||September/October 1998 issue||
Our Home and Native Tongue
Mossy lingo from P.E.I.
By Bill Casselman
If you've ever picked monkey fur out of seaweed to earn a little moss
money up around Tignish in Prince Edward Island, then you've no need
to eyeball another word of this. But if you haven't, read on, because
this info is as pertinent as a moss rake after lobster season, chiefly
because Canadians eat Irish moss every day - some of it from the P.E.I.
harvest which begins in July after lobster traps have been removed
from moss beds.
Illustration by Daphne McCormack.|
Irish moss, a commercial seaweed whose harvest is worth about $1 million
a year, is the common name for a red alga, Chondrus crispus, but several
other seaweeds bear the name too. Exported from P.E.I., Irish moss
is processed to yield the hydrocolloid, carrageenan. The moss is called
carrageen in Scotland and Ireland, and a town near Waterford in Ireland
where it is collected is Carragheen. But the town may have been named
after an Irish term for the moss, cosáinín carraige, literally in
the Celtic language Erse 'little foot of the rock.' All of us use
carrageenan, the starch-like, calorie-free substance extracted from
Irish moss and used as an emulsifying and stabilizing agent. It holds
together the ingredients in many toothpastes, shampoos, cosmetics,
pharmaceuticals, and prepared foods like chocolate milk, ice cream,
and commercial salad dressings.
Check the ingredients list on any commercial food product that might
qualify as 'goopy.' Carrageenan is also used to clarify liquids such
as beer, wine, coffee, and honey. In many frozen foods, carrageenan
helps prevent the formation of large ice crystals.
Gathered as well along the coasts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,
Irish moss has been an important crop on P. E.I. for so long that
unique Island terms have grown up around its collection. The noun
mosser refers to one who harvests the seaweed. A mosser is also a
high, stormy wind that wafts Irish moss toward the shore. Such winds
help produce underwater waves that rip moss fronds from their holdfasts
on seabed rocks in lower tidal and subtidal zones. This seaweed can
also be harvested from a boat and collected on the water.
Wave-plumped and tempest-rolled, rows of green strands festoon shores
along the coast of P. E. I. near Tignish, Miminegash, Skinners Pond,
North Rustico, and Borden. Moss that reaches a beach is forked into
piles by combers using hand rakes. Horse mossers collect Irish moss
near shore with rakes and wire-mesh scoops pulled through the water
by a moss horse. Such horses are usually large and fearless. They
sometimes have to haul moss in water up to their necks and work among
30 or 40 other horses, all harvesting one stretch of shore after an
especially bountiful storm. An old term for a fisherman's or farmer's
profit from such seaweed was moss money.
Children were often given the job of cleaning freshly harvested moss
of pebbles, shells, sea wrack, and other unwanted seaweeds. On Prince
Edward Island one such impurity is called monkey fur, being the seaweed
genus Halopteris whose thick, brown strands are matted through the
Irish moss and make it hard to dry. Another tangly intruder has the
P.E.I. nickname, shoe-string. It's a brownish, eelgrass-like seaweed
of the Chorda genus and must be plucked from a mosser's haul if the
harvester wants top price from processors.
Gastronomically challenged indeed is the Canuck who's never tucked
into Irish moss pudding. Also called sea-moss pudding, this Maritime
dessert is similar to a blancmange, the familiar milk-and-cornstarch
yummie, but an edible seaweed is the jelling agent instead of gelatin,
and whipped egg whites replace cornstarch. One old recipe was thought
especially helpful for invalids or anyone with "a delicate stomach" and
this was Irish moss jelly, in which a small handful of cleaned, dried
Irish moss was boiled in two cups of water, then cooled. A cup of
milk was stirred in and a little sugar added. Highly restorative,
according to many an Island grandmother!
Last word goes to popular Canadian balladeer Stompin' Tom Connors,
composer of the rollicking "Bud The Spud" about P.E.I.'s potato industry.
Stompin' Tom also celebrated seaweed in his "Song of the Irish Moss" when
he wrote "You can hear them roar from the Tignish Shore / There's
moss in Skinners Pond. . . ."
Bill Casselman is the author of A Dictionary of Medical
Derivations, distributed in Canada by Login Bros. of Winnipeg.