Industries Rise and Fall But Fried Bread and Sugar Is Forever
Molasses in Newfoundland
Cheap tea and molasses they say they will give,
All taxes taken off that the poor man may live –
Cheap nails and cheap lumber, our coffins to make,
And homespun to mend our old clothes when they break.
Molasses is an important enough part of Newfoundland’s identity that it earned a mention in The Anti-Confederate Song back in 1940. Along with baby bonuses and better health care, lower prices for staple goods like molasses were among the carrots dangled before this island by the forces working to convince its people to join Canada.
The dark, sticky syrup probably wasn’t the deciding factor in just-barely convincing the majority of Newfoundland’s people to join Canada in 1949. But like so many of the province’s staple foods, it has endured beyond the point of being a necessity, even as much of the island surrounding it has continued to change.
A walk down Water Street in St. John’s, arguably North America’s oldest city, makes those changes obvious through a mix of new, nationally recognized restaurants and empty storefronts that once contained eateries that fell victim to the province’s recent financial troubles.
Tough economic times are nothing new for people who survived on subsistence fishing for about 500 years. When I first moved to Newfoundland—a craggy island that sits in the North Atlantic, off Canada’s eastern coast—the province was in turmoil. Its cod fishery had been shut down by the federal government just a year earlier, putting 30,000 people out of work and tossing the entire place into a state of economic and cultural crisis. In the early 2000s, an offshore oil industry was developed, but that recently crashed as crude prices have fallen. An austerity budget is working its way through the provincial legislature.
But in St. John’s, you’ll also see clear signs of things that have remained the same throughout the turmoil. That includes breakfast specials at the local pubs pumping out Celtic-tinged traditional music at all hours.
Toutons with molasses is among those enduring dishes, a combination of the ingredients that helped build the province. Toutons are a way to use leftover bits of bread dough from freshly made bread; everyone’s grandmother makes the best loaves on the island. Fry the dough patties up with leftover fatback pork, drizzle them with molasses in the ubiquitous yellow carton, then throw on the scruncheons—the crunchy bits that form in that pork fat—and you’ve got a breakfast that hits all the sweet spots of flavor and texture.
Molasses was once an item of necessity in Newfoundland, inextricably tied with the cod that brought Europeans to the island in the first place. That spoonful of blackstrap molasses had to be swallowed down because it contained iron and calcium, and it didn’t hurt that it covered up the taste of the cod liver oil that kids also had to (reluctantly) line up for in those days. And the steady supply of salt cod heading off the island and traveling southward kept the molasses flowing back in the opposite direction from the West Indies.
These days, Newfoundlanders can get sugar a bit more easily. Iron capsules, or beef, aren’t that difficult to come by, either. But molasses is still an important part of the foods you’d expect to find when you stop by grandma’s during a trip around the bay. She’ll probably have lassie buns, and you might find figgy duff pudding left over from dinner the night before drizzled with the black, sticky sauce. But no traditional Newfoundland breakfast is complete without those toutons, even if the health-conscious are more likely these days to use canola oil for the frying. The cod fishery is largely diminished, but toutons and molasses endure.