In northern Alberta, now home to much of Newfoundland’s menfolk, there is an unofficially recognized, four-step citizenship process for newcomers.
Drive a Ford F150, find work in the oilpatch near Fort McMurray, eat Alberta beef and cheer for the Oilers — presto, you belong.
In Newfoundland, it’s much easier for an Albertan to assume the position. In fact, there is a short ceremony tailor-made for that purpose. Fire back a shot of rum, recite two time-honoured lines of Newfinese, kiss a fish — presto, you’re a cod-carrying member of a quirky little club located at least 30 minutes east of everything else in Canada.
The ceremony is called a Screech-In. Though it sounds like a great name for a convenience store on the Trans Canada Highway, it’s their de facto entrance exam, and as such, it complies with the population’s trademark desire for simplification. You see, they don’t tolerate complexity out there on the Rock.
According to the brains behind Newfoundland 101, a funny and informative production staged at the Captain’s Pub on the ground floor of the Anchor Inn in delightful Twillingate, the shortest meaningful conversation in human history occurred as two fishermen passed one another in a Newfoundland cove.
“Arn?” asked the hopeful one on his way out to sea. “Narn,” replied the disappointed one, on his way back to the dock.
So there you go.
In general, though Newfoundlanders are friendly, they are loathe to explain themselves twice, such is their disdain for complication.
“If you don’t understand it, you will,” said Winston Cutler, our truly accommodating host at the Hillside B & B in Twillingate.
And if you don’t pass the entrance exam the first time, kiss the fish. Stumble through the second go? Pucker up. Bungle a third? You guessed it.
By the time I finally nailed all 13 words necessary to pass the test, the (thankfully frozen) fish and I were engaged. Therese fared far better, reaching peak Newfoundlander on her first attempt. And she looked way better in the required Sou’wester, too.
The entrance exam text is pure Newfoundland gold, starting with the prompt from the master of ceremonies who recites his own introductory verse and then asks: “Are ye a Screecher?”
The required answer: “’Deed I is, me ol’ cock. And long may yer big jib draw.”
Translation: “Indeed I am, my old friend. And long may your sails be full of wind.”
Sounds easy. But it’s not likely going to be that simple. You see, the Screech-In at the Captain’s Pub is a cacophonous ceremony fuelled not only by the initial shot of the province’s most famous rum, but the two or three bottles of Iceberg beer that flowed so smoothly out of their startling cobalt blue bottles as we watched the first act of Newfoundland 101. The beer, a light lager, is certainly good enough, though a tad expensive compared to most domestic brews on offer all over the island and remarkable more for the fact that the label says it is made with water from 25,000-year-old ice. We’ll take their word for it.
It emanates from the Quidi Vidi Brewery, an oceanside, craft beer operation that also produces more substantial lagers, ambers and ales. It’s a fine lineup and we sampled all of them. Not that night, you understand. Everything in moderation. We also did a flight at YellowBelly Brewery and Public House in downtown St. John’s on another night. We tried ales, wheats, lagers and a stout. Yum.
Anyway, there is much laughing among Screechers-in-waiting and other Newfoundland 101 audience members and it’s a bit hard to concentrate, which is the whole point of the uproar. Because Screech-In ceremonies also comply with what appears to be Newfoundlanders’ innate desire to have fun, and only some of it at the expense of CFAs like us. That’s Come-From-Aways. If you weren’t born on the Rock, you’re a CFA. As noted by the cast of Newfoundland 101, CFAs are welcomed with open arms by locals because tourist dollars send planeloads of said locals to Florida every winter.
But back to the Screech. Its origin story is legend, and in no way verifiable, but the province’s liquor corporation backs it to the hilt. The story goes that an American serviceman, stationed in Newfoundland during the Second World War, let out a horrible screech shortly after ingesting his first taste of the 40 per cent hooch from the West Indies, which was distributed throughout Newfoundland at the time in unlabelled bottles.
His howling drew the attention of a bystander, who asked what all the screeching was about.
An apparently “taciturn” local is said to have answered: “The screech? Tis the rum, me son.”
The name stuck. Or so we’re told.
Maine-based writer Martin Connelly scribbled a lovely and extensive piece that explores the legend for The Morning News, an online magazine published weekdays since 1999.
In it, he quotes the late, great Canadian author Farley Mowat proferring a somewhat different origin story for the liquor in his 1969 novel The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float:
“In times gone by, it was made by pouring boiling water into empty rum barrels to dissolve whatever rummish remains might have lingered there. Molasses and yeast were added to the black, resultant fluid, and this mixture was allowed to ferment for a decent length of time before it was distilled. Sometimes it was aged for a few days in a jar containing a plug of … chewing tobacco.
However the old ways have given way to the new, and Screech is now a different beast. It is the worst conceivable quality of Caribbean rum, bottled by the Newfoundland government under the Screech label, and sold to poor devils who have no great desire to continue living.”
There wouldn’t have been any Screech-Ins at that point in Newfie history. Connelly writes that the ceremony’s mid-1970s origins have been credited to two men, Merle Vokey and Fred Walsh, acting independently though more or less at the behest of officials with the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation. All involved were most likely motivated by the desire to part visitors from their money, in a highly enjoyable and entertaining fashion, of course.
Connelly writes that the first photographic evidence of the ceremony was shot in the Screech Club inside the Country Club, which was then the largest night club in St. John’s. Walsh was the entertainment and business manager of the Country Club.
Rules and rites have evolved over time and there are variations, but I understand the officiant must be a born-and-bred Newfoundlander. There are about 500,000 from which to choose, and they can be found in great, boisterous clusters on George Street in St. John’s, the much heralded home to live music and livelier crowds fuelled by all sorts of spirits. There are 22 bars and pubs on the tiny strip, making it the densest concentration in North America. (That’s not an insult). At least two of those joints will perform a Screech-In.
At Christian’s, the oldest bar on George Street, Vokey’s son Keith does the honours. He’s apparently up to 60,000 or so and has Screeched-In Princess Leia, according to this piece in The National Post.
For those who won’t stand (or smooch) on ceremony, three varieties of Screech — Original, Spiced and Honey — can also be found in 27 NLC Liquor Stores and 122 smaller Liquor Express outlets, for about $33 per bottle. That’s at least six bucks higher than it is in Ontario, due to the reality of taxation within a small population. And you can get it for $23 at the Halifax Duty Free.
It has a local competitor, George Street Spiced, a rum made by Rock Spirits of St. John’s. No back story, no ceremony, but a locally produced bottle nonetheless. And it’s $2 cheaper than its famous rival.
But Screech is far more ubiquitous. It’s in chocolates and chocolate sauce, cake, coffee, tea and barbecue sauce. Some would say it’s in their veins.
Mostly though, it’s a crucial ingredient in a great night on the town for a CFA, somewhere in Newfoundland.