By: Jim Bamboulis
Newfoundland is known for its history, unique geographic location and even culture. In fact, few in North America can beat this place when it comes to culture.
Newfoundland has a tradition that you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, much less anywhere else in the world.
It involves drinking screech and getting screeched-in.
That’s what 3 buddies and I signed up for on a recent trip to St. John’s. We didn’t know what to expect but we all went in with an open mind, a sense of adventure and a bit tipsy to begin with.
First thing’s first. Screech. What is it?
Screech is dark Jamaican rum, imported, bottled and consumed in Newfoundland for the past couple of centuries.
At that time, Newfoundland and Jamaica had a special trade relationship. Salt fish went south and subsequently became the national dish for Jamaicans. Rum came north and subsequently became the traditional drink for Newfoundlanders.
Early fishermen drank it without thinking about the alcohol content and they didn’t tinker with the alcohol itself either. The taste remained strong and unchanged. Even when the government eventually moved in, the bottles remained unlabeled and the rum untouched.
It even stayed nameless until around WW2 when American servicemen spent some time in Newfoundland. As the story goes, one of them took a shot of the rum and immediately after doing so, belted out a distressful sound. So distressful that fellow patrons ran over to find out what the commotion was all about and asked “what the cripes was that ungodly screech?”
A Newfoundlander in the room responded, “the screech? ‘Tis the rum, me son.” The name stuck and the legend began.
Most of us had heard about screech coming into this little trip of ours and we were anxious to see what it was all about. We didn’t know how it would taste and I think secretly wondered whether we would keel over when we took a shot.
You can get screech at virtually every bar in St. John’s but we wanted our first time with it to be special. As screech virgins, we wanted to feel like it was a special experience, with great memories and with no regret. Logically, the only place to get that loving feeling was at a screech-in.
Ah yes, the screech-in. To many, it’s a legit, traditional Newfoundland ceremony while others think it’s a gimmicky, marketing ploy for entertainment purposes only. Regardless, it’s a pretty unique experience. Ayman and I were clearly psyched.
It involves a native Newfoundlander standing in front of a room full of visitors (aka, Come From Aways) and explains the history of screech. While talking, the Emcee unexpectedly pan fries a bologna steak, adds some spices and explains that bologna was considered a delicacy, a specialty food because it was imported from Ontario. (lobster on the other hand was considered to be a lower quality meat, ‘poor man’s food’ because lobsters are bottom-feeders and were believed to have fed on the bodies of sunken fishermen who perished in the brutal North Atlantic…and nobody wants to potentially eat parts of a relative who died at sea).
Eating a piece of the bologna is part of the experience. It was arguably some of the best piece of spam I’ve had in years. Moving on.
After the bologna comes the kissing of the cod. Something we all kind of dreaded but knew it was part of the package. In our case, a massive, frozen cod was circulated around the room and as tradition has it, by kissing the cod, you wished for good fortune to those heading south and returning with more rum.
Judge for yourselves who among us liked kissing our frozen friend and who didn’t.
After all of us kissed the cod, we thankfully were all given a shot of screech. It was a good way to both forget the fact that you just kissed a frozen cod and to wash away the fish smell on your lips.
What does screech taste like?
Famous Canadian Author Farley Mowatt described it as “the worst conceivable quality of Caribbean rum, bottled by the Newfoundland government under the Screech label, and sold to poor devils who have no great desire to continue living”.
Talk about a great sales pitch.
The ceremony ends with our Emcee asking everyone in the room, “Is ye a Screecher”?
Our reply: “Deed I is me old cock, and long may your big jib draw”!
(Translation: Indeed, I am friend. May there always be wind in your sails)
And with that, we became honorary Newfoundlanders. Each of us got a certificate from the Royal Order of Newfoundland Screechers to prove it. Good time was had by all.
*Trapper John’s and Christian’s Bar, both on George Street, in the heart of the St. John’s party scene, are two of the better known spots to experience the screech-in (although Christian’s has a better reputation).
*It costs $20 to be screeched-in at Christian’s.
Been screeched-in or have your own unique screech experience in the great Province of Newfoundland and Labrador? Share the love.