Food writer, arts facilitator Dan Clapson releases first cookbook celebrating prairie fare. PHOTOS: DONG KIM

Dan Clapson expands on his eclectic career by exploring the evolving world of Great Plains cuisine in debut cookbook, Prairie

For Alberta-based culinary critic Dan Clapson, it all started with a reminder of home.

“I went into a grocery store in Taipei and I found a bag of lentils that said they were from Saskatchewan,” Clapson says. “It’s kind of funny. You find something from where you’re from, and you get so inspired.”

Encountering this slice of Western Canada from across the Pacific was the spark that ignited a collaboration between Clapson and fellow food journalist Twyla Campbell, who was also along for the trip. A shared love and history of championing the cuisine of the Great Plains led the two down a long road of pitching, recipe-sharing, editing and photography. 

But the result of all this work speaks for itself. Their upcoming cookbook Prairie is a “love letter to the Canadian prairies” that aims to prove that our hometown cooking deserves a place on dining tables across the country. 

This cookbook is a radical act of shattering misconceptions. Reflecting on Western Canada’s place on the national culinary stage, Clapson says, “I feel like people who don’t live in the prairies don’t understand (our cuisine). They think it’s all perogies and farmers’ sausage and borscht. There’s no general awareness about the ingredients that are grown here.” It’s a mindset that exists both internationally and locally, and it’s this idea that Prairie challenges with the proud subtitle on the cover: seasonal, farm-fresh recipes celebrating the Canadian Prairies. The beautiful shot of golden wheat being harvested on the cover drives home this point, as does a photo of charred cabbage with honey béarnaise. The inclusion of Métis-based recipes from chefs such as Saskatchewan’s Jenni Lessard further adds to the mosaic of cooking on display in the book.

Flipping the script on prairie cuisine throughout the culinary community is nothing new for Clapson. Through Eat North, the food media and events company that he co-founded, he has been presenting the Prairie Grid culinary event series since 2017. 

“It was meant to showcase the prairies by taking chefs from Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg and putting them together to travel – sort of like a band,” he says. “In addition to drawing media attention, it was meant for the different chefs to experience and appreciate different parts of the prairies.” This community-building event has morphed through the years into a pop-up event, with the most recent iteration in 2022 featuring the cooking of Alberta chefs such as Amit Bangar and Winnie Chen. 

On top of a diverse array of programming, Eat North gives back to the queer community through the annual Shake, Stir, & Strainbow fundraiser, a campaign that brings Pride-themed cocktails to restaurants across Alberta to raise funds for the Skipping Stone Foundation. 

The intersection of live events and culinary exploration played a huge role in the start of Clapson’s career. The Saskatchewan-born writer cut his teeth in a variety of line-cook and hosting positions as a youth before arriving in Calgary in 2006, where he began working at — and eventually managing — the iconic Kensington coffee shop Higher Ground. 

“It was there that I was really allowed to have the reins creatively and do things like art shows and live music,” he says. “I could change the menu, come up with feature drinks, recipe development, and just seeing how you can take something from an idea to an actuality.” 

During his time at this Calgary institution Clapson began running a blog rooted in food writing and recipe development. His flair for writing and passion for cooking caught the eye of media outlets eager to grow alongside the food scene in Alberta, with his writing and expertise being featured in publications such as Eater and Out Magazine. This led to being hired as The Globe and Mail’s resident restaurant critic and columnist for the Prairie region, a position he has held since 2015. 

If anyone can speak with authority on what the modern world of Great Plains cuisine looks like, Dan Clapson is one of them. 

On top of this impressive pedigree, Clapson has furthered his passion for live events by entrenching himself in Calgary’s music community. Since 2019, he has presented the Blue Jay Sessions, a musical pop-up that brings artists together into a “songwriters round” at the Prairie Emporium, a unique venue that he co-owns nestled inside the Ill-Fated Kustoms motorcycle shop. Named in honour of the Bluebird Café in Nashville. Clapson was determined to bring the songwriter-circle format to Calgary … and to do it in an inclusive way. 

“The country music world is sometimes a little bit behind other genres in terms of diversity and whatnot,” he says. To stand apart in this masculine-dominated world, The Blue Jay Sessions typically books more women, queer people and people of colour than men. “We were — and still are, in some ways — viewed as somewhat radical in the industry,” he emphatically states. Programming includes drag brunches and free pop-up performances throughout downtown Calgary, and for his work, Clapson has been nominated for the 2023 Ron Sakamoto Talent Buyer of the Year award by the Canadian Country Music Association. He is one of the only queer individuals nominated. 

The life that Clapson has created for himself — one that merges his passions for music, drag, drinks, live events, and (of course) food — is as diverse as the land he calls home. 

“I feel like I’ve built a career out of working with creative people, and finding the creativity within myself in different aspects,” he says proudly. “It’s a gong show,” he says with a laugh. 

Reflecting on what exactly prairie cuisine is, he describes it the same way he describes his career: “It can just be so many things.”

Prairie: Seasonal, Farm-Fresh Recipes Celebrating the Canadian Prairies by Dan Clapson and Twyla Campbell is available via Penguin Random House or your favourite local bookstore.