Down by the buffalo jump

Blair Lebsack practices the simple pleasure of seasonal food in the outdoors. If, you call several long days of planting, picking, butchering, dressing, smoking, prepping, setting, organizing, easy.

We are late. We see several cars parked around the farmyard, some chickens wandering about, a few contented-looking rabbits in a hutch. No people, no sound, not even a curious dog.

“Do you hear something? Music? Voices?” We follow a cart track around a stand of trees and see off in the distance a truck and some smoke. Further off, silhouetted against a pale jade sky are a few cattle grazing. We walk towards the smoke; the farm buildings getting smaller, into a landscape that is pure Dorothy Knowles.

We can see for miles in every direction. It’s a balmy night in late July, clear with a fragrant breeze, with a few non-threatening wisps of clouds above. The prairie grasses are green thanks to welcome rain which has filled the near-empty dugouts and aquifers.

We’re here for dinner: The table, set for 40, is beside a creek running silver in the evening light. Talk and laughter and friendly faces are all around. First course is a shot of pea soup with pansies. It tastes like the essence of spring.

We’re at Danny and Shannon Ruzicka’s family farm, Nature’s Green Acres, a quarter section near Viking, east of Edmonton, which they have farmed since 2003. About 80 acres are in hay, and the rest is in native pasture — known around here as prairie wool, a tough, hardy grass ideal for grazing livestock. Buffalo roamed here.

“Our neighbour and relative Jim Ruszicka, has told us stories of wartime, in the ‘40s, when farmers were paid to collect buffalo bones, “ says Sharon. “’Wagons full,’ he said”

“The government would send them off to make bombs using the phosphorus.”

Their land has a good swath of tepee rings down by the creek. People have been gathering in this spot for centuries.

Shannon and Danny raise beef, pigs and chicken. “At first we did to raise all of our own food. Then Don, Danny’s uncle, said if you’re going to raise a few pigs you might as well build a pen like I did and raise several.”

Blair Lebsack, the former chef at Madison’s Grill, has a project while he looks for the perfect restaurant location. He’s cooking this dinner at Shannon and Danny’s plus similar dinners at Peas on Earth, Prairie Gardens and Elk Island National Park. He’s practicing the simple pleasure of seasonal food in the outdoors.

What a dinner it is. Several long days of hauling stoves and maplewood, picking, butchering, dressing, smoking, prepping, setting, organizing. All for one evening, six courses, down by the creek

Range Road or Rge Rd as it says on the chef’s jackets. Brilliant. Every farm in Alberta is on a range road.

“I first met Danny and Shannon a few years ago, when I was at Madison’s,” said Blair. “When I got back from France I wanted to do something like this, have a dinner where everything was from one farm, full-on. It’s kind of an experiment. I approached Danny and Shannon; they were game. Caitlin (Caitlin Fulton, Blair’s partner) and I put in the vegetable garden and I’ve been out here at least once a week — more usually —weeding, moving pigs, helping with whatever needs to be done;

“We planted mid-May, things we thought we’d need for the dinner, peas, potatoes, arugula. The green beans didn’t grow, so Tracy Zizek (chef at Café de Ville) picked them up for us and brought them to dinner.

“The beef is their nouveau beef; the pig, we slaughtered and dressed last week. Everything else we foraged — the alfalfa for the beer and the alfalfa flowers, the stinging nettles. The raspberries came from down by the buffalo jump.”

We had missed Danny’s shoeing demonstration (Danny is the local farrier) and the tour through the movable pigpens and a visit to the buffalo jump, on the west side of the property. But we can imagine it, and we relax into the glorious setting.

We eat and drink wine and share a few stories. Everything we enjoy tonight was cooked over wood, the hint of smoke adding to the deliciousness, as well as keeping fierce mosquitos at bay. The laughter gets louder as we get closer to the Saskatoon tart. After dinner, everyone mills about to chat, to get a closer look at the stoves, and feel their heat; the night chill is coming on.

As the translucent sky fades to black, the crew gathers around the fire with a few beers, reluctant to let the evening end. Nor are the guests willing to let the magic go. We slowly wander back across the field, chatting with new and old friends, say our goodbyes and drive home.

By Mary Bailey.