Origins: Newfoundland - #122

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The Gulf Stream is a current of warm water that starts just off the coast of Florida and runs north to Newfoundland, Canada.  It’s fifty miles wide, moves along at the rate of four miles per hour and has a starting temperature of about eighty degrees Fahrenheit.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  As it slides past Newfoundland, Canada, it smacks into a cold current coming down from the north.  The interaction between these two streams churns up the water and causes tiny sea creatures to come up from the bottom.  The tiny sea creatures attract hungry fish.  The hungry fish attract hungry fisherman.  The area where all this is going on is called the Grand Banks.  We don’t know how long people have been fishing on the Grand Banks, but records indicate that the Portuguese were fishing here long before Columbus smacked into the islands of the Caribbean.

In 1497, the King of England sent John Cabot here to find the secret route to Asia.  Cabot was looking for the same passage that Columbus had been looking for on behalf of the King of Spain.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Instead of the secret passage, the Spanish explorers found gold.  Not bad.  Instead of the secret passage the English explorers found fish.  But don’t laugh -- the fish put the English in the chips.  In those days, fish was a big deal commodity and a single good catch could make you rich.  Cabot’s New Found Land was important.

Newfoundland became the first colony in the English Empire and it kept its colonial standing until 1949, when it became part of Canada.  Today, it stands as one of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of North America.  Its capital city is St. John’s.

St. John’s is one of North America’s oldest cities.  Its original attraction was the excellent natural harbor, which is protected by a series of hills that rise up from the shoreline.  The entrance from the sea is less than seven hundred feet wide, which made the town easy to protect.  During the 1700s, a chain was put up across the mouth of the harbor.  It prevented enemy ships from coming in.  Low-tech, but it worked.

The steep cliff that comes up from the harbor mouth is called Signal Hill.  At first, it was used to warn the town that enemy troops were approaching.  Later, it was used to signal the return of merchant ships.  Flags were flown that indicated the nationality of the approaching vessel -- the company that owned it -- and the specific type of ship.  The flag gave the owner of the ship time to get ready for its arrival in port... and it did the same for the wives of the sailors.

In 1901, Signal Hill was used by Guglielmo Marconi to test his long distance electromagnetic waves.  It was at this site that the first wireless transatlantic radio message was received.  It came all the way across the Atlantic from Cornwall, England.

TELEPHONE OPERATOR:  “I’m sorry -- the number you have reached is not in service at this time.  No further information is available.”

The sound that actually traveled across the ocean was a series of three short beeps... the Morse Code for the letter “S.”

Down below, the narrow streets of the city are lined with brightly colored houses.  This street is called Jelly Bean Row.  About 100,000 people live in St. John’s and they love it.  And who wouldn’t?  It’s a city that feels like a village.  Everyone I met was friendly and helpful.  Harbor Drive, Water Street and Duckworth Street run parallel to the docks and are lined with restaurants and shops.

One of my favorite places to eat was the Classic Cafe.  It’s open twenty-four hours a day, and I stopped in for a traditional St.John’s breakfast.  Baked beans with pieces of bacon... fishcakes... Toutons, which are disks of sautéed bread that taste like doughnuts... and fresh coffee.

St.John’s and the area around it are great for long walks, which is essential after a breakfast like that.

If you head over to the northeast corner of St. John’s, you will come upon a village called Quidi Vidi.  It’s a small fishing port and home to the local beer brewer.

Just inland from the village is Quidi Vidi Lake, which is the site of the St. John’s Regatta.

COXSWAIN:  Sit up and look good!  Use the legs!  Keep the oars down for the whole stroke!

The Regatta is a rowing competition held annually on the first Wednesday of August.  It got started in 1818, which may make it the oldest continuing sporting competition in North America.

I’d also recommend a fifteen-minute drive south to the Cape Spear National Historic Site.  The coastal scenery is spectacular and during the early summer months whales stop in for lunch... and icebergs sail by on their way south.

Each spring, as the weather warms up, over 40,000 icebergs break off the glaciers of Greenland and drift south.  On average they weigh just over 200,000 tons and only an eighth of the berg is visible above the water.  About four hundred icebergs pass Cape Spear each year.

And while you’re here you can visit the Cape Spear Lighthouse.  It was built in 1835.  Inside, there’s a reconstruction that lets you see how the lighthouse keeper and his family lived.  There is also a series of walking trails that will take you out to the most easterly point in North America -- the far east of the western world.

A bit further south along the coast of Newfoundland is Bay Bulls and the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.  This is one of the most important sea-bird breeding areas in North America.  Every summer more than two million sea birds come here to breed.  It’s also an ideal bay for whale watching.  And the ideal way to see both the birds and the whales is onboard one of the O’Brien tour boats.  Actually, the O’Briens themselves are something to see.

JOSEPH O’BRIEN:  [sings a sea shanty, then:]

Alright, that’s it, quiet, quiet, quiet!  Listen here!  Alright, ladies and gentlemen, who don’t got a hat?  Alright, well, don’t look up and smile with your mouth open because there’s going to be like two-and-a-half million birds flying over your head.  Alright?  Next to Steve is the Atlantic Puffin.  He’s got an orange beak, a whitish-grey cheek, a black jacket, white shirt and orange shoes.  Tattooed with feathers, sitting on your finger, he’s eleven inches in his finest hour.  We’re going to definitely see puffins; if we don’t see puffins, we got a white cane we’re going to pass it on to you guys, alright?  Now, next to the puffin is the Northern Gannet.  We call this one the “Newfie Strike-Force.”  He spots his food from a hundred to two-hundred feet up into the air and plummets in the water in a torpedo-like effect.  He’s the size of a bald eagle in his wing-span, he’s got a yellow-crested head and black wingtips.  There’s a gillerbot (sic) now right off this corner of the boat, fluttering right there along side of us.  See the little wing patches?  Oh, he just dove down.  Now, these are wicked good swimmers.  If you’re not into that, well I guess the whales are what’s up for you.

Now, this is how you identify whales: the acrobat of acrobats is coming up -- the Humpback.  This is the Atlantic Humpback, he blows a spray of eighteen to twenty feet high in a balloon-like shape, and he’ll show his hump, he’s famous for his hump, alright?  When he raises up his hump you know that that’s a Humpback, and when he sticks up his tail, that’s when she gets really good.  Because that entitles you to become a crystal-card- packing whale-watcher.  Yes!

Alright, this is it!  Whale watching in the North Atlantic!


JOSEPH O’BRIEN:  I knew that.  Right off the bow about six-hundred feet out, we got a Humpback whale blowin’ and spurtin.’  Remember, he can feel our transmissions in the water of our engine and the waves crashing off the boat.  He’s listening.  He knows you’re out here, so whip it up!  Party time!  Whistle, yeah, everybody whistle, clap your hands... Now, he’s straight down here off the back... Look underneath, right down... See the green in the water?  The whale is right underneath you!  Hey!  Alright!  That’s it!  Hold on everybody!  We’re at the mercy of the wave!  And the pleasure of the whale! 

(Sings sea shanty)

Travel south a little bit further and you will come to Ferryland, the site of a remarkable archeological dig.  In 1621 George Calvert, known to his close friends as Lord Baltimore, established one of the first English settlements in North America.  It was right on this spot and it was called the Colony of Avalon.

The settlers managed to survive the harsh winters, but during the late 1600s the colony was finally destroyed by French and Dutch invaders.  Over the centuries the Colony of Avalon was forgotten as new buildings were constructed on top of the old ones.

Since 1992, Dr. Jim Tuck and his team have been uncovering the original settlement bit by bit.  They’re trying to get a sense of what the edge of the New World was like almost four hundred years ago.

DR. JIM TUCK:  This long, low wall here with the water on one side is the sea wall.  That was the original north boundary of the Colony of Avalon.  And what the colonists did is they built that wall, then they began to fill in the pool or the harbor behind it.  So, that land and even this land we’re standing on is all new land, made land.  If we’d been standing here in 1621, we’d have been standing down about eight feet and up to our chest or something in water.  Now, with this big high tide, those north / south walls that we can see were the walls of a two-bay barn or byre where cattle were kept.  And that the waste ran through that little rectangular opening in the wall, through this other wall, and under those rocks into this little rectangular basin here, which was originally the privy, or one of the privies, for the Colony of Avalon, but after that barn was built became a dung pit, I suppose, or a combination dung pit and privy.  And the floor is well below the high tide line, so every time the tide comes in -- it comes in twice a day -- and flushes the toilet for you.  Didn’t work perfectly, though, which is lucky for us, because there’s a lot of stuff preserved in there.  Everything from thousands, maybe millions of seeds and bones and even a wheelbarrow, believe it or not, that somehow got down in there -- don’t ask me, your guess is as good as mine.

Well, there’s a little story about this patch of cobblestones here.  Captain Wynne wrote back to George Calvert in 1622, and said that he’d built a mansion house and tenements, and kitchen, and brewhouse, and forge; then he said he wanted to make another row of buildings to make the whole a “pretty street.”  So we think this is the east end of Captain Wynne’s pretty street that ran through the center of the village.  It’s a cobblestone street about thirteen feet wide.  These fellows that are digging here are looking to find the rest of the cobblestone street, see exactly what the pattern is.  Once we find that, it’ll be much easier to figure out the town plan.  It certainly is covered with, you know, real upscale artifacts, things like leaded glass windows, and delft or tin glazed ceramics, and the kind of stuff that only the very best New World, very richest New World residents would have possessed.  So, we’re pretty hopeful.

Well, we’re just starting to excavate here... and it’s just those few squares down a very short ways, but we think from the look of all the rocks in here and from those very thin rocks, those grey slates are the slates that were used sort of as shingles on roofs.  So...

BURT WOLF:  You find a lot of stuff at this site.

DR. JIM TUCK:  Oh, thousands, and hundreds of thousands... We must be close to a million artifacts -- individual specimens -- by now.  And we’ve only done seven, or eight, or nine percent, so there’s an awful lot more to go.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The history of Newfoundland is filled with firsts.  It was the first colony in the British Empire.  It was the first place to develop an annual sporting competition in North America.  It received the first transatlantic radio signal.  And it was the first place where transatlantic flights took off.

Being further east than any other land in North America, it made good sense for early transatlantic pilots to start from Newfoundland; Amelia Earhart did, Charles Lindbergh did, and so did many of the great balloonists.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When man decided that it was time to fly, he based his early experiments on nature. It was the natural thing to do.  Clearly, the plane is designed in imitation of the bird.  But the balloon is clearly the result of man’s perverse creative genius.  There is nothing in nature that makes use of a lighter-than-air device for flying.

This particular balloon is shaped like a maple leaf, the traditional emblem of Canada, and it travels around the world promoting Canadian tourism.

The early superstars of ballooning were the Montgolfier brothers.  In 1783, near the city of Lyon in France, they used hot air from a straw fire to launch a balloon that was thirty-three feet in diameter, and they got it up to a height of a thousand feet.

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris while the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting, and he immediately saw the military potential of the balloon.  He wrote that it was inexpensive, easy, fast and could be used by an observer to see what the enemy was up to.  In addition to his many illegitimate children, Franklin may have been the father of the spy satellite.

During the Second World War the Japanese bombed the United States and Canada with over one thousand unmanned balloons. In order to avoid any panic, both governments and the press agreed to cover up the story.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And the U.S. government claims that the UFO’s that landed in New Mexico during the 40s were high altitude balloons carrying test dummies.  Sure.

The maple leaf has become the graphic symbol of Canada, and from a gastronomic point of view it makes good sense.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Canada is one of the few places in the world with the unique climate that is necessary in order to produce maple syrup.  But if you were going to choose a graphic symbol for Newfoundland, you would probably have to choose the cod.  From the very beginning of this island’s history, the cod has been extremely important.  And it’s still very much part of the daily diet of this province.

Almost every restaurant I visited in St. John’s served battered and sautéed cod tongues.  They have the texture of an oyster and the small ones, as everyone warned me, are better, but the question is, better than what?

And then there is Fish and Brewis -- dried salt cod soaked overnight, fist-size rocks of dried bread called hardtack, also soaked overnight.  Then both are mixed together and garnished with pieces of fried pork fat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A favorite in April is Seal Flipper Pie, and I ask you: what would Fall be like without Squirrel Stew, Rabbit Ravioli, or Caribou Bourguignon?  These are the traditional dishes of this area, and they taste like home to the Newfoundlander, but I suspect they are an acquired taste.  There are, however, a few traditional recipes with instant appeal.

And I was taught two of them by Steve Watson, who is the executive chef at the Hotel Newfoundland.

The Hotel Newfoundland is one of the Canadian Pacific Hotels, and I have stayed in many of them over the years.  They’re usually the top hotel in the city, which is the case here.  Well designed, with everything that a modern traveler needs and a staff that reflects the traditional friendliness of the Newfoundlander.

Chef Watson has won a number of awards for his elegant offerings, which are usually based on local products.  Newfoundland rack of lamb, fed on seagrass... Deep water lobster from the Grand Banks -- very sweet... Scallops, shrimp and lobster in a saffron sauce with a puff pastry scallop shell.  But today I have asked him for a more down-home approach.

During the 1400s, when Portuguese sailors first fished the Grand Banks, they called the nearby island “Terra de Baccalaos”... which means “the land of the dried codfish.”  These days the island is known as Newfoundland.  But if you spend time in any Newfoundland kitchen you will quickly discover that it is still the land of dried codfish.  And one of the most traditional ways of preparing that fish is to make fishcakes.

Little cubes of pork fat have been sautéed in a pan.  A cup of chopped onion is added.  A pinch of sage goes in. A few minutes of cooking and the pan comes off the heat.  A pound of dried cod has been soaked in water overnight and now Steve is flaking it into small pieces.  If dried cod is not available, you can poach fresh cod and then let it dry out for ten minutes.  It should flake up pretty much the same way as the soaked dried cod.  When all the cod has been broken up into small pieces, the onions are added.  Then three pounds of boiled potatoes are passed through a ricer and into the bowl.  If you don’t have a ricer just mash the potatoes with a fork.  All that gets well mixed and then formed into little cakes that are about three inches in diameter and about an inch thick.  Steve works on a floured surface and uses a spatula to make the job easier.  Nice technique.  Looks like the Wayne Gretzky school of fishcake forming.  A little of the rendered pork fat gets heated in a sauté pan.  Now if rendered pork fat is not your thing, a little vegetable oil will do fine.  Then the fishcakes are cooked for five minutes on each side or until they have a golden crust.

BURT WOLF:  If I stand any closer to this fire, I’m gonna have a little golden crust of my own!

Onto the serving plate... a little fresh dill... a touch of tomato sauce, and they’re ready to serve.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the most traditional meals in Newfoundland is called a boil-up.  A big pot of water is brought to a boil; carrots, cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables are thrown in... plus the catch of the day.  And if there wasn’t much of a catch that day, you’d toss in some salt meat.  A very efficient use of the steam coming up was to steam a pudding for dessert.  The most traditional pudding is called a “Figgy Duff.”  And any day on which a figgy duff was served was known as a “duff day” -- a very duff day.

Here’s how it’s made.  First Steve puts on a pair of gloves because it’s all made by hand and he’s a neat guy.  Three cups of bread crumbs go into a mixing bowl... followed by three-quarters of a cup of all-purpose flour.  Then one and a half cups of raisins are mixed in.  One and half teaspoons of ground nutmeg are added... and one and a half teaspoons of cinnamon.  The rising agent is one and a quarter teaspoons of baking powder.  Then a pinch of salt and more mixing.  The liquid ingredients are one cup of dark molasses... a half cup of melted butter... a quarter of a cup of water, and finally an optional quarter cup of dark rum.  If you’re not using rum just add a little more water.  Then there is much mixing and a change of gloves.  The dough is transferred into a plastic bag...

BURT WOLF:  Is this a special kind of bag?

STEVE WATSON:  It is for our operation, but in the home you could just use, like, the Baggies...

BURT WOLF:  Oh, okay.

STEVE WATSON:  The Ziploc Baggies will be more than adequate.

...and the plastic bag goes into a cloth bag.  But you can just wrap it in a bit of toweling.  Twist it tight and tie it off at the top.  Then it’s into the pot of boiling water.  This particular pot is also boiling our supper. An hour and a half later the bag comes out, the pudding is unwrapped... and it’s ready to serve.  A slice of the duff goes onto a serving plate... a bit of whipped cream... strawberries... mint leaves... maple syrup and it’s a figgy duffy day.

It was easy to learn about the food of Newfoundland; like the people here, their recipes are very straightforward.  Their humor, on the other hand, took a little bit of work, but it was well worth it.  Newfies, as the locals are sometimes called, have a great sense of humor and they love to display it.  Amy House is a master of the craft and she travels throughout the province demonstrating her vision of the Newfoundland character.

BURT WOLF:   What’s the food like in St. John’s?

“MAGUERITE MacGILLICUDDY”:  Oh, that’s what’s good.  Now you don’t get nothing exotic around here, you know.  My husband Ramsey, eh?  You know, you can’t cook nothing exotic in my house.  He’s strictly a meat and potatoes man, eh?  Like the other day, I tried something new, gave him crushed pineapple for dessert.  He said, “Whoever chewed that up can eat it.”  Oh yeah!  Like we live on salt beef and cabbage and stuff like that around here, right?  You know?  We don’t go for that vegetarian stuff -- there’s no one down here that’s orgasmic.  You know, yeah.  Well, you see, Newfoundlanders, you know, like, people in across Canada and down to States, you know, they think we’re slow, eh?  But we’re not slow, down here; we got one up on you really, you know.  Like, we’re known as being unemployed, you know, but we’re not unemployed!  Don’t talk so loose, my son!  Listen, we come here years ago -- five hundred years ago -- the ocean was full of fish, the woods was full of wood, we were full of hunting, we had moose and bison... There’s nothing left to hunt, there’s nothing left to cut down, there’s not a fish left out in the ocean... Look!  We’re not lazy!  We’re not unemployed!  There’s no work in Newfoundland, ‘cause all the work is done!  Look, we got to go up to the mainland now, do their work for them, and then we’re going into the out migration down to the States.  We’ll be down to do your work for you in about 2001.  Yeah, yeah...

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  There’s one more bit of information I’d like to give you about the unique aspects of this place, and that’s a word about the time in Newfoundland.  Now, normally as you travel around the world through one time zone to another, you travel in increments of one hour.  But that’s not the case here.  When you travel from east coast time to Newfoundland time, you travel in an increment of an hour and a half.  And the people here love that.  They feel that if at some point in the future the world comes to an end, it will end here a half hour later.  And until that time, I hope you will continue to join me as I travel around the world looking at the ORIGINS of the things that surround us.  I’m Burt Wolf.