James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Breakfast Worth Picking Spine Out of Your Teeth For

Photo by: Jo Turner

A Breakfast Worth Picking Spine Out of Your Teeth For

Capelin in Torbay

It’s mid-July in Newfoundland, and the capelin are rolling.

Down at Middle Cove, on the coast of the Avalon Peninsula, the little fish have come to spawn on the beach. The locals call this the “rolling” of the capelin (pronounced KAY-plin), a two-week event that occurs every summer.

At dawn and dusk, the tides are black with the fish, and the beach is awash with Newfoundlanders, and tourists from “the Mainland” (the rest of Canada), out to catch the fish.

This is the world’s easiest form of fishing. All you need is a simple net, or even just a bucket—or hell, a good pair of leathery hands should do it. You wade about calf-deep into the water, and the waves bring in great schools of capelin, which you then scoop up.

I’m unclear on the capelin’s conservation status, but I hope there are plenty of them, because people are driving off with trucks full of buckets full of capelin. The local news is here, asking how the capelin are rolling this year. Well, is the answer.

Kyle Tapper is one of the dozens of Tappers who live in Torbay, just to the west of Middle Cove. A born-and-bred Newfoundlander, he shows me how to hold up the net, throw it “like a discus,” and pull in the capelin. They are then dropped into a bucket where they quickly suffocate. At least I hope it’s quick—they sure don’t flap around long.

Out at the Tapper home, there is a large wooden structure, present in many Newfoundland yards, used to behead and gut fish. So Kyle and I set to work, chopping off their little heads, slicing open their abdomens and pulling out their little hearts and spleens, and throwing them into buckets.

Occasionally you get a squishy female, and when you cut them open, they spurt a fine jelly of pale-yellow roe. The Japanese have taken a liking to capelin roe on sushi, and are buying up great gallons of it. We don’t know what to do with it though, so we throw it to the plants.

Most of the capelin, now freed of their heads and organs, go into freezer bags. But we save a few dozen, bring them into the kitchen, and coat them with flour. Then we throw them into a frying pan with plenty of oil, spray them with vinegar and salt, and voila! A Newfoundland breakfast worthy of anyone.

They’re a tasty little fish. They look like herring but taste much milder. You’re meant to pull the bones out, but they’re small enough that you can crunch and swallow them, though you end up picking bits of spine out of your teeth for the next hour.

Next week, the surviving capelin will go back out to sea, safe from the monsters on the beach who catch, mutilate, freeze, and fry them for brekkie.

They will have only the ocean to contend with—less deadly than a Mainlander with a bucket.

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