Notes from an Interview on Foodways with my Grandfather, William Snelgrove, Lower Island Cove, Newfoundland

On Sunday March 24, 2013, I interviewed my grandfather, William Snelgrove, a native of Newfoundland, Canada, about foodways in his life. Some of our conversation, that touched on his experiences of gardening, hunting and gathering, preserving, and poaching, is drawn on here.

My grandfather was born in Lower Island Cove, Conception Bay North, on June 18th, 1934 to Fanny and William Snelgrove. He has two sisters and a brother: “Beatrice was the first to come along, then it was Beatty, then it was me, and then it was my little tiny brother Gordon.” At an early age my grandfather turned his back on fishing, the occupation that attracted many of his peers. As he recalls: “My father fished all of his life.” [When I] “was 17 year[s] old my father wanted me to go fishing with him. He was going to buy traps and all that, [however I] said, ‘No father, no fishing, no traps for me.’ So that’s when I left to [go to] Montreal.”

As my grandfather’s comment suggests, my great grandfather was a self-reliant fisherman-hunter. Like the Newfoundland fishermen-hunters John Warren describes in his MA thesis, he relied on a combination of fishing and hunting in order to survive (Warren 2009:1). He worked hard his whole life and according to my grandfather, always “wanted to work for what he got.” Today my grandfather take pride in the fact that even during the hardest years of the Depression, the family never “went on the dole,” referring to the rations dispensed by Newfoundland’s Commission of the Government (Smallwood 1981:612). My great grandparents also kept a garden, raised cows and sheep and had a Newfoundland pony. One of my grandfather’s chores as a boy was to use the horse and cart to go to the nearby community of Brownsdale, Trinity Bay where the family’s sheep grazed in the spring. In the fall William would drive the horse and car to pick up the sheep and bring them to Lower Island Cove for the winter. As a child, he helped with the fishing and gardening and would sometimes sell the berries he picked to earn a bit of money for the family. Self reliance, being proud, and making the best of what you have, characterizes an earlier generation of Newfoundlanders, as is reflected in the words of Bess, a gardener from the province’s Great Northern peninsula, who was interviewed by John Omohundro: “I worked my whole life and never got paid. My husband and my father never got any UI [unemployment insurance], and I got no child support for my eight children. But we survived – we made things for ourselves and people took care of one another” (Omohundro 1995:157).

Like Bess, my great grandmother was a homemaker. Although the memories my grandfather shared of his mother were positive, they also hint at the scarcity of growing up in Newfoundland in the 1930s and 40s. For example, he recalls receiving a “tongue banging” from his mother for skimming the fat off the top of the milk while she was scalding it. He also remembers going through a lot of her homemade bread especially when he would go out berry picking. He said that “every day I went in [berry picking] she had to have two or three loaves of bread just for me, that [wasn’t] for the others.”

After leaving Lower Island Cove at 17, my grandfather went to Montreal with the help of a loan of five hundred dollars from a local merchant named Stevie Garland. His father got the loan for him and he recalls that “the first time I made five hundred dollars I shipped it back to [Stevie.]” He worked with several different companies during his time in Quebec including Canadian Vickers, Canadian Pacific Railway Hangar Shops and Dominion Structural Steel. At 19 years of age he got married to my grandmother, Joyce Murdoch, who was born in Shawinigan Falls, Quebec. The two settled in Greenfield Park, just outside Montreal. They had three children in Quebec—David, Donna, and Dale--before moving back to Newfoundland where their fourth child, Doug, was born.

My grandfather recalls, “I worked [at Dominion Structural Steel] for 10 years and [then I] got laid off and I came back to Newfoundland with three children, a 1952 Chev, four wheels and tires up on top.” The family “landed in St. John’s with the old 52 Chev, and the children, with $55 in our pocket.” They survived and made ends meet although as my grandfather described it they did not have T-bone steaks for Christmas dinner that year. He held various jobs in St. John’s at Prepound Steel, Concrete Products, and Simon Lono Roofing Sheet Metal where he worked for 35 years. As he puts it, “they closed up and I retired at 60.”

With retirement, my grandparents bought a house in Lower Island Cove and purchased a trailer in Florida. My grandfather claimed, “Joyce said if we [were] going to live in Lower Island Cove, [we had] to go to Florida” and for over 15 years the pair spent their winters in Florida and their summers in Lower Island Cove. My grandfather declared that with retirement, “my work was [just beginning]” because it was then that he started clearing land for a garden in Lower Island Cove. There he gardened until the death of my grandmother in 2005. Although a few years later he met his new partner, Evelyn Snelgrove, and relocated to Carbonear, he no longer gardens.

My grandfather started gardening once he retired and moved back around the bay. In part gardening was a hobby because, as he said, “at 60 I was too young to retire and I had to have something to do.” However, he was soon reminded of how unpredictable gardening in Newfoundland can be. The first year he produced a thousand pounds of potatoes. It was far more than he could use and he ended up selling some to restaurants on the shore. The next year was the complete opposite. He said, “ I had a blight. I had nothing. I dug it all out and threw it in the garbage.”

But of course, gardening was more than a pastime. He could have availed of the convenience of a grocery store and the vegetables for sale there but he chose to plant a garden instead. Just as the goal of self-reliance is reflected in my grandfather’s comments about his own father doing everything he could to get by and “set enough [in his garden] to feed his family,” it is also evident in the pride with which he talked about his own gardening efforts. Here he echoed the sentiments of gardeners John Omohundro interviewed on the North Coast of the island. One retired man declared “I glories in my garden” while another woman reported, “I could be at the garden, or berry picking all day. The only thing I hate is housework” (Omohundro 1995:164).

For example, my grandfather prided himself on making his garden beds “the old fashioned way.” While he claimed a lot of people started to make rows and use drills, he “never liked the drills so I never set them in drills. I had the old fashioned, the old way my father showed me.” The method he is describing here is known as the “lazy bed” which is a garden bed of varying lengths, separated by trenches. The beds were made by turning the soil from the trench over onto the bed to create a raised bed. These beds were remade each year and used for potatoes and other small seeds (Omohundro 2006:30). Resourcefulness certainly characterized my grandfather’s approach to fertilizing. He used anything available to make a fertilizer for his garden including capelin, cods heads and kelp. He also went out in all kinds of weather to tend to his garden. He recalled, “I’d come home from Florida, [and I’d] be in the garden the next day, getting ready for [my] vegetables.” He remembered putting on his skidoo suit in May and going out and digging the garden in preparation for the upcoming season. Omohundro refers to a person who has a love of gardening, despite a lack of necessity for a garden, as a proud and traditional regional revivalist and a flag bearer of the outport tradition (1995:168). My grandfather’s gardening certainly seemed to be an example of this revivalist movement for self-reliant rural life.

My grandfather loved moose hunting and trout fishing and when he was younger he usually spent two weeks hunting and trouting in central Newfoundland, usually around Indian Bay. He went on these trips with friends and family and the party often included his sister and brother-in-law. Socializing was a big part of the holiday when they would come together to hunt, trout, drink, and eat for two weeks. Other than the sociability, he tells me that there were few rituals except having a bottle of Screech.

He also picked berries--blueberries, partridgeberries and bake apples--from the time he was a young boy. As a child, he used to spend a day in picking berries. For example, partridgeberries were packed in a barrel with water and shipped off for a bit of money or credit at the merchant. He recalled, “if [the berries] got fifty cents, I got a quarter out of that and my mother got a quarter.” As an adult he has not picked as many berries but of those he has picked in recent years, partridgeberries were pickled and blueberries frozen. For many years after moving back to Lower Island Cove, he used to pick about a gallon of berries to give to each of his children. Having hurt his back last year, he now claims he is too “old for anything now.”

Over my grandfather’s lifetime food was stored in a number of ways. When he was growing up, some root vegetables, such as potatoes and turnip, were put in the root cellar. After retirement he packed carrots in a cooler with sawdust to keep them throughout the winter. My grandfather reports that he never bothered to store cabbage because they go bad quicker than other vegetables. Instead, he usually bottled cabbage to preserve it. He also bottled partridgeberries, beet, moose, rabbit, and cabbage.

John Warren describes bartering or a system of exchange as a tradition of sharing among family, neighbors and friends that was once widespread in Newfoundland (2009:84). Interestingly my grandfather described giving away much of the food he grew, gathered or hunted. As noted earlier, he sold potatoes the first year he gardened when he unexpectedly ended up with a thousand pounds and he sometimes sold the berries he picked, particularly before he went away to Montreal. However the rest of the food he gathered was often given away as gifts. For example, exchange was always a very important part of my grandfather’s relationship with his sister Beatty. The two often gave bottles back and forth as he described:

“I’d take in oh yes be it a bottle of rabbit or a bottle of moose and send in to Aunt Beatty and she’d give me something else, you know. A bottle of vegetables, a bottle of she’d have something you know. Be it a bottle of, she used to bottle up beet too, and she used to send them out to me, so I would send her in a bottle of something, bake apples, I used to give her some bake apples and then she would send something to me.”

Warren describes three varieties of non-cash exchange: the gift (not reciprocated), offering (reciprocated later and in a form not stipulated in advance) and trade (explicit and immediate exchange of equivalents) (2009:84). My grandfather and his sister seem to have engaged simultaneously in a gift exchange and a trade; both gave the food as gifts however they also tended to exchange items back and forth in order to fill the perceived needs of the other. For example, my grandfather knew Beatty did not pick bake apples so he picked enough for her and sent her a bottle while she knew he no longer pickled vegetables and she put a bottle aside for him.

My grandfather said that he never gave food away expecting something in return. If something was offered he accepted but the reason he was in the garden and the reason he had vegetables to give away was because he loved to be out in the garden. In his words “I love in the garden and I still love in the garden but I’m not good at it.” Through this quote we can see how gardening became a sort of religious practice or a daily worship service for him (See McGuire 2008:7, 110). His garden was not a necessity but somewhere to spend some time each day, to benefit from time spent in the garden and reap the reward through his vegetables.

A final subject we touched on in our interview was poaching. My grandfather has a pragmatic attitude towards the law and while I knew he was not a person to follow regulations strictly I did not expect some of his comments. William described an incident when he and two friends illegally picked twenty five gallons of berries and a member of the community informed the wildlife officer. The boys hid the berries from the officer and the man who reported them did not receive any sort of pay off as they were not charged. Disregard for the law can also be seen in a story he shared about poaching moose at night and how they never, as he said, “had the wildlife officer after us, we were too cute for them.” This particular incident took place out of the moose hunting season and without a hunting license however both my grandfather and his cousin worked together to cut and clean the moose. This example supports Warren’s argument that although members of the community may disapprove of poaching or other illegal activities, they will not report it to the authorities. Instead, there is an effort to maintain harmony and avoid conflict (2009:77). My grandmother was uneasy with the idea of my grandfather poaching moose, telling him at one point that he was “going to lose everything [he’s] got.” However, she would never consider telling the wildlife enforcement officer on him. I can remember going trouting with him as a child, or seeing him come back from trouting, with his basket full. It was years later before I realized there was a quota on how many trout you could catch per day. When my grandfather was in the woods in his trouting spot, he did not think of the quotas; he filled his bag and went home, regardless of what the law may have said. Connected to this, I know that my grandfather also made moonshine illegally as well as his own wine from berries.

My grandfather’s memories of earlier foodways represent the tip of an iceberg in that there is so much more to explore. His comments during our interview suggest that his continuation of activities such as gardening, trouting, and hunting might have been an example of what Omohundro terms a proud and traditional regional revivalist (1995:168). His perpetuation of food-related traditions beyond the time they were necessary indicate that aspects of his foodways were linked to sociability and/or might have constituted forms of his personal religious practice (McGuire 2008:7, 110). Finally, I am left wondering if there is a disregard for the law behind the illegal activities my grandfather engaged in with his friends and family or if were they a result of the emphasis on self reliance and the philosophy mentioned earlier that one must always make the most of what resources you have. His attitude toward the law, as well as his other comments about gardening, hunting, and berry picking, are all things I would like to look into further.

My grandfather, William Snelgrove, and friend enjoy a mug up (cup of tea) while berry picking in the late 1970s.

My grandfather, William Snelgrove, and friend enjoy a mug up (cup of tea) while berry picking in the late 1970s.

My grandfather and me trouting in the mid 1990s.

My grandfather and me trouting in the mid 1990s.

My grandfather in his potato garden in the mid to late 1990s.

My grandfather in his potato garden in the mid to late 1990s.

Trouting in the mid 1980s.

Trouting in the mid 1980s.

References Cited
  • McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.
  • Omohundro, John T. 1995. “All Hands Be Together”: Newfoundland Gardening. Anthropologica 37 (2): 155-171.
  • Omohundro, John. 2006. An Appreciation of Lazy Beds. Newfoundland Quarterly 99 (1): 29-31.
  • Smallwood, Joseph Roberts and Robert D. W. Pitt. 1981. Depression and destitution, effects of (the great depression). In The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John’s, Newfoundland: Newfoundland Book Publishers.
  • Snelgrove, William. Interview with author. March 24, 2014.
  • Warren, John P. 2009. Moose Hunting in Heart’s Content, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. MA thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.