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By Habeeb and Muna Salloum
Barbecuing with a pitchfork! I couldn’t believe it! We had been invited to a pitchfork fondue dinner being held at Over the Hill Orchards at Lumsden near Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan.
Our bus stopped beside a colorfully-painted red trailer advertising ‘Merv’s Pitchfork Fondue’. We were impressed by Merv, a large hulk of a man, standing by his trailer, pitchfork in hand, deep-frying small potatoes in a deep barrel-like forty gallon cast iron cooker of hot oil. After greeting us with a broad smile, he welcomed us saying: I’d like to introduce you to Saskatchewan’s exciting new concept in catering … “Merv’s Pitchfork Fondue”!
Watching him stand with a large pitchfork in hand, my youth as a prairie farm boy came back to life. I thought that any minute he would be pitching the sheaves of grain into a hay rack. Instead he plunged the pitchfork into the potatoes testing them to see if they were cooked. The fact that none of the members of our group had ever even heard of pitchfork fondue, this innovative quick-fire method of cooking gave us all a feeling of the Wild West. It is definitely a fondue but with a cowboy twist.
Merv became a devotee of pitchfork fondue in 1991 when he first tried it at a rural hotel in the north of the province. He enjoyed the quick method of cooking that produced a deliciously tender end result. He took it on himself to learn the trade but also to develop a style of taking this method of cooking on the road.
Merv spent a whole year developing a movable cast iron cooker and searching for old recipes that would appeal to the Saskatchewan palate. In Merv’s own words: “I’m a Regina boy, and still do a bit of farming, so I know what it takes to please a prairie appetite.”
Everyone crowded around the cooker taking pictures of the man using a pitchfork using it as if it was a tiny table fork. The farming method of harvesting had entered the kitchen.
When the potatoes were done, Merv brought out his pitchfork on which were inserted on its prongs top quality 25 rib eye steaks that he immediately plunged into the hot oil. The steaks were ‘fondued’ at 385o F and were ready in about 3 1/2 minutes. The intensity of the heat seals the meat, locking in the flavor while at the same time stopping the oil from penetrating the meat. Needless to say, our group was eager to test Merv’s deep-fried creations.
All meals are prepared from scratch with fresh vegetables and top quality beef steak. Along with the potatoes and rib eyes, Merv served his version of a crunchy coleslaw and his homemade baked beans prepared the day before. As we cleared the last morsel of our plates, I thought to myself that ‘this is truly a meal to crave’.
Merv is on the road serving new and repeat customers. He is in demand. For example, a few days after our encounter, Merv reported that he would be catering an event with some 1,000 customers. Who would have thought that fondue on the prairies is catching on like wild fire. In the European culinary tradition fonduing includes tiny pieces of bread and meat, making it a dainty repast. On the prairies, however, it is cooked for giants on a colossal scale.
If You Go:
Habeeb Salloum is a Canadian author who grew up in Saskatchewan, joined the RCAF during the Second World War, and then worked for the Canadian Department of National Revenue for 36 years. For the last 30 years he has been a full-time freelance writer and author specializing in food, history and travel. Besides 7 books and 20 chapters in books, he has had hundreds of articles about culture, food, travel, history and homesteading in western Canada appear in such publications as the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Western Producer, Contemporary Review, Forever Young, Vegetarian Journal and Saveur.
Among his most important published books are: aFrom the Lands of Figs and Olives: Over 300 Delicious and Unusual Recipes from the Middle East and North Africa (Interlink Publishing, 1996); Journeys Back to Arab Spain (The Middle East Studies Center, 1994); Arabic Contributions to the English Vocabulary (Librairie du Liban, 1996); Classic Vegetarian Cooking From the Middle East and North Africa (Interlink Publishing, 2000); Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections (CPRC, University of Regina. 2005) – winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph’s Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in 2006, Bison Delights (CPRC, University of Regina, 2010) and The Arabian Nights Cookbook (Tuttle Publishing, 2010).
His most recent books, co-authored with Leila Salloum Elias and Muna Salloum, are Scheherazade’s Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); and Sweet Delights from A Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets (I.B. Tauris, London, UK, 2013).