The weathered wooden door tucked into a hillside looks like a portal to Middle-earth. Inside, the stone-walled room is dark, cool, humid and hobbitfree, storing vegetables as it has for centuries. Entering a traditional root cellar feels like stepping back in time, but for a tiny community in rural Newfoundland, the structures represent the future of tourism and serve as a reminder that in some places, local food has never gone out of fashion.
Elliston, a scattering of houses on the Bonavista Peninsula, is the self-declared “Root Cellar Capital of the World.” Not long ago, residents would have laughed at the label, says Marilyn Coles-Hayley, chair of Tourism Elliston. But after the cod moratorium in 1992, so many families left that the street lights went out — literally. There was no longer the tax base to maintain municipal services. Taking stock of its impressive 135 root cellars for 300 citizens, Elliston set about reinventing itself. It now hosts Roots, Rants & Roars, an annual festival showcasing the province’s culinary heritage. The autumn 2011 event, the second and biggest yet, drew chefs from Montréal, Toronto and Calgary, with participants munching moose-meat croquettes, sipping wine and peeking into the cold-storage facilities that were a fixture of 19th-century outport life.
“The root cellar has become our icon for subsistence living,” says Coles-Hayley. “The story we’re trying to tell is how people came to this beautiful but rugged place and were able to stay here despite the hardship, despite not being able to run to a grocery store. It’s about people taking care of themselves.”
Such messages resonate these days amid concerns about the commercial food system, the environment and selfsufficiency. Integrated into the landscape, root cellars keep carrots, potatoes and turnips at a consistent temperature and humidity through the winter freeze and the summer heat, without using electricity. No wonder Tourism Elliston gets calls seeking advice on how to build a root cellar and property owners design new residences around original root cellars. The revival reflects wider sustainability trends, “except that in Newfoundland, the local food movement never really went away,” says celebrity chef Todd Perrin, who is based in St. John’s. “We’ve always had to squeeze as much as we can out of the season and the land and make it last.”
Buoyed by this interest, the ultimate in unplugged technology is now going digital. A root cellar mapping project initiated by Dale Jarvis, development officer of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador, invites the public to share stories and pinpoint cellar locations across the province on Google maps. Recognizing that root cellar users are not necessarily internet users, interns also collected field data, often surprising local residents with their questions. “It would be like me being really interested in your refrigerator,” says Jarvis.
To be released in 2012, Jarvis’s project documents more than 400 of the province’s root cellars — some in ruins, some in continuous use for 200 years. A fraction of the provincial total, this sampling reveals striking variations in style and adaptation to local conditions, from sunken barrels and upturned dories covered with sod to multi-room structures.
Root cellars store not only food but also traditional knowledge, says Jarvis. “With the drift from the fishery into other businesses, people have had to find new ways to make a meaningful life. And we’re realizing that aspects of the culture that people used to belittle in Newfoundland are, in fact, its strengths. We want people to look at the landscape with new eyes.”