My Dad and I were en route to Edmonton from Jasper, where I was fortunate enough to deliver a keynote to the Alberta Library Association, before hundreds of lovely folks who know all about the inspiring power of a good book. I’d never driven this route before, as I typically head towards Calgary via Highway 93 aka the Icefields Parkway aka the World’s Most Beautiful Drive. But there was nothing to scoff at heading north on Highway 16, with the scenery pulling our road-chewing Ford Explorer to the curb on numerous occasions. Once leaving the national park however, the road flattens out into classic prairie, although a pit stop was warranted passing through Hinton to explore the lovely Beaver Boardwalk. It was the first time my Dad saw his adopted national animals: tick that off the bucket list!
I would be speaking in Edmonton at Audrey’s Books on Orthodox Easter Sunday, so it made sense to schedule a perogie-making class with renowned local chef Brad Smoliak, and gate-crash a rehearsal of the fabulous Volya Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. But first, I had another bucket list experience to tick off. More accurately kick off. The CFL ball is placed in front of the goal posts in an empty Commonwealth stadium. The nervous, phantom cheers of thousands of fans swirl around me. Aaron from Pumpkin PR (who arranged this wonderful opportunity) steadies the ball with his finger. I beat back the thought that I might miss the punt and kick Aaron’s head through the uprights. I take a run, a kick, and watch the ball slice through the goalposts as the imaginative crowd ruptures in a frenzy. Once the commotion settles down, I meet some local blogger friends and ask how, in 2016, the Edmonton CFL team is still called the “Eskimos.” Nobody can quite explain it, but I’ve learned to stop questioning the CFL after confusing the Roughriders with a brand of condoms.
In a celebrated career spanning numerous restaurants and roles, Chef Brad Smoliak has cooked for everyone from the Queen of England to Olympic athletes. He calls cooking his True Love, and his wife Leanne seems happy to play the exceptionally well-fed second fiddle. With a Ukrainian background, having Brad teach us how to make perogies is like Al Pacino give us an acting class. But that’s exactly what he does, and more, in his culinary studio in downtown Edmonton. He offers customized cooking classes and workshops, and today he’s showing us how to create thin buttermilk cheese-stuffed crepes called nalysnyky, and smoked Gouda perogies. Sipping on Saskatoon berry lemonade, I learn about inversion stove tops and gastronomic wonders available in Edmonton. We speak about family and travel, following your dreams and the cultural importance of food. And then we feast: whey marinated Cornish hens, pickled golden and red beets, Hunters Stew, a mushroom gravy I still dream about, and spiced Devil’s butter on warm buns (the recipe of which Brad could tell us, but then he’d have to kill us). All this would come back to haunt me an hour later when two pretty girls in traditional Ukrainian garb invite me to start jumping.
Voyla, according to the ensemble’s website, is a “style, a philosophy, and an inspiration to continually stretch their physical and artistic limits.” Stretch is the key word here, but we should add twirl, leap and kick. Now I’ve been known to jump. Admittedly, not as high as the Masai, where a man’s ability to leap is directly tied to his virility within the tribe. But I do have one of my epic leaps on the cover of my new Global Bucket List book, and it’s tattooed on my back! Which all counted for nought watching these young Edmontonians sail through the air with the grace of ballet and the prowess of acrobats. I kept looking for springs in their boots because I’ve never seen anyone jump so high. That it is all choreographed into energetic dances is all the more impressive. Then I get the invite. A red scarf is tied tightly around my hips, which will help with my posture and also help prevent Brad Smoliak’s genius from spilling up through my throat on the studio floor. The dancers show me a couple moves, and I manage to wow the easy crowd with some breakdancing stuff I remembered from my teens. I’ve been to enough Jewish weddings to learn that enthusiasm can often make up for lack of technique. But after a few minutes of twirling with Volya, I seriously regret not holding back on those perogies. Thanks to Volya for allowing me once again to be there, do that, and walk away with a clean T-shirt for my talk at about the Canadian Bucket List in one of my favourite bookstores.
In less than 24 hours, I’ve encountered staggering views of the Rockies, spotted bears, elks and beavers. I’ve kicked a field goal in the country’s largest open-air stadium, learned to make perogies from a master chef, met some delightful local bloggers, pirouetted with acrobatic Ukranian dancers and given a presentation about the finest experiences in Canada. Well played Edmonton, well played.