Barometer of Middle Age

There was a time when I thought nothing could be more footling than a vanity license plate. And by footling, I mean a perverse combination of frivolous, wasteful and moronic. Why on earth would someone squander their hard-earned cash on a license plate celebrating the name of their dog, or attempt to pack a maximum of self-aggrandizement into eight characters? What sort of freak of nature would buy a Mercedes and then get a plate that says "Benzie"? During my brief stint working at the Water Club restaurant as a temporary automotive storage specialist, I considered personalized license plates to be a waving red flag of slobbery and cultural poverty, an announcement of the complete classlessness of an incoming car's occupants. But that was years ago.

I'm not sure when it happened, but these days I've completely reversed my position. Nothing is or could possibly be cooler than my vanities. Perhaps it's the new but retro "Empire Gold" New York State plate theme. As soon as I saw this design on the road I started looking forward to whenever it is that I will next have to renew my registration. From there it was only a short leap to going ahead and just ordering new plates immediately....


As long as there aren't too many mosquitoes...

I'm surprised that you've never heard of the La Verendrye Wildlife Refuge in western Quebec, given that is larger than the entire state of Maryland. To cope with this gigantic patchwork of boreal forest and its thousands of pristine, interconnected lakes, dotted with rocky, firry islands, the visionary Canadian parks department has an entire division set up to facilitate canoe camping there. Dozens of possible routes and hundreds of well-maintained campsites are exclusively for the use of those traveling by paddle-stroke.

One might think this a rather dainty way to point out the facilities, until remembering that this is Québec, et on parle français. Every La Verendrye campsite sports not only its own toilet, but a charming sign. All were apparently made by the same amateur wood-burner operator.

Why does it so often seem that the less visitors a place has, the more stringent the environmental regulations? I'm all in favor of stringent controls, but one might hope for the reverse. In La Verendrye, where there are almost no people to be found, all washing of dishes, clothes and the like must be done with biodegradable soap, at least 30 meters from any water's edge. Similarly, pooping at will in the woods is prohibited. The installation of rudimentary toilets at each of the many, many very remote campsites must have represented an enormous logistical hurdle in the initial establishment of canoe camping. The infrastructure is impressive. Many of the sites have room for only two, or three, or five tents, and the intention is that, barring the late arrival of another party of exhausted canoeists unable or unwilling to continue on the next site, no group will really ever have to share a campsite. (We had all six of our campsites entirely to ourselves). Nevertheless, each and every campsite we visited had its very own private, shady spot to sit and think.

The solution to placing hundreds of easily installed and almost maintenance free commodes: dig a pit, cut the bottom out of a bear barrel, place it over the hole, and make a slit in the top. Comfortable and efficient. Located a short meander through the forest from the tent sites, the La Verendrye long-drops were perfectly placed for meditation and contemplation, free of all disturbances save the gentle honking of the red-breasted nuthatches and the churring of the boreal chickadees in the surrounding evergreens.

from: Great Outhouses of the World

The result of this attention to environmental preservation is that although we filtered the lake water, I suspect we could have drunk our fill directly from the lakes without suffering any ill effects. When fresh water is worth as much as oil, and believe me, those days are coming, Canada will rule the world. Expect a full report on our epic canoe journey in La Verendrye, shortly.


The Conclusion to a Newfoundland Adventure

Screech n. Popular name for a variety of cheap, dark Demerara rum bottled in Newfoundland; trade-name of a type of rum marketed with the label 'Screech.'
(from Dictionary of Newfoundland English, 2nd edition with supplement)

Colleen dishes up delicious butter-sauteed cod from the day's catch, cooked al-fresco on a Coleman stove

When we last found ourselves on the shores of Newfoundland, our merry film crew was preparing to undergo a gruesome hazing ritual. (If you haven't already, I suggest you read the first chapter of this adventure HERE.) Although flattered to have been invited to become honorary Newfies, the three of us, once summoned to begin the ceremony, were growing nervous. Gathered on the warm rocks beside the sea, at the invitation of the Penton clan, we were convivially drinking beer and feasting on the endless bounty of the day's catch. Cod, sauteed in butter. Cod, stewed in a pot, with thick slices of bread. Cod, tongues and britches. No words can describe the incredible flavor and life-giving force of the mighty cod, eaten fresh-cooked. A divine delicacy of buttery flakiness, it is the croissant of fish.

 Walter serves up snow-crab legs, boiled in an old propane tank on a beach bonfire. The procedure is simply to dump the whole pot out onto the rocks, gather around, and start slurping.

Cod stew with rounds of bread and butter.

It had, in short, so far been an indescribably pleasant evening, but the tension was mounting. Walter Penton had suddenly appeared to cast a shadow over this happy beach party scene. Dressed from head to toe in black foul weather gear, he was like a dark storm cloud brewing on the horizon, threatening the evening sunset. He spouted strange and incomprehensible syllables, which we were apparently not yet Newfoundlanderish enough to understand. It was apparent that he was barking commands of some kind.

The ominous Walter Penton, although the crocs and blue jeans peeking out from under his oilskin sort of took the edge off.

The gestures made it clear. We were to sit, the three of us, crushed together like shackled oarsmen on a Phoenician galley, on a low bench. Black oilskin sou'wester hats were placed on our heads. Penton towered over us. Our first task was to repeat examples from his tortured Newfoundlander idiom. He bent over. "Something, something, something, mind your lassies come in barrels," he yelled, inches from our faces. At least that's what it sounded like. His breath smelled of cod, and seaweed. "The wund's gone nar, nar wist, darse gone right outiver." We made feeble attempts to recreate these sentences, understanding nothing, but trying to parrot the syllables we heard. The gathered tribe of Newfoundlanders guffawed as we struggled to make sense of these paleolithic fragments of language. But they were laughing with us, not at us.

The uniqueness and antiquity of the Newfoundland tongue is no joke. Story, Kirwin and Widdowson's Dictionary of Newfoundland English is 770 pages long, and contains many fascinating examples of linguistic mangling and invention. Opening at random to page 496, we find that "slob" refers to a slushy, icy water condition, not any shortcoming in personal hygiene. Instead, to describe someone of "a slovenly, untidy appearance," the word to use, found on the same page, would be "slommocky." "Slub" is a "slimy substance on body of fish; blood, slime, liquid refuse from process of splitting cod," whereas "slop" is both a split and salted undried cod, while also synonymous with "slob," in the Newfoundland sense of the word. Paging on, we find "snub," referring to a cod-fish "with a rounded, blunt snout, believed to be a sign of good luck," and "soaker," "a very large cod-fish," as well as "sound," which is "the air bladder, or hydrostatic organ, of a cod-fish." "Spanish" doesn't mean someone from Spain, it refers to "lightly salted, dried cod-fish of the highest quality," destined for the Iberian market. Newfie English is, in short, a complex, deep and expressive tongue, but one in which most words refer in one way or another to the all-important cod-fish.

For our next ordeal, the lovely Colleen Penton Higgins then instructed us each to remove one shoe and one sock, and to roll up a pantsleg for a kind of pedestrian baptism. Each of us put our naked leg into a bucket of frigid north Atlantic seawater, turbid with bits of kelp and other unspeakable maritime detritus. Colleen then massaged our ankles and calves with this seaweed stew. I found this strangely erotic. Coming from Brooklyn, where I live between the dubious waters of New York harbor and the decidedly foul Gowanus Canal, the weedy water smelled clean and pleasant. Similar seaweed treatments can be had in the finest Manhattan spas, and cost hundreds of dollars.

While hoping that my other leg was about to receive the same treatment I considered proposing marriage, but I was rudely snapped from my reverie by the announcement that we were now to eat "Newfie steak." This proved to be an absurdly large, gray chunk of bologna. As Walter passed me my ration on a toothpick I heard someone in the crowd say: "I can feel the heartburn from here." I had already eaten more than my fill of snow-crab legs, cod-fillets, cheeks, tongues and britches, and this enormous chunk of Spam-like substance was considerably less welcome than the foot massage.

Two more trials awaited us. First was the ceremonial kissing of the cod. Unfortunately we had eaten every last one of the mammoth fish we had caught earlier that day, and there were no cod to kiss. Hurrying back to the shore-line, Walter returned with the gutted carcass of a fish, and declared that it would have to do. I had earlier that day been so excited to catch my own cod that I had given it a big smooch, so I felt I ought to get a pass on kissing Walter's cod, which was nothing but a head attached to a filleted spine. It was hardly romantic. "But don't worry, it's got no tongue," said Walter, cackling.

Advance training for the screech-in ceremony: earlier that same day I proudly smooch my catch.
Photo: Scott Anger

After a perfunctory kiss of the cod-remnants, it was finally time for some screech.  Shots of extraordinarily unpretentious rum, served out of a boot. It was official. We were now Newfoundlanders!


Off the Grid

It wasn't our intention to leave you in suspense for so long; we know readers are clamoring for the thrilling climax to our previous post, "The Great Screech-in". But the bestowing of honorary Newfoundlandership is not something that can be dealt with casually or briefly, especially when Walter Penton is the master of ceremonies, and the literary schedule is further complicated by our imminent but temporary exit from the grid. No cellphones, no 3G, no wifi, no teevee. Bliss. More on where we're headed later, but here's a clue:


The Great Screech-In, part the first

In his fabulous book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky outlines a triangular trade route that ran from the northwest Atlantic cod fisheries south across the ocean to Africa's slave coast, and then back to the Antilles. Sugar, rum and molasses from the Caribbean was shipped north and then traded for salted cod along the coast from New Bedford to Newfoundland. This dried, preserved fish was then offloaded in exchange for slaves in Senegal, Dahomey and Ghana, and also used to feed the human cargo on the Middle Passage to the Caribbean. There, slaves and fish were traded for molasses and rum, and the cycle recommenced. This explains why bacalao, salt cod, is still the most commonly encountered fish dish in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, all islands in the fish-friendly, but codless Caribbean sea.

I saw vestiges of this trade during a recent film shoot on Fogo Island, at the epicenter of what were once the richest cod-fishing grounds on earth, along the north-east coast of Newfoundland. Cod are almost a religion here. Although there were no descendants of slaves anywhere to be seen, I drank from a bottle of Newfoundland Rum.

Once a place where dockside fish-processing plants worked around the clock dealing with the seemingly endless bounty of the sea, Fogo is an island that has suffered in recent decades. In 1992, with cod stocks dwindling toward extinction because of industrial overfishing, Canada instituted a total moratorium on taking the species. Fogo's story since then has included a lot of underemployment, brain-drain, and a mass migration to St. John's and other larger Canadian cities in search of work.

But despite the hardships the island has suffered, it is difficult to imagine a friendlier welcome than the one we received on Fogo. I cannot remember ever being more overwhelmed by the warmth of a people. I've slurped sago soup on tiny islands in Indonesia, supped on pork stew at impoverished homesteads in Cuba, and enjoyed couscous on camel-blankets spread out by Tuareg nomads under the Saharan night sky, but as far as I am concerned, the new ultimate in hospitality is being invited to eat butter-sauteed cod-tongues with Fogovians.

I could argue that this is because Newfoundlanders and I actually speak the same language, English, but it isn't true. Fogoans, or Fogies, or whatever they are called, talk with a kind of tormented backwoods Irish brogue that makes the rest of Newfoundlanders sound like a bunch of network news announcers, even though people from that province are ridiculed throughout Canada for "talking funny." Apparently linguists and anthropologists come to Fogo to learn how the Irish spoke, four hundred years ago. Cut off from the rest of Canada by a lot of water and a whole bunch of French people, Newfoundland is a kind of island nation unto itself, and Fogo is a remote island off of that island.

Tastes like lobster!

The two highest honors that can be bestowed on the foreign visitor to this remote outpost are to get to go cod-fishing with Aidan Penton, and to be "screeched in" by his brother Walter and sister Colleen. We learned that we were to receive both of these accolades on our next to last day on Fogo, when Aidan proposed that we venture out onto the high seas in search of cod. He then added casually, but rather ominously, that should we return with some fish he would then hand us over to his siblings to be properly screeched.

"Uh, screeched?" Deborah Dickson, Scott Anger and I looked at one another, puzzled. Was this some sort of strange vestigial term, a linguistic remnant of medieval Ireland?

"Well, it's about making you honorary Newfoundlanders," said Aidan. "But I kenn't tell you any more dan dat." Now Deborah and I looked at one another with alarm. Once, we had together crossed the equator on an aircraft carrier and experienced firsthand the bizarre and degrading shellback ceremony, during which newbie equator-crossers are tormented and hazed by their more senior Navy crewmen. Screeching? I pictured branding irons and fishhooks and a cod-gut massage. "Do we have to?" I asked.

"Now, don't go getting all worried," said Aidan. "You'll enjoy it. Let's fish!" Soon we were headed out from Joe Batt's Arm toward the Little Fogo Islands in an open boat, with Aidan watching for the particular alignment of landmarks that would tell him we were floating atop prime cod habitat.

Fish stocks have rebounded enough since 1992 that Newfoundland now enjoys a brief season during which cod can be taken in small numbers, exclusively on hand lines. Old-school fishing. We threw our hooks and silver jigs overboard in 80 feet of water and almost immediately started pulling fish into the boat.

Cod are "ground-fish," meaning they like to hang near the bottom, and the approved technique is to let the weighty silver jig all the way down to the ocean floor before tugging on it smoothly and swiftly, pulling it up a just few feet and then letting it back down. This is called "jigging," and the idea is to fool the cod into thinking that the metal lure is a panicked Capelin, the smelt-like bait-fish that is their primary sustenance.

Me, inordinately proud to have caught the smallest cod of the day
Photo: Deborah Dickson

In short order we had filled a large plastic tub with cod. They are a beautiful and regal fish, as Kurlansky argues. (Those who declare that cod are "ugly" are agitators and malcontents unlikely to be made honorary Newfoundlanders). Although the temptation was immediately to indulge in cod sushi, we resisted, and instead turned back, heading for port and the unexplained horrors of the screech-in.

The moment of judgment had arrived. When got back to port, a driftwood fire was already blazing on the sloping slabs of granite beside the bay. Nestled in the red-hot coals was a large cauldron, fashioned from a decapitated propane tank. The lid was a slab of metal carved from a stop-sign. We were served beer, perhaps to anesthetize us against the coming torments. At the shoreline, Penton friends and family squatted on the rocks, swiftly eviscerating the freshly-caught cod with gleaming blades that flashed in the sun, like Capelin trying to escape. They threw the guts directly into the harbor, where gulls swooped and squabbled over the offal.

It was a grim scene. The unearthly gabbling of the gulls, the smoke rising into the air, the handfuls of guts being chucked about. What on earth could possibly be in store for us? Clearly it was to be some sort of trial by fire. Suddenly, Walter Penton emerged from the fish-gutting shack in a full set of black oilskins and sou' wester hat, like some sort of crazed Gestapo fisherman. He had a pirate's gleam in his eye, and he was puffing maniacally on a corncob pipe.

to be continued...


Scoville Units

While I was eagerly awaiting my brother's wedding last weekend, I wandered out of my hotel to find a quality deep-south farmer's market set up right in the main street of Greenville, South Carolina. Everywhere one goes in the United States it becomes more clear that foodyism is a pervasive and persistent national phenomenon, and not just the passing fancy of an urban coterie of organic-obsessed hipsters. People care deeply about what they eat, and how it's grown, and more and more of them want to grow it themselves. Attraction to the slow-food philosophy cuts across racial, class and regional lines.

To my eye, one of the star booths in Greenville belonged to a guy who sells nothing but peppers. Unless I heard him wrong, he cultivates 126 varieties. He told me he "grows some other stuff, but only for eating at home, it doesn't make it this far." This producer-enthusiast had a couple of dozen small baskets spread out on a table in front of him, each containing a different variety of pepper, and he was able to describe them one by one with the sort of vocabulary I generally associate with wine tastings. Such and such a pepper had "floral notes," another was citrusy, this next one, more precisely, lemony. Two for a dollar, but I only paid for four; it was the end of the morning and my new friend, pleased to be confronted with another pepper fan, threw in a couple of extra pairings.

I asked if he had any "ají amarillo," the yellow pepper that is a critical ingredient in Peruvian cuisine. He said he wasn't sure exactly which one I meant; he grows at least five ajíes from Peru.

Purple cayenne, two of my free bonus gifts for the morning. I'll get back to you after I've tried them.