This week, rather than examine the history of an iconic Newfoundland and Labrador dish, why not explore one of the province’s most beloved food traditions: the ‘boil-up’?
What is a ‘Boil-up’?
Whether you call it a boil-up, a mug-up, or even an elevener, this informal dining custom is an iconic part of rural Newfoundland life. As one American observer put it in 1933, “indeed, the Newfoundland national ceremony is the ‘mug-up’” (Elisabeth Greenleaf, Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland, xxiv).
According to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, a boil-up is “a brew of tea, and sometimes a snack, taken during a rest from work in the country or on a vessel.”
Related terms like mug-up and elevener are often used interchangeably with boil-up and have similar definitions. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English refers to a mug-up as “a cup or mug of tea and a snack taken between any of the main meals, esp in pause from work.” Eleveners on the other hand are slightly different, referring to “a drink of liquor, or a light snack, taken at 11 a.m.”
In essence, boil-ups are the practice of having a break from work in the woods or at sea by taking a seat on a log or the ground to enjoy freshly brewed tea, prepared on an open fire. If on a ship, this either occurs on the deck of the vessel or at a nearby beach. Boil-ups give Newfoundlanders an opportunity to rest from a day of fishing, hunting, trapping, berry picking, or some other outdoors activity.
While tea, often stirred with a pine branch for extra flavour, is the central part of a good boil-up (hence the name), such an occasion is often accompanied by some form of snack food. This may include light-weight foodstuffs like salt fish or capelin, baked beans, homemade bread, raisins, or other foods. Sometimes fully prepared meals, like classic Newfoundland cold plates (a dish made from leftover ingredients of Jigg’s Dinner), may also be brought and eaten.
The boil-up is a place where all kinds of people are found enjoying a quick break. It is not just the place of working men, but also women who are out picking berries or trouting, and children accompanying their parents.
This Ain’t No Picnic!
To outside observers, a Newfoundland boil-up may simply appear like a traditional picnic. However, this characterization is not quite accurate.
As Andrea O’Brien puts it, what makes boil-ups different from picnics is that “people do not sit on checkered blankets, produce wicker baskets laden with gourmet food or sip wine with their meal; they sit on boughs or cold ground. The only centrepiece is a roasting fire or Coleman stove.”
Since boil-ups are primarily associated with a break from a period of hard work in the rugged wilderness or rough seas, the picture of a leisurely middle- or upper-class picnic is in stark contrast to what many Newfoundlanders consider a boil-up. Maura Hanrahan agrees, writing that “a boil-up is not a leisurely pastime of the affluent classes.”
Connection to the Land
One major interpretation of the boil-up custom is that it is an expression of Newfoundlanders’ relationship with the land.
Because arable land is scarce on the island, Newfoundland’s history with food is based primarily on subsistence patterns of fishing, hunting, and gathering, rather than agriculture like much of North America. As a result, “the links between diet and the land and sea have been central to life in rural Newfoundland” for centuries (Hanrahan, 85).
With this in mind, Maura Hanrahan and Marg Eqtushik argue that “the traditional boil-up expresses Newfoundlanders’ strong attachment to the natural environment.” Therefore, where a boil-up occurs is just as important as what is prepared and how.
Typically, these boil-up spots are located near water, usually along a river, a pond, or even in a cove, that is sheltered from the elements. It is also necessary for such a place to have easy access to much-needed firewood to get the boil-up going.
Often, boil-ups occur in a place that is important to the individual, group, or family. It is a place that is re-visited time and time again and is passed off as a sort-of inheritance to newer generations. For example, my family have our own boil-up location that has been re-visited by generations of Hillyards.
Boil-ups in the Historical Record
In the historical record, one can find numerous references and depictions of Newfoundland boil-ups. In fact, boil-ups are among the most common photographs of people eating that I have been able to locate in my research. So much so, that I decided to dedicate a whole sub-section in the Photographs part of The Collection to such informal dining practices.
By examining some of these early twentieth century photographs, we can see great examples of boil-ups in action and highlight some of the key characteristics of such dining customs already outlined. One can also see some of the similarities that these historic boil-ups have with their modern counterparts.
To start, virtually all photographs show a kettle on a fire, a teapot in the frame, or people with a mug in hand. In this sense, the photos highlight the centrality of tea to the boil-up custom. In the photo of “An Eastern Arm ‘mug-up’,” you can clearly see that each man is enjoying a hot beverage, most likely tea, as they are pictured with a white ceramic mug in hand with a metal kettle between them.
Furthermore, each of these photographs clearly place the participants within the Newfoundland wilderness or on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, demonstrating Newfoundlanders’ connection to the land. In many of these photos, participants are sitting on the ground, in the woods, or on a beach, surrounded by trees and often nearby a local water source.
While many of these people have brought their own equipment with them, such as cups, kettles, and frying pans, they also make use of their natural surroundings. This may include firewood and driftwood they have collected themselves or cooking systems they have built from natural resources.
The nature of boil-ups being used for a break from work or hard labour is also highlighted in many of these photographs. While it is difficult to tell what exactly some of these individuals were doing before they sat down for a boil-up, others are easier to decipher.
Whether this be a couple of Rangers taking a break to brew some tea, a group of anglers sitting around a fire along a river for lunch, or a group of men making their way to a rocky beach for a break after being in boat, the element of a boil-up being a break from work is key.
While most of these photographs show all-male groups, appearing to take a break from work, there are several examples of boil-up’s involving women. Since boil-ups are not the exclusive space of one gender or the other, it is common to seen men and women mingling at the fire for a boil-up. For example, here’s a photo of Newfoundland writer and broadcaster Ella Manuel enjoying a boil-up with three men after a day of angling.
From Generation to Generation
Like other elements of Newfoundland and Labrador foodways, such as the re-creation of traditional dishes like Fish and Brewis or Jigg’s Dinner, boil-ups are an important symbolic expression of Newfoundland culture.
Starting from a young age, Newfoundland children are included in boil-ups and are taught the techniques required to participate by their parents, grandparents, and other family and friends. By doing so, the practice of ‘boiling-up’ is passed down from generation to generation and explains why the tradition lives on.
Today, the act of participating in a boil-up is a way for Newfoundlanders to reconnect with their cultural heritage at a time when it is being fundamentally challenged by modern developments like the cod moratorium and a rise in out-migration.
Thanks for Reading!
Comment below if you have any fond memories of boiling-up or if there is a boil-up spot that your family continues to visit?
“Boil-up.” Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/a-z-index.php#435.
“Elevener.” Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/a-z-index.php#1497.
Greenleaf, Elisabeth B. Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns/id/52954/rec/62.
Hanrahan, Maura and Marg Ewtushik. A Veritable Scoff: Sources on Foodways and Nutrition in Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John's, NL: Flanker Press, 2001. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns/id/52954/rec/62.
Hanrahan, Maura. “Pine-Clad Hills and Spindrift Swirl: The Character, Persistence, and Significance of Rural Newfoundland Foodways.” In Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History edited by Franca Iacovetta, Marlene Epp, and Valerie Joyce Korinek, 85-93. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
“Mug-up.” Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/a-z-index.php#2972.
O’Brien, Andrea. “‘There’s nothing like a cup of tea in the wood’: Continuity, community and cultural validation in rural Newfoundland boil-ups.” Ethnologies 21, no. 1 (1999): 65-83.