A Love Letter to Jiggs Dinner

Picture of raw cabbage, carrots, a turnip, onions, and a bucket of Old Port salt beef.

Growing up in Newfoundland, I am a proud consumer of Jiggs dinner. I would argue that my Nanny Earle makes the best Jiggs, but every other Newfoundlander would likely argue that their Nanny also makes the best Jiggs.

Jiggs dinner, AKA cooked dinner, AKA Sunday dinner, is consumed here on the island by some families every single Sunday. For others, like me, it is a rare and delightful holiday treat. Traditionally consisting of boiled vegetables (carrots, potatoes, turnip, cabbage), salt beef (it is exactly what it sounds like: salted beef), and pease pudding (not my favourite – many disagree with me); Jiggs dinner often features a turkey, but I have had pork roast and chicken alongside as well. The best part: dressing with savoury and a worrisome amount of gravy.

As Christmas approaches, I am already dreaming of this deliciously dandy feed. Of course, this holiday season, no matter what the celebration is, will look very differently than those in the past for my family and all others around the world. However, food is one thing that brings everyone together. No matter the circumstances, food might be the ultimate unifier of people as it symbolizes something great about humanity: closeness and togetherness.

As this strange holiday season rolls around, I would like to shed some light on a Newfoundland classic which I believe warms the soul: the almighty Jiggs dinner. We Newfoundlanders are known for a few things – kindness, humour, Signal Hill, weird town names, perhaps maybe alcohol and definitely fun times – but our cuisine is not on the list. Although we might not be known for the best foods, I have never met a person who did not love Jiggs as much as I do.

Why “Jiggs”?

The origin story of Jiggs dinner is not what you might expect. “Jiggs” was a cartoon character in American cartoonist George McManus’s cartoon strip, Bringing Up Father. In the strip, the main character, Jiggs, is a working-class Irish immigrant who, upon winning a lot of money, makes his way to America. Once in America, though, he is newly rich, and the strip focuses on his wife, Maggie, attempting to make him act accordingly to their new social standing. Focusing on the issues of Irish American immigrants, including employment, class-based issues, and imposed assimilation onto Irish Catholics, Jiggs desires his old fun – his friends (who Maggie deems rowdy), and his signature meal, corned beef and cabbage – but instead, he must learn to ‘be rich’.

It is said that the name ‘Jiggs’ from Jiggs dinner originated from Jiggs the character. According to the 2016 census, 20.7 percent of Newfoundland families have Irish descent (following English descendants at 37.5 percent). It lines up, then, that the name may originate there.

So… what is Jiggs dinner?

According to my source (my mom), here is how one makes a Jiggs dinner: Soak peas and salt beef separately in water over night. The next morning, prepare your veggies. Get turkey in the oven. Drain salt beef and rinse a few times. Add to a pot with the veggies and water. Get it all boiling. Add cabbage to pot later so it stays firm. Boil peas in a pudding bag until soft. Make gravy. Serve.

Sounds simple enough, but as shown by this person’s experience, Jiggs dinner is not so easy. Typically served to a large crowd of people, it can seem a daunting task. I will never forget the heat from the boiling pot and the oven blazing from my Nanny’s kitchen while she’s cooking it. Not only the heat, but the volume in the house as all of our family gathers waiting to descend on our dinner must be overwhelming. Nonetheless, Nanny pulls er’ off every single holiday.

I am beyond grateful for my experience growing up here for many reasons: the music, my proximity to the ocean, the community, and of course… the Jiggs dinner. As said above, cultural foods are so significant. Although our Jiggs dinner might not travel the world as so many other cuisines have, I recommend everyone on the island to search it out at least once.

I wish you could all experience my Nanny’s Jiggs dinner, she’d feed the world if she could. For everyone celebrating this holiday season here, perhaps wishing they were home ‘up away’ for the holidays, I hope you can find a plate of Jiggs – be it from a friend, a neighbour, a family member, or someone else in between. Happy holidays, everyone.

Looking to try some other Newfoundland recipes? The website saltjunk.com features a ton!

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