Nfld. & Labrador

Why do we call it 'Jiggs dinner,' anyway?

Jiggs dinner is a beloved traditional meal around Newfoundland and Labrador, but where did it get its strange name?

The surprising origin of the name 'Jiggs dinner'

The name 'Jiggs dinner' is actually a long outdated pop culture reference, writes Ainsley Hawthorn. (Submitted by Dan O'Rourke)

Salt beef, cabbage, potato, carrot and turnip, all boiled together in a single pot. Jiggs dinner — sometimes spelled Jiggs', Jigg's or jig's dinner — is a beloved traditional meal across Newfoundland and Labrador, the province's version of comfort food.

But where did it get its strange name? Ask around and you'll turn up a mixed bag of answers. 

Forum users at the proofreading website Pain in the English offered these suggestions:

"Traditional Jigg's dinner is derived from kitchen parties when we all got together for some great fun — this is usually what was served.… To do a 'jig' means to dance."

"My understanding is the word 'Jiggs' came from Jiggs, which was a meat company in New York and when imported to [Newfoundland] in Jiggs barrels, the salt meat was used to create a boiled dinner, hence, a Jigg's dinner."

"All the vegetables that are in the pot may not be done at the same time. Thus, you may have to 'jig' out the vegetables that are cooked while the pot continues to boil. In some respects this process is similar to 'jigging' for cod fish in the ocean."

For such a common expression, we're awfully vague on what it means. That's because it's actually a pop culture reference, now long outdated.

Jiggs' favourite fare

"Jiggs dinners" and "Jiggs suppers" were popular fundraising events in Newfoundland in the 1920s and 1930s, especially on the west coast of the island. Newspapers reported meals in aid of schools, churches and something called a hustlers club, which (despite appearances to the contrary) referred to a type of service organization.

Most of these announcements assumed the reader would already know what a Jiggs dinner was. You have to flip back through the newspaper archives to the Nov. 7, 1922, edition of the Evening Telegram to find a clue to the meaning of Jiggs:

"Mr. Jiggs is not going to Dinty Moore's on Thursday night, as he can get his favorite dish of corned beef and cabbage at St. Joseph's Hall. Gent's tickets, $1.00; Ladies' 70c."

The playful advertisement is a riff on the popular comic Bringing Up Father. In the strip, Jiggs, an Irish-American construction worker, is thrust into the upper crust when he wins a million dollars in a sweepstakes.

Despite his newfound wealth, Jiggs has no interest in giving up his working-class lifestyle, and the comic is named for his social-climbing wife Maggie's constant attempts to "bring" his level of sophistication "up" to high-society standards. Jiggs regularly finds himself on the wrong end of Maggie's rolling pin after sneaking out of the house for drinks with his old buddies or ruining a cocktail party by showing up in his undershirt.

Jiggs's favourite fare is corned beef and cabbage — a cheap, folksy meal. Since Maggie refuses to cook it for him, he eats his fill in secret at a local pub called Dinty Moore's.

First published in 1913, by the 1920s Bringing Up Father was beloved worldwide, read from St. John's to Shanghai. There were stage plays, radio specials and silent films based on its characters, and the strip's creator, George McMahon, was the highest-paid cartoonist in the world.

An Irish meal eaten across the continent

Thanks to the fame of the comic strip, Jiggs's name soon became synonymous with his preferred food.

Jiggs dinners weren't held only in Newfoundland, they also popped up in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania over the course of the 1920s. An article published in a 1937 issue of Colorado Potato Grower, the newsletter of the Colorado Potato Growers Exchange, even credited the popularity of the lowly potato to "the important role boiled potatoes play in a Jiggs dinner."

The meal itself, though, wasn't McMahon's invention. His character Jiggs was a send-up of working-class Irish Catholic tastes, and corned beef and cabbage was a staple of the Irish-American diet.

Although today we associated the words "corned beef" with either the pickled brisket of Jewish-American delicatessens or the tins of Spam-like bully beef used to feed Commonwealth soldiers during the Second World War, "corned" simply means "salted" — our salt beef is one version of corned beef. The "corns" are the large grains of salt that are used to cure the meat.

Historically, corned beef was a luxury item in Ireland, but it became a major Irish export during the 17th century. Irish corned beef was shipped to British and French colonies, used to feed enslaved Africans in the West Indies and rationed out to sailors in the British navy.

When Irish immigrants discovered that this food that had been scarce and costly at home was available and affordable in North America, they incorporated it into their dinners, alongside inexpensive vegetables like cabbage, potato and turnip. Boiled salt beef and vegetables were eaten not only in Newfoundland and Labrador, but in Irish-descended communities across the continent.

When Bringing Up Father came along, it suggested a name for this meal that was already familiar to many.

Jiggs wasn't the only 20th century comic character to lend his name to a food, either: multilayered "Dagwood sandwiches" were named after Dagwood Bumstead from Blondie.

Bringing Up Father ran for 87 years, but as its popularity declined the phrase "Jiggs dinner" fell out of use everywhere, it seems, apart from in Newfoundland and Labrador. We can rack Jiggs up as another tidbit of history that's preserved in our dialect.

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