Giving Thanks to Gertie: Part I

23 Oct

We gave additional and rather unusual thanks at Thanksgiving this year. There were numerous contributors to our feast and many of the connections were up close and personal. As reported in previous posts, The-Man-With-Whom-I-Keep-Company and I have been enjoying a dozen heritage chicken eggs every two weeks from our adopted heritage chicken Gertie (a Light Sussex hen) at the Poultry Research Centre at the University of Alberta Farm.

00 Agri-Food Discovery Place

Agri-Food Discovery Place at the U of A Farm where we pick up our eggs. This photo was taken looking across a recently harvested field of grain – right in the middle of Edmonton!

Our main contact for the program is the tireless and brilliant heritage-chicken-devotee, Agnes Kulinski, Business Director for the program. Thanks to Agnes and the team for our excellent heritage chicken experience!

The U of A website points out that …

The free run chickens are raised using strict bio-security farming practices and fed an all-natural diet.  “The benefits of the natural environment in which we raise our chickens are passed on to the eggs, which are of high quality and very nutritious,” said Agnes Kulinski, business director of the Poultry Research Centre. 

01 Agnes Kulinski

Agnes Kulinski, Business Director for the Poultry Research Centre

Agnes greets us when we come to pick up our eggs (along with Laurie who you will meet later in this post), keeps us regularly informed about “The Girls”, and even helped The Girls to send us Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards. All of which made the program more fun for the adopters, but also made it a bit harder when it all ended!

02 Happy Mothers Day from Gertie

My Mother’s Day card from Gertie

Now, having used the word “ended”, I don’t know how else to say this, but Gertie was at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Yes, what you are thinking, yes. Specifically Heritage Chicken Pot Pie. A lot of people to whom I have mentioned this have expressed shock. I know it does seem rather harsh at first glance, but I think that the Heritage Chicken blog post The History of a Chicken Pot Pies, says it best, and succinctly…

…We have been working with local chefs to create the best way to honor the heritage hens and celebrate the end of the program…The heritage chicken pot pies will be prepared with great love and care.

I do believe that this is a respectful decision. The Life of a Laying Hen post on the Heritage Chicken blog explains how long the heritage chickens live and at what point they stop laying eggs (what Agnes calls “henopause”). The research project can’t keep several hundred non-laying hens, chicken sanctuaries are few and far between, and chickens are eaten pretty regularly so it is really not so shocking when you think about it. The program participants just ended up being involved in more than one aspect of their chickens’ lives.

03 Light Sussex Hen portrait by Marlena

Light Sussex Heritage Hen portrait – ink & watercolour sketch by Marlena Wyman

We never met Gertie because of strict bio-security regulations with the research project, but I made a few sketches based on photographs of the Light Sussex Hen breed, beautiful white chickens with black patterned feathers around their necks and tails, who lay lovely light brown eggs.

I grew up on a farm and I helped my Mom with the chickens, so this program actually brought back memories for me. We gathered the eggs and we butchered the chickens. That was part of farm life. Most of us are so far removed from how our food reaches our tables that we don’t even think of what we eat as having once been a living being. We pick up tidy packages in supermarkets and generally only think about the price. In particular, those of us who are omnivores have a responsibility toward the animals that provide us with our food, and we should ensure that they are treated well during their lives. Free range, humane, organic, local…all good words to remember. They cost more, yes, but we can simply eat meat less often. Gratitude for our food is something to be mindful of every day, not only at Thanksgiving.

04 Ryan & Mark in front of their food truck

Ryan and Mark in front of their Local Omnivore food truck

When Agnes told me that the chefs from The Local Omnivore were going to be cooking the chicken pot pies, I contacted them and asked if I could come and chat with them and take a few photos for my food blog post. They enthusiastically agreed and I spent a delightful and enlightening morning with them as they welcomed me into their food truck. They are both great young guys – lots of fun and very dedicated to their art. In fact, they are both artists as well. Mark is a sculptor and Ryan is a musician.

05a Ryan & Mark

Ryan (l) and Mark (r) getting serious about cooking

Mark and Ryan talked to me about their passion for creating good fresh food, and I asked each of them how long they had been cooking. Mark told me that he remembered that as a 4-year-old, he was cooking bacon for his Dad. His Mom was furious that his Dad…

…thought it was appropriate that a 4-year-old would cook his bacon for him, standing on top of a stool, in front of a pot of boiling oil. He was like “He’ll be fine.” My Dad, as usual, was correct. I was fine.

It would seem that the memory of cooking bacon remained because The Local Omnivore is famous for their Super Smoked Bacon, which is included in the Heritage Chicken Pot Pies – lucky us!

05b Mark & Ryan

Mark & Ryan in their food truck kitchen

Ryan told me that he really got into cooking when he was a teenager and both of his parents worked…

…so when I’d come home I was just the one that was cooking after school for everybody. Always full stocked groceries, I’d come home after school, I had a couple of hours and I just spent my time cooking. I gained a lot of weight.

They are both in fine form now. Mark and Ryan buy organic and local whenever possible. Here are a few photos of the Heritage Chicken Pot Pie Process with Mark and Ryan:

06a simmering heritage chicken

A simmering pot of heritage chicken on its way to becoming gravy for the pot pies – smells delicious!

06b  hot stuff

Hot stuff! They have a great gas range in their food truck.

06c Mark cooking the ingredients

A quick sauté of the roasted organic vegetables

07 Mark making the roux

Making the roux to thicken the gravy

08 team work

Seasoning the gravy takes teamwork!

09 filling the pie pan

Filling the deep dish pie pan. Ingredients are:

Filling: Heritage Chickens, Super Smoked Bacon, Carrots, Celery, Leeks, Flour, Butter, Onions, Parsley, Thyme, Rosemary, Salt, Pepper
Pastry: All Purpose Flour, Salt, Lard, Butter

10 topping with crust

Adding the pastry top

11 fresh veggies

Beautiful organic produce on the counter awaiting the creation of another delicious meal.

Thanks for the excellent morning in The Local Omnivore truck, Mark & Ryan! I headed home feeling inspired to cook and even more inspired to eat.

12 TMWWIKC & Laurie

The-Man-With-Whom-I-Keep-Company accepting two fabulous Heritage Chicken Pot Pies from Laurie at the Agri-Food Discovery Place, U of A Farm

Whenever Agnes couldn’t be there to hand out our eggs, we would be greeted by the smiling Laurie Heidebrecht, Administrative Support for the Poultry Research Centre.

We picked up the pot pies from the Agri-Food Discovery Place once The Local Omnivore had completed the hefty order for all of the program participants.

13 chicken pot pies

Here are our packaged Heritage Chicken Pot Pies ready to be cooked.  It was a lovely fall day so I took the photo on the deck with a garnish of fall leaves.

The Heritage Chicken Pot Pies were the centrepiece of our Thanksgiving dinner. They were all we had hoped for; a flaky buttery crust with perfectly seasoned ingredients that allowed the heritage chicken to be the star of the pot pie show. Absolutely delicious!

14 chicken pot pie

Heritage Chicken Pot Pie Nirvana

Gertie is an inspiring chicken. I was delighted when my friend, poet and historian Patricia Myers, told me that Gertie had inspired her to write this poem. It speaks so eloquently of the season and the entirety of the heritage chicken experience. Thank you Patricia!

University Farm, Edmonton                                                                                         

In the middle of the city manure steams the morning awake

mists hot from cows’ daily gleanings into late August air.

The sun yawns at morning now, climbs slow over earth’s edge

late as a tousle-haired sleepyhead still agroan with night.

On the other side of the road Canada geese fleck a harvested field

to search for gold, kernelled nuggets they’ll trade

for days on autumn’s long journey,

their outstretched wings the beat of ancient threshers

rhythm of flail and winnow building a shield

against the thickening heart of winter.


Chickadees and sparrows flower

summer’s broken stalks,

a grasshopper clicks its heels and flies

its wings dark open almost like a muddy butterfly

and for a moment I am fooled.

Further in, crops still standing in neat squares

dust the air with knowledge, waiting

for the knife, the scale, the hand of a student

to measure this one for that, that one for this,

all a mystery to us

in the middle of the city.


Last spring when the Farm advertised for people to adopt a heritage chicken

my friend got Gertie.

A dozen eggs pale as weak tea every fourteen days. Until now.

She’ll next see Gertie or some of her friends,

Barred Plymouth Rocks, Brown or White Leghorns,

maybe a Light Sussex or a New Hampshire

hot and stewed between two pastry crusts

the genes of the youngest and healthiest saved from the fire

for the sake of next year’s flock.


My friend is a country girl, a farm girl schooled

in the lessons of barn and farmyard, her eyes wide open

to the butchering of chickens with the leaving of the light.

I’m just a city girl holding on to summer, not wanting

to see fall’s feathers plump the air

in the middle of the city. 

Patricia Myers

Thanks to Gertie and her sisters and to all of the research team, farmers, chefs, and many food workers along the way  – we are grateful.

For a post of our complete Thanksgiving dinner feast, see Giving Thanks to Gertie: Part II

Posted by Truly Scrumptious



5 Responses to “Giving Thanks to Gertie: Part I”

  1. The Erratic Cook October 23, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    Wow. Beautiful through and through. In a word Thanks!

  2. swankola October 24, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    Lard and butter in the crust? Mmmmm.

    Beautiful writing. You should be a journalist (cuz you need another career).

  3. cradics October 27, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    Great post! It’s making me want to cook a home-made chicken pot pie. I used to do this before Eberley arrived, but it requires too much work, which requires too much time, which is something I do not have much of these days. Plus, I don’t think my pot-pie would be as awesome as the one you had. So much love and work went into that pot-pie.

    R.I.P. Gertie ❤

    I really enjoyed these words of yours "Free range, humane, organic, local…all good words to remember." I would have to agree. I may pay $7/carton for my eggs, but I know they came from local happy healthy hens.

    • Truly Scrumptious October 28, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

      This seems to be especially appropriate with all of the news stories lately about huge factory farms and the horrific lives that the chickens have in those places. It’s not healthy for them, so how can it be healthy for us?

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