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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Two Cowboys: Connecting with Our Food at the Olds College National Meat Training Centre in Olds, Alberta

Where's the Beef?

What we eat and drink determines who we are. It is a big part of us and integral to what we do each day. Throughout our evolutionary journey, as it is for every other animal on earth, our food ultimately determined and enabled our species, homo sapiens, to claim its place and standing on this planet.

For humans, our involvement with food goes a little further. It also plays a large part in determining our identity. It defines our relationships with our environment and our fellow man. One can deduce a level of cultural and moral sophistication from civilization's connection with its food. It plays a pivotal role in defining a society.


For a person, food is nourishment. Without food, famine is inevitable. If we don't eat well, we face disease. For a group, it is also a source of expression that influences and displays cultural convention, ritual, and perception. Families come together for celebration meals, heads of state dine together, and a nation's geopolitical and economic welfare is determined by its food production abilities. Food is security. Competition for resources to produce food is the principal source of revolution and of war. For eons, individual, tribal and national identities have been recognized through uniquely crafted dishes, ingredients, and meal preparations. It is fair to say that as humans, we have a fascinating love affair with what we eat.

Humanity now produces more food than ever before in history. Unfortunately, we are also more disconnected from our food now, than we've ever been.  Food manufacturing and industrialized levels of production have slowly been eroding our link with, understanding, and the role of our food, beyond the simple provisioning of sustenance. As a result, we may also be losing our sense of who we are, and in large part, of our societal identity.

We are also losing our ability to recognize and work with our food.  The art and production of food through baking, butchering, brewing and cheese making are falling by the wayside as our butchers, bakers, and cheesemakers depart, to be replaced by corporations with large processing facilities and factories focussed on a uniform, compliant output contributing to the bottom-line.

Even our chefs are spoiled by these companies, with pre-prepared manufactured products that merely requires heating and plating. The elementary art of cooking is under threat in the average meal preparation facility in North America. Fast Food is not food in the true sense of what it could and ultimately should be.

To illustrate my point further, we should only take a look at the degree of effort we put into making food unrecognizable. Celebrity chefs are beating a path to creating mouses, gels, pearls, pills, and pellets that is entirely void of resembling source ingredients. Meals come ready-made. Molecular Gastronomy, which should have remained a fascinating experiment, now trailblazes a departure from the familiar in favor of concepts such as multi-sensory cooking, modernist cuisine, culinary physics, and experimental cuisine.

The result is that we can now eat a perfectly looking, uniform, sterile, mostly synthetic, manufactured sandwiches containing the resemblance of meat, bread, and condiments, that is morally and culturally acceptable and available to the masses, across the planet. This is now our idea of "food"!

Should we be loving it?

Because food has always been closely linked with who we are, losing its origins and our linkages to what we eat have the inevitable result that we just succumb to also losing our sense of identity.  We mistakenly claim a false pretense of cultural "progress" and moral high ground when misguidedly people succumb to disorders, become vegan, or allow vegetarianism to take hold.

Human evolution did not result in equipping people to only eat plants, and unfortunately, no amount of moral or spiritual convention will change our biology in the short term. Maybe it is time again that our children know that milk comes from cow's teets? Chickens lay eggs. Renin and bacteria make cheese and meat come from dead and butchered animals. Substances like blood make for great sausage!

When we rediscover food, we may find our true primal selves again void of pretense, and stripped from our delusions of civility. When we have the pleasure of eating what we always ate, the way we did, with the people we treasure, we may then also have the joy of re-discovering who we truly are.

That is why we seek out great food, places to find it, and why we celebrate the stories of the people and producers connecting us with ourselves - with our true primal being - homo puretus!

The Last Butcher School

The Olds College Meat Processing Program is one of only two remaining in North America that offers an educational certificate in the whole process stream of meat, from slaughter, processing, preserving to retail. Where big plants once dominated the industry, we are glad to say that the revival of the art is back in Alberta!

Olds College teaches hands-on practical techniques and age-old science of meat processing for the highest premium quality cuts. Successful graduates gain the experience needed to start their own entrepreneurial business ventures or take their skills to Canada’s third largest industry.

Olds College is the National Meat Training Centre for Canada. Three times a year its program takes in a wide range of students from all over North America and as far away as Africa. They teach techniques for professional meat cutting, trimming, boning, breaking, wrapping, sausage-making and curing with professional sanitation and food safety applications, including HACCP. It is Alberta’s training site for humane handling and stunning, and the only program in North America that teaches slaughter skills and techniques such as skinning, eviscerating and carcass preparation.

The College boasts an extensive multi-purpose facility that is fully equipped to teach the value-added skill sets and knowledge for the meat industry. Its services are expanded to cater to large and small industry, from sausage making and dried, cured hams to the installation of an industrial canner. It also boasts a favorite retail counter where students learn applied retail merchandising and customer service skills in explaining the attributes and benefits of various products and cuts.


We are saddened by the fact that Olds College is one of only two remaining programs of its kind in North America. On the other hand, we are encouraged that it still exists, is more popular than ever, and a mere hour's drive from our home base in the Rocky Mountains. The retail shop is a favorite stop for our monthly meat purchases.

Alberta is famous for the quality of its agricultural produce and its rich heritage in producing quality feed for animal husbandry. We are convinced that Alberta boasts the best tasting beef, pork and, dare we say it, lamb (sorry, New Zealand)!

What we need now, is a supportive regulatory food production climate and consumers that invite our producers back to rearing fantastic animals and our butchers again into our towns. The Old-World fostered an appreciation for its producers, and the food that resulted for our ancestors were just incredible. In the New-World, we have the opportunity not only to re-rediscover this rich food heritage but cherish it more than ever. It is where we come from, what we can do, and who we ultimately are.

We are meat-loving Cowboys.

Hendrik van Wyk

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