Bread & Water

Essays

By Megan Clark

by dee Hobsbawn-Smith
University of Regina Press
2021/$26.95/240 pp. 

Having spent the better part of my life defending my hometown, Lethbridge, against stereotypes, I am realizing I may harbour a few about Calgary. This is one of the reasons why the essays in dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s book Bread & Water were so refreshing: step aside, oil barons and cowboys, this is the Calgary of little old houses on the Bow River, small restaurants with a lot of gumption, and local produce in a region that some associate only with fields of exported alfalfa and feedlot-fattened beef.

Hobsbawn-Smith’s short-lived but influential restaurant, Foodsmith, was one of the first in Calgary to feature local producers. In a charming prairie take on the “100-mile diet” Hobsbawn-Smith recalls the reaction of her mother—who had been a dryland farmer in Saskatchewan for decades—to the experiment. She quips, “Don’t those BC writers know that some of us have been eating locally our whole lives?”

Hobsbawn-Smith inherits some of the straight-talking style of her mother, but hers is infused with a deep love of the art of cooking that includes the language of fine dining (cassoulet, confit) even if the lamb was raised in Olds and she picked the rhubarb herself. In her essays she impressively manages this collision of worlds with a wholesome, approachable style. “I simmered the tomatoes with a few leeks into a melting fondue and dumped them into the bean pot, so good with braised lamb,” she writes, closing with, “every baba and nonna knows that.”

This is a mouth-watering book, highlighted by a commitment to and celebration of local producers. The most memorable scenes always take place in her kitchen with a wood stove roaring and a soup bubbling. She is at her best describing the textures and smells of favourite recipes and walking the reader through the process of cooking. The writing is visceral as she describes barley risotto with grilled sausages, Alberta gouda on a fresh slice of bread, or roasted tomatoes from Black Diamond.

Most of the essays revolve around food—its rituals, frustrations and pleasures—and Hobsbawn-Smith shares valuable insights about being a woman in the culinary world in the early 1980s when fewer than 25 per cent of the students at the Vancouver Vocational Institute’s program were women. In some essays she is honest about the trials of the food industry: stress, high demands, sexism. In others, she waxes poetic about a loaf of bread or a particular honey. A few read more like sponsored travel writing, and I loved a surprise essay about a meeting with Wiebo Ludwig. But generally the book is rich with memories and insights into the role of cooking in the author’s life and her appreciation of local producers.

Megan Clark is a public librarian from Lethbridge.

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