A few months ago, a local radio station held a poll: “What smell defines Newfoundland and Labrador?” The comment section was filled with answers ranging from clichés such as “ocean” or “salty air” to nostalgic responses: “Nanny’s bread” and “Jiggs Dinner” (known elsewhere as boiled dinner or Sunday dinner with salted beef, root vegetables and yellow split pea pudding).
For me, there were two scents: the smell of salted cod drying on the beach and the smell of cooked fish, both of which I hated growing up and both of which dredge up a mix of emotions about my home province.
I’ve been ashamed to admit it; in Newfoundland and Labrador, despising cod is culturally illegal. As they say, “Cod is King in Newfoundland.” The whole province’s raison d’être is built on the back of that white fish, the reason we live here on this rocky island. The almost-mythological story of the “discovery” of the abundant cod fishery by John Cabot in the 1500s has been told for centuries (though Indigenous peoples had been fishing for thousands of years)—soon other British, French, Spanish and Portuguese settlers followed to fish—then overfish—the cod stocks off the Grand Banks, which led to its demise in the 1990s with the government-mandated Cod Moratorium.
But despite the collapse of the fishery, culturally, cod reigns supreme. The cod dishes at the nationally-acclaimed (and Anthony Bourdain-approved) Raymond’s Restaurant put our province on the global gastronomical map. People clamour to do food tours with Lori McCarthy’s Cod Sounds and CFAs (Come From Aways) who are screeched-in to become honorary Newfoundlanders have to kiss a cod in order to complete the ceremony.
But my associations with cod aren’t pleasant. As an awkward 15-year-old, I remember the smell of my clothes after a fish fry-up, the stench and embarrassment wafting off me as I hung out with my friends. Or playing on the beach by the cod flakes (drying racks for fish) near my grandparents’ house—an ammoniacal, salty, almost rotten smell permeating the air as seagulls circled overhead. My family always rolled their eyes at my distaste for fish, ascribing it to me being a picky eater (I was not), finding it incomprehensible that I couldn’t like cod.
Related: In Newfoundland And Labrador, It’s Not Christmas Without Slush
Memory and food and the scents that come along with them are inextricably linked, mixed in with socio-political and cultural undertones. We don’t talk about it broadly, but intermingled with pride for our province is an inferiority complex—an idea Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don’t measure up to the rest of the country, that our perseverance in always being a “have not” province is something others look down on.
When Denny’s opened its first location here in 2018, the place was filled to the rafters every day—despite us having many non-chain equivalents—with people raved that it was “like they have on the mainland,” as if somehow getting a Denny’s meant that we had shown the world we’re as good as suburban Toronto. There’s also how we react when people criticize us, a quick reaction of anger and defensiveness.
Though no one in my direct family works in the fishing industry, the archetypal caricature of a smelly, dumb Newfoundlander followed me when I left the province in my mid-20s. But I carried that internalized anxiety and communal feeling of inadequacy with me, questioning interactions I had with others when living in Toronto and Halifax. I felt too good for Newfondland and Labrador growing up, but the minute I left I didn’t feel good enough to “make it on the mainland.”
I often look back on the seven years I lived away from home and question: Is this inferiority so ingrained in us that I felt inadequate when I started my master’s degree at the University of Toronto? When people teased me about my accent during class presentations, or showed surprise when I told them where I completed my undergrad, were they really judging my Memorial University education as less-than, or was I just intimidated sitting in a seminar room among students with undergrad degrees from Queen’s and McGill?
As my years away wore on and my food writing career took shape, I started noticing Fogo Island cod appearing on restaurant menus in Toronto and journalists writing articles about the food of my home. Seeing how other people viewed my home province and its cuisine, as this rugged hidden gem of culinary sophistication, made me look at home in a whole new way. I was able to appreciate how special a place Newfoundland really is.
One of the reasons I moved back to Newfoundland was that I wanted to shout from the rooftops how rich and culturally significant my home province’s cuisine was. But I knew if I was going to write about Newfoundland and Labrador’s food, I was going to have to overcome my distaste for the taste of cod—and all the baggage that came along with it.
So how did I finally amend my relationship with this fish? I slathered it in a cheesy sauce.
Cod au gratin is one of those staple dishes you see on most mom-and-pop restaurant menus across the province, next to mussels, fish and chips and fried calamari. It is an iconic dish in the region, but is also based on one of the food pairings most scorned by the culinary world: fish and cheese. This casserole—what would happen if mac and cheese and cod chowder had a luscious little baby—is a Newfoundland staple, a dish that contradicts the culinary canon with creamy abandon (and a crispy crumb topper) yet is beloved by both residents and confused tourists alike.
My love for mac and cheese runs deep, so combining its creamy, cheesy sauce with delicate cod felt natural. Cod au gratin was my gateway dish to a new appreciation for cod, the food of my homeland, and shifted my mindset about the province I felt too good for for much of my life.
Cod au gratin helped me fall in love with Newfoundland and with that flaky, flavourful fish.
Now, as a grown woman approaching 40, appreciative of my culinary heritage and proudly writing about cod like it’s my job (actually, it is) I love to make cod in other iterations, and even order it in restaurants. On my most recent visit to Terre, a high-end restaurant in St. John’s, I was luxuriating over the skin-on-cod dish, cradled by a bed of caramelized cabbage with béchamel, when I realized it was simply a tricked-out version of cod au gratin.
I guess I haven’t really changed that much, have I?