I Eat a Sea Mammal
Every summer for the past several years, I have traveled north from my home in North Carolina to the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I spend at least a week in Red Bay on the Labrador Straits. It is the location of a 16th century Basque whaling and fishing center, and in 2013 was designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site. I always stay in the same lodging, the second floor of a small building where fishing gear was stored. In its original use, fishermen would have gathered there in winter to mend their nets, warmed by a wood stove and, I like to think, by a sip or three of Screech, Newfoundland’s rum.
The lodging has a small but well-appointed kitchen. I eat my morning and noon meals there. Over the years, I have grown closer to the lodging’s owners and eat supper in their small restaurant. It allows me to pursue one of my favorite hobbies, the browsing of traditional regional foods.
But I had not fully considered the impact location would have on the traditional menu. I was in the ecotone between the outport societies of Newfoundland and southern Labrador and the more isolated and trapper-descended people of Labrador north of the Strait of Belle Isle.
Red Bay is at the southern edge of a culture that had been created by and for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 1800s. The company had been the primary, if not exclusive, European presence in Labrador, with a monopoly on the fur trade. Many of its trappers, maybe a majority, were recruited from the Orkney Islands in Scotland, and the immigrant Scots married local Innu and Inuit women. Today, these melded blood lines are well-represented in Labrador. Hunting remains an intimate part of Labrador life, even more so than on the island of Newfoundland. My education in the indigenous edible fauna was about to take a new turn.
I had spent a short time in Red Bay in 2007 with two friends from Cape Cod. Our visit coincided with the capelin run, and we asked our hostess (whom I will call Margaret) if the small fish were eaten in any form other than the rubbery dried version some fishermen keep in their pockets to eat as a snack. (Imagine Miss Manners writing for outporters: “For best dining results, be sure to brush the lint off your pocket fish, and add, oh, maybe two gallons of air freshener to each load of laundry.”)
Margaret said the capelin were great breaded and fried. After we finished lunch and left the restaurant, she called her uncle and asked him to bring her some he had caught that day. At supper, she surprised us with a plateful of breaded and fried capelin as an on-the-house treat. They were crisp, tender, and delicious – and cooked with all the organs their parents had given them. Capelin are related to smelt and are a favorite food of humpback and minke whales.
During a chat with Margaret in 2009 about traditional indigenous foods, she said, “I have something I want you to try.” As she headed to the storage area at the back of the restaurant, I braced myself, because Margaret is descended from Inuit, Innu, and Scottish lines. She returned with a jar of very dark meat. It was from an adult seal her family had killed the previous spring. The meat had been preserved by packing it in Mason jars, then placing the sealed jars in a pot of boiling water. (The pun could have been avoided, but why?)
The offer triggered a three-part conflict. Accepting it was contrary to the default setting of my environmental ethic, but would be the proper social response. The third part was my mission to sample traditional foods. Be careful what you wish for, and know your latitude.
“I’ll bring you a helping with your supper,” Margaret said. My internal conflict left me speechless, and my silence was assent by omission. I was a coward to my environmental ethic, but a hero to my adventurous palate. That evening, supper came with a side plate of seal rib meat. I thought it might have a fishy flavor, being of the sea, but instead it had the flavor of organ meat, as if it had been cooked with liver. My gag reflex lurked in the background, but never came into play.
There’s nothing like a good helping of seal ribs to bring unresolved meat-eating issues to a head. I gave much thought to carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores, to wild and domestic, native and immigrant, subsistence and commercial – and to our animal kingdom hierarchies, where our opinions and arguments are almost always anthropocentric. The more an animal behaves like us, the less likely we are to want to kill it. How odd for a species so ready to kill its own.
After careful consideration (and rationalization), I realized there is a clause in my environmental ethic that permits me to eat seal at Margaret’s table, but not at my own. My “permission” doesn’t come from the fact that seal-eating by Labradorians is a cultural tradition. Traditions are not self-justifying and must be measured by their impacts and relevance in the present and by their predictable consequences. I judged, hopefully correctly, that the species in question could withstand this smaller impact as long as the larger impact is prevented. No one – not Inuit, not Innu, not Scot – can legally hunt and eat the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The authority for my seal-eating exemption was granted by Buddha, who (with a bow to Miss Manners) said, “Eat what is put into your bowl.” That’s my cover for now. The Labradorians are on their own.
(Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are the people clubbing baby seals in those hideous videos we and British royalty watched with horror years ago. Although the killings in the videos are not a necessity, they are the remnants of something that once was. What the videos didn’t tell us was that northern Newfoundland might not have been settled before the 20th century without the seal harvest in the spring, as the Native Americans had done before them. Now the harvest of baby seals is no more necessary than the harvest of calves, lambs, kids, and suckling pigs. You wouldn’t want to see those videos either.)
During my visits, Margaret’s family invited me to their traditional Sunday dinner, known throughout Labrador and Newfoundland as a Jiggs dinner. “Jigg” is a nickname for a fisherman, derived from a method of line fishing. Jiggs dinner is similar to a New England boiled dinner, featuring salt (corned) beef boiled with cabbage, potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Unlike in New England, however, it is served without horseradish. One year, I brought up a bottle of horseradish sauce, but couldn’t convince anyone to try it. “It will make a great joke on someone,” Margaret said laughing, and I could see in her look that she was scrolling through a list of potential victims.
I have had Jiggs dinners elsewhere in the province, and typically the helping of salt beef has been small, very salty, and tough. The salt, of course, is what historically protected it from spoiling. The toughness, I thought, might be due to the quality of meat selected for curing. The last bite could be chewed all afternoon if one so desired.
The Jiggs dinners with Margaret’s family were major social events. Parents and siblings had driven that morning from their homes up north, a distance of more than 100 miles on the dusty, rocky, and pot-holey Cartwright road. And they would return home that evening.
Margaret, the primary chef of her restaurant, did not let her skill go to waste at the Sunday dinner. In addition to the traditional salt beef, roots, and tubers, she provided an ample amount of tender and moist roast chicken. Indigenous fauna also appeared, including seal, the dark-breasted eider duck, a gamey-flavored ptarmigan from western Labrador called “partridge,” and char from a river to the north, looking and tasting like its kin, salmon. Margaret once apologized for the absence of porcupine, a popular meat north of the strait. But no apology was necessary from where I sat. I remain reluctant to try rodent, even if it does come with its own toothpicks. Maybe all it will need is a little horseradish.
Margaret’s Jiggs dinner typically ended with partridgeberry pie warm from the oven, giving a soul-puckering finish to a memorable feast. The invitations were an honor, a welcoming not just to dinner, but to the family, and to Labrador.
About the Author
Richard LeBlond is a biologist living in North Carolina, where he worked for that state’s Natural Heritage Program until his retirement in 2007. He continues his biological research, and has added travel, photography, and writing. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in or been accepted by numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Kudzu House, Appalachia, Weber – The Contemporary West, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.