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Book reviews

Prairie Feast: A Writer’s Journey Home for Dinner, Amy Jo Ehman, Coteau Books, 2010, 176 pages

  • Hannah Smith-Drelich

Corps de l’article

Local eating is a daunting effort that requires skill and constant vigilance. Here in New York City, you must research your rooftop gardens, make friends with an urban beehive owner, and know the network of dairy farms and orchards found upstate. It is a well-meaning if limited diet, and I am not fully convinced that dumpster diving provides a richer way of life.

When Amy Jo Ehman, a writer and food columnist living in Saskatchewan, decided to eat locally for a year, her parameters were a bit different. Saskatchewan is about 650,000 square kilometers, which is roughly the size of Kenya, or about double the amount of area the United States uses to grow corn. Saskatchewan is the breadbasket of Canada, containing almost half of Canada’s cultivated farmland. In other words, Ehman’s local diet was not what most of us would consider local. Instead, as she emphasizes in her book Prairie Feast: A Writer’s Journey Home for Dinner, “The 100-mile diet is a revolutionary concept, but such strict limits are not for me. From the start, I was motivated by an appetite for healthier, tastier and socially connected food, with an eye on the local market and not the odometer” (40). Indeed, most of Ehman’s food quests require long car rides, and her definition of local consists of all that grows under the green and gold Saskatchewan flag.

Ehman is a gifted storyteller and she describes cherry festivals, duck hunting, and mustard tasting competitions in a lively and charming voice. While she can’t resist elbowing her reader in the ribs a few times too many, Ehman is capable of beautiful phrasing. “There are far too few opportunities for heading into the countryside in the summertime at dawn,” she writes as she begins another food pilgrimage, this time on her way to St. Walburg for wild blueberries. “The light at dawn is completely different from the light of day. It floods the landscape in dewy greens and liquid blues and soft butter yellows, like an oil canvas so freshly painted it’s still damp” (75).

This is a book that champions open-country optimism and prairie-style self-sufficiency. Ehman speaks often of her idyllic childhood on the family farm, and the recipes that close each chapter are full of good sense and corny puns. She is clearly an incredible cook, and her willingness to tackle everything from pickles to blue potato pakoras proves her fearlessness in the kitchen, and to me, her authority as someone whose advice I should take.

As a closed-in New Yorker, I particularly liked when Ehman waxes rhapsodic over Canada’s sparkling hoarfrosts and small country fairs, each equipped with its own old-timey polka band. The Canada she describes is linked through a network of friends and friends of friends, each person with something valuable and delicious to offer. Her locavore diet consists of foraged mushrooms, eggs from the neighbourhood chickens, and exotic spices from an enterprising spice farmer. Ehman has the type of friends who call her up out of the blue to ask if she’d like an extra pig, or if she would fancy a tractor ride through a field of coriander. Given such an active community, Ehman and her husband enjoy a diet that is wide-ranging and varied, although she has no qualms about occasionally breaking the rules: if a zucchini cake benefits from a pinch of imported cocoa powder, then so be it. Ehman chose to follow her prairie diet because of native pride and a well-placed confidence in the bounty of Saskatchewan. Prairie Feast is not an exercise in self-restraint or holier-than-thou environmentalism, but a celebration of cornucopia.

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