Getting Screeched in Bonavista, Newfoundland
By Laurieanne Wysocki
The only way to become an honorary member of Newfoundland is to get ‘screeched’. Even if being an honorary member isn’t your thing, this is a great opportunity to meet, hang out, and have a lot of fun with the local Newfies.
Attend a ‘screech-in’ at any one of the handful of bars that perform the ceremony and you’ll go home not only with a membership certificate, but with fond memories of the time you willingly played the fool in public. In the 4-step process you’ll eat a little food, drink some rum, recite a few words of Olde English, and kiss a cod fish on the lips.
And yes, they have lips. No, they don’t bite; they can’t. They’re already dead.
As long as you can stomach a couple of shots of semi-palatable rum, swallow hard crusts of bread without water, and don’t mind chomping down a chunk of pickled bologna, – none of which are terribly threatening, you’ve got it made. Being adept at tongue twisters is useful but not essential. Blushing is optional.
I botched my initiation a number of times, not least because of my uncanny ability to slur my words when drinking copious amounts of hard alcohol. More than likely the idea of making out with a cold dead cod created a subconscious postponement, effectively delaying the achievement of immediate goals. In other words, who knows where those lips have been.
I haven’t been screeched in years (no snickering), yet I recall the experience often – as the certificate hangs on the wall above my desk, right up alongside the other diplomas of dubious distinction. Single Achievement in Montana’s Rock Creek Testicle Festival is among my favorites. Although “I had a ball at the festival,” as the local Rocky Mountain Oyster eaters like to say, ‘getting screeched’ had a participatory element I’ll not soon forget.
The Screech-In Ceremony
Don’t expect to get screeched in Quebec or Nunavut, Manitoba or Ontario; it’s strictly a Newfie thing. The most popular place to go is on George Street, in the city of St. Johns. Here they boast more bars on this one street than anywhere else in North America. Trapper John’s and Christian’s Pub are famous for the ‘screech-in’ initiation and draw the crowds. Each region in Newfoundland has acquired their own traditional ending to the ceremony; in St. John’s, one is required to kiss a puffin’s ass.
That’s why I’m happy I landed in The Town of Bonavista on my first day in Newfoundland. At least there they have the good common sense to substitute codfish face for puffin derriere.
I was working on the MV Polar Star, a former Swedish Maritime Icebreaker now retrofitted as an expedition vessel. After touring the sites of Bonavista with the passengers, I hooked up with fellow mates Kristian (from Norway), and Vidar (from Iceland), to grab a few beers and some lunch down by the wharf.
In front of the Ryan Premises and Bonavista Museum, we had the pleasure of meeting the town Mayor, Betty Fitzgerald. We were surprised when she offered to personally take us through one of the exhibits. None of us had the heart to tell her we’d already been through the museum. Not knowing how to say “No” to a mayor, we obliged and spent a delightful half hour in her company. The second time around was actually more enjoyable thanks to Betty’s humorous quips and sense of great pride in Bonavista’s fishing history.
Later on that day, stopping at Walkham’s Gate Pub for a pint of Newfoundland’s Quidi Vidi and a plate of fish n’ chips, we ran into Betty again.
“Oh great, you’ve come to get screeched!” she said, jumping up from her table. That was the first time any of us had heard the term; we didn’t have a clue to what she was talking about. Then she yelled to the bartender, “Go get the fish!”
Betty served us a greasy paper plate of toothpick-stabbed bologna and squares of stale bread, more like caraway croutons than anything. “Where’s her hospitality now?” we
thought. But then she grabbed the bottle of Screech Rum and poured out three shots. Suddenly, all was forgiven.
“Now stand over here where everyone can see you,” she commanded. We obeyed, following her to a little platform in the front of the dining room. Several people put down their forks.
Betty said, “First you’re going to eat the meat, then the bread. After that, I’m going to ask each one of you ‘if ye wanna be an honorary Newfoundlander?’ You’ll drink the rum followed by a quick reply of, ‘Indeed I is me ol’ cock, and long may your big jib draw’. The jib is the big sail on a schooner and as long as it draws wind, you’ll have good sailing. So indeed you’re wishing me well by saying, ‘Long may you have good luck’”.
Then she added, “If you can’t say it correctly, you have to drink another shot ‘til you do. But if you get it right the first time and we feel that you are sincere in wishing us well, then just kiss the fish on the lips and you’re done! You’ll be an honorary Newfoundlander. I’ll sign your certificate!”
Having spent a fair amount of time in the pubs of Norway and Iceland drinking fermented pota
to mash, Aquavit, (Norwegian Water of Life) and Brennivin (The Black Death of Iceland), Kristian and Vidar were eager to try what has become the national drink of Newfoundland. Even though Screech Rum has Caribbean roots and is nothing like the distilled potato vodkas, they were keen on getting their screech on. With ancestral Viking blood coursing through their veins, one at a time, they skillfully mastered the tasks and triumphed in true Norse style.
I, on the other hand, exhibited all the grace and skill of a cliff-tumbling lemming. In spite of the 40% alcohol content, I didn’t have a problem downing the first shot of Screech Rum; I simply couldn’t get my tongue around the words, ‘big jib draw’. I said ‘big jib jaw’ instead. Betty filled the tumbler.
On my second try, I messed up ‘I is me ol’ cock’ – and you wonder why. The gender specific nature of the statement must have caused me to falter. Bam. Another shot of Screech.
Maybe it was a subliminal effort to get more free booze. But honestly, I think I have to blame KC and the Sunshine Band for my failure to get it right. In my head I was singing, “Do a little, dance, kiss a little fish, get screeched tonight, – get screeched tonight”. In any case, it took three tries before earning my honorary Newfoundlandic membership.
The story goes that a World War II serviceman, after partaking in a dinner of typical Newfie hospitality, politely followed his host in gulping down a shot of caramel-colored rum. Back then, the flammable liquor wasn’t as refined as it is now, although that didn’t bother the Newfies. They had a reputation for tolerance, not least their abundant consumption and the effects of which it produced. The officer was ill-prepared.
Unaccustomed to potent libations, he let out such a whopping howl that it
caused his sergeant to come running and pound on the door of the house. He demanded to know, “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?” The Newfoundlander who opened the door simply replied, “The screech? -‘Tis the rum, me son”.
The other soldiers heard the story and wanted to try it for themselves. Many became acquainted with the drink and its international reputation soared. The name stuck and thus a legend was born.
Yet Newfoundlanders have been drinking a nameless version of Screech since the beginning of the sixteenth century, by way of established trade with the Dutch West Indies. They traded cargo holds of salted cod fish for barrels of rum.
There are as many tall tales about the origination of Screech as there are fish in the sea. Just sit next to a Newfie in a local pub and you’re bound to hear a version or two.
Some say Screech was first created in the days of the Triangle Trade, when the same barrels were used to carry both molasses and rum between Europe, the Caribbean or Africa, and the New World. The barrels, rarely cleaned, built up a deposit of sediment at the bottom, which was then melted out with boiling water and fermented with grain alcohol.
This bottom of the barrel concoction developed over the years, yet the product remained label-less well into the 20th century, even after the government took control of the liquor business and began selling it.
Today it is an award winning rum made and bottled in Jamaica, in a process very similar to the making of most rums: fermentation of sugarcane, distillation, aging and blending.
In spite of Screech’s popularity, Newfies tend to skip over the fact that their national drink isn’t made in their country. I wouldn’t bring it up.
Things to see and do in Bonavista
Bonavista is a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly town. Church Street, in the area called The Harbour, offers one long road to wander with accessible side streets meandering off in all directions. With over 1000 heritage buildings dotting the landscape -some painted in white, many in the bold, traditional colors, -the surrounding low-hills of Bonavista draw you in and beg what the locals call a ‘walk-about’.
Stroll along the winding streets that nestle the bay or walk down the long wharves and piers that jet out into the harbor. You’ll meet commercial fishermen and local boaters alike who won’t hesitate to spread some o
f that Newfie hospitality. If you’re lucky, they might just have a bottle of Screech on hand.
The Matthew Legacy and John Cabot
Bonavista is also famous for being ‘discovered’ by the Italian, Giovanni Caboto in 1497, sailing on The Matthew for King Henry VII. After two months on the Atlantic Ocean searching for the passage to the Far East, upon seeing land for the first time he cried out, “O Buona Vista” – Oh happy site!
The original Matthew was a decked vessel of fifty tons and carried three masts. A full-scale replica has its own dock in Bonavista and can be toured, May through September; in the winter it is housed inside the Matthew Legacy Building where there are also exhibits detailing the life of John Cabot.
Also of interest:
Icebergs, Puffins, and Whales Oh My!
Over 40,000 icebergs annually break away from the edges of glaciers in Greenland and from glaciers already cruising Canada’s North Atlantic Ocean. They come down Iceberg Alley, carried south on the Labrador Current,
arriving in Bonavista by May and can still be seen as late as July. A great place to look out for icebergs is at the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse.
Newfoundland is home to hundreds of Atlantic Puffin colonies. The colony near Bonavista is perhaps one of North America’s most accessible puffin habitats. The rugged cliffs along the miles of coastline outside of town offer many hiking trails where you can see puffins take off from the rocks and return with fish laden beaks. There is also a colony near the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse where you can walk within a few feet of them.
Puffins usually arrive in Bonavista in early spring; the best time to see them is during breeding season, May through August, when the beaks are brightly clown-colored. By September, the color of their beaks as well as their presence in the colony fades as the puffins head out to sea for winter feeding.
Also, between May and September, humpback and orca whales can be seen breaching surface water out in the bay and playing along the shores. Many have been seen right from the harbor in Bonavista.
Lancaster Boat Tours Bonavista
Two-hour tours along the coast at Cape Bonavista and the headlands of Lancaster. Stay at the Lancaster Inn and receive coupons for meals and above tour.
+1 (709) 468 5656
Iceberg Quest Ocean Tours- St. John’s St. John’s
Depart from historic St. John’s harbor front to view the City of Legends as explorers did centuries ago. Whales, Puffins and icebergs await you as you sail through the Narrows.
Tours to see whales, icebergs, birds, and coastal scenery. Craft shop with locally made quality handcarts. Restaurant features traditional meals made with local seafood.
+1 (709) 464 2133
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Laurieanne Wysocki is a professional guide who travels with groups all over Europe. She’s also an artist and writer, and lives in Western Massachusetts.