Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

"Bread for the Road": Intersections of Food and Culture in Newfoundland and Labrador

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

"Bread for the Road": Intersections of Food and Culture in Newfoundland and Labrador

Article excerpt

BREAD IS A STAPLE worldwide, (1) but in Newfoundland and Labrador (2) it has special significance. In this article I argue that by the twentieth century bread pervaded Newfoundland culture more thoroughly than any other food. Although cod was once the backbone of the economy and remains the province's most iconic food, bread touched all aspects of life. As anthropologist Carole Counihan discovered in Sardinia, bread is "the nexus of economic, political, aesthetic, social, symbolic, and health concerns" and "a particularly sensitive indicator of change" (Counihan 1999: 29). In the following pages I explore how bread in all its forms (homemade bread, hardtack, fried bread, bread pudding, etc.) was integral to Newfoundland food systems, sustained and shaped men's and women's labour, helped define gender, contributed to physical and psychological well-being, and now represents a marker of cultural loss.

Support for my assertion of bread's primacy comes from a range of published and unpublished sources, but in particular from the collections of Memorial University's Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA). (3) Established in 1968, MUNFLA is Canada's foremost repository for recorded and collected items of Newfoundland and Labrador folklore, folklife, language, oral history, and popular culture. The majority of the more than 11,000 contributors who have donated materials to MUNFLA did so as students enrolled in undergraduate folklore courses. The present research draws heavily on one aspect of the archive's collection: folklore survey cards that students completed as part of folklore courses from the mid-1960s to the present day. These brief bits of folklore that students collected from family and friends, or remembered from their own past, now represent a wealth of information on everything from turns of phrase and remedies to children's games and supernatural beliefs. Although survey cards are valuable in determining the presence, and often pervasiveness, of certain beliefs and practices, they frequently provide only minimal contextual information so that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact time period of a collected item. Most of the survey cards that inform this article date from a 10-year period, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and report on material remembered from the first half of the twentieth century.

"NO MEAL WAS COMPLETE WITHOUT BREAD": BREAD AS THE KEYSTONE OF FAMILY FOOD SYSTEMS

By the twentieth century bread, which had been an important food in Newfoundland from earliest settlement, dominated family food systems. (4) In her folklife study, More Than 50%, Hilda Chaulk Murray writes, "Since no meal was complete without bread, it deserves special treatment.... In some homes, bread and butter and tea might be eaten at every meal except dinner, and if vegetables were scarce, it might be eaten at that meal also" (Murray, 1979: 120). Murray begins with breakfast: "The men's early morning snack during the fishing season was a light meal, usually bread and butter with tea. Perhaps they had a little jam or marmalade to 'tow the bread down'" (ibid., 122). On weekends, "A favorite Sunday breakfast, winter and summer, was 'fish and brewis.' ... Brewis was made by soaking hardtack or hard bread (sea biscuit) overnight in cold water till the hard cakes were softened" (ibid., 126). (5) Bill Casselman describes the making of another breakfast food, toutons (6) (also toutans, toutens, toutons, or towtents): "Bread dough is made and set to rise with yeast at night. The next morning the dough is cut into small pieces and fried in pork fat." As he notes, toutons were often served with molasses and butter (Casseleman, 1998: 49). (7)

Toutons are related to other forms of fried bread that were most often made as treats for children: "Damper dogs are quick bread--wads of bread dough fried quickly on the lid (damper) of a hot woodstove, usually a treat for children, who were fed the damper dogs so they wouldn't gobble up all the fresh-baked bread" (ibid. …

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