It has been said that the only reason that the gods ate ambrosia was because they never tasted a meal of codfish cooked in a punt off the coast of Newfoundland.
© Photo courtesy of University of Prince Edward Island.
Dr. William O'Flaherty
And so it was, years ago, I jumped at the suggestion when a local fisherman said to me: “Let’s go down to the ‘Grates,' and go out with my two buddies, shoot a few turrs, and boil up a scoff.”
Next morning, bright and early, down the shore we went, 25 miles and more in his pickup truck, down the winding road through the Perlican Barrens and beyond, the sun facing us as we drove, rising red out of the sea off Trinity Bay.
After greeting the “two buddies,” all four of us headed down to the stage head, where the trapskiff was tied on, shotguns in hand. But I didn’t see any evidence of any food or cooking utensils being brought on board. I figured they had given up on the scoff, and would be spending time on other activities.
Off we went, out onto Baccalieu Tickle with the one cylinder engine — the common one with the big flywheel — sounding away, bouncing echoes off the cliffs as we exited the Grates, very soon approaching Baccalieu Island where the bird colonies are, with gannets, puffins and turrs flying all around.
A few shotgun blasts, and I have all the turrs I need. A couple is enough for me, but the others need more to feed growing families. One of them related that it was his intention to “salt some for the winter.”
By this time it was getting close toward noon and they stopped the engine and threw out the anchor.
"Now, b’ys, we’ll have our feed," said one of them. I was mystified. A feed of what? I wondered.
Fat back pork
Up to the cuddy, the fore cuddy, the man from the Grates went, took out a Coleman stove, brought it back to the engine house area and fired it up; went back to the cuddy and brought out a black iron bake pot and a canvas bag — heavy canvas — sail canvas. Out of the bag he retrieved a junk of fat back pork, wrapped in plastic, chopped off three or more slices and put the bake pot on the stove with the fat back pork soon a-sizzlin’.
Next, one of them found five or six cakes of hard tack in that canvas bag and, with a wooden mallet (obviously made for the purpose) began pounding the mallet on to the hard tack (enclosed in the canvas bag), on the gunnel of the skiff until the hard bread was almost reduced to powder.
“No, b’ys, we’ll get a fish.”
Over the side went the jigger and no more than 20 seconds later a six pound codfish flopped onto the deck; rapidly the throat was cut, and the fish gutted, saving the britchins (it was a female fish) and the tongue.
“Hey, Josh, what about dat onion, b’y?”
Josh takes the onion out of his jacket pocket, the only food brought on board that day; it is rapidly chopped up and thrown in with the sizzling fat back pork.
Words and wisdom
The codfish is cut into junks and the whole shebang — the powered hard tack, and all the parts of the codfish — are thrown into the bakepot, along with three or four cups of water, right there out of Baccalieu Tickle.
A half-hour later, after much talk about the state of the province's economy — predictions of the whole Island goin’ on the rocks, how “the arse is out of ‘er’, an’ "what d’ye expect with the country run by Smallwood," and “dat guy Trudeau in charge up there in Canada”
After all that — the words and the wisdom of the common man — we sat down to a meal of the common man.
A piece of canvas, sail canvas, made for the purpose, clean and obviously used repeatedly, was spread on top of the engine house and the contents of the bake pot was thrown, all in one heap, onto the canvas, all the liquid absorbed.
The four of us sat around the engine house — around that steaming, mouth-watering mound of fish stew — armed with wooden spoons, carved by the boat owner, and "fisted in."
"We haves this every time we’re out here,” stated Josh, for my benefit.
I’ll take that wonderful scoff any time over ambrosia, and over manna as well, thank you very much.
— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.