A couple of summers ago my wife and I were in St. John’s, Newfoundland (pron: newfin-LAND) at a bed and breakfast for two nights before heading west into the deeper recesses of the province. In the morning, the B&B proprietress gave us coffee but said breakfast would be slow in coming because her husband, the usual cook, was ailing at home with a nasty case of the 40-ounce flu (translation: rum problem).
“Maybe it wasn’t the rum,” I suggested. “Maybe it was bad ice.”
“Bad oice!” she cried, and erupted in laughter. “Bad oice! Bad oice!”
When traveling, I think it’s always a good idea to share bits and pieces of your own wisdom, however truncated, with your hosts and, with any luck, leave them laughing.
Newfies, as they readily call themselves, seem universally gentle-hearted, friendly, and, well… noice. We met one man in a bar on George Street in St. John’s who proudly, defiantly, claimed exception to this rule. “You know,” he said after downing a shot, “how all Newfies are s’posed to be friendly? Well I’m not one of them.”
“You seem friendly enough to me,” I rejoindered.
“I’m not. Where you two from?”
“Atlanta.” Which was true at the time.
“People friendly down there?”
“Mostly. Just like here.”
He snarled and growled and had another shot, apparently irked that he was statistically overwhelmed by the sprawling legions of Newfies who were smiling, good-natured, outgoing, and noice.
With no planned itinerary, we ended up on a whim in the small town of Bonavista on the second peninsula northwest of St, John’s, at a B&B run by an amiable codfisherman named Herb. We happened to arrive during the two-week annual family fishing season, and he could hardly wait to take us fishing so he could max out his limit of seven fish per person per day. About three miles offshore we paused over a shoal teeming with fish, dropped our lines over, and within a minute or so my wife hauled in the first cod, a beast of a fish that was easily a twenty pounder.
If you’ve codfished before, you know that the animal doesn’t fight you. It’s similar to hauling in a bag of laundry.
“Kiss the cod!” Herb cried, and my wife dutifully held it up high, pulled it up to her face, puckered, and planted a kiss under the cod’s chin. It is a provincial custom that visitors from away become honorary Newfies when they catch a cod, kiss it, and follow it with a long draught of Screech, the local dark rum. Sadly, we had no rum aboard – Herb was a teetotaler – but we capped off the ritual later that night in a restaurant, toasting our exalted status. It is no small thing to plant your lips on the skin of a wriggling twenty pound gadus morhua (think of where it’s been!)
When we came ashore after fishing, he and two friends set about gutting and fileting the fish, making sure to put cod cheeks and tongue aside as a delicacy not to be salted. Otherwise, all the filets went into barrels of rock salt, and, as thanks for giving him our share of the catch, Herb cooked us an enormous snow crab supper. Nice.
Fish and potatoes (pron.: FISH-inpotatas) means salt cod and potatoes, and is a traditional staple for many people in the Maritimes. This leads me to the man who introduced me to it, a dear friend since passed away, Robert Tanner.
When I knew Robert, he lived near Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, but was a native Newfie who, as a young teenager, was a longlining dory codfisherman working off a schooner on the Grand Banks and farther north, up the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Labrador. Codfishermen worked pretty much year round, and you need to visualize two men in a twelve-foot Banks dory in the gloaming of a January dusk a mile or more from their schooner in whatever seas might be running, in whatever weather, hauling in a thousand pounds of cod on longlines, knowing that the better the catch, the more stable the dory would be headed back to the ship.
That’s what Robert did for years, from his youth to early middle age, till foreign fleets of pair trawlers moved in to render schooners and longlining obsolete. By the mid 1990s, cod stocks had all but disappeared from the Grand Banks.
But some of them lingered on, closer to shore. Robert and I fished cod one summer off Lunenberg, in my own 23′ Seaway, with two baited hooks per line, and darned if we didn’t hit a school of them off some shoals a few miles offshore. Robert snagged nearly all of them, two dozen or more. They’d all go into Robert’s salt barrels back home. (I need to admit here that I was pretty new to all of this, and would just observe the master fisherman and take orders).
So I think of cod now as more than just a fish. It’s the legacy of a disappearing way of life.
Robert sometimes referred to Fish and Potatoes as “house bankin’,” which made no sense at all – except that “house bankin'” in Nova Scotia meant bales of hay stuffed around a house’s foundation to keep the inside comfortable and the winter winds out. Either Fish and Potatoes was a comfort food, like a house-banked house, or else (Robert believed) it had a texture evocative of hay bales. I couldn’t disagree more! It’s hearty and tasty, satisfying and filling, and a snap to prepare.
House Banking update, Jan. 2016: Bobbi wrote me this about the origin of the phrase:
My stepmom and distant cousin was a Nova Scotia historian. Her explanation of the name "housebanking" was that the snow was packed up against the house as insulation. (Probably tar paper put on first.) By spring, the snow had yellowed and had dark flecks of dirt. Pepper on housebanking looked like that and the potatoes, butter, and cream were certainly yellow.
She adds that she remembers “housebanking” made with flaked cod and mashed potatoes, and sometimes a rich white sauce. But the recipe below is courtesy of our old friend Robert and his wife Vivian.
FISH AND POTATOES (“HOUSE BANKIN'”)
1 box salt cod
3-4 medium sized gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, chopped, and 1-2 chunks salt pork
2 tbsp. butter
about 1 cup of milk
pepper and cayenne pepper to taste
Rinse the cod in fresh water throughout the day, changing the water four times (three is too few – too salty!, and five is too many – too bland!). The last bowl of water should taste just slightly salty. Par boil the potatoes for about 5 minutes. Saute the onions in butter till soft and golden. Put all ingredients in an oiled (or buttered) casserole or dutch oven, gently stirring in the milk. Cover and bake about 30 minutes at 350.
Serve with a hearty salad and a light, crisp white wine.
(Note, Sunday, Dec. 29: my cousin advises me that Robert also used salt pork in this dish, so I’ve amended the recipe.)