I love this island. From our picturesque sea-swept beaches to our blackfly plagued and blueberry riddled interior, there’s plenty to fall in love with.
While it’s true that much of our culture is evolving with the times, the gems must remain. Arguably our most precious cultural treasure is an edible one – Jiggs’ Dinner. But what is Jiggs’ Dinner really? Where did it come from? How old is it? And why is it even called Jiggs’ with two g’s and an enigmatic dangling apostrophe? Settle down, b’ys and maids, I’m about to give you the lesser known history of our province’s most famous cultural dish.
In the year 1913, a popular Irish comic strip made its debut and sometime later graced our own island’s media publications. “Bringing Up Father” featured a main protagonist named (you guessed it) Jiggs. This loveable, plucky Irishman had a thing for a dish composed entirely of corned beef and cabbage and soon our proud island Celtics were eating it themselves and affectionately dubbed the meal; Jiggs’ Dinner…the cultural meme went viral.
Times were usually tough in our province though. Corned beef was often hard to come by in stores during the harsh months. Husbands and children complained to Ma’ams that they wanted a change from the traditional boiled dinner that was our winter staple, consisting of no more than boiled vegetables from the fall harvest. In the end to satisfy these weening maws, salted beef stored for winter was used in lieu of corned beef and heartier vegetables were combined with the cabbage to create a makeshift Jiggs’ Dinner.
In time, pease pudding or duff would be added as well as wild game…but the name Jiggs’ Dinner remained affixed to it. Some family cooks would later add gravy for flavour while others chose various pickled winter preserves to accomplish the same trick.
While ultimately it came a long way from Jiggs’ iconic culinary duo of corned beef and cabbage, sometime during The Great Depression, our province was blessed with:
1 kg salt beef
1 turnip, sliced
1 cabbage head
5 carrots, halved
6 potatoes, halved
225 g split peas
¼ cup butter
Pepper to taste
In a large pot on medium high heat, bring salt beef to a boil for an hour. Drain half the brine, add more water and add your prepared vegetables aside from the potatoes, separating each kind with cheesecloth sacks for ease as well as your split peas in a tied cloth sack, being sure to leave ¼ room at the top of cloth for expansion. Bring it to a boil for 10 minutes and reduce heat to medium for 35 minutes. Add potatoes and let boil for an additional 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Remove all aside from peas from pot and keep warm in an oven at 200 F. Mash peas with butter to create pease pudding. Serve with roasted meat/poultry (traditionally wild game) if desired and save the drippings for a gravy using leftover vegetable brine (liquor) for half the liquid or with traditional pickled preserves.
Well, there you have it. I pride myself as a bit if a Newfoundland history buff, it came as a small surprise when I learned of our historical treasure’s origin and how we borrowed it from the pop culture of our Irish immigrants. While some island traditions are waning in the shadow of a rapidly changing culture, one thing is certain if those like me have anything to do about it… Jiggs’ Dinner will never die.