Bridge Review - Prairie Feast

Love at first bite
Reviewed by: Alisha Sims

Pork chops: Chock full of thiamin, vitamin B6, protein and, in one Saskatchewan woman's case, an epiphany.

One November at their Saskatoon home over the supper hour, Amy Jo Ehman and her husband, John, took one bite - just one bite not yet swallowed - of a pork chop from a "free-range, dig-in-the-mud, eat-kitchen-scraps, bask-in-the-sun, carry-a-kid pig" and it marked the start of their forays into the fresh and flavourful world of local food.

She was aware fresh-picked produce tastes better than its imported counterparts but she had no idea the same principle applied to meat. So from that day forward, the freelance journalist vowed to stock her freezer with meat from farmers who raise their animals on a smaller scale "where sunshine and grass are part of the program."

"That pig was an epiphany for me," she said during a recent telephone interview. It motivated Ehman to incorporate more Saskatchewan-produced food into her meals and a few years later, in 2005, she decided to take it one step further.

"I was already eating a lot of Saskatchewan food, as much as I could find, and then in 2005 the motivation was to go holus-bolus. That was the bigger challenge."

That was before the local food movement that advocates eating locally grown food took root across the country. Terms such as locavore, foodshed and 100-mile-diet weren't used like they are today.

In fact, they weren't even around at that time. That's because that March two provinces to the west, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon were just embarking on their journey to consume only foodstuffs cultivated and harvested with 100 miles of their Vancouver pad. They recorded their experiences in an online magazine and the popularity of those articles led to a book, "The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating." Released in 2007, the book spent five weeks on Maclean's nonfiction bestseller list. The concept struck a chord with many people as they discovered to their surprise - along with the authors - that most meals consumed by North Americans travel an average of 2400 kilometres from farm to plate. 

When adopting her local diet plan, Ehman was aware it's good for the environment because shorter transportation means less expenditure of fossil fuels. But that wasn't the driving force behind her decision.

"It was really about taste. If you're going to eat, you may as well eat good food, the best you can purchase."

Her second motivation was a desire to learn about the agriculture bounty of her home province. For more than a century, Saskatchewan has been producing food for the world. It's one of the largest suppliers of top-quality durum wheat for pasta. Even the Italians use it, she discovered. Saskatchewan is also the world's top exporter of mustard seed. The famous French Dijon is made with it, she learned.

So with an eye on the local market, and not the odometer (she didn't limit herself to food produced within a 100-mile radius), she spent Saskatchewan's centennial eating foods such as lentils from Medstead (140 miles), blueberries from St. Walburg (160 miles), mushrooms from La Ronge (225 miles), and pearl barley from Estevan (almost 300 miles).

The idea of eating primarily local food was a difficult one for many to swallow. 

"My husband's first reaction was, 'Boring,'" she says. "A lot of people had that reaction when I told them what I was doing. They'd say 'Oh my god, how monotonous,'

"Even at that point, I wasn't sure what we'd eat for a year but on the other hand, there was really nothing that we ate every day that we couldn't give up. My husband's pretty much a meat-and-potatoes guy anyway," she laughs.

That's not to say she didn't "cheat" now and then. After all, if Saskatchewan produced all the ingredients for a wonderful bowl of pasta, Ehman didn't see a problem with making it truly great with a little bit of olive oil and parmesan cheese. Eating a local diet wasn't meant to be an exercise in frugality and hardship, she said, but a celebration of regional fare.

And that's where the real difficulty lay - finding out what food was regional.

"I learned we're producing a lot of food in Saskatchewan and the Prairies but it's not easy to purchase because it's not in grocery stores, it's not labeled." For instance, one particular brand of cheese is made in Saskatoon, and shipped to Alberta to be cut and packaged.

"Now, there's a lot more information out there, but there wasn't at the time."

In her first year of local eating, Ehman relied on a mix of internet resources, telephone calls and word of mouth. But today's locavores have far more resources at their fingertips and recipe books. For instance, there's a Moose Jaw 100-mile food guide that lists all the food producers within 100 miles of that Saskatchewan city. Lofo at is a website started by a University of Regina professor that serves as a free online farmers' market.

And there's still good ol' word of mouth which works in any province where many say, "The next time you're ordering beer, count me in." Plus, farmers' markets and restaurants help put shoppers in touch, and in some instances, face-to-face, with local food producers. In fact, many chefs list on their menus the farm where their meat or produce originates. Ehman said she's yet to meet a chef who isn't happy to talk about their local menu items. 

Even with the number of local-food resources blossoming, Ehman stresses eating regional fare still takes work.

"There's no one-stop shopping place but I learned doing the work is super rewarding," she says.

There are the producers you meet when you're shopping and when you buy in bulk you email your friends to see if they'd like some too.

"We're connecting over food. We don't have that in our lives anymore. You can ask the clerk on the floor about the food you're buying but they don't know."

While her year of local eating has long passed, Ehman and her husband continue to follow the lifestyle and are helping others join in on the experience. In addition to releasing a book called "Prairie Feast" later this month, which shares her experiences and recipes, she does a number of speaking engagements throughout the year.

"I think there's a huge apetite for this," she says of the local food movement. "People still perceive it as being difficult. But the idea is to make it practical in your own mind. Ask yourself specific questions: Where can I get milk? Where can I get lamb?"

Southern Alberta and its favourable growing climate produces a bounty of high-quality food and meat. And a growing number of high-end restaurants are taking note. At the end of March, Rudy Knitel, Galimax owner and operatior, brought close to 200 people from Calgary's food industry to Lethbridge for his annual Tour of Chefs to visit area greenhouses and farms, and show them the products available. 

On the homefront, start small, Ehman suggests. Maybe it's a potluck or a special occasion such as Thanksgiving that's made with local fare. 

"I don't think jumping in with both feet is necessarily the way to start. Start with certain foods. For example, you want organic lentils. Work on finding that. One by one, find what you want to eat."

Another tip is to organize your recipe collection according to main ingredients. "Instead of choosing a recipe on what I think I can just go out and buy, I choose what I have on hand. It's just a little organizational switch that means I'm cooking with what I have on hand rather than finding delicious recipes for what's out of season." The payoff is fresh-tasting meals and more money in your pocket. "If you're buying it, buy it in season instead of deciding you want tomatoes in February."

And most importantly, enjoy the journey with a hearty helping of fun.

"You don't have to be super, super serious about it. You can enjoy the experience," she says. "Primary for me, this was not an exercise in restriction. It was a celebration; it was the adventure of bringing those foods to my plate.

"I think if you take the aspect you're celebrating local producers, it can be a lot of fun."

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