I've moved on physically, but the dish I can't forget is the stuffed potato at Smokehaus Meats in Martensville, just north of Saskatoon.
I realize this is not a self-flattering revelation. Marcel Proust concocted seven novels from the whiff of a madeleine, which amounts sensorially to a suggestion of tea within a fainter dose of baked butter and sugar. The stuffed potato at Smokehaus, on the other hand, emanates smoked bacon, hot onions and melting fat: if Proust had caught a snoutful, À La Recherche du Temps Perdu would be the name of a motorocycle. A very bad, fast one.
While I am in confessional mode, I may as well admit I had never eaten a stuffed potato, much less anything like the Smokehaus clogger, before walking into Smokehaus Meats at an age when one normally turns away such fare, for fear that it will leave you convulsing on the bathroom floor within hours of ingestion.
I wasn't even planning to have one. I simply wanted a half-order of ribs. When I made that request over the counter at Smokehaus - which is essentially a two-storey room upholstered in meat and sausage and smoked ham and bacon and jerky and kielbassa and the like - Mel Ens, who was behind the counter that afternoon, took a hard look at me. I realize now, having tasted Smokehaus ribs, that no one ever orders half a rack, and that anyone who tries is genuinely deserving of skepticism, and perhaps a call to the Mounties.
On the afternoon in question, Mel found my measly order so suspicious that she called Twyla Johnson over. Twyla and Mel are a couple of Saskatoon charmers who could sell lightning to a golfer with an umbrella. To make a long story short, it wasn't long before they'd sussed out who I was (reporter) and what I was doing (eating my way across Canada) and insisted that I needed to talk to Trent Ens, the owner, who would be arriving in about fifteen minutes, whereupon they invited me up to the second floor of the shop to eat my half order of ribs, from which vantage point I could overlook the meat city below.
It was Mel who then said "Would you like a stuffed potato as well? They're new, and they're really good." Apparently my acquiescence was a forgone conclusion.
The thing about the potato is, I don't actually remember eating it. One moment it was there in front of me, all yellow flesh and green oniony topping and crisp pinky-brown bacon tiles, all floating on a turned-down, fluffed up bed of potato and sour cream. The next moment it was not there. It was inside me. I am a fast eater at the best of times, one of those people who looks up from his plate to discover that he has wiped it clean while others are taking their second forkful of baked ham. It's a terrible habit, one that dates back, I think, to the need for eating speed when I was a boy, fighting off my brother's stealing fork and trying not to attract my mother's attention.
But that Smokehaus stuffed Idaho doesn't even exist in my memory - a case of complete alimentary amnesia, a demonstration of the obverse of the Cartesian principle: I do not remember eating it, therefore I didn't.
Having dematerialized my potato and the ribs, I had nothing to do but wait until Trent Ens, the owner of Smokehause Meats, showed up. He's not related to Mel: in fact he's not related to any of the Enses who work Smokehaus. "We have eight of 'em," Trent said, after introducing himself. Martensville is a heavily Mennonite community. "Eight people with the same last name."
Then he laughed, and then turned his attention to the potato question. "You see, we had a big argument," Trent said, "If I had my way, I'd stuff the potato with garlic." But Mel - who dreamed up the Smokehaus potato concept in the first place -wouldn't hear of it, because some people are psychologically imbalanced and don't like garlic.
Bacon is the shop's top seller, followed by a provincially famous jerky, but Trent Ens is a student of all smoked and prepared meat forms. He's as extroverted as butchers tend to be, but also thoughtful.
"Some of these guys," he said of the men he trained under at butcher college, "they had fifty years of experience in meat cutting."
He was also raised by two generations of Mennonite sausage makers on both sides of his family. The consequence is a brimming and unrepressed and almost touching enthiusiasm for meat in all its forms. "He talks meat, he dreams meat," Mel had told me. "A baby will come in, and he'll say, 'Yeah, that baby's gorgeous, he'd make an 8 pound roast.' It's at that point that you have to know him to know he's joking."
He sees even his sausage making as a cause. The Ens Theory is: If he makes food in a more personal and interested way, his customers will want to eat it that way too. He sees what he does - the hand-processing of meats - as an antidote to people buying food in packages.
"It really takes a while to change peoples' habits," he explained. "But I think peoples' attitudes and their intentions can change. I think people are looking more to find a sense of community in their food. Whether it's what goes into it, or who made it. They want to buy food from where they're from. That's part of it. Now there's now a real distrust of food if they don't know where it's from."
Ian Brown eats Canada
He paused and looked out over the shop below, every aspect of its operation open to the public. "That's why we built this place like it is, open. So people can look right in and see them making the stuff, right?"
His personal obsession as a butcher is smoked and dried sausage. Smokehaus makes more than a hundred varieties. Stepping into the drying room, hung with a dozens of racks of curing smoked meat, is like sticking your head into a large, cold pomander ball. To make them Trent consults a book of secret sausage recipes collected over a lifetime. Mennonites approach sausage the way a lot of Canadians (and a lot of Mennonites) approach hockey or money or God: it's about as serious a thing as there is, with a longer history. (Sausage is portable, which is useful if you're, say, being run off your land or out of town for your religious beliefs.)
"Each Mennonite clan makes its own kind of sausage," Trent explained. "And like, there could be some similarities. But my Dad's side of the family, their farmer's sausage is a little bit more coarsely ground and a little bit more smoked flavour. My mum's sausage would be finer and less intense flavour. Because they were from different sides of the valley."
His mother's family were high German, and had more money, and hailed from the southern end of the Saskatchewan River valley, whereas his father was from the north. "Mennonites feel very important about their sausage," he added. So when he donates 2,500 bags of jerky for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, it means something to him, as well as to them.
Even making hot dogs is a serious (and very common) endeavor for Trent Ens, because every time he makes them, however much he customizes the recipe, he feels he's retelling a story that has been passed down in the form of a recipe. For his hot dogs - just in case you were wondering what goes into one - he uses a combination of beef hips and pork shoulder and pork bellies, buttermilk powder, salt and spices, and white pepper. He puts it all in a silent cutter that cuts the meat so fine the protein is released, which is what makes the meat stick together. After that it's stuffed into casings, and hung on a stick. And put on a smoke rack, and slipped into the smokehouse, whch is vast and electric but uses wood chips. "And then you can package it. Or else you can eat it hot out of the smokehouse." It sounded like he'd done that a few times.
The most complicated sausage he makes is landjaeger, which requires a bacterial culture as well. "It's a similar process of making wine or cheese or yogurt." It can go very wrong. "Oh, yes, oh yes. I made a few batches before I got that one right."
In other words there's just no fast way to make sausage, which is what he likes about making them. He doesn't have any views about organic meat over other cattle, or even about vegetarianism over meat-eating, but he does care about the way humans treat animals. "For instance" he explained, "when consumers start demanding that animals - food animals - be treated humanely, I think that's great progress. Because then you're not just being evil, consuming for the sake of consuming. That animal has no choice but to give its life... for your meal. So the least you can do is treat that animal with respect while it's on its way to your plate."
We talked on and on into the afternoon, about his favorite meal (a rib-eye steak, medium rare), and about his favorite food memory (pork cracklings stuck to home made buns with salt and corn syrup.) But you should really watch the video and let him tell it.
Eventually I had to go, and so did he. He was planning to take his kids to a splash park and then fire up a barbecue for a lunch of steaks and hot dogs.
"And then in the evening we're gong to see the movie in the park. The community access centre has rented a huge inflatable movie screen. The movie is How to Tame Your Dragon, which my kids have seen and can't wait to see again. And I don't care. I wanted Babe. I love that movie. That's my favorite movie." It is about a pig, of course, a thing he loves.