Any mention of traditional Newfoundland and Labrador foods will likely bring to mind Jiggs’ dinner – a boiled feast of salt meat (usually beef or pork), cabbage, and other vegetables. Yet the phrase does not appear anywhere in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Of the approximately 100,000 word-files the editors compiled between the 1950s and early 1980s, only a few contain a reference to Jiggs’ dinner. It simply wasn’t widespread enough to be on their radar.
The name comes from an American comic strip called “Bringing up Father” that ran in newspapers from 1913 until 2000. Many readers called it “Maggie and Jiggs” after the cartoon’s two main characters. Jiggs was an American-Irish bricklayer who struck it rich after winning the lotto. His favourite meal was boiled corned beef and cabbage: Jiggs’ dinner. Barry Popik, contributor-consultant to the OED and other dictionaries, has traced the history of the meal in the United States on his website.
In contrast is Solomon Gosse – a name for the boiled dinner that does appear in the DNE and is unique to the province. Some people here traditionally served Solomon Gosse on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. The weekly menu was not only followed in households, but by cooks on fishing and sealing vessels as well. P.K. Devine reports a possible origin for the term in his 1937 publication, Folk Lore of Newfoundland: “Tradition says that once the cook was persuaded to serve it on Wednesday and when asked for an explanation by the Planter said that the new hand compelled him to do so because … it was “Solomon Gosse’s Birthday”, the skipper of the cod seine crew. Hence the origin of the saying.” (page 73)
He goes on to write: “The result was that Solomon had too many birthdays in a summer and the saying therefore became a joke whenever a pork and duff dinner was served out of schedule. Solomon Gosse, as far as my enquiries can ascertain, was a Conception Bay man but his name and his fame were perpetuated by all the fishermen in Newfoundland from Cape Ray to Cape John.” Family Names of the Island of Newfoundland by E.R. Seary records that a Solomon Gosse did indeed live in Torbay in the 18th century; two more of that name lived in Flatrock and Spaniard’s Bay in the 19th century.
The days that Solomon Gosse was served were known as Solomon Gosse’s birthday, pot day, and duff day. Pot day because everything was boiled in a single large pot, and duff day because the meal often included a boiled pudding for dessert called duff or figgy duff. It was made from flour, water, often raisins, and served with a sweet sauce called coady. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, duff was “originally a northern pronunciation of dough n.: compare enough.”
Another boiled pudding made from split yellow peas is often included and is known as pease duff or pease pudding. The same kind of peas could be used to make pea soup, which was traditionally served on Saturday – a day once called the devil’s birthday in some Newfoundland communities.
Traditional Newfoundland and Labrador boiled dinners include a much wider range of vegetables than the Jiggs’ dinner of the comic strip. Potatoes, carrots, and turnip usually join cabbage and salt meat in the pot. These crops grow well in our acidic soils and cool climate, and store well over the fall and winter. Families often had to cultivate their own vegetables before large grocery stores opened in the second half of the 20th century, so it makes sense that cabbage and hardy root vegetables have entered our diet.
Many of the words and phrases people once used to describe the various vegetable dishes they prepared are now obsolete. In the mood for a nice steaming bowl of blind mush? Then you’re eager for some cabbage soup. Add some salt meat and you’ve got a meal of mush. In this case, blind indicates a deficiency, making mush without meat blind mush.
Perhaps some chum is more to your liking – over-boiled vegetables that have turned to pulp. Save the leftovers for the next day and you’ve got some chummy. A more recognizable term for a dish of leftovers is hash. Still popular today, this word is defined in the DNE as ‘Vegetables, esp potatoes, turnip, cabbage, left over from an earlier meal, chopped up and heated or browned.’
Some people put a sod over their skillet of vegetables to give it more substance – this was a pastry made from flour and baking powder. Of course, many families were preparing to break a different kind of sod by the spring of each year, so they could plant the vegetable gardens and potato fields that would keep them in mush, chum, and boiled dinners for the next 12 months.