In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, The Takeout is celebrating the nation’s culinary contributions all week long. We hope you enjoy Canada Week.
Unless you’ve spent time in Canada’s rugged northeastern province of Newfoundland and Labrador or watched the episode of Parts Unknown in which Anthony Bourdain roughs it by indulging in a feast of local moose eaten upon a bearskin rug by the sea, you might not have heard of Jigg’s Dinner. This classic comfort food is a variation on a traditional Irish boiled dinner of corned beef and cabbage with a few variations that make it uniquely Canadian.
Jigg’s Dinner is named after the main character in a popular American comic strip called Bringing Up Father, created by George McManus in 1913. The story follows Jiggs and Maggie, an Irish-American couple who win the lottery and become unexpectedly rich. While Maggie takes well to their new lifestyle, Jiggs just wants to hang out with his old friends and eat corned beef and cabbage, hence the name Jigg’s Dinner; the incorrectly placed apostrophe is a reference to Jiggs’ intellect.
The central conflict of the comic in its early days was between the social climbing “lace curtain” Irish sensibilities of Maggie and the lowbrow “shanty Irish” tendencies of Jiggs. It makes sense that a comic strip detailing the challenges of assimilation and the internal class struggles faced by Irish immigrants resonated in Newfoundland and Labrador. By the mid-1800s, more than 50% of the region’s population was Irish. They were, at first, transient workers, there to take advantage of seasonal fishing jobs during a time when Ireland’s economy was struggling. Many of the Irish migrants to Newfoundland were from the coastal counties in Ireland’s southeast, and it’s easy to see how the rugged Atlantic shores of Canada could become a congenial new home, filled with the promise of economic prosperity.
I first learned about Jigg’s Dinner while watching Parts Unknown, and was struck by how similar it seemed to the corned beef and cabbage I grew up eating every year around St. Patrick’s Day. My grandfather moved to the United States from Ireland as a young adult, and my mom’s side of the family is typically Irish-American, and every March, eating corned beef and cabbage with a side of my grandma’s raisin-studded soda bread was practically a religious event. I’d heard my grandpa talking about “puddings” and knew that he didn’t mean the Kraft chocolate pudding packs I brought to school as a snack. Making Jigg’s Dinner seemed like an interesting way to connect with something that might be closer to what he ate back in Ireland.
The Jigg’s Dinner of Newfoundland bears many similarities to the Americanized version of the classic Irish boiled dinner, though there are some significant differences. For starters, salt beef rather than corned beef is typical, and in many cases, the meal is accompanied by a second roasted meat, often turkey. The beef is boiled in a pot of water along with onions, cabbage, potatoes, turnips, and carrots, but there are two very unique components to Newfoundland’s Jigg’s Dinner: the puddings. A traditional Jigg’s Dinner always includes pease pudding, and often some version of figgy duff. And unlike in America, in Newfoundland it’s still eaten somewhat regularly, and all year round.
Pease pudding or pease porridge is made from dried yellow split peas that are soaked, rinsed, and tied up in cheesecloth before being cooked in the pot along with the rest of the dinner. Untie the parcel and you’re rewarded with a mild, velvety mash that’s infused with the rich flavors of the pot liquor.
Figgy duff, or the popular blueberry duff variant, is a traditional sweet steamed pudding, a cousin to the English classic spotted dick. You won’t find any figs in figgy pudding, because in this case, the term “figgy” is actually a reference to the old Cornish term for raisins. In Newfoundland blueberries are plentiful, and they’re often swapped for raisins. Every family has its own recipe, but the basics are the same: a biscuit-like dough is wrapped up in a cloth bag and boiled for around two hours along with the rest of the Jigg’s Dinner. To those unfamiliar with the method, it sounds bizarre, but when I took a stab at making my own version of Newfoundland’s favorite food, the blueberry duff was my favorite part. The duff is cut into slices and, depending on personal preference, served as a side dish or eaten with coffee or tea as a dessert.
Condiments vary depending on who’s making the dinner. Some cooks make a thin gravy from the pot liquor (I did, and I recommend it), but others forego that extra step. Pickled beets, cranberry sauce, and mustard pickles are also common, but not strictly necessary. Arguably the most important component of a great Jigg’s Dinner is the company in which it is served. This is a big, hearty dish, designed for a crowd, and for leftovers that can be fried up as a hash the next day. It’s an opportunity to slow down, spend an entire day cooking, and connect with the people who matter most.
Serves 4, with leftovers
There is no one right way to make Jigg’s Dinner, so feel free to tweak things here and there. Since traditional preparations vary from one family to another, use this as a guide to make your own heirloom recipe. You’ll notice that there aren’t any additional seasonings, and that’s important: you want to let the flavor of each individual component shine, enriched by the broth that the cooking process creates.
Since salt beef is not as readily available in the United States, I’ve swapped in corned beef. Both are good. Be sure to use butcher’s twine or a strip of cheesecloth to tie off your pudding bags, and secure them well so the pot liquor can infuse into the puddings and not the other way around. Some say that you must double-bag the duff, but I found the slightly savory flavor of the broth to be a delicious counterpart to the sweetness of dried blueberries.
- A large stock pot
- 2 pieces of cheesecloth, 2 square yards each
- 3 lbs. corned beef
- 1 large sweet onion, sliced
- 1 lb. dried yellow split peas
- 1 bunch carrots, cut into large chunks
- 3-4 medium turnips, quartered
- 6-8 small yellow potatoes or 3 large potatoes, quartered
- 1 small head of Savoy cabbage, quartered
- 2½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¾ cup milk
- ⅓ cup melted butter
- 1 cup of dried or frozen blueberries (raisins can be substituted)
The night before you plan to make Jigg’s Dinner, soak the corned beef and the dried yellow peas separately. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t plan ahead, rinse the corned beef thoroughly in at least 5 changes of water. You can do without soaking the peas.
Rinse the corned beef and pat dry, then place in the bottom of the stock pot along with the sliced onions. Cover with 2-3 inches of cold water.
Fold one of your pieces of cheesecloth in quarters so it makes a large square with four layers of fabric. Rinse the peas and pour them into the center of the square, then gather up the corners to make a parcel. Tie it off with butcher’s twine, and place in the pot with the corned beef and onions. Bring everything to a rolling boil, then reduce to a low simmer.
Once the meat and peas have been cooking for about an hour, start making the duff. In a medium mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients for the blueberry duff, including the berries. Add the milk and melted butter and mix with a rubber spatula until just combined; overmixing will result in a dense, chewy pudding. Prepare a second square of cheesecloth, dampen it, and then wring it out. Lay the square flat and pile the duff batter into the center, then gather all four corners and make a parcel. Tie it off, leaving a half-inch of space for the pudding to expand. Place that in the pot along with everything else.
As a rule, you’ll want to simmer your Jigg’s Dinner for an hour per pound of meat. When you have around 45 minutes left, add the vegetables to the pot and continue cooking.
To serve, remove the puddings from the pot first. Remove the pease pudding from the cheesecloth and set aside in a bowl. Remove the blueberry duff and cut into thick slices to serve with the dinner or afterwards as a dessert. Jigg’s Dinner is best eaten family-style, with whatever condiments you prefer. A quick gravy can be made from whisking two tablespoons each of butter and flour with two cups of pot liquor in a small saucepan over medium heat.