Slowing down is always a good idea. Especially if it involves slowing down to take a journey into all that’s local in Red Deer. There’s a lot to see, do and eat here. Geographically, this city is particularly blessed.
A river runs through it. Soft rolling hills surround it. The cool little towns of Olds and Innisfail and Lacombe and Stettler sit south and north. Sylvan Lake puts a beach within reach. Parkland forests dot the land and Prairie croplands roll flat out to the east. Over 135,000 Albertans call this city and county home. But, it was not always this way.
Early Red Deer
Before the settler society, this was a gathering place for Indigenous People including the Plains Cree, Blackfoot and Stoney. They called the river Waskasoo Seepee or Elk River. British translators mistakenly changed Elk to Red Deer and the settlement became known as such. But, the river’s name is still Waskasoo Seepee. It played an important role in transportation for early settlers because there was a safe crossing at a ford in the river here.
The place where the old Calgary-Edmonton Trail crossed Waskasoon Seepee, is where a few former land surveyors and rail workers took up land claims and settled in 1882. Normandeau Fort was built there in 1885. The railway didn’t come until 1893. So, this river crossing was the gateway between northern and southern Alberta.
Unlike their counterparts in dry eastern and southern Alberta, homesteaders here were blessed with rich, black, fertile soil. The proximity of the Rocky Mountains also meant enough moisture dropped each year to sustain crops. They had the basic elements to make a life. And, make it they did.
Red Deer Today
Today, Fort Normandeau is found in the sprawling nature reserve that is Waskasoo Park. It commemorates the First Nations, Metis and European settlers who influenced Central Alberta’s development. Cyclists can pedal peacefully along Waskasoo’s 110 kilometers of trails while drivers on the QE2 Highway speed between Calgary and Edmonton.
Red Deer has become a service center for the agriculture and energy industries. It’s one of Alberta’s prime crop growing regions with wheat, canola, barley, alfalfa and oats among other things. Crops mean farms and Red Deer is home to some of the province’s longest running family farms.
In Alberta, any farm (or ranch) that’s been in the same family for over 100 years is a Century Farm. There are dozens in and around Red Deer. The Jungle, Edgar Farms and Eagle Creek are all examples of Century Farm families that have not only survived here but continue to thrive and find ways for the next generation to do so as well.
Eagle Creek Farms transitioned to fully organic vegetable farming in 2008. After eight years, they became fully certified. The fourth generation of the Mills family to operate it, John Mills, is an entrepreneur with diversification on his mind. He opens the farm for family fun each summer by offering the Bowden SunMaze. Over 100,000 tall yellow sunflowers bent heavy with seed spread their sunshine-y selves over four acres of mazes at the farm. Starting mid-August until the first frost, they provide fun filled games of hide and seek and photo opps. More family fun can be had up the road at The Jungle Farm.
The Staples family of The Jungle Farm specialize in strawberries, lettuces, and pumpkins. Families are welcome to the U-Pick and Leona Staples, a home economist, is also famous for teaching jam making and pickling. In their General Store, which is a converted 1940s barn, visitors will also find her famous strawberry shortcake with sweet berries fresh from the fields and piles of whipped cream. Come September, it’s time for photo opps and picking in the Pumpkin Patch. Not into pumpkins? More into spring asparagus?
Edgar Farms is Alberta’s asparagus capital. From mid-May through the end of June each year, the Edgar family use their specially designed three-seater picking machine to cruise the asparagus beds and supply their waiting fans with what Elna Edgar calls “sweet as fresh peas asparagus.” People wait all year for the time they can enjoy this fresh local treat. July brings pea crops and August beans. The Edgar’s hormone and antibiotic free, grass-fed Angus beef is available (frozen) year round in their farm-gate store.
The Jungle and Edgar Farms along with Beck Farms, Upper Green Farm and Hillside Greenhouses collaborate as the Innisfail Growers cooperative. For their mutual success, each grows niche specialty crops. But, they not only produce, they also process, market and distribute as a group so each has more time on the farm and with their families. It’s a great model for success and now each farm is ensuring a succession plan for their next generation.
“One of the key values of this region is collaboration,” says Rene Rondeau, the Executive Director of Tourism Red Deer. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurs here who live and breathe what they do. We may have gone through a few years of fascination with big box stores and chain restaurants but now, it’s about getting back to our grassroots.”
Given that bison are Alberta’s indigenous species, nothing could be more grassroots than bison ranches like HGB Bison near Olds and YR Ranch just a few minutes east of Red Deer. And nowhere could collaboration and grassroots be clearer than the new Gasoline Alley Farmers’ Market.
Innisfail Growers are one of the star vendors for patrons craving a taste of local. Greenhouse goodies come from Lacombe Fresh and Shirley’s Greenhouse. I Love Microgreens is a Red Deer urban farm supplying microgreens. Irving’s Fresh Farm is famous for their pasture-raised Berkshire Pork presented with British butchery skills. Kolb’s Fine Meats from Olds are renowned for their beef and pork sausage making.Nixon Honey sells locally raised honey.
Visitors to the market can not only taste local, but they can also drink it too. Craft Beer Commonwealth is another example of collaboration that’s groundbreaking in its originality.
Red Deer’s Red Hart Brewing, Lacombe’s Blindman Brewing, and Penhold’s Red Shed Malting are spearheading this nano brewery at the market. They share a vision to unify and showcase the thriving Central Alberta craft beer community by brewing beer featuring local expertise and ingredients.
Small-batch brewing allows the owners plus aspiring guest brewers to experiment with different techniques and styles, and to collaborate with other brewers and ingredient producers – even fellow market vendors. With malt barley being one of the key grains grown in the area, they’re really able to control the brewing process from field to glass.
Nothing could represent field to glass better than Craft Beer Commonwealth’s Landlock Ale. This is a joint effort between each and every Central Alberta brewery. The breweries include Hawk Tail from Rimbey (their tap room has scrumptious ribs and charcuterie boards as well as special tasting flights for children), Siding 14 from Ponoka, Snake Lake (check out their Smoked Brisket Sammies on Fridays) in Sylvan Lake, Belly Hop, Sawback Brewing, Troubled Monk (love their sodas too) and Something Brewing in Red Deer, Dark Woods (they also roast coffee and are famous for their smash burgers and pork butt in their tap room restaurant) and Field and Forge (their Gastro Pub menu is world class) from Innisfail along with Olds College Brewery in Olds. Landlock Ale is a must for a taste of place because all of this beer’s ingredients are grown within only 10 kilometers of Red Deer. What a great way to reconnect with the taste of this place.
Rene Rondeau says, “As people have reconnected with Red Deer during the pandemic, they are rediscovering everything they’ve forgotten about this place.” One local chef that is discovering everything he can about what’s truly local to this place is Rieley Kay.
Kay’s wife, and business partner in their three restaurants – Moe’s Pizza in Lacombe and Cilantro and Chive in Lacombe and Red Deer, is Stettler native Kim Solik. Her family are still big grain farmers there. Kay was raised in the Crow’s Nest Pass and both the couples’ families prized time to slow down and enjoy family time around the table.
“We strive to create the environment a person would experience at their Grandma’s kitchen table. We want people to feel they can come, relax and let us take care of them,” says Kay. The restaurants have long community tables where people connect with each other.
“The food is comfort food with twists. People can still understand it but we throw in some diversity because we believe Alberta is a melting pot of cuisines. Our suppliers are very seasonal so we change our menu four times a year to accommodate that. I love the creative aspect of that.”
Favourite local suppliers include Schollings potatoes, MSW grass-finished longhorn beef, bison, elk, pork, chicken and eggs, S4 and Doef’s greenhouses, Broxburn tomatoes, West Gimlet Farms Yak and Deep Roots garlic. Kay extends his support of local to beverages as well, keeping 25 Alberta craft beers on tap as well as Hell’s Basement Root Beer and Snake Lake Lemonade.
“We are on a journey into local and we intend to keep on that journey. Mostly, it feels like we find suppliers through a sort of underground system. We meet one and they are eager to recommend neighbours and others that they know.” Kay also sees a resurgence of small indie restaurants throughout the area and one local woman does her best to share her finds.
Red Deer Eats
Roxanne Martin of Red Deer Eats blog has made a career out of helping people find the best food in Red Deer and Central Alberta. It’s fun to follow her on Instagram to keep up with the emerging food scene. Whether it’s a new summer salad at Bo’s Bar and Stage, pizza at Anthony’s Italian Kitchen, a triple scoop at Ross Street Ice Cream, Birria Tacos at Pupuseria Cristy (yes, Red Deer has a pupuseria!) or the award-winning smoke house specialties at Mohave Smokehouse and Bar, she’s on top of it. Need a coffee fix? Dose Coffee is the local’s fave. You’ll also find her checking out hotspots on Sylvan Lake’s Lakeshore Drive like Sweet Home on the Lake, Son of a Beach and Fireside Restaurant and Lounge. And for fine dining she recommends The Westlake Grill at Heritage Ranch.
Red Deer’s Heritage
While Heritage Ranch sits on 217 acres, the Gaetz Migratory Bird Sanctuary was Canada’s first federal sanctuary of its kind, established in 1924. With over 300 acres it contains the Kerry Wood Nature Centre at Waskasoo Park.
If preservation of nature was on the mind’s of the people here in the 1920s they were ahead of their time. But, they were also used to making the best with what they had during hard times. This is how one of Red Deer’s most famous foods came to be.
It was during WW1 and a local candy maker, A.J. Russell had to invent fun things with war time rations to keep his business going. He used puffed wheat instead of the usual grains because he could make more with less. He used molasses instead of sugar and the result is a beloved Canadian treat, as famous as the Nanaimo Bar of Butter Tart, the Puffed Wheat Square.
Reiley Kay sums up what people can expect from Red Deer’s heritage to Red Deer now, “There’s finally a focus on going back to craft and slowing down the dining experience once again. We’ve finally learned to celebrate what’s in our backyard.”
From those famously inspired Puffed Wheat Squares to the malted barley inspiring famous brewers today. From bison sold direct from ranchers to a state-of-the-art farmers’ market. From smokehouses to fine dining. Red Deer delivers on a journey back to local.
About the Author: Karen Anderson
Karen Anderson is founder and president of Alberta Food Tours. She is also a food journalist who has written for radio, television, print and new media including CBC Radio, PBS-TV, Apple Magazine, City Palate, Avenue and WestJet magazines. She’s an IPPY and Taste Canada award-winning cookbook author for A Spicy Touch – Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen with her late Indian cooking mentor Noorbanu Nimji and a World Gourmand travel writing award winner for Food Artisans of Alberta.
You can follow her personal and travel adventures at Savour It All and watch her build a new South Indian cookbook at Faces Places and Plates.