This is the second of two articles on Canadian ingredients. This piece explores some of the contemporary foods that have flourished more recently and have been adopted kitchens from coast to coast. It’s adapted, along with a few of the referenced recipes, from Anita Stewart’s CANADA: The Food, The Recipes, The Stories.
The spring day I visited Joan Heath and Corey Loessin and their children, Audra and Aiden on their 5500 acre farm near Radisson, Saskatchewan, Joan was preparing a tail gate lunch of the finest order. It was a feast….similar to all the others that she’s made, twice a day, over the many years of her marriage. The kitchen was filled with the smell of freshly baked Nana’s dinner rolls and simmering, Spicy Saskatchewan-Braised Beef to be served with garlic mashed potatoes. She’d whipped up a fabulous Wheat Berry Salad ; a spinach salad with strawberries and a canola dressing; an utterly delicious Prairie Lentil and Grain Cake and her spectacular Prairie Grain Cookies. Then she packed the truck and we headed out.
Saskatchewan is a land of grand scale; a province where, perhaps because of the sky, things seem larger. Farms are enormous. Equipment to work them is gigantic and cost hundreds of thousands. It’s a hard, rich life. Those who work the land are experts at multi-tasking…it seems to be part of the psyche. They are on the front lines of Canada’s agricultural community.
A big golden coyote trotted along in the ditch, unafraid and proud of it. Above a hawk wheeled, kittling on the updrafts of spring. On the 360’ horizon, small dust clouds spiralled from the seeders of their neighbours. The land wasn’t green yet. We parked behind a pile of brush, out of the chilling May wind, and waited. Just after 12 noon, Corey arrived. He’d been working since 6 a.m. and wasn’t going to stop till after 10 p.m. The crops had to go in when the earth was dry and warm enough. They’d just invested in a $200,000 air drill so that they could seed more and faster, sweeping the fields in graceful GPS-guided arcs with the long arms of the seeder extending like giant wings on either side of a multi-thousand dollar tractor.On the edge of a Prairie field the sacks of seeds provided an additional wind break. The following year, those seeds would be harvested to provide the raw materials, the ingredients, for Joan to use for similar lunches and a multitude of dinners. They’d also be on tables around the world.
Out of the cold gusts, the hot meal was exactly what was needed. That day Corey was seeding Blaze lentils, a variety developed at Pulse Crop Research Lab in Saskatoon, on part of their acreage. Had he run into a problem with the variety, he could call up the guy who developed it.
This is the beauty of what is currently unfolding in food production in Canada. Not only are we privy to the indigenous foods of Canada with origins we can only guess, there are men and women who are quietly, and frequently without fanfare, are setting the future tables of our land with new foods. With them we complete the cycle of Canada’s food life. While some of these researchers have retired, their stories are still much with us, something that older food cultures cannot claim.
Corey is typical of thousands of western farmers. He plans his planting in order…peas first, then lentils, canola, barley and wheat. It’s a massive task and he is cultivating what we think of as today’s super foods, one with demonstrated health benefits. Most were well known to ancient cultures. In the Fertile Crescent around the Mediterranean, lentils date from 9500 B.C. while chickpeas were first cultivated about 6000 B.C. Soybeans are actually the eldest being domesticated in northeastern China around the 11th century B.C. Rapeseed, flax, safflower and broad beans were all domesticated very early.
Where these extraordinary crops dropped off the ship on the voyage to the New World is anyone’s guess. Perhaps, with the available supply of meat and fish, the settlers simply turned their back on this traditional knowledge and buried it with the memories of starvation. Broad beans – the gourganes of old Quebec were grown in gardens across the region and saved from year to year. Of the others, only flax seems to have been cultivated for making linen. In 1752, the Halifax Gazette printed a notice from the Governor offering 20 shillings an acre cleared and planted with flax or hemp in an attempt to wrest arable land from the forest. By the end of that century there were settlers who would insist on only wearing linen made with the flax that they grew themselves. Little to no attention was paid to the pulse family and the cooking fats of choice were lard and butter.
Thankfully, these incredible old crops are once again new. They are among the healthiest on earth and Canada grows them to perfection. They reflect the stories and the expansive dreams of the researchers that brought them to fruition. It is not a flight of fancy to say that what they perceived was an almost blank slate of possibilities. Armed with knowledge and determination and with large brushstrokes of imagination, they drew pulses and oil seeds on the Prairies and soybeans across central Canada.
No matter where one travels, east to west or north to south, food brackets our journey. Be it foraged or cultivated, indigenous or brand new, Canada is Food!