BY Amy Jo Ehman
In the Foreword to OUT OF OLD SASKATCHEWAN KITCHENS, written by Bill Waiser, (author of SASKATCHEWAN: A NEW HISTORY and numerous other books, is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan. Waiser starts out the Foreword with a quote from someone named Dan Thompson, who described the first year on the family homestead in Saskatchewan in 1911, “I used to get so hungry I would eat grass.”
Writes Professor Waiser, “Thompson’s lament was not uncommon. Homesteading for many settlers, especially for those living in isolated areas was an impoverishing experience. While the early 20th century marked the beginning of remarkable technological innovation and steady improvement in Canadian daily life, those in pioneer farm districts seemed to have stepped back in time…”
The Professor explains why: “Since it took several years before the crops provided decent income, homesteaders had to become virtually self-sufficient, learn to live a simpler life by making do with little. Hardship and privation were common.
Settlers faced the double challenge of brining the land under cultivation and trying to survive in the meantime. And survival took valuable time and energy away from other activities.
Before breaking a single acre, homesteaders had to find a reliable source of drinking water, build a shelter and put in a garden.
This last challenge—feeding themselves—has been largely ignored by prairie historians…”
“And yet,” writes Professor Waiser, “It was one of the most basic of human needs and took precedence over other homesteading tasks if settlers were to stave off possible hunger…many did not bring with them enough provisions and often had to make do with what they had.
Amy Jo Ehman tells this story and much more in this fascinating account of the role that food has played in the history of the region…”
“Some of the recipes,” says Professor Waiser, “including the preparation were based on age-old customs and traditions that people brought with them—it was part of their cultural DNA….other cooks took advantage of local resources—or because of the lack of ingredients, were flexible, if not inventive, in what they put on the dinner table…”
He says that what becomes readily apparent in reading these recipes is that there was no such thing as standard fare. People in Saskatchewan enjoyed an eclectic mix of tastes and flavors. At the same time there were certain comfort foods that enjoyed widespread popularity . The cookbook contains old and new recipes, something for everyone; recipes range from Baked Beans to Boiled Raisin Cake, Chicken Paprikash (one of my favorites) to Latkes and Lazy Cabbage Rolls, from making a Sourdough Starter to Watermelon pickles – and much more.
Professor Waiser writes, “Amy Jo Ehman is to be applauded not only for bringing these past recipes together in a single volume but also for putting the province’s food history into perspective in an engaging and entertaining style…”
There is something to be said about collecting cookbooks; to the uninitiated, a cookbook is simply a collection of recipes. Some cookbook authors wrote only one cookbook (i.e., Joy of Cooking) and created life-long checks in the mail (in much the same way that movie stars receive residual checks)—perhaps in the same way that Margaret Mitchell wrote GONE WITH THE WIND. Mitchell spent over a decade writing GWTW which turned out to be a best seller and then went on to become the movie of the century. Who doesn’t remember Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, delivering the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” – given another place and time, Margaret Mitchell might have gone on to write the Gone with the Wind Cookbook”
But I didn’t sit down to write about Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind today – I began thinking about all the many unique cookbooks that someone somewhere was inspired to put together. I’ve written about some of these unique cookbooks before on this blog—and I could spend the rest of my life writing about a lot of other ones—but today I want to tell you about a wonderful historical cookbook with the title OUT OF OLD SASKATCHEWAN KITCHENS by Amy Jo Ehman, published in 2014.
To be perfectly honest, I would never have learned about OUT OF OLD SASKATCHEWAN KITCHENS if not for my penpal Doreen, who lives in Saskatchewan and has been one of my Canadian penpals since 2006. (My other Canadian penpal, Sharon, was living in Niagara Falls, Canada, when we first met in 2008 and was a perfect hostess when I went to visit her in 2009)
I met Doreen and her husband, Harv, also in 2008 and again when they were back in my neck of the woods in 2011. What might have been chance meetings has turned into a triangle of three deep friendships. I was charmed to receive OUT OF OLD SASKATCHEWAN KITCHENS because I sort of doubt Doreen would have looked twice at a cookbook before meeting me.
When I was a teenager taking American History and World History classes, I loathed history—but as a young adult I became fascinated with American pioneer history – and one thing tends to lead to another – American pioneers led me to a fascination for the women who traveled across the Oregon trail and what they did to survive. What I have discovered in recent years is that American pioneer history is not unlike Canadian pioneer history. On both sides of the border, in the 1700s and 1800s, pioneering also meant often going hungry. Or—as I have heard—“making do or doing without”.
Artist Paul Kane, in his memoir “Wanderings of an Artist” writes about his adventures traveling from Toronto to Fort Edmonton and the west coast, and enjoying meals provided by native hunters- having antelope, deer, bison and grizzly bear. He mentions roasted bear paw and sampling moose nose which I was intrigued to learn because I read about roasted bear paw and jellied moose nose in some of my old Alaskan cookbooks which leads one to wonder which came first – Alaskan Eskimos or the Aboriginal people of the Cree, Blackfoot or Assiniboine.
“As long as bison were plentiful”, writes Ehman, “the aboriginal people and newcomers ate well. This meat-based diet was supplemented with fresh and dried fish, a variety of berries and prairie plants such as cattails, tender wild greens and the ‘prairie potato’, a root that was dried, pounded and used as flour before wheat flour arrived with the fur trade….” (a good example of ‘making do or doing without’).
“The first recorded wheat field on the prairies,” writes Ehman, “was planted in 1754 at Fort a la Corne, on the Saskatchewan River east of present-day Prince Albert…” which begs the question—did Canada suffer from a dust bowl such as that in the USA, from over-farming the mid-western lands with wheat crops?
Amy Jo starts OUT OF OLD SASKATCHEWAN KITCHENS with her own introduction, writing “When I think of my Grandma Ehman, I think of apples. Apple pie, applesauce cookies, apfelkuchen. Of picking apples and eating sour apples and climbing high in the branches of the old crabapple tree. Food and love and history intertwined…” (She had me in the first sentence, thinking of her Grandma Ehman, she thinks of apples just as when I think of my Grandma Schmidt, I think of apples! **)
Amy Jo describes the journeys of her ancestors, in particular her father’s family arriving in Regina in 1890 direct from their village near the Black Sea. Three generations earlier, they had left their villages in Germany to take up free farmland in Russia. Which might explain why, she writes, when Canada came calling for farmers, her family felt no hesitation in venturing out again
It has troubled Amy Jo that they learned so little in school about the culinary history of their land.
“In 1952,” she writes, “the Saskatchewan Archives Office at the University of Saskatchewan asked old-timers what the pioneers ate. “Their answers paint a picture of frugality and self-sufficiency. They grew, raised, foraged, bartered and often did without…they bought only what they could not produce themselves: white flour, oats, baking soda, molasses, sugar, cinnamon, dried fruit. Yet even with such basic ingredients they managed to preserve their familiar food traditions while sharing recipes with their new neighbors from around the world. Then as now, food is history, hope and love entwined…”
It’s a pioneer’s story on the entire North American continent.
Amy Jo starts OUT OF SASKATCHEWAN KITCHENS with some of the original inhabitants of Saskatchewan, the Metis, who had a wintering village on the bend of the South Saskatchewan River.
I confess I had to turn to Google to learn something about the Metis:
[The Métis, Canadian French are one of the recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada. They trace their descent from mixed ancestry of First Nations and Europeans. The term was historically a catch-all describing the offspring of any such union, but within generations the culture into what is today a distinct aboriginal group, with formal recognition equal to that of the Inuit and First Nations. Mothers were usually Cree, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Menominee,Mi’kmaq or Maliseet, or of mixed descent from these people and Europeans. At one time there was an important distinction between French Métis and the Anglo-Métisor Countryborn descended from English or Scottish fathers. Today these two cultures have essentially coalesced into one Métis tradition. The Métis homeland includes regions scattered across Canada, as well as parts of the northern United States (specifically Montana, North Dakota, and northwest Minnesota). These were areas in which there was considerable intermarriage due to the fur trade.]
By 1872, writes Amy Jo, life was changing rapidly for the residents of Petite Ville… “Bison were fast disappearing, replaced on the horizon by the imminent arrival of European settlers and the advent of agriculture. The Metis of Petite Ville decided to give farming a try. To stake out their place, plant potatoes and barley, raise horses and live year-round on their land…excavations at Petite Ville and other historic sources tell us that in addition to bison meat and pemmican, they also ate wile game such as deer and snow shoe hare; birds such as ducks, geese and grouse; fresh water fish and native plants. Berries were pounded to a pulp and dried and later boiled to make pudding and cakes. Fish were broiled and smoked. Meat was kept in outdoor ice pits protected from animals and vegetables stored in root cellars beneath the floor or cut into the side of a hill. And while there may no evidence of gardening in the overgrown foundations of Petite Ville, writes Amy Jo, “it is well documented that the Metis were accomplished gardeners…[but] by 1875 Petite Ville was largely abandoned, its residents moving to more permanent communities…”
The ultimate fate of the Metis is not unlike that of many American Indian tribes; the government in Ottawa ignored their request for a title to their land and a decade later, in 1885, revolt against federal troops led to a tragic struggle to preserve their land, their independence and their distinct way of life. And treaties signed by the Canadian aboriginals suffered the same fate as the treaties signed by American native Indians.
September 4, 1905, was Inauguration Day; Saskatchewan had become a province. Amy Jo devotes the next few chapters on the development of Saskatchewan and the many settlers who came to farm the land and become a part of the development of the province. Included are reprints of old photographs, followed by recipes.
There are a wealth of recipes to accompany the many old photographs—it’s a really great read. Now I have to admit that my copy of OUT OF OLD SASKATCHEWAN was sent to me by my Saskatchewan girlfriend. I was unable to find it listed on Amazon.com . Published by MacIntyrePurcell Publishing, Inc., the ISBN number is 978-1-927097-61-8; this information may enable you to find a copy. And why would there be copies of OUT OF OLD NOVA SCOTIA KITCHENS and not one for old Saskatchewan Kitchens?
One final note— Amy jo Ehman is a local personality in the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting System) – Canada’s answer to the USA’s PBS (Public Broadcasting System).
Review by Sandra Lee Smith
** MY GRANDMOTHER’S APPLE TREE
In my grandmother’s back yard there was an apple tree—sour apples, or cooking apples—I don’t remember if there was more than the one tree. In my memory banks there is only the one apple tree.
When the tree was laden with apples ready for picking, grandma sent my brother Jim (the oldest grandson) up the tree to shake some of the limbs so the apples would fall and could be collected in grandma’s big apron or grandchildren or her daughters-in-law would gather up the apples and carry them to a big round tub.
Grandma put some of the best apples into a red wagon and had a grandchild (sometimes it was me) to the sisters, whose house was behind St Leo’s. The sister who worked in the kitchen would exclaim over the apples and offer me a piece of peppermint candy.
We would transfer the apples to containers that sister provided and I could then take the wagon back to grandma’s house which was right up the street from St Leo’s—the church, the school, the priests’ house and the sister’s house, all in a row.
Meantime the apples would be washed and then anyone able to handle a peeler or a paring knife would start peeling the apples, cutting away bad spots. I don’t remember that any of us children were allowed to handle a peeler, much less a paring knife. My mother and two aunts, Aunt Dolly and Aunt Annie, would spend the day peeling apples.
Some of the apples were turned into apple sauce. During the war (WW2) when sugar was rationed, the apple sauce was canned sans any sweetener. We had sour apple sauce in the basement pantry for YEARS—you put some apple sauce on your plate and then were allowed to add a little sugar and stir it up.
Grandma made a lot of apple strudel, her specialty and I imagine some of the best apples were stored down in grandma’s cellar, to be used in future batches of apple strudel.
I have a Granny Smith apple tree in my back yard, now, and I make apple sauce, all the while thinking of my Grandma Schmidt and her apple tree and wishing—oh, how I wish! – that I had the recipe for Grandma’s Apple Strudel.
–Sandra Lee Smith