When I took my first job as a waitress I had no idea what scrunchins and toutons were, and had yet to encounter the practice of serving fries with dressing and gravy. I had never tasted salt beef and assumed that jiggs dinner was something akin to the corned beef and hash my grandmother cooked on Cape Breton Island. We ate salmon, halibut and haddock when I was a kid but never any cod, and the idea of eating moose or caribou would never have occurred to me.
This all changed when I was in high school and my family moved from Cape Breton to Labrador. I got a part-time job in a family restaurant and was introduced not only to the rhythm of restaurant work but also to the local culture and traditions. Unfamiliar with the menu, I would carefully take orders and then deliver them to the cooks and watch as they prepared and described foods I had yet to eat. I was drawn to the urgency that restaurant work demands, but what I liked best about my job was spending time with the women who worked in the kitchen. Most of what they cooked was made from scratch and they were always happy to share stories about their families and the years they spent cooking.
It was not until I began to work in restaurants in other places that I realized what a rare occurrence a kitchen full of women was. The women I worked with in Labrador stayed with me as I raced through serving shifts in cities in New Brunswick, Ontario and Newfoundland.
Food culture has shifted in the years since I took my first job as a server. Comfort food has made its way into fine dining and eating local, seasonal fare has been embraced by celebrated chefs and thrifty home cooks alike. Newfoundland cuisine is enjoying a revival of sorts and many of the dishes that were once cooked with economy in home kitchens have been re-imagined by chefs making a name for themselves within and beyond St. John’s.
Newfoundland cuisine has recently been profiled here in Gourmet Live and here in The Montreal Gazette. I wonder what the generations of women who cooked jiggs dinner every Sunday or worked in restaurant kitchens in small communities around the island and across The Big Land would make of all this.