My job is awesome.
This weekend, I devoured (word chosen deliberately) Amy Jo Ehman’s fantastic new book, Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. Part history, part recipe book, part photographic record, Ehman does a superb job of capturing the tastes that have come to make up Saskatchewan palate and plate.
Cracking it open, I immediately loved the heavy dark yellow pages with faint blue watermarks, suggestive of the kinds of spills and drips you find in your Grandma’s favourite recipe books. Indeed, in my recipe books, it’s the pages that are thick with tomato juice and chocolate batter spills, sticking together, that let me know where the best recipes are to be found. In some ways, I wish MacIntyre Purcell Publishing could have splattered a bit more ink and debris through the pages, just to lead us to the best of the best.
Then again, deciding the best of the best is something that each household, and each cook, must find out for themselves.
Sprinkled with historic archival photographs from the provincial collective memory, the book genre-bends. Your first problem: will you shelve it with your history books, your pictorial coffee table books, or your recipe collection? Mine will go with my recipe books. I guarantee it!
Canadians are a rich mix of cultures from around the world, and my own family is no exception. I’m Norwegian, Swedish, Scotch, Irish, and Ukrainian. I’ll have my varenyky with swedish meatballs, please. Ehman’s curated collection of recipes touches on Saskatchewan kitchen offerings from bannock, staple of the fur trade and passed down through generations of First Nations and Metis people, to vinaterta, that wonderful layered cake with cardamom and prunes. (As an aside: my vinaterta comes from the Swedish/Norwegian heritage, has eight layers, and is iced on top. It’s also my Ukrainian uncle’s favourite birthday cake, and he insists on it every year.)
My favourite recipe from the book might be the Coconut Cookie, written as Kokonat kuki. Using a blend of English and Polish, Kate Turgeon (nee Kaminski) sat down to write out this recipe, copied from her neighbor, Mrs. Danchuk. Teaspoon becomes tispun, cup becomes kap, baking soda is Bekin Sodor, flour is flouwur, water is watyr. The instructions are somewhat more vague: “dot myk 7 do kuki rot do smiot doit …pres wyd do fork.” So I’d interpret that as make them into balls, then press with fork before cooking.
There are no particular cooking instructions — temperature, timing — for Mrs. Danchuck’s cookies. Ehman notes that this lack is noticeable to our modern eyes when we read old recipes. Prior to electricity, cookstoves were as varied as the makers created or could afford, and each depended on the fuel used. Different kinds of fuel burned differently, and produced higher or lower heat units. There was an assumption that cooks would know how to mix and bake.
Opening with a delightful blend of history and food, the first part of the book wafts through Saskatchewan’s past like an eye-closing, mouth-watering intake of breath. There’s a lot of ground to cover. From ‘Bear Paws and Pemmican,’ we learn about moose nose, the extensive kitchen gardens, grainfields, and milk cows at Cumberland House, and of course pemmican. (Side note: there is no recipe for pemmican in the book. I looked.) ‘Bullet Soup and Bannock’ reflects on the Metis culinary adventure, and Ehman considers the difference between perogies and varenyky, and the impact of Ukrainian cooking in general, on the Saskatchewan identity.
Other broad strokes bring forth the taste of Sweden and Norway, the UK, French and French Canadian, ranch and American influences. In ‘Chickpeas and Chop Suey’ Ehman looks at middle and eastern Asian influence, including the iconic rural Chinese restaurant. (Aside: one of the best is right here in Biggar, Saskatchewan: the Snow White, known locally as Maggie’s and renowned for its gorgeous flavours).
The bulk and heart of Ehman’s book is the recipes, from bread to pickles, stew to spudnuts, cucumber salad to porridge. I may not cook squirrels or prairie oysters, but I am willing to try lamb’s quarters, and I’ve never thought to stir-fry my overgrown radishes. The rabbit rababoo looks tasty, and I’ll have to test the butter tart recipe against my Mom’s.
If my private recipe book collection is any indication, Ehman has plenty of room for sequels. I collect old Saskatchewan cookbooks created as fundraisers, and the earliest in my collection came from my Grandmother. Produced by one of the local ladies’ groups in Paddockwood in the 1930s, my book reflects Ehman’s time before the change to electricity.
Moving forward in time, the 1950s and 1960s brought out a revolution in cooking that crossed three new divides. One, the bridge to electricity brought electric ranges (stoves), fridges, freezers, and later, microwaves to Saskatchewan kitchens. Electricity led to daring new culinary adventures, including changing how and when food could be stored and eaten, and in what forms. Penny Powers, a creation of the new SaskPower corporation, taught kitchen magicians how to switch their treasured recipes from cookstove to electric stove.
The second revolution was the women’s movement, which redrew traditional cooking genders in bold new directions. Recipe books from the 1950s and 1960s rely more heavily on casseroles and quick meals, homemade TV dinners and fresh fast takes on old favourites.
I’d love to see more work done on what I see as the third revolution, a post-war rise in consumer culture. Grocery stores brought in an ever-wider selection of canned, packaged, frozen, and ready-to-eat goods that were readily adapted into local recipe books. French-fried onions in a can, for example, became a preferred casserole topping, and most rural Saskatchewan grocery stores still carry them to cater to their senior clients. Options such as soy sauce, wonton wrappers, taco seasoning, and ghee entered the picture.
Right now, I’m off to adapt a few of these recipes to the needs of my own kitchen. With a wheat allergy in the house, I’ll try the boiled raisin cake with cinnamon glaze, but I’ll try it out with my gluten-free flour.
So… get cooking with Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. And then wait impatiently with me for the sequel.