We are currently going through the Christian season of Lent. Rooted in the time when Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, Lent is the time just before the celebration of Easter and is meant for people to make some sacrifices in their lives. These sacrifices, small or large, symbolically help people understand the sacrifices that Jesus may have been experiencing himself.
In reality, Lent ends up being different things, depending on the person. For some, it is a period of going on a diet; for others, it is when Catholic co-workers show up to work with ashes on their heads, and fast-food restaurants start selling fish sandwiches. That’s how McDonald’s started selling their Filet O Fish sandwiches. Back in the 60’s a Cincinnati manager wanted something for people to eat during the Lenten season instead of their regular burgers. The fast food giant sells 25% of their fish sandwiches during the forty days of Lent.
The notion of eating fish during Lent is not something new. Most of us don’t think twice about it. Newfoundlanders have been doing it for centuries. For some, the definition of fish can be generalized to anything one gets from the ocean. Seal has been part of the Newfoundland diet since we first started living on the island. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the seals were caught for their pelts, oil, and meat. It’s still a part of the Labrador Inuit diet and is high in vitamin A and protein. By the 1840s—at the apex of the sealing industry in Newfoundland—546,000 seals were killed annually and seal oil represented 84% 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.
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 [as fish] 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.
For those who have tasted seal, the meat is described as a bit gamey and oily. The high oil content means that the meat has a tendency to spoil quickly if not prepared by smoking or baked in a pie. 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. Nowadays, most Newfoundlanders will buy their pies premade. One of the most popular places to get flipper pie is Bidgoods supermarket just south of St. John’s in Goulds.
So, if you’re adventurous, pick up some flipper pie the next time you’re visiting the Rock. Enjoy the rich, flaky crust and the savoury deep brown gravy surrounded by potatoes, turnips and onions. And the meaty chunks of seal of course. I hope it will get your seal of approval.