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Fogo Means Fire. It Also Means Cod.

Mitchell Davis

October 05, 2018

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Fogo Island Inn by Mitchell Davis
Fogo Island Inn (Photo: Mitchell Davis)

Earlier this year, our chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis traveled to the far-flung reaches of eastern Canada to visit Fogo Island, the home of an innovative inn that is hoping to spark an evolution in the community around it. The team from the Fogo Island Inn will bring a bit of their Newfoundland flavor to the Beard House in early 2019—sign up for our events newsletter to stay in the loop.

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How does a remote island community thrive in a global economy while maintaining its unique culture and identity? On Fogo Island off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland, a woman with a vision and an inn is making a case for the transformative power of hospitality, art, and food.

You can’t get there from here. Okay, you can, but if here is New York City and there is the Fogo Island Inn, it requires multiple flights, a long drive, a ferry, and another drive—at least a half day of travel all told. (Air Canada is making the trip from New York easier soon.) My Canadian food friend Bonnie Stern had been talking about this special place for years, and so when I decided to make the trek and reconnect with the talented chef Jonathan Gushue, who recently assumed the helm of the inn’s kitchen, I offered to contribute something while I was there. But what?

At the James Beard Foundation, we have been exploring some topics in our Impact programming that I thought might be relevant. The complex relationships between food and culture, food and identity, and food and economic development, all within the context of sustainability and nutrition, seemed particularly resonant to a 400-year-old cod-fishing community that had to reinvent itself or die after the fishing industry collapsed. “On Fogo, everything is cod,” one islander told me. (Fogo is actually Portuguese for “fire,” a name given to the island by the Portuguese fishermen who exploited the area’s plentiful waters in the 16th century.) Cod factors into the songs, the stories, and the food of Fogo Island. Cod is even one of the recurring motifs in the locally made quilts. So what do you do when there is no cod? Out of that question arose the idea of hosting an island-wide “food circle.”

Fogo Island has become a socio-economic experiment of sorts, envisioned by the dynamic and driven Zita Cobb. An eighth-generation island native (depending on how you count), Cobb left for school, worked hard in the tech industry, did very well, and returned home to do something to stimulate the community and the economy of the place she loves. In 2001 she and her brother founded a nonprofit social enterprise called Shorefast, an economic and cultural cooperative intended to house their projects, dividing the governance and economic benefit among the islanders. Their goal was not only to keep people on the island but also to attract others to it. Many articles were written about what she was up to. Most questioned whether she could succeed in such a remote place.

The centerpiece of her efforts is the modern, majestic, 29-room Fogo Island Inn all-inclusive resort that integrates the local community into the operation and experience, stimulating the economy and fostering a sense of pride of place in the process. The inn is as much a catalyst as it is a beacon: it works with local artisans, houses artists-in-residence, engages with community hosts, and offers island excursions and boat tours for visitors, all the while relying on farmers, fishermen, and other purveyors to supply the inn. You could say the inn has replaced cod as the thing around which the island organizes life, even though you’ll likely elicit a few guffaws.

Snow Crab Photo by Mitchell Davis
Chef Jonathan Gushue’s take on the local snow crab. (Photo: Mitchell Davis)

If the envy of friends and colleagues who found out I was headed to Fogo are any indication, Cobb and the island are well on their way. There are new projects developing, new brand campaigns for the seafood taken from its waters (especially snow crab), and new businesses opening. Two weeks before we arrived, Ian Sheridan and Caitlyn Terry opened Bangbelly Café, an all-day bakery, coffee shop, and restaurant, which locals and visitors alike are excited by because of the exemplary cappuccino and the satisfying food. And people are moving back.

The idea for the food circle came from the island tradition of a song circle, in which folks would gather, share, and sing songs. Why not gather folks to share stories about food? As Cobb noted in the planning of the event, “A remote island community is a microcosm for the world’s challenges with food and nutrition. As human beings rethink what it means to belong to the world and the position that our communities hold, food can act as a focal point from which to explore more respectful relationships between the past and future, the needs of man, and the needs of nature.”

We hosted the food circle in an old Anglican church in Joe Batt’s Arm, the town in which the inn is located. The church and five others on the island are now owned by the cooperative. We set 30 chairs for the circle, but as people began arriving we realized we’d need many more. Three concentric circles of chairs later, some 150 locals and visitors congregated in the old church. Cobb hosted the conversation. Stern, Gushue, Steffen Jagenburg, a photographer from Berlin who is the current artist-in-residence at the inn, and I got things started by sharing stories of who we were, what food we grew up on, and what tastes we held dear.

The Fogo Island food circle photo by Nate Goldstein
The Beard Foundation's Mitchell Davis conducts the island’s first Food Circle. (Photo: Nate Goldstein)

I then moderated a conversation among the other participants about their food, asking islanders to answer two simple, but telling questions: What would they serve a guest to explain something about who they are and about the history of this island? And what is the food they miss most when they leave the island—what is the first thing they have to eat when they get back to know that they are home?

Their answers included classic Newfoundland dishes like salt cod and brewis (fish with hard tack), cod au gratin, salt beef, and cured pork riblets—dishes that speak to the harsh realities of agriculture and climate on a rocky north Atlantic island, the economic trials of a fishing community, and the comfort afforded by warming, filling, and sharable home-cooked food.

Jagenburg, who has visited the island several times in the last seven years, shared his observations about the poor nutrition of the islanders when he first came. It inspired his “Open Restaurant” art project, which is neither a restaurant, nor is technically open, but instead is a series of weekly dinners set in islanders’ homes intended to bring people together to eat and share stories about local food. Stefan noted that since he has been coming to the island he has seen more local vegetables in the market, a shift in the way people think about food, and evidence of better nutrition. Positive change is afoot.

It wouldn’t be a circle without a song, so as a last act Cobb invited Greg Foley to take the center of the circle and offer a traditional ballad. A buffet feast prepared by Gushue’s team followed. Before we left, many people asked when we’d be hosting the next food circle. Perhaps a new food tradition has been born.

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Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.