ATCO's Blue Flame kitchen dishes out one-of-a-kind advice

In a world of pre-packaged food, cooking apps and Google, ATCO's Blue Flame Kitchen is the only remaining home service department based with a utility company in North America.

Well-loved home service department gets thousands of calls a year from Albertans

Director of Home Services, Evelyn Erdman, poses with her team in the ATCO Calgary test kitchen. (ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen)

Originally published June 25.

Home economics may seem like a thing of the past, but the women at the ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen are keeping the tradition alive.

Every day, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.MT, ATCO's home economists answer Albertans' cooking and homemaking queries by phone, email or online chat at their headquarters in downtown Edmonton.

Their advice isn't just opinion. Every woman who works in the Blue Flame Kitchen is trained, often with a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics, having studied food, nutrition, textiles, and sewing.

And while the kitchen has changed over the years, it's been a part of Albertans' lives for more than 85 years.

ATCO Home Economist Janine Kolotyluk answers the Blue Flame Kitchen answer line. (Meg Wilcox)

While they're few and far between these days, home economists used to be quite common throughout North America. Most utility companies and major food manufacturers had home service departments dedicated to serving customer concerns.

But today, the Blue Flame Kitchen is the only home service department based out of a utility company left in all of North America.

Home economists weren't just hired by companies, either.

Alberta's agriculture ministry had a position in every region of the province, where home economists would make house calls to answer resident questions, work with local organizations like 4-H, and write columns for the local paper on issues ranging from housekeeping to food safety.

The program was discontinued in 1994 — the provincial government says this was because access to television, radio and the internet made it much easier for rural Albertans to find the information they needed.

In a world where you can Google a random question into your smartphone and get a near instant response, where does the Home Economist fit in?

ATCO Home Economist Krista Gray makes smoothies with students in the Blue Flame Kitchen. (Meg Wilcox)

Despite easy access to the Internet, the Blue Flame Kitchen still gets 19,000 questions a year.

The advantage? Talking to a real person — and being able to ask follow-up questions.

But, as times change, so does the kitchen.

ATCO Home Economist Krista Gray tests out a hot cross bun recipe in the Blue Flame Kitchen. (Meg Wilcox)

Today, home economists are also called community educators to reflect their work in public education.

The kitchen offers cooking and food safety classes for both children and adults and also hosts food-related events at their facilities in Edmonton and Calgary.

And, of course, there are also the well-known and well-loved Blue Flame Kitchen cookbooks, a mainstay in many Albertan kitchens.

People are always going to want to know how to cookKrista Gray, Blue Flame Kitchen

For those looking to get into the profession, degrees in home economics were phased out at most North American universities in the 1990s.

Now called human ecology, most programs offer specialized tracks that used to be part of home economics curriculum, like nutrition, textiles, or family studies.

When Krista Gray graduated with a degree in nutrition from the University of Alberta, she says she didn't even know what a home economist was until she saw a job posting for the Blue Flame Kitchen. Now the acting supervisor for the kitchen, she says that while home economics certainly has changed over the years, it isn't fading out anytime soon.

"People are always going to want to know how to cook, and us being able to provide that for them is a really unique service. And a really important one, I think," says Gray.

"Teaching people how to properly use fresh local ingredients is teaching them a lifelong skill. That's going to give them the ability to feed themselves, which everybody needs to know how to do."

Learn more about the women of the Blue Flame Kitchen in the radio documentary "The Science of Everyday Life" on The Doc Project.