This article is the start of an ongoing series called “A History of …”. In this series, Nan’s Kitchen will examine the history of iconic Newfoundland and Labrador dishes. Stay tuned for future installments of the “A History of …” series!
To kick-off Nan’s Kitchen foray into Newfoundland and Labrador food history, what better than to start with the history of one of the province’s most iconic dishes: Fish and Brewis.
What is Fish and Brewis?
Fish and brewis (pronounced ‘brews’) is one of the most popular dishes found on the Newfoundland dinner table and has been a part of Newfoundland’s rich cultural heritage for centuries. Although it was traditionally consumed by fisherman, it has been and continues to be enjoyed by Newfoundlanders of all backgrounds and economic classes across the island.
Fish and brewis is a meal that primarily consists of codfish (typically salted, but fresh works too) and hard bread (also known as hard tack), which is a hard sea biscuit that is soaked and boiled in water. For extra flavour, the dish is topped with scruncheons, which is salted fatback pork that is cubed and fried.
Fish and Brewis’ Historical Roots
Fish and brewis has its origins in 18th century English cooking. Historically, the term ‘brewis’ refers to the Middle English word for broth made from bread. From this, it’s not hard to see the connection between the traditional and modern conceptions of brewis, since today’s brewis is simply hard bread soaked and boiled in water.
One of the earliest mentions of brewis in English writing comes from the sequel of Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. In the novel, the title character describes sailors preparing a meal aboard a ship that is reminiscent of fish and brewis.
“He caused some biscuit cakes to be dipped in the pot, and softened them with the liquor of the meat, which they call brewis, and gave every one, to stay their stomachs.”
– Daniel Defoe, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Chapter 2
As Defoe’s novel alludes, brewis was traditionally consumed by sailors and was often combined with some form of protein. In Newfoundland, the combination of codfish and brewis was only natural.
Fishermen developed the dish because they required foodstuffs that could last through long fishing voyages (often weeks or months). Since cod was in abundance and hard bread could last the lengthy trips, the combination of the two was logical and quickly became a favourite of men at sea.
When fishermen returned home, their love for the dish came with them.
Newfoundland: Where ‘Cod is King’
Historically, ‘fish’ in the Newfoundland context has meant codfish exclusively, due to the abundance of cod in the waters off the coast of the island. This explains why Newfoundlanders do not explicitly refer to cod in the name of popular dishes like fish and brewis.
“In the land where cod is king it is to be expected that many of our dishes make use of this delicious and versatile fish. Here in Newfoundland if you mean salmon or trout or halibut or whatever, you say so. If you just say fish you mean cod.”
– Cook Book: Featuring Favourite Newfoundland Recipes, 1957
As many already know, the cod fishery is central to Newfoundland history. Even before Europeans settled on the island, the Grand Banks’ rich cod stocks attracted fishermen and traders to Newfoundland’s shores. Eventually, this led to the establishment of small permanent settlements scattered across the island.
Cod was important for not only its abundance and relative ease to catch, but because of its rich nutritional benefits. Cod is unique in that its meat has virtually no fat content (only 0.3 percent) and is rich in protein (18 percent).
Cod’s abundance and nutritional benefits made it ubiquitous in the diets of Newfoundlanders and explains why so many traditional dishes, like Fish and Brewis, include it as the staple ingredient.
Therefore, the combination of codfish and brewis was generally a practical affair. It was cheap, easy to make, easy to come by, and filling.
Fish and Brewis’ Continued Popularity
While fish and brewis was first prepared centuries ago, it continued to be a staple dish in the Newfoundland diet into the twentieth century. In fact, consumption of hard bread reached its peak in the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression.
A quick examination of published material during this period demonstrates the popularity of fish and brewis in Newfoundland.
For example, several historic and contemporary Newfoundland cookbooks include some type of recipe for fish and brewis, citing its historical and cultural importance. In Cook Book: Featuring Favourite Newfoundland Recipes, which was published in 1957, fish and brewis is the first recipe featured and is described as “perhaps the most popular dish [in Newfoundland].”
"Newfoundland families in all income brackets and in all geographical locations serve fish and brewis with varying frequency. Especially for Sunday morning breakfast.”
– Cook Book: Featuring Favourite Newfoundland Recipes, 1957
Not only is fish and brewis featured in many Newfoundland cookbooks, but references to the dish are also scattered throughout the pages of twentieth-century newspapers.
During the First World War, there was an effort to bring the popular dish to Newfoundland soldiers in Europe to combat homesickness. Through, what was known as the “Fish and Brewis Fund,” which was promoted through local newspapers, Newfoundlanders raised money to send hard bread and salt cod to the Newfoundland Regiment. (If you’re interested in learning more about the fund, check out archivist Larry Dohey’s blog post about the topic.)
Reference to fish and brewis also helped businesses to promote their products. For example, newspaper advertisements by notable Newfoundland foodstuff companies, like Purity Factories Limited and Browning Harvey Limited, referenced fish and brewis to sell hard bread products across the island.
The expression of love and appreciation for fish and brewis is also common in newspaper articles throughout the decade. If a foreigner was ever introduced to the dish or if fish and brewis was mentioned in foreign media, Newfoundlanders were sure to hear about it in the press.
There are also several instances of articles dedicated to the discussion of the dish by Newfoundlanders themselves. For example, one individual published a poem solely dedicated to their appreciation for brewis in the Evening Telegram in 1924.
Fish and Brewis’ Importance to Cultural Identity
Newfoundlanders’ love for fish and brewis has continued into the twenty-first century, though the reason for its popularity has shifted.
Today, dishes like fish and brewis bring significant cultural baggage with them and have been crucial to the construction and preservation of Newfoundland cultural identity.
Due to its traditional origins as food for fisherman from centuries ago, the dish can be interpreted as a way for Newfoundlanders to connect with their historical roots.
Although the commercial cod fishery has been closed in Newfoundland for several decades now, fish and brewis remains a quintessential Newfoundland meal. As Sarah Moore argues, the making of fish and brewis can be a form of “covert cultural resistance” for modern Newfoundlanders who view the cod fishery as a “distant cultural memory.”
While cod is no longer a staple in the Newfoundland diet, Newfoundlanders continue to eat cod to maintain long-held cultural traditions in the modern era. This is especially apparent for Newfoundlanders who no longer live on the island but still try to remain connected to their cultural heritage.
"The importance of fish and brewis to Newfoundlanders wishing to hold on to their cultural identity is undisputed. With the decline of the cod fishery many Newfoundlanders who made their living from the industry have felt a need to promulgate their local identity by focusing on cultural artefacts and traditions that were meaningful to them as a community. They did this by writing songs, expressing themselves in art, by mummering, and even by preparing traditional foods”
– Sarah Moore, "Fish and Brewis: A Historical and Contextual Analysis"
Thanks for Reading!
If there’s a traditional Newfoundland and Labrador dish you want to know the history about, please comment it below!
Be sure to check out my recipe for Fish and Brewis with a discussion on my first attempt at making the dish here.
“Brewis.” Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/a-z-index.php#536.
Cook Book: Featuring Favourite Newfoundland Recipes. George St. United Church Women’s Association, 1956. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns/id/116586/rec/22.
Defoe, Daniel. The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. 1719. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Further_Adventures_of_Robinson_Crusoe.
Hanrahan, Maura and Marg Ewtushik. A Veritable Scoff: Sources on Foodways and Nutrition in Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John's: Flanker Press, 2001.
Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Vintage Canada, 1997.
Moore, Sarah. “Fish and Brewis: A Historical and Contextual Analysis.” Culture & Tradition 28 (2006): 15–29.
Nicholson, G. W. L. The Fighting Newfoundlander: A History of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.