The Bird Man of Strathcona County: A tribute to Rick Wood-Samman
by Judy Schultz
Way back in 1990, a man bought a few acres of land east of Edmonton bordering Elk Island Park.
He had a bright idea about the land. Rick Wood-Samman, aka Dirt Willy, was famous for bright ideas, from vintage sports cars and ultralight aircraft to gold- mining.
This particular one involved opening a game bird farm and hatchery.
I first met Rick Wood-Samman when I was the food writer at the Edmonton Journal and he was a pioneer in the game bird business.
His birds were beautiful. From the minute they were hatched, he was careful about their health and comfort. He cared about giving them space, natural light, green grass, and he reminded me of a good shepherd looking after a flock of sheep.
I liked his style. He had great respect for his birds, with all their quirks and foibles. When I visited the farm I had to step through the disinfectant shoe bath before admiring the Chinese Ringneck Pheasants and wild Merriam Turkeys with their elegant autumn plumage. While he sang the praises of his birds, I’d mentally roast a couple of pheasants or one of those Merriams.
At this time of year, their turkey feathers are coppery and gorgeous. The pheasants, too, are almost ready for harvest so they’re at their plump and pretty best, the hens soft grey with black speckles, like a good tweed. As is the custom in the bird world, the cock pheasants wear splashier, more colourful feathers, with a bright red flash on the head, a white ring around the neck, and a sheen of copper over the back.
Early on, Wood-Samman came to understand that the average cook, and in fact many chefs, hadn’t a clue what to do with a whole pheasant other than roast it to a frazzle or dry it out in a deep- fryer, so he wrote his own cookbook. He gave me a lot of advice, a dozen recipes for glazes, sauces, brines and so forth, and then handed me a copy of Dirt Willy Pheasant Recipes, featuring a funny looking Ozark character on a blue paper cover.
In an age of fifty-dollar cookbooks, his was marked five dollars, but I doubt if he ever saw a nickel from sales because he kept giving them away.
Over the years he welcomed a lot of chefs to his farm, and the best of them began beating a regular path up his lane. His birds appeared on menus in the top restaurants around Alberta and beyond.
The last order I placed with him was for 90 of his Chinese Ringneck pheasants, as a mystery ingredient in the Mayor’s Battle of Strathcona Chefs 2015. They arrived in meticulous order, each bird listed by individual weight. Our chefs displayed their creativity to the max, and it was a fitting tribute to a man who practised sustainable free-range game bird farming.
If you combine the soft cuckling sounds of contented birds with a gorgeous autumn afternoon, you can understand why the bird man of Strathcona County so loved his little patch of Alberta countryside.
Rick Wood-Samman, aka Dirt Willy, died September 27, a few days before his birthday. He’d have been 66. Too soon, Alberta’s food industry lost a friend and an advocate.
Judy Schultz is a food and travel writer who divides her time between Canada and New Zealand.