James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Hearty Breakfast Dish for the Gut‑Foundered

A Hearty Breakfast Dish for the Gut‑Foundered

Toutons in Berlin

It’s difficult for me to procure the ingredients for a Canadian breakfast in Germany because I don’t speak any German. I’m a newly minted Berlin expat, but a lifelong Newfoundlander. And we Newfoundlanders are notoriously bad at handling homesickness. Nostalgia has driven me to the shelves of Kaiser’s, seeking flour, yeast, and molasses for toutons, also referred to as toutin, toutan, and touten in the dictionary of Newfoundland English. Essentially: lumps of bread dough fried in fat. Newfoundland pancakes.

Toutons remind me of my two grandmothers’ kitchens; although I can’t pinpoint a specific time I ever ate toutons in either place. In Newfoundland, grandmothers are Nans. I can hear the wood stove crackling in the corner of each kitchen, and I can see my Nans’ loaves of bread on the counters. They each raised twelve children; there was a lot of bread to bake all the time.

I wrestle with the bread dough. Is it supposed to be this sticky? My arms grow tired with the kneading, so I take the bowl to the couch and sit down. I think about how baking and kneading dough is practically innate to some people, my Nans included. I do remember that: deft hands pummeling the dough.

I’ve never made toutons before. Perhaps I’ve cooked them once or twice, for visitors in St. John’s, but always with bags of “touton dough” found at the supermarket. Easy. It’s the kind of food the Newfoundland food revolution has adapted to suit its own modern twists. Touton sandwiches, touton moose burgers. But it’s a plain staple from a time when people in Newfoundland had very little. Mom’s told me more than once about how her mother was forced to collect food stamps, and how the bedroom she shared with her siblings was so cold in the evenings that they’d fall asleep with frost glistening on the walls.

My dough is placed aside to rise. So far, so good. Mom might have tried to teach me how to bake bread at some point, but there was never a need for me to learn. That’s the thing about Newfoundland: I feel sometimes as though I’m watching it disappear. Maybe it’s my family that’s disappearing. I don’t have my Nans anymore, and they took their recipes with them: no more snowball cookies, or blueberry grunt, or golden loaves of bread. Or toutons.

I let the dough sit for an hour before separating it into small lumps. I have to fry my toutons in butter instead of fat. And there was only maple syrup at Kaiser’s, not molasses. By the time my toutons are toasty brown, I’m impressed by my ability to pull this off. But I forget syrup doesn’t run like molasses, and the sticky mixture pours all over my plate before I can stop it.

I’m gut-foundered (starving) at this point. The process is longer than I thought. Mom would be laughing at me right now. I also have coffee instead of steeped tea. Mom would have prepared tea for me. Her secret method to the perfect cup involves a carefully measured number of stirs, and lots of sugar. This isn’t helping my homesickness at all.

But, surprisingly, the toutons taste okay. And heavy. This food is meant to fill, and I’m stogged (full) before I’m half finished. I doubt I’ll do this again soon; I’d rather fry an egg. Maybe it’s me who’s responsible for this disappearing Newfoundland culture, then. At least partially. Is it apathy? I’m certainly of a different stock than many Newfoundlanders, seeing as how I live abroad. But, in the end, I always go home.

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