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Saskatchewan kitchens of the past

A review of Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens by Amy Jo Ehman

One year for Christmas, my grandma tucked under the tree one of my most memorable presents. Wrapped in a clear plastic bag — topped with a festive ribbon — was a pile of books. Well into her 80s and living with us, she gifted me with her cookbook collection. After all, she said, I had been cooking from them for years as they sat on the shelf. They might as well be mine ‘officially.’

Now, most people want new books as presents; pristine, crisp, and new. Me, I was ecstatic. The books were wrapped in plastic because most of them were held together with tape, old glue, and rubber bands. Almost all the books had sticky, dripped-on pages that let me know one of the recipes on this page is a classic, a go-to favourite.

It is exactly those sticky, dripped-on classic go-to favourites that Amy Jo Ehman drew from to produce her latest book, Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. Ehman collected and curated an impressive array of favourites — and a few possibly less-than-classic recipes — from Saskatchewan kitchens past.

A historical recipe book, Ehman uses food as the lens through which to view the past. Instead of a historian asking, ‘What happened?’ Ehman thinks about people, events, and places through the stomach and taste buds. What were Saskatchewan people eating? How did they collect and make their food? Who was sitting around the table, and what did that table look like? From picnic blankets to crisp white linen, Ehman tells Saskatchewan history through the crossings and exchanges, the cultural mixes and the new additions.

From sorrel to salsify root, dandelion to coriander, the first wheat crop to the hunger that drove First Nations people to sign treaty, Ehman’s stories and recipes take readers through Saskatchewan’s food history.

The mixed cultural heritage that makes up Western Canada serves as the central guiding story. Ehman starts with the Métis, a deliberate choice because they represent the ‘crossing’ of North American cuisine with cultural imports from elsewhere. From there, she weaves First Nations traditional food from the land, such as pemmican, with French, British, Scandinavian, Slavic, and American influences, along with Middle Eastern and Far Eastern offerings.

Lavishly illustrated with archival photos and old immigration posters, the pages are thick, aged yellow, pre-dripped and coffee stained. There is no doubt, though, that your copy will soon stick and smear as you measure, scoop, and stir your way through the numerous recipes.

The recipes are the heart of the book, and you will drift from your couch to the kitchen to try something new. Perhaps you’ll make Neeps Casserole, with turnips and applesauce. Borscht or Bullet Soup will warm you on a cold winter day, while the more adventurous might try Prairie Oysters, Rabbit Rababoo, or Schulz. My son demands the Spudnuts and Butter Tarts, and my daughter the Scuffles. We’ll be having Kasha (buckwheat casserole) for supper tonight, and I want to try the Swedish Meatballs against my grandma’s favourite recipe in a private cook-off.

Published by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing of Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, you may ask: why would a Nova Scotia publisher put out books on Saskatchewan’s food heritage? The answer is quite simple: it’s a winner. And, it has a good track record of publishing fun and funny Saskatchewan books, such as the popular You Might Be From Saskatchewan if… series.

As a food writer for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and a food blogger with a large and growing fan following, Ehman has found an impressive ‘niche’ in the western Canadian/Great Plains food landscape. Her first book, Prairie Feast: A Writer’s Journey Home for Dinner was a humorous, zesty, and insightful look at local food. In a year of eating the 100 mile-diet (or, as close as possible in a Prairie city in the wintertime), Ehman’s search for the edible and the sublime, the hearty and the homemade plucked a soul string for many. It won the Best First Book in the Saskatchewan Book Awards, and garnered many praises.

I bought a copy of Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens as a gift for my Aunt Phyllis for her 80th birthday — one of the most inspired and appropriate gifts I’ve found. A daughter of my cookbook-loving grandma, Aunt Phyllis reports enjoying the book/recipe book thoroughly. She has been comparing Ehman’s recipes with her own, and enjoys the contrasts and variations not only between cultures, but between the versions and possibilities contained within each ‘classic’ recipe. We’re both sure that you’ll enjoy it too.

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