Ghost Chickens in the ‘Living Skies’ of Saskatchewan

Angela Dansby

Saskatchewan. Try saying that five times fast. This western Canadian province known as the “land of living skies” has been in my vocabulary for decades.

Oddly, as a child, I was aware of this prairie province from studying maps and I was obsessed with its name. I loved saying “Saskatchewan” and told my family that my favorite stuffed animals came from this exotic-sounding place. Didi, my stuffed monkey for whom I made jogging outfits out of old socks, supposedly ran from my hometown in Michigan to Saskatchewan on a regular basis … beating the pants (er, socks) off my sister’s stuffed koala Koalie.  

As the law of attraction would have it, I “ran” to Saskatchewan myself about 10 times 20 years later. One of my long-time clients held an annual July event there to showcase its top crop called canola (a contraction of “Can” for Canadian and “ola” meaning oil of improved rapeseed developed by Canadian breeders in the 1960s). For a long weekend during the two-week bloom of this beautiful, yellow crop, we hosted “Canola Camp” to inform food and nutrition influencers about the culinary and health benefits of canola oil. It was one of the best “work assignments” I ever had.  

Not only did I meet interesting professionals and work with lovely Canadian colleagues, my foodie palate was delighted by chefs in Saskatoon, the province’s largest city, and in the surrounding countryside. Saskatchewan is Canada’s top producer of canola and the world’s top exporter of lentils and dry peas. In the summer, with temperatures rising up to 30° F – a 100-degree upswing from the heart of dark winter – it grows just about everything under its blue skies as a world leader in agriculture.

Perhaps that’s because Saskatchewan is rich in potash, a potassium-rich salt that protects plants against extreme temperatures, helps them fight stress and pests, strengthens roots and stems, and assists in transferring food and water use. In fact, Saskatchewan is the world’s largest producer and exporter of potash, 95 percent of which is used as fertilizer for crops.

Saskatchewan comes from the Cree First Nations word “kisiskatchewan,” meaning “the river that flows swiftly,” in reference to its major river of the same name. Locals say you can see your dog run away for days there because it’s so flat. The province is also known for curling (a stone-sliding sport played on ice), football (go, Roughriders) and surprisingly, cultural diversity given its low population. While it only has 1.1 million people in 15 cities on a whopping land space of 652,000 square kilometers, it is home to people of native (First Nations) Canadians, European, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Scandinavian and British heritage.

Each year at Canola Camp, we were immersed in Métis (mixed European and First Nations) culture at Champêtre County, a ranch venue founded by an elderly “sheriff cowboy” named Arthur and his wife Thérèse. Our visit always began with the sheriff dramatically riding up to our bus on a horse and escorting us to the Howling Coyote Saloon. From there, in cowboy hats, we took a horse-drawn carriage ride moderated by the jokester sheriff, followed by dinner with steaks deep-fried in a trough of canola oil and square dancing to burn off calories. It was the perfect icebreaker with a group of perfect strangers.

“Ghost chickens in the sky!” Thérèse would sing as we scrambled to follow her verbal cues square dancing in circles.

“Ow, my foot!” someone would inevitably exclaim due to a clumsy dance partner. Gales of laughter competed with the country music.

In Saskatoon, we led educational presentations and hand-on workshops at the stately Bessborough Hotel and The Saskatoon Club, with delicious meals in between made with canola oil by the best chefs in town. It was like a four-day food festival and I always came home with five extra pounds to prove it.

Completing our food festival was a trip to the Saturday Saskatoon Farmer’s Market, which bursts with local produce, honey, spirits, baked goods (the province grows a lot of durum wheat) and foods made with saskatoon berries.

That’s right. The native berries share the city’s name. In fact, Saskatoon was named after saskatoons. These reddish-purple berries resemble cranberries but taste like they are mixed with blueberries. While still too tart to eat on their own, they are used to make jams, pies, pirogis, ice cream, syrup and even wine. The Berry Barn outside of Saskatoon allows people to pick saskatoons and taste a range of foods made with them.

Some local barley and wheat growers are also in the agrotourism business, using their homegrown grains to make homebrew and spirits. We toured Black Fox Farm and Distillery and Lucky Bastard Distillery on different visits, sampling artisan gin, whisky, vodka and berry liqueurs such as haskap, an elongated, blue berry with more antioxidants than blueberries.

Agar’s Corner, a country restaurant in an Eaton’s Catalogue house, was an annual culinary joy. It serves up dishes made with locally grown ingredients like lentils and chickpeas and meats smoked on-site. Right next to it are canola fields in which we would play and take photos.

For Canola Campers who had to arrive early due to limited flight schedules into Saskatoon, we would entertain them at Wanuskewin Heritage Park or the Western Development Museum (WDM). These museums feature the history of First Nations and European settlers, respectively. They are located on Treaty 6 Territory of First Nations people and the Homeland of the Métis, who hunted bison in the area in the 1850s.

Wanuskewin has archeological artifacts from the Pre-Contact era of at least 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans and Africans as of 1492. The area was first occupied by humans 6,000 years ago and virtually every Pre-Contact cultural group known in the Great Plains passed through it. They were likely attracted to the food sources of bison, other animals and prairie plants.

The WDM shares the story of Saskatchewan settlement by Europeans in 1910, when Saskatoon was known as “Boomtown” due to its flood of immigrants. It covers the economic and cultural development of western Canada from farming equipment to automobiles. (Canola creators Richard Keith Downey and Baldur Stefansson are recognized there.)

Saskatchewan has been attracting foodies for centuries, evolving from bison to deep-fried steaks. It really does have ghost chickens in the sky.

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