Burt Wolf's Menu: Show-Calgary - #102

The Canadian west... we'll take a look at its extraordinary natural beauty... discover some dinosaur digs... visit the city of Calgary and find out how the railroad made all this possible.  We'll ride up to a local ranch, uncover the true story of the chuckwagon and cook up some traditional recipes.  So join me in Calgary, Alberta for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

Alberta is one of the western provinces of Canada.  Its own western border runs through the magnificent beauty of the Canadian Rockies.  At its southern border is the U.S. state of Montana.  It has thousands of acres of fertile farmland.  Ranches that rival those of Texas... and some of the most beautiful national parks in the world.  Its capital city of Edmonton is host to the largest shopping mall in North America... over 800 stores... all in one place.  And the city of Calgary is one of the most exciting cities in Western Canada.  If, however, you were passing through the area about 100 million years ago, you would have been working your way through the shallow, muddy inland sea that covered much of western Canada... a semi-tropical swamp packed with vegetation... and the ancestral home to the North American dinosaur. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This is the Calgary Zoo Botanical Garden and Prehistoric Park.  In addition to their animals, they have over twenty models of prehistoric animals that hang out in a setting designed to look very much as western Canada did... millions of years ago.

The first model went into the zoo in 1933.  He's nicknamed "Dinny" and he became a superstar 60 years before anyone ever heard of "Barney". 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Of all of the periods in the history of Alberta and particularly the city of Calgary, none is more important than the days of the dinosaurs.  For it was during the period of the dinosaurs that billions of tiny creatures settled into the mud that was on the bottom of the sea that covered this area.  Eventually these creatures were pressured and pressed into becoming giant pools of petroleum... and it was the discovery of those petroleum deposits that made Calgary what it is today.

For thousands of years, the native tribes had been using the petroleum that seeped up to the surface of the earth to caulk their boats, and as a form of topical medicine. But this casual approach to oil changed dramatically when the first big strike hit in 1914.  The Dingman Discovery Well #1 made its appearance in Turner Valley just outside of Calgary and Alberta's original oil boom began.  There have been a number of oil strikes since then, and each time the wealth created from nature's black gold had an impact on Calgary.  Glittering downtown office buildings were put up to house the headquarters of the major oil companies.  The local sense of "we can do it" brought in the 1988 Winter Olympics.  The Saddledome was constructed originally for the Olympic skating competitions... these days it's home to the to the Calgary Flames... one of the world's great professional hockey teams.  Stephen Avenue was turned into a pedestrian mall with a general atmosphere that lends itself to relaxed shopping... or just wandering around.  Much of downtown Calgary has been connected by a series of elevated walkways that are called "Plus 15s" because they are a little over fifteen feet above the streets.  It makes it very easy to get from one building to another... no matter what the weather.  There’s also an elevated indoor park called Devonian Gardens.  During the winter, people come in for a quick warm weather vacation and all year long everyone who works in the area uses it as a gathering spot or for a park lunch.  The Calgary Tower runs up for over 600 feet and presents a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding area.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   There’s a considerable amount of cultural activity, and the city is packed with excellent restaurants. The people of Calgary pumped up the oil... the oil pumped up the money... and the money pumped up the people of Calgary.  But there’s a lot to the story of Calgary between the dinosaurs and Discovery Well #1.  After 120 million years of being league leaders in the animal world... the dinosaurs just disappeared... and whatever happened around here for the next 65 million years, the story’s pretty sketchy.  But then, only 35,000 years ago... groups of people began to migrate from Asia to Alaska and down through northwestern Canada to this area.  The first native tribes had begun to arrive.

The local tribes were members of what is called The Blackfoot Confederacy. Their diet was to a great extent made up of buffalo meat and berries.  The word buffalo actually means real meat... the implication being that any other meat just wasn't the real thing.  In spite of the fact that fish were easily available from the rivers, fish was not part of their meals.  A fish was considered to be a creature from the "underworld" and therefore to be feared and avoided.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The first Europeans to arrive in the area were fur traders with the Hudson Bay Company... and they got along pretty well with the native tribes.  But things took a turn for the worst after the American Civil War.  Soldiers, not wanting to return home, just drifted west.  Some of them crossed the border and began selling  whiskey.  The area was not under the direct control of any lawful force.   Some of the whiskey was poisonous; all of it was disruptive.   The Canadian government decided in 1875 that they had to put an end to the whiskey trade, and they sent out F Troop of the Northwest Mounted Police. When the Mounties arrived at this very spot, the juncture of the Elbow and Bow Rivers, they built a fort. And as soon as law and order arrived, so did the cattle business.

The great cattle-drives from the ranches of Texas to the rail-heads in Kansas took place from the middle of the 1860's to the middle of the 1880's... the whole business    only lasted twenty years but it produced enough cowboy folklore to become one of the mythic images of North America.  During the 1880's big herds of cattle started coming into Canada by crossing the border from Montana to Alberta.   The chuck wagon headed the procession... next came the lead steer... followed by fifty thousand steaks and chops spread out among two or three thousand head of cattle. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The chuck wagon was actually designed by one of the great cattle kings.  His name was Charles Goodnight and he had a clear idea of what his men needed for a drive.  The wagon was divided into a series of boxes; everything had its place.  There was enough stuff to feed ten men for thirty days.  When the wagon was moving it was covered by a door that protected everything.  When the cook got ready to cook, the door came down and became a work surface.  The cook would carry salt pork and bacon... flour, a sourdough starter, cornmeal, coffee and always and forever... beans.  Beans were served so often that very often meal time was referred to as "bean time". 

This chuck wagon is part of the rig at the Rafter Six Ranch Resort which is just to the west of Calgary. The name Rafter Six is a reference to the brand that was originally used on this ranch...a half diamond that looks like a rafter on the top and a number 6 underneath.  The ranch was founded by  Colonel James Walker of the Northwest Mounted Police. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The next person to own the Ranch was a guy named Soapy Smith, and he was a real character.  I couldn't find out why he was called “Soapy,” but it definitely wasn't because he was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure.  When he was in his late seventies he married a girl who had just become a teen-ager.  Together they started a guide tour business on the ranch.  After Soapy's widely anticipated demise, his widow remarried and turned the ranch into a guest house.  During the 1940's the area became home to some really interesting movies.

One of Marilyn Monroe’s first movies, “River of No Return” was filmed here.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   "Well... I reckon it's time for me to start cookin’.  I’m gonna do some traditional chuck wagon stuff.  I’m gonna do a Dutch oven brown bread, cowboy chili, a little coffee, and I figure for dessert the boys would enjoy a Chocolate Soufflé with a little Grand Marnier Sauce."


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Well... the French were the first explorers in this area; there must have been some French cowhands...

COWBOY # 1:  Somebody -- get a rope!!!

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   I’ll just do the chili...

A nice big cast-iron skillet is heated over the fire and in goes a little bit of vegetable oil. As soon as the oil gets hot two pounds of lean beef are added. The beef’s been cut into one-inch cubes.  They’re cooked and stirred until they are brown on all sides.  Two cloves of chopped garlic go in.  Two cups of chopped onion.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Smellin’ mighty good to me.

The onions cook for a few minutes and then two cups of beef broth go in... followed by one cup of water... and two cups of canned tomatoes and their juices.  Then the spices.  The spice mixture is made up of two tablespoons of chili powder... one teaspoon of oregano... one teaspoon of cumin... and a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper.  All that gets stirred together and simmered for one and a half hours. At that point we add four cups of pre-cooked pinto beans and two tablespoons of finely ground cornmeal. The cornmeal acts as a thickening agent for the liquids.  Everything simmers together for another thirty minutes and it’s ready to serve.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  An essential element in this recipe is to always be upwind from the fire...

A little cabbage slaw alongside would be nice, some brown bread and maybe apple pie for dessert.  And speaking of brown bread, let’s get that done next. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   First thing is to combine the wet ingredients. 

Two cups of buttermilk are already in the bowl and to that we add three-quarters of a cup of molasses.  Stir that up a bit and then get the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl.  A cup of raisins go in... a quarter of a cup of chopped walnuts... a cup of whole wheat flour... then a cup of rye flour is added... followed by a cup of yellow cornmeal... three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda and a half teaspoon of salt.  Stir all of those dry ingredients together. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Then I mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, but I only mix a half cup at a time, and I only add more dry ingredients when they’re fully incorporated.  It’s a simple technique, but it helps avoid lumps. ... This batter gets cooked in cans.  You’ll need three twenty-ounce cans or four sixteen-ounce cans.  You want to take the labels off and wash them.  Make sure that there are no sharp edges here after you take the top off; leave the bottom on, and then lightly oil the inside and put the batter in.

Cover the tops of the cans with aluminum foil and put them into a Dutch oven or any other pot that is deep enough to hold them.  Pour water into the Dutch oven until it comes up about two inches on the outside of the cans. Cover the Dutch oven and let the water inside simmer for three hours. These breads are really steamed rather than baked. At the end of the cooking time, the cans come out of the water.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Then you let it cool, and you take off the top, and that’s what you’ve got!  Then you want to cut the bottom, and push it out as you slice it.

And the last thing the cook did before he went to bed was to point the chuck wagon towards the North Star.

BURT WOLF:   Well... let’s point ‘er.  That’s the North Star right there.

COWBOY # 1:  That’s not the North Star, that’s Jupiter!

COWBOY # 2:  Naw, you’re crazy, that’s Mars!

BURT WOLF:   Actually... I think that’s the moon.

COWBOY # 1:  Yeah, it is kinda big...

COWBOY # 2:  And it’s got a face.

BURT WOLF:   Let’s point it to the moon.

COWBOY # 1:  Point it to the moon.

Because the arrival of the first Europeans to Calgary coincided with the first travelling photographers, much of Calgary’s history was photographed.  John Gilchrist of the Glenbow Museum has collected a group of photographs that help tell the story of Calgary and its food.

JOHN GILCHRIST:  The chuck wagon chefs were the great cooks of the prairies; you know, when you had a ranch you had to have the best cowboys, to get the best cowboys you had to have the best chuck wagon cook.  So you hired guys like Mexican Jim here in this photograph.  Now he was famous for his pies.  And you can see all the pies that were made were of course double-crusted pies.  That way you don’t have to worry about any utensils, you can grab the whole piece with your hand, don’t have to worry about getting your thumb in the plums, and you just stick it in your face.  Some of the things that they ate weren’t that pleasant.  In fact, in the wintertime up here, they would bake beans and then in the morning they would layer them in between newspaper and let them freeze, slip these into the saddlebags and you have a meal for every day that you’re out on the range.  And at night you’d just, well, sort of heat one up -- or do like the old Tartars, slip one under the saddle of the horse and let it warm up as you ride through the day.  Add a little extra essence there in the beans, as it were.  Not the greatest of food on the range, in some ways.  Now, the chuck wagon chefs, though, they always had to be on top of their game.  Four o’clock in the morning, they were up making coffee.  There’s a great old story of one of the old ranches, where one of the cooks was a little bit slow out of the, out of the bed in the morning, and one of the cowboys rode up, saw there wasn’t any coffee, shot the coffeepot full of six holes of lead... and they were never late for coffee again.  (Laughter)  Now, of course, on the Canadian prairie, half the ranchers were American and half the ranchers were British, and there was the debate over whether to have coffee or tea.  Now they all pretty much had coffee in the morning, but then the Americans wanted to have coffee again later on in the morning, the British wanted to stop for tea in the afternoon.  So they sort of compromised, and depending on who owned the ranch, they leaned one way or the other, but I think the cowboys kind of liked it both ways.  Then they could take as many breaks as possible.

BURT WOLF:   I always find that the farther away a culture is from its original core, the way Canada and Australia are from London, the more they hang onto those traditions.

JOHN GILCHRIST:  And they certainly hung onto it.  In the elegance of the ranch houses, that’s where they supped the tea out of the fine china, and it was more the tin cups on the prairies filled with coffee and tea, and maybe a little illegal whiskey on the side too, that the cowboys really enjoyed.  ... With the history of the ranches in Alberta, Alberta beef became one of the key products of our lifestyle, and Alberta beef is still, we’re still very proud of it and all the things that grow on our ranches and farms around Alberta.  We think we have some of the best products available anywhere.  And in this shot, you can see some of our Victorian elegance coming through in the older days.  They’ve got some of -- they’ve got a cake there, they’ve got what appears to be a bottle of wine, but may actually be just mineral water; there are other little cakes and wafers on that table there, and they are trying to preserve their, their Victorian elegance while at the same time enjoying the fresh fare of Alberta here in the Canadian West.

This is a photograph of Calgary, taken in 1883.  At the time the town was really just a row of tents on the Elbow River, and ninety percent of those tents were either a rooming house or a restaurant. But the character of Calgary was about to undergo a colossal change. On August 11, 1883, the first Canadian Pacific Railway train pulled into Calgary. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The Canadian government decided that they had to build a railroad across their country from the Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean in order to hold their young nation together.  The United States had just built a transcontinental railroad and people here were concerned that the settlers in the western part of the United States would inch across the border and try and bring that part of Canada into the U.S.  As the railroad came across the nation, they were given the rights to the land on which they were laying their track.  But they also got the rights to a lot of land on eithe side of the track.  They soon realized that they could make a fortune by selling that land to settlers.  So they sold you a ticket, and then they sold you the land on which you lived when you got to your destination.  The railroad did okay!

The railroads and the steamship companies advertised all over Europe, and the immigrants began to come in by the thousands.  The settlers were attracted to places that reminded them of home.  Many of the Europeans were frightened off by the open prairie land in Southern Alberta and they tended to go north to Edmonton.  Homesteaders coming up from Montana, Utah and other western states in the U.S. already understood the demands of the wide-open prairie and the land around Calgary looked just fine.  For many people it was quite a lifestyle change.  This is a photograph of George Pocaterra in his native Italy.  And this is a photograph of George Pocaterra at his homestead in Pekisko, Alberta.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But western Canada still had a reputation as being a little too rough-and-ready for most settlers.  So the farmers of Calgary took a railroad car, a nice warm one, and filled it with examples of the wheat and vegetables that they were growing here.  They sent it back east to show it to the farmers there, figuring if they got a look at what they were growing out here, the eastern farmers would want to move out here.  Well, the Calgary Exhibition did pretty good, and eventually evolved into an annual summer event with a worldwide reputation.

In 1912 Guy Weadick, a wild west show star from the U.S., and his wife Flores LaDue, a champion trick roper, showed up in Calgary.  They convinced a group of local investors to fund a week-long rodeo that was called The Calgary Stampede. These days it is held every July and attracts visitors from all over the world.

As the Canadian Pacific Railway pushed west, it passed through some of the most spectacular scenery in North America... scenery that it could make available to everyone by building hotels and resorts at the major railheads.  Today there are over 25 properties in the group and they include some of Canada's grandest hotels and resorts.  The Empress in Victoria... Chateau Whistler... Jasper Park Lodge... The Royal York in Toronto... and here in Calgary, The Palliser.  The Palliser was originally built in 1914 and named after Captain John Palliser, an Englishman who spent a considerable amount of time exploring western Canada.  Over the years, the hotel has become a major social center for the city.  Calgary is well-known for its western hospitality and The Palliser just takes it one step further.  The hotel has the grand architecture that is part of all Canadian Pacific properties and it has all of the amenities that a traveler would expect.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Whenever I come to a hotel for the first time, I’m always given a folder with the history of the property and some information about their present services. Invariably there is a listing inside of the rich and famous people who have stayed at the hotel.  And I always read the list.  Inquiring minds need to know.  I assume at the base of this is the assumption is that if we stay here that someday we will become rich and famous too. Here is the list from the Palliser and it seems perfectly normal.  There’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The Kings of Sweden, Norway, and Spain.  Famous entertainers.  But there are three names on the list that just stopped me cold... get this... Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and... The San Diego Chicken.  Well, I'm not going to touch Mickey or Donald, but I feel that the only appropriate response for the San Diego Chicken is a recipe.

The Palliser chef is Scott Brown, and the recipe is for chicken breasts stuffed with Fontina cheese, basil and dried tomatoes.  First... the small strip of meat on a chicken breast that is called a fillet is removed from the breast... and lightly pounded between two pieces of plastic wrap.  A piece of fontina cheese is placed onto the meat, followed by some chopped basil and a few dried tomatoes.  The ends are folded up, and the sides rolled in.  The stuffed fillet goes into the freezer for thirty minutes.  A pocket is cut into the remainder of the chicken breast.  When the frozen fillet comes out of the freezer it goes into the pocket.  The stuffed breasts are dredged in flour and set into three ounces of oil that have been heated in a sauté pan.  Two minutes of cooking on each side... and the pan goes into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for twenty minutes.  While the chicken is in the oven, a sauce is made.  Two tablespoons of oil go into a hot sauté pan followed by a quarter cup of minced shallots or onion... three minced garlic cloves... and a half cup of dried tomatoes.  That cooks for three minutes... then two cups of chicken stock go in, plus two tablespoons of chopped basil.  The heat gets turned up and the sauce cooks until the volume is reduced by half.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  What a great smell!  Basil and dried tomatoes -- it’s a marriage made in heaven.    

The reduced sauce goes into a blender and gets pureed.   At this point Scott adds a few tablespoons of butter to the sauce, but it's purely an optional addition. I made the recipe without it and it was just fine.  The sauce passes through a strainer and the plating begins.  First, a mold of corn meal and wild rice and some grilled vegetables.  The chicken comes out of the oven and gets sliced into thirds. The sauce goes onto the plate, then the chicken... and the dish is ready to serve.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This is Heritage Park, and it’s a wonderful re-creation of what Calgary looked like in the old days.  If you take a look at this spot, and some of the other places we visited, you get a really good look at what western Canada is really like.  And much to the surprise of many visitors, it's very easy to get around here. I used buses, trains and cars...  I had the most fun on canoes, river rafts and horseback.  They also gave me better mileage.  I'm on the road again so I hope you'll join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I'm Burt Wolf.