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.
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