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Newfoundland's History Tastes Like Salted Cod

I’m an eighth-generation Fogo Islander. We were salt cod people and we’d rarely eat fresh cod, because why would you eat that when you have salted cod? It’s just better.

Zita Cobb

Photos courtesy Fogo Island Inn.

Zita Cobb is the founding innkeeper of Fogo Island Inn, a 29-room boutique hotel and restaurant on the northern tip of Fogo Island, located just off Newfoundland's northeastern coast. For her, the hotel is more than a tourist destination. The cushions on the chairs show the combination of the island's old and new world crafts, the cod in the kitchen represents the island's fishery, and the turnips echo her people's resilience. Everything that her hotel does must reflect on the past of the people who have lived on the island for 400 years.

The thing you need to understand about Fogo Island before you understand anything else is its geography. We are at 49 degrees, 44 minutes north, which is not all that far north. However, we are in the Labrador Current, which comes down from Greenland and comes right past Fogo Island. It's a very fast, cold current, so the terrain on Fogo Island is sub-arctic.

The Europeans that settled here were Irish and English, and they came for fish. In 1497, John Cabot, looking for India, found Newfoundland. He apparently sent a letter back to the king that said, "Sire, the fish are so plenty they steady the progress of my ship."

We were salt cod people and we'd rarely eat fresh cod, because why would you eat that when you have salted cod? It's just better.

For 350 years, the people who lived on Fogo Island—I'm an eighth-generation Fogo Islander—were in-shore fishing people who fished in little wooden boats from trees that grew in the island. We were salt cod people and we'd rarely eat fresh cod, because why would you eat that when you have salted cod? It's just better. Salt cod is like somewhere between fish and meat, and it has its own unique texture. Depending on your mother, it can be very fresh or salty. In Newfoundland, fresh fish just means "not salted." We sold our salted cod to a local merchant. It wasn't a comfortable life but it was a perfectly sustainable way of life.

I was born in '58 and the first collapse came in the late 60s, because that's when the first draggers (trawlers) arrived in Newfoundland. You could see these monsters from our house. They went 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all throughout the months. What did you think is going to happen? There were no fish.

So everything that we knew—the elements, reading the current, catching the fish, building boats—was suddenly not useful. It was like the end of a culture. Everything came to a hair's breadth of becoming resettled. Joey Smallwood was the premier and considered himself a father of confederation, that son of a bitch. His answer was to get a job in Grand Falls or get a job at the mill.

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We held on because the local fishermen took over the fish plant when the merchant left, which is the first sign of trouble. It was a miraculous thing, they formed a cooperative, adapted to the mid-shore fishery because there were still fish there and we held on. And not every community in Newfoundland did. We lost probably 60 percent of our outport (outside of St. John's) communities in the 60s.

We have a deep belief in the value of knowledge in Fogo Island. Culture comes from place. Without place, who are we? How do we make meaning without place? Newfoundland only joined Canada in 1949, but we have this singular culture that has been derived from making a living on the East Coast for hundreds of years. It's really sad to lose knowledge, but it sadder is to lose a way of knowing. In Newfoundland, when we lose rural land we're at a risk of losing that, so I felt like it was a duty to do something and to build another leg on the economy.

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We still have a thriving fishing community, but it's not sufficient. Not every person coming out of high school wants to be in the fishery, for example. And modern-day fishery isn't as labour-intensive, so we don't need that many people. This will complement the fishery but allows us to pick up any lost threads and weave it into something new. Something we can put our culture into and reinforce it into. What better than food, furniture, quilts—things you need for a lovely inn?

Modern bums are different than traditional bums.

We weren't going to buy a chair from Italy. We got designers and had them pair up with boat builders, examined our history with chairs, and looked at what this inn needs because modern bums are different than traditional bums, for example. We have no history of upholstery in outport Newfoundland. I grew up in a house that had no soft chairs. They way life was that you were either outside working or inside eating, or in bed. So, we got a company out of London that came and taught our seamstresses how to do upholstery and work with cushioning.

The thing that we did have was obviously cod. In Newfoundland, when you say fish, you mean cod. If you want mackerel, you say mackerel. Then we have caribou, 'cause we have a herd on the island. People raise sheep and goats on the island, and the hills are covered in berries. There are 16 kinds of edible berries that I can name, and there are also eight kinds that I call poison berries, which just means I don't know what they are. Since we started the inn and have a professional chef, he goes out with botanists and comes back with edibles that I didn't know you could eat. He forages for seaside rocket. There's a leaf called an oyster leaf because it tastes just like an oyster.

Turnips, or rutabagas, will practically grow on rocks. They don't need a lot of sun or a lot of water. Turnips do their thing, and are incredible nutritious and flavorful. They're one of my favorite vegetables. When we are given this gift from the land, we have a responsibility not to flatten the friggin turnip so that it no longer bears any resemblance to a turnip. We have this responsibility to be careful with our interventions and that we maintain its integrity and dignity and the person can still taste the turnip.

The inn is a trojan horse for our culture and place. It's easy to be seduced by the architecture, but you need to peel it back and see why it's designed this way and why is it in this incarnation. Why is the food like this, the furniture like this? This inn is supposed to be a servant of place. My parents are dead and gone and buried on Fogo Island—will they recognize themselves in what they've done and see that it's a natural outcome of their lives? I think they would.

As told to Karon Liu. Cobb was speaking about Newfoundland cuisine at the annual Terroir Symposium in Toronto.