By Benson Hewitt
Some years back, and I remember those days, people in Newfoundland would be saying at this time of the year, "Well, the long and hungry month of March is upon us", and there would be no doubt about its meaning. Try to explain that to your average teenager today, as they go into the smallest of stores and see shelves and shelves packed with every conceivable food item, and not only is it available, but, generally speaking, the money is there to buy these items.
Let me go back to pre-confederation days, and explain what I remember of living in Barr'd Islands at the time. My father was a fisherman, and that meant that his livelihood and his family (a rather large one) depended on whether or not the fish were plentiful (which didn't seem to be the case too often), what the local merchant deemed it to be worth, and what he would arbitrarily charge him for the basics of a subsisted living - flour, tea, butter, molasses, and very little else.
Let me begin this essay on recalling a typical June 1 back then, and consider, if you will, that was the beginning of a new year for the typical fisherman. What's wrong with beginning the year in the summer, anyway? It was a special day in Barr'd Islands in that it was always referred to as "Trap Mark Day". At noon on that particular day someone, (and I seem to remember it being Chrissy Cobb), would fire off a powder-gun on Barr'd Island Head and fishermen from the environs of Barr'd Islands and Joe Batt's Arm would ‘drop' their markers, indicating where they would put their cod-traps for the summer season.
It was also at this particular time that fishermen, and, perhaps, other members of his family, more generally their wives, would be permitted to charge food items at the local store. The stress of feeding the family was lifted, although it only meant that now there was flour, tea, butter, and molasses. There would be no luxuries, like, say, a can of fruit! Nor would there be any fresh vegetables and fruit. The one plentiful commodity other than store-bought food was, of course, fish. Nobody would be hungry, in the strict sense of that word. Although the soil was rocky and infertile, people at this time planted gardens, mostly of potatoes, with a few turnips and cabbages.
In the fall the fishermen, when the fishing was over, would ‘clue up' with the merchant who would deduct from the amount he got for his fish the amount his family had charged during the fishing season.
With what was left over, and sometimes that was precious little, the fishermen bought his winter supplies of just the basics, - flour, butter, tea, molasses; sometime a little sugar, and perhaps some salt meat and pork, but he would have saved an adequate supply of salted fish - cod, herring, capelin, and salmon. Then, with the few potatoes he had grown and stored in his root cellar he and his family would have to survive the winter. I suppose it is fair to say, like it is today, not everyone was a good manager, and it wouldn't be long before the pantry was emptying. By the time the end of February was around, this would be wide-spread, and most people were aware that ‘the long and hungry month of March' was upon them.