Leader-Post Review - Prairie Feast

Going Home for Dinner: A delicious literary journey across the Prairies
Reviewed by: Irene Seiberling

Prairie Feast: A Writer's Journey Home for Dinner (Coteau Books, $24.95) isn't meant to be a cookbook--although there are scrumptious recipes peppered throughout.

"It's literary--just augmented with some recipes," explained author Amy Jo Ehman, a food columnist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, who set out to rediscover the favours of her childhood, and vowed to serve only locally produced food at her own table for one year.

"I thought 'food can be this good' if you're buying it fresh, local - not necessarily organic, but naturally produced by small farmers who care about their products or foods. That I could get back those authentic favours of my childhood of really good food. So that's what motivated me in the first place." 

So Ehman and her husband, John, decided to take a one-year gastronomical journey--serving only local fare at the dinner table.

When she first broached the subject, Ehman admitted that although John was a willing participant, "in the back of his mind he didn't have really high hopes for it."

John suggested--tongue-in-cheek--that a year of eating locally would be boring and monotonous.

Ehman was determined to prove John wrong. So she challenged herself "to make sure that eating a diet off the bounty of Saskatchewan didn't mean a steady roster of meals of pork chops and saskatoon berry pie."

"It challenged me to be very creative, and research and try new recipes with the foods that are produced in Saskatchewan," Ehman said.

She started sourcing as much food locally as possible - by building relationships with farmers and gardeners, by going to farmers markets on a regular basis, and by foraging for food herself.

"And that became the norm for me and for us," Ehman said.

"So it really was a lifestyle change. It changed the way that we procured food in our house; we changed the way that we prepared it."

But the couple didn't try to force their Saskatcehwan-only commitment onto others.

"One of the rules of this project was we only really ate Saskatchewan in our own home. We didn't go to people's places and tell them our dietary rules and expect them to cater to us. That would be ridiculous," Ehman said.

"But when people came to our home, we served local meals," she added.

It wasn't until the end of the mal that Ehman would tell her guests that everything they had just eaten was produced in Saskatchewan.

"And the look on some people's faces was really amazing," Ehman said, adding that "the big reveal" was a special moment for her. By the time Ehman and her husband successfully completed their one-year commitment to focus on eating Saskatchewan bounty, they were hooked.

"And I couldn't really see a reason to abandom those connections I'd made between myself and the people there in parts of Saskatchewan who are supplying this food that we were eating," she said.

So Ehman continues to freeze, can and dry Saskatchewan-grown food - everything from berries to cherries, tomates to apples to herbs. And she grinds her own locally grown wheat. Lentils have become a staple. And even many of the spices she uses are produced in Saskatchewan - including coriander, aniseed and fenugreek.

While Ehman said she would definitely encourage people to enjoy the wonderful favours of natural, local, farm-fresh prairie food, she said she wouldn't recommend people take on the same challenge she and John did.

"Because it is hard," Ehman said matter-of-factly. 

"If my husband weren't a willing partner, it wouldn't have worked," she admitted.

Satisfying the taste buds of everyone in a large family is challenging without restricting the menu to home-grown prairie food, she pointed out.

"If you've got children, it would be impossible," Ehman suggested.

Instead, she recommended people start with a couple of locally produced food items that they know their family likes.

For Ehman and her husband, eating locally wasn't about depriving themselves.

"To me, it wasn't about being exclusive so much; it was bout being inclusive--of celebrating what we have in Saskatchewan, rather than feeling like I was undergoing a sacrifice," she explained.

Prairie Feast chronicles Ehman's love affair with good food. It's fuelled by nostalgia and her taste buds. Photographs of mouth-watering recipes whet the reader's appetite.

"People who live here and are from Saskatchewan would see themselves and their own culture in this book," Ehman said. "But I believe that the message and the stories and the humour are more universal than that."

People who don't care where their food comes from might not find Prairie Feast to be their cup of tea, Ehman admitted.

"But for anyone anywhere who's interested in making a connection between the food that they eat, the family that they live in, the culture that they live in - these stories are universal, and I thnk they would enjoy them and get a laugh," she said.

Ehman continues to showcase the local food scene on her blog at http://homefordinner.blogspot.com.

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