March 27, 2013
In Newfoundland, having a “scoff” (the local word for “big meal”) includes some pretty interesting food items unique to the region: scrunchions (fried pork fat), cod tongues and fishcakes, for example. But perhaps the least appetizing dish, which is traditionally made during the Lenten season—specifically on Good Friday and Easter—is seal flipper pie.
The meal, which originated in the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, tastes as strange as it sounds. The meat is dark, tough, gamey and apparently has a flavor similar to that of hare (appropriate for America’s favorite Easter mascot, no?). Most recipes suggest that the seal meat is coated in flour, pan-fried and then roasted with onions, pork fat and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and parsnips. Once the dish has a nice, flaky crust, it is often served with a side of Worcestershire sauce.
While it might be difficult to imagine eating a meal made from something as cute and cuddly as a seal, the dish has a history based in survival. Seals were especially important to Inuit living on the northern shores of Labrador and Newfoundland dating back to the early 18th century when seal meat, which is high in fat protein and vitamin A, was a staple in the early Arctic-dweller’s diet and often prevented explorers from starving or getting scurvy during their hunting travels. (Some Antarctic expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party suffered from scurvy for lack of vitamins found in seal meat). Seal hunters used all parts of the seal from their pelts to their fat to light lamps (at one time, London’s street lights were fueled with seal oil), but they couldn’t profit off of the flippers. To save money and to use as much of the animal as possible, they made flipper pie. As the hunting industry grew, seal meat became a major resource for oil, leather and food for locals after the long, harsh winter in these regions.
Because the seal hunt takes place in the spring when the mammals are found near the edge of the ice floes—lasting from mid-March through April—the meat of the animal is most often eaten during the Easter season. But why does seal meat count as “fish” during Lent? According to The Northern Isles: Orkney And Shetland by Alexander Fenton, the meat was deemed Lent-friendly by the Catholic Church as early as the mid 16th century by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a Swedish patriot and influential Catholic ecclesiastic:
The people of Burrafirth in Unst sold the skins of seals they caught, and salted the meat for eating at Lent. Olaus Magnus noted in Sweden in 1555 that seal-flesh was regarded by the church in Sweden, though eventually the eating of seal-meat on fast days was forbidden in Norway. Later in time, the eating of seal-flesh went down in the world, and was confined to poorer people, the flesh being salted and hung in the chimneys to be smoked.
By the 1840s—at the apex of the sealing industry in Newfoundland—546,000 seals were killed annually and seal oil represented 84 percent of the value of seal products sold. Since then, a commercial seal hunt has taken place annually off Canada’s East Coast and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Today, the seal hunting season provides more than 6,000 jobs to fishermen and vastly supplements the region’s economy.
And that’s not to say that the annual seal hunt hasn’t generated some controversy. The practice has been criticized by plenty of animal rights activist groups over the years including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Though, the organization has received its fair share of flack from Newfoundland locals (in 2010, a protester dressed as a seal was “pied” in the face by a man wearing a dog suit).
In 2006, in a live interview with Larry King on CNN, Sir Paul McCartney had a few things to say to Danny Williams, the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador about the seal hunt: “It isn’t hunky dory, it’s disgraceful.” Williams maintained that seal hunting is a sustainable resource for Newfoundland.
The seals hunted in Newfoundland and Labrador are not officially endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Though the IUCN considers other species of seal including the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Mediterranean Monk Seal to be “critically endangered.”) According to the region’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the harp seal population has tripled since 1970 and the total currently stands at 5.6 million animals.
The hunt is closely regulated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) with quotas and specific rules regarding the method of killing the mammals. Last season, The Telegram, a Canadian newspaper, published an article about a fundraiser for a local sealer organization that commemorates those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who lost their lives in the 1914 sealing disasters. Seal meat was the featured item on the menu—something many locals argue is the most sustainable protein in the region. (You can watch one of the staff reporters try flipper pie for the first time here).
Despite arguments against the commercial selling of seal products, a certain nostalgia remains baked into the flaky crust of seal flipper pie. According to Annie Proulx’s best-selling 1993 novel The Shipping News, which takes place in the fishing town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, the dish is quite tasty, but mostly evokes fond memories for the Newfoundlander characters:
“It’s good. From the shoulder joint, you know. Not really the flippers…The pie was heavy with rich, dark meat in savory gravy.”
The book was later made into a movie of the same title in 2001 starring Kevin Spacey, which references the dish in the soundtrack with a song aptly called “seal flipper pie.” No news on whether the flipper pie Spacey bit into on set was the real deal, but if you’ve got a hankering for the breaded pie, it’s still served in St. John’s, the largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador, at eateries like Chucky’s, which offers a different take on the classic dish. If you want to make it at home without the hassle, the meal is also available frozen and canned at local food stores like Bidgood’s.
One tip if you’re brave enough to try the breaded pie this Easter: When you’re done, remember to say in true Newfoundland fashion: “I’m as full as an egg.” Or maybe that was “Easter egg?”
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