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magazine / so98

September/October 1998 issue


Our Home and Native Tongue
Mossy lingo from P.E.I.
By Bill Casselman

Illustration by Daphne McCormack.
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.

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.


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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.

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