Despite growing up on a farm, Amy Jo Ehman was a city dweller who accepted that her food now came from the supermarket. Mind you, she had an appreciation for the perfection of ripe fruit, but she didn't give much consideration to where it came from. But then came the pig. A friend planned to raise some, and a half-joking remark resulted in a pig being raised for the Ehmans, too. This was the beginning of Saskatoon-based Ehman's adventures in local eating.
This was before Michael Pollan's groundbreaking book "The Omnivore's Dilemma." This was before Smith & McKinnon's "100-Mile Diet" became a bestseller. The term "locavore" wasn't part of everyday conversation. But Ehman and her husband found themselves more and more enamored of the foodstuffs they found surrounding them and came to appreciate and seek out the bounty of the Saskatchewan prairies. At some point, the challenge seemed to make sense — spend a year focused on discovering the foods of their home province. The result of this experience is Ehman's first book, "Prairie Feast: A Writer's Journey Home for Dinner," now a High Plains Book Award finalist in both the best nonfiction and best first book categories.
When one looks at the wide fields in the plains, the wheat fields stretch on forever. Yet those are not the only grains grown, and many farmers experiment with different crops. The book is filled with lush photographs of fruits, vegetables and grains that grow from the prairie soil and the animals raised on those fields, and even the salt that is harvested from far below the prairie surface. These images accompany humorous tales of her pursuit of the local, through community potluck dinners, bread-baking contests and food festivals. Adventures in local food led to a discovery of a cartel among wild blueberry pickers who agree on sale prices before eager buyers arrive. Morel gatherers have customers waiting for their trucks to arrive to be the first to buy the tasty mushrooms. Sidebars include informative and entertaining digressions about food history, such as the British ban of the Saskatoon berry, or how the wheat that thrives on the plains made the journey to North America.
Ehman also includes recipes for these wonderful ingredients, to give readers a sense of what can be done with the ingredients once found. The recipes are not too complicated for the casual cook, but anyone will be tempted to try several of them out. My favorite is the charmingly named "Summer Rain Soup," and not even for the ingredients but for the instruction: "It is important to pick the vegetables in the rain. Somehow, the soup just tastes better."
Ehman is a natural storyteller whose writing is literally mouth-watering. The tone is not didactic, but conversational. She invites readers to participate in a sentimental journey in order to nourish the soul and rediscover community. Part memoir and part cookbook, "Prairie Feast" is a delightful love letter to Saskatchewan and the plentiful feast it contains.
Dee Ann Redman is the assistant director at Parmly Billings Library and the co-author of "Billings A to Z."