A taste of the past

Amy Jo Ehman poses for a photo with her most recent book during a stop at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library in Prince Albert. (Jason Kerr/Daily Herald)

When Amy Jo Ehman looks at old Saskatchewan recipes, she doesn’t just see food.

She sees resourcefulness, resiliency, generosity and the creative flair to make due with whatever ingredients are close at hand.

The longtime Saskatoon StarPhoenix food columnist says Saskatchewan people have put their own unique spin on the culinary world, and those contributions are front and centre in her latest cookbook, Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens.

The book contains a wide variety of soups, stews, cakes, cookies and just about anything else you could find in a prairie kitchen up until the mid-1920s. For Ehman, it was more than just a look at some beloved recipes. It was like journeying into the past.

“We’re talking about a very narrow subset of ingredients that were available back then,” said Ehman, who was in Prince Albert on March 20 to discuss the book. “We didn’t have the big grocery stores where you could just run out and get something.”

What she found wasn’t fancy, but it was hearty and helped sustain early pioneer families through hardworking summers and long, freezing winters. It also showed a creative side, as early families sought to make the most with limited fare.

“People made such a variety of dishes with very few ingredients based on their culinary traditions, whether it was a rolled cookie or a dropped cookie, whether the cake was flavoured with cinnamon or with cardamom, whether the stew had cream in it or not, whether it was a goulash or a gravy stew,” Ehman explained. “It really struck me, how there weren’t a lot of ingredients, but a whole lot of variety as to what people could do with it.”

There were also a few surprises. Ehman discovered dishes that were long forgotten on the prairies, like a type of salad made by Doukhobor settlers that is still loved back in Russia. She also discovered a few hidden gems, like Bullet Soup, that are still widely loved in Saskatchewan.

Named after an Anglicized form of boulette, which means meatball in French, the soup has a long history in Saskatchewan’s Métis community. Ehman was pleasantly surprised to discover that almost 100 years later, it’s still loved across Saskatchewan.

“I asked a Metis friend of mine. She said, ‘yeah, we still make Bullet Soup all the time,’” Ehman said. “It just depends on what your cultural group is and what your family traditions are.”

For Ehman, foods like Bullet Soup define Saskatchewan just as much as farmyards and grain elevators. Looking through these old recipes reveals the efforts early families took to keep their children fed, and the pride they had in doing so, even in tough times.

“If you could eat the same things for several days in a row, it didn’t matter. You weren’t going to be hungry,” she said.

Ehman’s next project has a historical focus, although it goes beyond Saskatchewan. She’s currently working on a history of wheat, and how it’s shaped cultures across the world.

However, that doesn’t mean she’s done with Saskatchewan cooking. Ehman said she’s still got stacks of prairie recipes sitting at home, and Saskatchewan residents are sharing more with her every day. With their help, it won’t be long before she has more than enough to take another trip into the past and fill another cookbook with traditional Saskatchewan classics.