To become an honorary Newfoundlander, there’s a ritual where you recite a limerick, kiss a cod, and down a shot of the local booze, Screech Rum. As you might expect, it’s a big hit in bars, where sometimes visitors, usually a little tipsy, are invited to stand on the bar and shout out the verse, before kissing the fish and claiming their new status as a local in front of a crowd.
I’d heard about the ceremony and about the history of the rum, which is pretty fascinating, if it’s true, but being long past the stage in life of jumping up on bars while drunk tourists egg you on, I wanted to find a more “dignified” experience of getting screeched in. I had heard of the “Screech Room,” a shop located in a former Masonic Temple, in St. John’s, which is also home to a dinner theater company called the “Spirit of Newfoundland.” As a sort of sideline in between shows, the company created a café/bar where customers can buy Screech Rum, products made with it, like cakes, order drinks, and of course, get screeched in.
Before you take a sip though, you need to know the background of the liquor. The guide told the story, widely repeated in Newfoundland, of how the origins of the booze date back more than 200 years to when Newfoundlanders traded their salt fish for rum. As a result of the trade, so it’s said, salt fish became a national dish for Jamaicans and rum became a traditional drink for Newfoundlanders.
Supposedly it never had a name, but when an American soldier came to Newfoundland during World War II, he downed a shot of the rum, which is quite strong, and then made a very loud noise. The rest, as they say, is history, and that’s how Screech got its name. Kissing the cod is a symbol of bon voyage to those who were sailing to Jamaica and returning with the rum.
For the ceremony, many places just use a plastic cod, or a stuffed animal, but not at the Screech Room. The friend I dragged along with me and I were shocked to see the enormous frozen cod we were meant to kiss as a requirement to join the “Royal Order of Newfoundland Screechers.”
We puckered up, kissed the giant, somewhat smelly thing, and downed our shots. And then we had another.
Visitors to St. John’s can get screeched in at many places, but the Screech Room, located at 6 Cathedral Street, makes kissing a dead fish and drinking a shot as classy as it can possibly be. www.spiritofnewfoundland.com.
Kim Foley MacKinnon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.