By Ed Sears, as told to Valerie Howes
Like most Newfoundlanders, Fire Lt. Ed Sears grew up eating Jiggs dinner on Sundays with extended family. Today, he carries on that tradition at the fire halls where he works in Mount Pearl and St. John’s, N.L.
I’ve been eating Jiggs dinner since I was a child. I believe it’s called Jiggs dinner because of a cartoon strip, where the main character was an Irish-American called Jiggs who loved his boiled dinner. It consists of boiled potatoes, turnips, carrots, peas pudding, cabbage—and, sometimes, a blueberry duff—then salted beef and usually roast turkey or roast pork. It’s hard to pinpoint one item I like best in Jiggs dinner; I like the combination of everything put together. It’s a clever meal!
A duff is similar to a bread loaf. It’s boiled in the pot along with the dinner inside two bags so it doesn’t absorb the taste of the salted meat. It swells up to whatever size the inside bag is. You can make a molasses duff with raisins, but I like to use blueberries—mine tastes a bit like blueberry muffins. Some people slice it up and eat it with their meal, and some have it after dinner with a cup of tea.
When I was young, my mother or grandmother rotated cooking Jiggs dinner for family gatherings on a Sunday. If you have it for dinner (dinner being at around noon), it’s an all-morning preparation that starts at 8 o’clock. There were grandparents from both sides, aunts and uncles, in-laws, my parents and my siblings around the table—anywhere from a dozen to 20 people. It was quite a gathering! We’d put a leaf in the table and all sit down at once; sometimes, there would be two seatings, depending on how big the crowd was.
I learned to make Jiggs dinner a little bit from my grandmother, but a lot from being in the fire department for 21 years. We have certain traditions in the fire hall: Friday is fresh fish day; Saturday we have pea soup; and Sunday is always Jiggs dinner. You’ve got to learn to cook it right or you end up annoying a dozen fellows, and that’s never good.
If there’s a fire in town while I’m cooking, everything gets turned off and left exactly as it is. Hopefully, it’s a false alarm, and if we’re back at the hall in time, we can turn the oven back on and salvage the meal.
When it comes to sitting down and eating our Jiggs dinner at the fire hall, it’s pretty quiet while everyone enjoys the food. But in the buildup to the meal, there’s excitement. While the guys are out there doing their work, a really nice mouthwatering smell floats through the whole station. As the cook, you always get a little bit of sarcastic criticism and carrying on while you’re making dinner, but normally, the boys will tell you honestly if it’s good or bad at the table. And at the end of the meal, everybody’s so full they can’t even move.
How to make Jiggs Dinner
If including a roast turkey, start by thawing it a few days in advance. The second step is to soak the split peas for the peas pudding overnight.
Cooking day starts off with the salted beef; that’s the very first thing that needs to go in the pot. I boil it down because the meat is pickled in an awful lot of salt, so cover it with water and boil it for about an hour (some people soak their salted beef overnight to remove even more salt, but I just boil mine). Fill the water up again to cover the meat and taste the water to be sure it has the saltiness you want. If not, boil it longer until the water tastes the way you want. I leave the water in the pot a little bit salty, knowing I will be adding the peas pudding (boiled in a bag, like the duff) and vegetables that will be absorbing a bit more salt. You want your food to have just enough flavour to it.
The peas pudding goes in one bag; the duff is put in two bags. Put both bags in the boiling water with the beef for about 2 hours. During those 2 hours, add your vegetables (turnips, carrots and potatoes) at different times to prevent them from overcooking: Cabbage needs about 40 minutes; turnips and carrots, 30 minutes; and potatoes, about 20 minutes.
Once it’s all boiled through and ready, the vegetables come out. A bit of pot liquor (the remaining water in the pot) will be used to mix with the juices left from the roast turkey or roast pork to make gravy.
The recipe depends on the number of people you’re feeding. We allow once piece of salted beef per person, plus two pieces of carrot, two pieces of turnip, two potatoes and a heaping spoonful of cabbage. Cabbage is served in a bowl all cut up so everyone can take a big spoonful. The peas pudding, same thing: served in a bowl so you can take a spoonful.
From a whole roast turkey, you serve yourself one portion. Whatever’s left of the turkey when the meal is done, you boil it down to make turkey soup with.
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