ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — This year’s early Easter has put a damper on a Newfoundland tradition of eating fresh seal flipper on Good Friday -- or at least it has for the man most widely known for selling them in the provincial capital.
Reg Taylor’s seal flipper truck is a well-known and welcome sight each spring along the St. John’s harbour, especially in the days leading up to Good Friday. But the Newfoundland seal hunt began on Thursday this year, just a day before the holiday. No meat had come back from the boats in time for him to sell it to eager Easter shoppers from the back of his red truck, Taylor said in an interview.
Though the Catholic Church counsels against eating meat on the holy holiday, seal is considered to be more of a fish in Newfoundland and Labrador, he said.
“It’s not the same as a Vienna sausage,” he said in an interview, referring to a popular tinned meat product. “The seal itself is a fish almost in the sense of what it’s made up of, of what it eats.”
It's perhaps no surprise that Good Friday, which emphasizes eating fish on one of the holiest days in the Christian year, is taken seriously in a province that's home to both an active fishing industry and what the 2021 census suggests is the highest Christian population in the country.
Fish and chips restaurants in St. John's are packed beginning at 11 a.m. as the heady smell of deep-fried batter wafts down Freshwater Road, which is home to Ches' Fish and Chips and Leo's Restaurant and Take Out -- two of the city's most celebrated spots for what locals call "fee and chee."
There will be many Good Friday plates of crispy, flaky fish and fresh cut fries served in rural parts of the province too, said Andrea O'Brien of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.
"In lots of places outside of town, there's a lot of shed parties and house parties where fish and chips is being made," she said in an interview.
Eating seal — particularly in a flipper pie — on Good Friday is more common in St. John's, she said. In other parts of the province, it's tradition to eat freshly hunted seabirds, including turrs and saltwater ducks, she said.
"Those meats were considered OK," she said. "I don't know if it's because those meats come from the sea."
Ellen Reid grew up in St. John's eating flipper and flipper pie on Good Friday, often cooked by her mother or grandmother.
"In our family, I think we saw it as being a fish because it came from the ocean," Reid said in an interview. She described seal flipper as "kind of like a stewing meat," but not gamey or tough.
"It's almost like a dark meat version of turkey," she said. "I personally enjoy it because it has almost like a dessert texture."
The Reid family mostly got their flippers from Taylor's truck, she said.
Taylor, 69, has been selling seal meat since he was 12 years old. He and his seven brothers would go door to door selling fresh seal meat from their truck. They got the meat from the sealing boats which would pull up to the docks in Dildo, N.L., after days or even weeks among the ice floes.
Before big grocery stores arrived in Newfoundland, the Taylor brothers' product was the only fresh meat available in the spring, he said.
"We'd ask for a bread pan," he said. "And we'd run and put a chunk of seal or flippers or whatever they wanted in the pan, run back to the door and grab the money and run to the next door."
He now owns a store just outside St. John's in Conception Bay South called Taylor's Fresh Fish, Fruit and Vegetable Market. It's always busy before Easter with people buying Good Friday fish.
"But if we would have had seal, it would have been madness," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2023.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press