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Friday, 8 April 2016

Instructions Required


Do you know what is in this photo? 




Those who grew up in eastern Canada know. Much of our existence depended on salted protein, such as the codfish seen here. It was not only food but a source of income for our fisher families. Long before the days of refrigeration, going back to the first fishers to arrive on the shores of Newfoundland, codfish was salted to preserve it. 

Fish caught in Newfoundland was transported back to Europe after a fishing season on the Grand Banks. Splitting and salting the fish was standard procedure. Before it could be eaten, this fish had to be rinsed thoroughly and watered to re-hydrate it, then boiled. For many of us raised on salt cod, it is delicious. But, a piece of salt fish does not come with instructions.



Today it would be easy to research how to cook salt codfish. However such was not the case on the Canadian prairies during the Great Depression. It was a difficult time for people on the prairies, when drought conditions caused a shortage of crops for income and food.

At this time, fishers in eastern Canada, from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were still fishing and salting the catch. Wanting to help their fellow Canadians, Nova Scotians sent a train load of salt fish to the prairies, providing much needed protein for hungry families.

One such family in Saskatchewan was teacher Max Braithwaite and his wife. He wrote about the distinctive odour of the fish which did not come with instructions, so the couple tried to fry it as it was. It was inedible of course, as anyone familiar with the product would understand. It was discarded but not forgotten nor ever tried again.

Fishers in Prince Edward Island also sent salt cod to the prairies.* There, it was reported that some farmers, not knowing what to do with it, used the hard, flattened fish to shingle their roofs. One can imagine the smell! Try to imagine what happened when it rained!

With a few simple instructions, people on the prairies could have made delicious fish, potatoes and onions or fish cakes, to name two of our favourite recipes for salt cod. This cod is simple food which sustained generations of people on the east coast. It was a missed opportunity for hungry westerners during the Depression, but an amusing story today.


Reference material:

Book: The Night We Stole The Mountie's Car by Max Braithwaite

* Paper: The Depression of the 1930s in Prince Edward Island by Heather Keefe of Wyatt Properties, Summerside, Prince Edward Island

Historic photos from the Center for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland 

20 comments:

  1. I remember hearing about this some time ago. Nice reminder.

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    1. It is good to see how people helped each other.

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  2. What an image of that salt cod roof in a rainstorm! Oh my! I didn't know this and I don't think I've ever had salt cod. :-)

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    1. It is quite an image. I imagine the smell and the flies!

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  3. My Mom, who grew up in Saskatchewan during the Depression, remembers shipments of apples coming from Ontario.

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    1. People did help each other during those hard times.

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  4. I could not guess from the picture. I am a great fan of cod.

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    1. I love cod too, Joanne. My favourite kind of fish.

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  5. That sounds funny to hear about them trying to use it to shingle their roofs. However I can see one doing exactly that if you don't have instruction about what to do with it. I grew up with dry cod fish as well. It was imported from Norway. My mom would soak and later fry it with olive oil and add onions,garlic,tomatoes and cilantro and it tasted great. Great info , Thank you!

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    1. We would not have had those ingredients in Newfoundland, Angela. Your recipe sounds great though.

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  6. I grew up with codfish cakes...soaked well and truly enjkoyed.

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    1. They are delicious. I often order them in restaurants here.

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  7. At least I recognized what the picture was! My wife's Italian family has salt cod for Christmas, so I have enjoyed it.

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  8. I have seen this occasionally but never eaten it. If I see it again I'll try it.

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    1. Rinse it well and place it in water overnight. Change the water before you cook it.

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  9. The fish shingles make me laugh. I too probably would have done something equally outrageous.

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    1. It should have come with instructions!

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  10. We visited Portugal a few years ago and we were amazed to see huge piles of dried salted fish for sale. We had no idea how to cook it, those roofs must have been very strange! West Bay where I live has very strong connections with Newfoundland. Sarah x

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    1. The Portuguese white fleet fished off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and often came to the port of St. John's during bad weather.

      Dorset generally has strong connections to Newfoundland. You live in a beautiful area.

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