

So what does that mean?  Well, it only goes to show that language travels, and it endures.  It is passed down from generation to generation, which is fascinating stuff if you give it any thought at all.

My husband is a genealogy buff and knows his Newfoundland ancestors backwards and forwards, but I have an impressive line of ancestors myself, which I can trace back 17 generations.  On my father’s side, the family tree extends back to Somerset, England; my maternal grandmother was an Irish war bride from Wales; and, on my maternal grandfather’s side there were staunch Mennonites from Italy, Germany, and Pennsylvania.  This family tree information was passed down to me two ways: by word of mouth and by the written word.  My parents’ ancestors documented their history by writing everything in family Bibles and books, which have endured to this day.

Driving to town here on the Northern Peninsula, it’s plain to see that autumn has arrived; trees are ablaze with gold, tangerine, crimson and scarlet leaves.  In November, those beautiful leaves will be lashed by rain and swept away by wind until the trees are stripped bare.

In October we celebrate Thanksgiving, when all the bounty is brought in and stored in freezers, jelly jars, and root cellars.  Perhaps though, some of you are only too aware that your fridges and cellars are full of provisions but your communities are losing their young people due to the effects of out-migration.  What, then, can you be thankful for?

I’ve spoken to quite a few people lately and many are saying the same thing…that as the older people are passing away, the customs and traditions of rural Newfoundland are passing, too.  The old ways were passed down by word of mouth, but the newest generation of young adult Newfoundlanders is leaving the province, and there are very few to pass these traditions and stories on to.  It seems as if the Baby Boomer generation is the last to remember, vividly, the way life was before cars, computers and consumerism corrupted the landscape.

Recently I met an elderly gentleman in a store, and we had a pleasant chat while I waited in line.  As he spoke to me, it struck me that the autumn season, with it’s aging leaves, is something like this older generation; full of colour and beauty.  I bet there are plenty of interesting things the old timers could tell us if we’d listen to what they have to say.

The Baby Boomers are telling me the old ways are passing away; that their generation is sandwiched between those who lived the hardships and the glory days of the fishery, and the younger generation as they leave the province to find work.  What, then, is to be done to preserve the past?

I think the answer lies very close at hand: in the hospitals, in the nursing homes, in seniors’ complexes, and in houses and apartments in Newfoundland communities.  If the younger generation has up and left, why not gather another kind of harvest while it’s there for the taking?  Why not sit down with pen and paper, with camera and camcorder, with laptop and listening ear, and document the past before it is gone forever; it’s what my ancestors did when they recorded those births, deaths and marriages so long ago.  If they found the time to do this in a time when families were large and time was scarce, surely we can do the same?

Then, when the younger generation asks about their ancestors, there will be something to show them, to tell them and to teach them about Newfoundland and the people who settled it so long ago.  It’s a provincial treasure worth saving.

Don’t wait until the winds of time strip the leaves from the trees.  Harvest them now, and press them between the pages of your Bible.  Treasure the past; it is the wisdom and hope for the future.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city, or the ancestors, out of the girl.