This past March, a Newfoundlander named Nora Fitzgerald was driving across the border from New Brunswick to Maine to do a little vacation shopping when the U.S. customs agent asked her about the fuzzy gray purse she was carrying.
“I said, ‘Yes, it’s sealskin … I get compliments on it wherever I go,’” she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation a few days later. The U.S. agent had stopped her car, confiscated the purse, and fined her $250 for violating the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.
A group of Newfoundlanders told me about Nora Fitzgerald three glasses of wine into a five-course tasting menu at Raymonds in St. John’s, Newfoundland—between the lobster medallions with carrot purée and the wild rabbit and mushroom cavatappi, I think—after I confessed I had been hoping chef Jeremy Charles was going to serve seal meat for dinner.
St. John’s is a city of 100,000 on one of the easternmost points in North America, several hundred miles closer to Nuuk, Greenland, than to Washington, D.C. Newfoundlanders speak with an accent that echoes Ireland, or perhaps a ship of very polite pirates. The island has a growing season so short that rhubarb and radishes only appear at the farmers’ market on the cusp of the summer months, when my husband and I visited, and the province imports 90 percent of its food.
Charles’s ability to work lichen and grouse and partridgeberries into dishes that you are compelled to spin around before you eat, lifting herb fronds with the tine of a fork to peer at the marvels underneath, has earned him entrance to Cook It Raw gatherings and New York Times features.
Before we left for St. John’s, I watched every one of the videos posted about him on YouTube (there are at least thirteen, and it didn’t take but an hour and a half). In one of them, the chef—ginger-haired and sturdy, who smiles into a squint that scouts for blow spouts above the surface of the waves—was hauling flanks of meat into a restaurant for a seal-focused feast. “It’s a wild, beautiful, organic meat that’s sustainably harvested,” he told the camera. “Whether it’s raw or cured, braised or stewed, it’s delicious.” The video pictured seal loins cooked à la ficelle in front of an open fire, and diners plucking chunks of roasted meat out of a cast-iron skillet. I began telling everyone I knew that I was heading to Newfoundland to eat seal, or rather, tried to drop it into the conversation in the same way you mention that your new car is a Tesla or that you’ve just taken your first ayahuasca trip at an Amazon resort.
It was hard to judge what the Newfoundlanders who were telling me about the sealskin purse felt about the confiscation. Outrage, yes. Perhaps some guilt. Definitely that same mix of pride and wariness that emerged when a visitor from San Francisco asked overenthusiastic questions about their local foodways. Should he eat cod tongues? What about scrunchions (fried salt pork)? Were toutons (fried lumps of dough served with molasses at breakfast) any good?
And what about seal? None of them had ever tasted it, though one woman brought out a bristly blue sealskin wallet to pass around the table. Seal hunting is usually associated with the Arctic and Atlantic regions of Canada. Since the sixteenth century, fisherman have conducted massive seal hunts—at first for food, but later for oil and sealskin as well, exporting them east across the Atlantic.
In 1965, the government began setting quotas on the harp seal hunt, and seal populations have since risen sixfold since the ’70s, to around 7.4 million. In recent years, though, Canada has found the sealskin trade boxed in by import bans in both the E.U. and the U.S. (Last year’s quota was 400,000 pelts; hunters brought in less than 55,000.)
Newfoundland’s fisheries ministry closed the country’s largest cod fishery in 1992, and more than one Newfoundlander I talked to claimed the seals had been eating all the cod, preventing the stocks from replenishing. (This is no mere conspiracy theory, according to the Canadian government.) Newfoundlanders, raised on salt cod and cod tongues, fish and chips and cod au gratin, take the loss of cod personally. Seals have found themselves the object of an island-wide grudge.
The government has been trying, tentatively, to promote seal products, including meat. In 2014 the provincial governments of Ottawa and Newfoundland and Labrador gave almost $500,000 Canadian to a group called the Atlantic Seal Development Association to conduct market research and develop seal-meat products (the project is still in the works). In the FAQ on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website, the agency defends the sustainability of the hunt and describes the traditional spiked club, or hakapik, as “a tool designed to harvest the animal quickly and humanely.”
In 2014, a group of Inuit artists and activists launched a social-media campaign to defend the traditional hunt against anti-fur activists. A few months later, the national government backed them up. On February 3, 2015, inscribed in the official annals as Seal Day, Ottawa politicians tweeted photos from a Sealfie booth, stiffly posing in sealskin jackets and hats.
The two best chefs in St. John’s—Jeremy Charles and Mallard Cottage’s Todd Perrin—have both prepared seal dinners, particularly after the hunt in the spring. At the end of the meal at Raymonds, I asked the waiter whether Charles usually serves seal. “It’s rich and quite strong-tasting,” he replied after a few still seconds of mental editing. “If the chef served it, it would probably be in very small amounts.”
In the days after our meal, my husband and I walked all over St. John’s, whose narrow streets are lined with square row houses painted in the kinds of colors most clothing manufacturers wouldn’t dare use. In stripes of midnight blue, sage, and fluorescent pumpkin, the city ripples its way around the edge of the continent, the so-called jellybean rows fading inland into strip malls and wind-scoured hills.
On between-walk naps, I Googled “seal meat St. John’s,” over and over, studying menus and texting our host for clues. We passed sealskin bow ties modeled on toddler-sized mannequins at a craft fair. At the Natural Boutique downtown, I ran inside to run my fingers up and down silvery sealskin boots and jackets. My husband, a lifelong vegetarian, stood outside, back turned to the display, yet picked up an “I [club] baby seals” sticker from a nearby souvenir shop.
I couldn’t quite understand how I became so driven to taste a meat that I’d been warned was “quite strong-tasting.” Was there darker motive beyond mere curiosity? Just checking another species off the list? Some primal response to a new landscape—conquer and devour?
I was reminded of meeting a friend’s daughter for the first time, when she was at the age of four months. She was all eyes and half-pursed mouth, which she kept flicking her tongue in and out of. “Babies at this age are a little reptilian,” Emily said. As her daughter tasted the air with her tongue, her first tactile exploration of the world, I wondered if the iguanian genes presented more strongly in some of us than others.
The air of St. John’s in late June, if you’re wondering, tastes like cold brine and lilacs. Flick-flick-flick dried Newfoundland savoury. Flick-flick-flick cured moose.
On our last day in town, I located seal-flipper pie at Belbin’s, a market that prepares Newfoundland specialties to sell in its freezer cases. The pies came in lunch, individual, and family sizes. “May have come in contact with nuts,” the label warned. The cashier barely looked at the pie when ringing me up, wasting the defensive grin I’d pasted onto my face, and “Oh, I’ve been hearing how good seal was” quip I’d been rehearsing on the walk over.
I heated the stew part of the pie in the microwave, baking the pastry cap separately as the directions instructed. As the ice crystals retreated, the seal stew—braised with a few vegetables and stock—resembled more and more a thick sludge, as if someone had boiled carrots in swamp mud. The microwave exhaled humid, fishy air.
I brought the plastic tray out of the microwave, flipped the now-crisp biscuit cap back on top, and speared one of the smaller hunks.
Seal flipper tasted like bear meat cooked with seaweed: dusky, feral, tidal. I grabbed a can of lager, sucked down half of it, took another bite. Flick-flick-flick Newfoundland. The rest went into the trash.
Dismissing seal meat based on one frozen grocery-store pie seems as valid as telling your fellow Parisians that you’d eaten a box of White Castle frozen steamers to prove the barbarity of America’s passion for tiny hamburgers. But Newfoundlanders, not to mention the rest of the world, may need more enticement to roast seal loin or braise seal flipper than the need to cull the herd.
Late-winter starvation breeds quite an appetite. Five hundred years after the seal hunts began, when hunger can easily be fixed with a Tim Hortons breakfast sandwich or a Chilean peach, a taste for the meat must be relearned. Perhaps the Atlantic Seal Development Association will settle on a solution like organic, local seal jerky. Everyone loves jerky, after all. It slips between the pages of a magazine in your carry-on much better than a fuzzy gray purse.