Many cities in Canada and elsewhere have an annual holiday parade, with the usual cast of characters—Santa, reindeer, perhaps a sugarplum fairy or two. But the holiday parade that marches through St. John’s, Newfoundland every December has an unusual special guest: The Big Stick, an anthropomorphic log of bologna.
“He’s been there as long as I can remember, to be honest with you,” says Gaylynne Lambert, marketing manager for Downtown St. John’s, says of The Big Stick. “Now if he’s not there every year there’s something wrong.”
Why bologna? Newfoundlers are known across Canada for their sense of humor, but that’s not why their Christmas parade has a walking bologna in it. It’s just that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s youngest province, really like bologna. They like it so much that they consume about a third of the bologna produced in the country, an amazing and slightly alarming feat for a province of about 520,000 people in a country of 35 million.
“A lot of my friends on the west coast [of Newfoundland], they keep telling me if they don’t have bologna in their fridge they’ve got nothing to eat,” said Kevin Phillips, a native Newfoundlander now living in Oakville and the author of The Bologna Cookbook. Like many in the province, Phillips grew up with bologna as a household staple and it was a top seller at the general store his father owned in the 1950s. “He would sell bologna by hundreds of pounds in a week.”
Phillips left Newfoundland in adulthood, first to join the Canadian military and then to start his second career as a chef. He eventually decided to write a cookbook to preserve and share the recipes of his home province with a wider audience. But in compiling those recipes, he found one ingredient stood out: bologna “All of a sudden I get all these recipes and they were all bologna,” Phillips says. “When people talk about Newfoundland recipes if it’s not codfish and potatoes and salt fish, it’s bologna.”
Think of bologna as the Spam of the North Atlantic, as beloved here as its porky canned cousin is to Hawaiians. Bologna is the working-class cousin of Italy’s mortadella but without the visible lard, thanks to its regulated fine grind. In North America bologna products are made from a mix of pork, chicken, beef, turkey, and bacon, along with a variety of additives and flavorings that help give the meat its distinctive taste. It’s a source of protein but also high in fat and sodium. It may be tasty and it’s definitely inexpensive, but it’s not healthy.
But that has not stopped Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and sales stats from Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s top producer of packaged meats and the annual sponsor of the Big Stick, show they eat about five pounds of bologna, a.k.a. “Newfie steak,” per person per year. “We sell probably 10 times per capita average here compared to other parts of Canada,” says Scott Warren, Maple Leaf’s Newfoundland customer business development manager.
It’s Warren’s 21-year-old son who wears The Big Stick suit in the Santa Claus parade these days, after the company paid for a new suit about five years ago, when the original wore out after years of appearances in parades, community festivals, and local picnics. “He got the funny look on his face, and he’s got the big funny feet, and almost a stupid smile. My son’s pretty good at playing it up,” Warren says of the suit’s annual appearance in the parade--a tradition that dates back about 25 years, to the mascot’s first incarnation.“
The meat’s popularity is borne of practicality in a province built on its cod fishery, where when people say “fish” they mean cod. Other protein sources were often cost prohibitive, especially in a rocky and cold province that lacked large-scale farming and livestock industries.
But bologna? That was cheap, and the wax-covered tubes found in general stores across the province lasted for months. Newfoundland and Labrador is remote, and lacks usable farmland—the province still imports ninety percent of its produce. Bologna is among a variety of shelf-stable and unusual foods to find a welcome audience here, the king of a list that includes Vienna sausages, Fussell’s tinned cream, and Pineapple Crush soda.
And as is turns out, bologna can also be pretty versatile. The meat is generally eaten one of three ways in the province: sliced in a sandwich, served alongside potatoes and peas and gravy for supper, or fried in thick steaks with eggs for breakfast. For The Bologna Cookbook Kevin Phillips actually came up with 200 recipes for bologna, covering everything from stir-fried bologna over couscous to bologna stroganoff.
A lot has changed in Newfoundland and Labrador in recent decades. Meat is still expensive, but it’s easier than ever before to get chicken, beef, and other proteins, both locally and from Canada’s mainland. And a burgeoning food movement is encouraging Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to embrace their Nordic-like native cuisine: moose, sea birds, rabbits, wild berries, and root vegetables.
But bologna remains popular despite the availability of other options. When The Big Stick arrives in the Santa Claus parade he gets a wide berth and an enthusiastic response. Photos are taken and posted on social media. But for locals, that weird and adorable stick of bologna is the annual mascot of the holidays, as well as a favorite meal ingredient.
“Now he’s an icon in the parade. Everyone looks for him because it’s so funny and ridiculous at the same time,” Lambert says. “We’re a little bit quirky over here on The Rock, and we just celebrate that.”