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Buffalo Girl author tells food stories in ‘Star’ fashion

Married to an Alberta bison farmer, Jennifer Bain is food editor of Canada’s largest newspaper

I had to buy a chest freezer when we were dating,” says Jennifer Bain. She pauses while the audience laughs. Then she continues telling us about writing Buffalo Girl Cooks Bison, her latest cookbook. She is Buffalo Girl. Her introduction to bison came when she married Rick, an Alberta bison rancher.

Bain weaves her own stories into the book, just as she does in her talk. The first chapter starts with her photo, in a cowboy hat, looking out over bison grazing on rolling hills. She writes, “We called him Blue Tag 741, for lack of a more personalized name. He was the first bison on our ranch in Alberta that I watched move from field to corral, then slaughter to freezer, and finally stove to stomach.” That was in 2008, when she spent her maternity leave cooking bison at the ranch.

Bain’s talk tonight at a Toronto library is called “Eating for a Living.” As the Toronto Star food editor (her column is called “Saucy Lady”) and the author of two cookbooks, she earns her living telling stories about food and the people who produce, prepare, and consume it. Tonight she weaves her own story into her talk, telling us of her time spent as a journalist in Hong Kong and of her interest in crime stories.

woman holding a red pepper in a kitchen

Jennifer Bain.
photo: Anne de Haas

Bain’s passion is exploring food, cultures — and farmers. “I can write about anything I want to,” she says as she talks about subjects that tie into food. Her interest in farming surprised some farmers. When she called one farm to ask for a tour, the owners thought it was very strange. “Who are you? You’re a food writer?” they asked.

I don’t realize until the talk begins and Bain gets on the stage that I walked straight past her at the door, thinking she was the librarian who organized the talk. She’s very low key. There’s no puffed-up talk of trendy recipes. And even though this talk is about how she got into food writing and wrote her cookbooks, she weaves in stories about people.

Buffalo Girl on farming

Bain figures we’re riding a wave of consumer interest in farms and farmers, and she says it was about 2008 when it really took off.

Earlier, city readers didn’t want to hear about farmers, or read columns that linked to the farm. Now, talking to her Toronto audience, she smiles as she describes a Lays potato chip press release that made an impression by talking about meeting a potato farmer.

She also knows her own transition is only partly complete. “I’m a city girl so I still stumble over the language of the ranch,” she says, and when she tells the library crowd about corralling bison, she can’t remember the lingo for males and females. “The girl ones,” she says.

Bain knows enough about agriculture, though, to recognize that not all farmers are interested in dealing directly with consumers. That’s the case for her husband, for instance. But she does see opportunity for better outreach to consumers. She is looking forward to the Ontario Bison conference this fall, where she will cook and do a book signing.

Conferences for farmers, she thinks, can be an opportunity for her to connect with producers.

It makes me think that with all the effort that farmers say they are putting into making connections with key consumer influencers, maybe it’s a surprise that the food columnist of Canada’s largest daily doesn’t have farmers lined up at her door.

Books

Bain’s first book was the 2013 Toronto Star Cookbook, in which she features people and recipes that have appeared in her column. “The thing I love about the book is that there are a number of people in it,” she says as she describes farmers, chefs, and people who appeared in her stories.

For example, Eli, who comes from a Mexican, Lebanese, Spanish, and French background, shares his recipe for beef kaftas. Brothers Haroon and Jameel share their recipe for Afghan-style kabobs. And Bain gives readers three ways to prepare fried eggs, saying, “During my stint as a brunch columnist, I ate restaurant eggs in every guise imaginable.”

Buffalo Girl Cooks Bison cookbookBuffalo Girl Cooks Bison tells human stories too. Sharlyn and Ivan have a ranch in Red Deer, Alta., and Sharlyn shares her recipe for bison perogies. She loves this food, which makes her think of her grandmother and her Ukrainian heritage.

Bain also tells readers about her unusual bison-related travels. She visits Jim Sautner in Spruce Grove, Alta., who has a pet bison that he drives around in a convertible. Knowing first hand that bison are large, wild animals, she makes her kids stay in the car for most of the interview. As the interview concludes, the bison head-butts the convertible and another nearby car.

Bain dishes up bison in many guises, including burgers, jerk-marinated steaks, bison borscht, bison bourguignon, and bison brisket braised in pomegranate juice. There’s even a recipe for Great Bison Balls of Fire (testicles.)

Evolving Food Landscape

Bain has no trouble finding food stories. “In food it’s endless,” she says, adding that she has ideas from 15 years ago that she still hasn’t been able to use. Bain’s first food series at the Toronto Star was her 1999 “Food Sleuth” series that looked at food from different cultures: Persian, Sri Lankan, Cuban, Korean, Portuguese, Eritrean, Peruvian, Maltese, and Somali.

I ask which of these have become mainstream. “Persian took off,” she says. “Korean really took off.”

I trawl through Bain’s recent Twitter posts to see what she’s been eating: Anatolian Turkish food, Uyghur takeout food. But there’s also a recipe for cocktail crisps made with the ubiquitous Maclaren’s Imperial cheese.

I’m curious to know what her next book will be about, given the ever-evolving food scene.

“Crime is my first love,” says Bain, adding, “I think I have to go back to writing about murder soon.”

Everyday food

Bain tells the audience that she doesn’t read food blogs or watch food TV. With three children, a busy husband — and her own job — she’s too busy. “I grocery shop more than most people,” says Bain, who shops seven times a week. Rick commutes between Toronto and the ranch in Alberta, something that is possible because bison don’t need constant attention.

Later, when I visit her office (which is also the Toronto Star test kitchen) Bain pulls up chairs for us around the kitchen island. As I pull out my notebook, she turns away and starts texting. Sitting down, she apologizes, saying her husband is making bison stew, and she texted him instructions so that the meat won’t be tough, like the bison short ribs he recently cooked.

I don’t see any food pretence in Bain’s kitchen. (She studied journalism, not food.) “I take a lot of reasonable shortcuts for home cooks,” she says. She points to the tinned beans in her cupboard, which she says are a shortcut compared to using dry beans. I also see tins of yellow and black NoName-brand chickpeas in the cupboard. In her Toronto Star Cookbook, Bain says that she adapts recipes by replacing rare ingredients with common ones.

We talk about how she thinks when shopping. “I’m not a nutritionist,” she says, adding that she doesn’t scrutinize the nutritional data on food labels: “Everything in moderation.”

More important to her is where food comes from — and coming from Canada is a good thing. She holds up a bag of lentils and says that what she would most like to know is where they were grown.

Bain’s kitchen

Bain’s office (really, her test kitchen) is electric. When there was no budget for upgrades, she got a tin of hot-pink paint. Another year she installed red and black floor tiles in checkered pattern.

In her Toronto Star Cookbooks, she says, “What my test kitchen proves is this: you don’t need a showroom kitchen to cook well. You need great recipes and great ingredients.”

Bain has the kitchen for testing those great recipes. She writes, “Readers wonder why we test and adapt recipes. They assume that recipes from famous chefs and celebrities work, follow them slavishly and blame themselves when they bomb. They don’t realize that many talented cooks aren’t always great at writing recipes.”

The walls around Bain’s office-kitchen are hung with framed copies of her newspaper stories. We walk around the room and she tells me about some of them. One has a picture of a man holding cobs of corn. She tells me that it’s a 2003 story she wrote. It was about sweet corn and Thanksgiving — but also about the Mexican farm workers harvesting the corn.

Food and people

During her library talk, Bain tells us about her 2011 series called “What’s for Dinner?” The idea was to look at the weekday eating habits of ordinary Canadians by visiting people’s homes for dinner. Bain laughs as she recalls the flak she took from some readers for including pet cats in the story of the Shine family and the dinner they cooked for her. But the cats took centre stage while she was there. They licked the dinner rolls and ate on the kitchen island where the food was being prepared, and the love of the owners for their pets was part of the human side of the story, she says.

“It’s another way to present a story,” Bain says of what she looks for in a recipe. For example, if she writes about a restaurant, she might cook with the chef. Food alone rarely makes a story. “There always has to be a story. The recipes have to connect to a person,” she explains.

It sounds like a lesson for agriculture, I tell myself, realizing I have already decided to read her next book.

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