Food is memory: the snap of a spring pea, the sizzle of bacon, or the scent of freshly baked bread can evoke feelings and meaning in meals, whether they’re eaten alone or in the company of friends and family. In Bread & Water, a collection of literary writing about food, Saskatchewan writer and chef dee Hobsbawn-Smith seamlessly weaves together memories of her hunger – for food, for love, for connection, for justice – in a voice reminiscent of the later writer Laurie Colwin (and a little of Nigel Slater)…
Food is a wonderful agent for storytelling – each ingredient tells a story, each dish is a living history, each eater shares the act of eating with passion – and Bread & Water demonstrates this brilliantly: Hobsbawn-Smith’s writing is generous, loving, and nostalgic without being saccharine. Most importantly, she shows that food is more than what we eat. This beautiful collection evokes the words of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin from The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Trandscendental Gastronomy (1825): “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”
~ Excerpt, Quill & Quire, October 2021, starred review by Sarah Ramsey. (categories: Food & Drink; Reviews).
“I am whizzing my way through Bread & Water by dee Hobsbawn Smith like beaters churning through egg whites. I love it. I wouldn’t put it down at all if life didn’t keep pulling me away from my cozy curl up with it. I want to soak it all up in one great read like bread sopping up every last drop of gravy…This fun, energetic wild child of a woman is also one of the most ambitious, disciplined, fire in the belly, get things done bad asses I know…When you read Bread & Water, you’ll learn about her life as a chef, food journalist, restaurateur, Slow Food advocate and later novelist and poet. The work spans her early life in B.C and Alberta, mid to now life in Saskatchewan and food and travel writing about Canada from coast to coast throughout her life…Another indelible mark is dee’s curiousness. She is a top notch food journalist. She not only asks the tough questions, she’s able to make sense of the answers for others…Can you hear the peace my friend has found? This woman on fire has finally burned down to glowing embers. And everyone knows, that’s when the magic happens.”
~ excerpt from writer and author Karen Anderson’s blog, Savour It All.
I know this dexterous writer, and expected a great read in her essay collection, Bread & Water. The text behind the gorgeously apropos cover photograph—a chunk of homemade bread and a glass of water—is wide-ranging, provocative, and, like that heel of bread, hearty. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d admire these lyrical essays which took me back to the Dogpatch, but also to Vancouver, Comox, and the waters off Vancouver Island; to dee’s Calgary home, restaurants, and the 2013 flood in that city; to Fernie; and to France, where the author trained to be a chef. (Her upbringing in an RCAF family—“part of a gypsy air force brood”—prepared her for frequent moves in adulthood.)
And yes, these essays concern food, food culture, the restaurant industry, locavorism, gardens, farmers’ markets, preserving, and even the import of using appropriate knives, but I’d argue they give equal space to Hobsbawn-Smith’s observance of and appreciation for the wondrous natural world…
Here’s wisdom: “Food and cooking are complicated snapshots of our culture.” The author demonstrates this. And praises spring vegetables: “Asparagus was hope made tangible, spears spun from fragile ferns and sunshine after winter’s absolutist mineral-fed root vegetables.” She “carried home a bunch of living watercress like a bouquet.”
“In cooking, we express our deepest feelings about the nature of the universe, our deepest faith and connection to all that is primal and irresistible.” I’ll tell you what’s irresistible—this delicious book.
Saskatchewan writer dee Hobsbawn-Smith is proudly descended from off-colony Hutterites. It’s this unique identity that informs her new book, Bread & Water. The adventurous locavore has penned a riveting set of essays. It’s an autobiographical culmination of her storied life inside and out of the kitchen… it’s a rare treat to read an eloquent account by a trained chef who knows her subject matter. It’s clear that Hobsbawn-Smith’s love of food is a lifelong commitment and her passionate devotion seeps into every page… Prairie readers will also relate to Hobsbawn-Smith’s decision to return home to the family farm as an adult. The stories from this chapter of her life are poignant as the writer navigates the technical aspects of acreage life during climate change… While food writing can easily digress into elitism, there’s no snobbery in this collection. Instead, you’ll find an amalgam of love, good food, family and friends. This marvelous collection situates the chef-writer within the lauded tradition of authentic food writing. Hobsbawn-Smith belongs to the same vaulted company as the iconic American food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. Read Bread & Water. Sneak it in your mother’s Christmas stocking. Mail it to your daughter. Add it to your book club list. But don’t lend out your copy: it’s a keeper.
~ Excerpt from a review by Patricia Dawn Robertson, The Winnipeg Free Press
It will come as no surprise to readers of wildness rushing in that dee Hobsbawn-Smith is also an accomplished chef. Here is a feast of tastes and flavours arriving from many regions and nooks of existence, served up with a wisdom that knows its wordless “loveliness in loss” equally with its sharp jolts of awe. She’s been there, and brought them to the writing with passion and wit. Savour the lovingly evoked texture of Bennett’s old garage, with its Victory Bond poster and the typewriter ribbon unspooling from a shelf; the cow moose with its “dancer’s drawl”; that painful moment when a lover’s movements undressing flashes back to the father’s arm reaching for a the belt. These finely focussed poems invite us into a sensuous and emotionally rich landscape: o taste and see.
~ Don McKay, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize for Strike/Slip
“Imagine this”—Colonel Williams’ confession as black ice, time the “great white horse” rushing across the summer solstice sky, dead farm machines surfacing from ice as reincarnated dinosaurs, “a young mother’s half-cooked / egg-like life,” and you’ll know something about wildness rushing in—“the great mutiny / of the unexpected.”
I’m struck by the presence of hands—touching, holding, gathering, making, cleaning, sorting, punishing,—throughout the book. Hands “make sense / of the thread of things” and in the end they create: “Close / your fingers on the clay and feel life / taking shape again.” dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s poems summon “first being / then not,” the on-going exchange that governs not only human life but the universe itself. No mean feat!
~ Maureen Scott Harris, author of Slow Curve Out
dee Hobsbawn-Smith makes art out of her own life in Wildness Rushing In. And a rich life is definitely in the details of each and every poem. The writing is honed and textured, the senses so alive that you can practically taste the language. There are moments of brilliance rare in a first book.
~ Jurors citation, SK Book Awards
You’ll want to rush into the wildness of Hobsbawn-Smith’s musical and playful writing, but make sure to slow down and absorb the beauty of her images.
~ Jurors’ citation, SK Book Awards
Largely written in first person, Hobsbawn-Smith’s diverse, poetically drawn characters engage in acts of faith and failure, hope and resignation, and that murky band of grey that lies in between… Of the 13 stories in What Can’t Be Undone, my favourite is “Appetites” because the writer’s knowledge of all things food shines through effortlessly… All of dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s stories are written with a poetic edge. Her descriptions, particularly western landscapes, are often luxurious, lending themselves a kind of nuanced impression, a delicate fingerprint on the reader’s mind. I loved these passages throughout.
~ Lee Kvern, Alberta Views, October 2015
Saskatoon chef, food writer, and poet, dee Hobsbawn-Smith, widens her arc of achievement with her first collection of short stories, What Can’t Be Undone, 13 stories firmly grounded in Western Canada and all predicated upon a serious loss. Now that something’s become undone, the characters in these stories must pick themselves up, somehow, and move on…
The final story, The Bridge, which actually takes place in Brooklyn but features a protagonist from Calgary, offers an insight into all these losses. A woman nicknamed Breathless looks at the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge: “Tears slide down her cheeks. So many losses. Youth, lovers, opportunity, Gran, her ruined mother, hope, all the unwinding threads of her life … Then she looks up at the bridge’s silver wires, spinning their own web above the city, its … stowed secret cargo, broken, beautiful and tragic.”
As the ancient Greeks long ago figured out, humans are beautiful because of their mortality, their losses. These stories shoulder that beauty well, most successfully when they don’t allow themselves to become too overwhelmed with their poetry – as at the end of Nerve – and stick close to their hard narrative edge. A strong and vital first collection.
~ Bill Robertson, The Saskatoon Star Phoenix, June 2015
Frank O’Connor suggests that short stories have protagonists who are outsiders… That would work for dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s first collection of short stories, What Can’t Be Undone: the characters in these stories, many of which have been shortlisted finalists for prizes, have been turned into outsiders by enormous losses…
But I have a different metaphor, one that is eerily appropriate for this wonderful collection. I think of stories structurally, as rich nodes of events that come out of a life that’s been fairly pedestrian and that carry on into a future that may or may not be changed, But certainly in those moments of the successful story there is a collision of energies that pose burning questions that will not brook a character’s refusal to answer. He or she can’t say, “Um… maybe?” For me, the best metaphor is that of a horse riding across country rather casually who suddenly sees before him or her a fence or a stream that needs to be leaped. A short story is like that moment when all the horse’s energy and concentration are gathered together, when its past experience and knowledge is brought to bear as it gauges the challenge – and there’s no shilly-shallying or indecision. Three stories in this collection involve horses.
These stories are beautifully crafted… [In “Monroe’s Mandolin”] There is no exposition, no stopping a great scene to fill in details about the past: the background we need is given as elegantly as [Bill] Monroe used to play [bluegrass mandolin].
We also see one of the collection’s preoccupations in this story: how do you help someone you love who doesn’t want to be helped?
One of my favourite stories, “Still Life with Birds,” makes use of a world that Hobsbawn-Smith, an award-winning food writer who ran a Calgary restaurant, knows well: the world of the professionals who makes us wonderful food… the generosity of food also forms a lovely backdrop… The collection is full of such moments when language brings character and that character’s world view alive for us effortlessly.
This is a collection to be read slowly, in part so you can appreciate Hobsbawn-Smith’s gift for voices, for the precise yet surprising turn of phrase that brings a narrator’s frame of mind to life. The other reason for taking these stories slowly is implied by the collection’s title… The collection speaks to the inexorability of life, time, fate and character – all of whom will have their way with us at those moments when life gathers itself to take a significant leap… suddenly the abyss, before you are quite on it, lets you see how wide it is, what challenges you will have to meet and how much you have to lose, how much you have already lost.
~ Kathleen Wall, Blue Duets Literary Locavore III: What Can’t Be Undone
“Embolism” In this six-part sequence, packed with lively language and playful figurations, dee Hobsbawn-Smith manages to capture the pith and flavour of a woman’s life from childhood to final moments. Besides limning an individual’s personality, “Embolism” also gives us the fraught relationship of that personality with its community and institutions.
~ Judge Zachariah Wells, 2011 SK Writers’ Guild Short Manuscript Awards
Your haunting, evocative essay, Watershed, was one of a handful of honourable mentions to surface in this year’s 2013 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. The piece was a favourite of mine, perhaps because I so identify with the draw to ancestral land, the need to move with dignity and grace in an old familiar landscape. Thanks, dee, for sending your piece our way. We read over 120 this year, and yours stays with me still.
~ Susan L. Scott, Lead non-fiction editor, The New Quarterly: Canadian Writers & Writing
“At 15” This narrative poem captures the essence of what it must be like to be a 15-year-old girl. I loved her anger, the use of the words vehemence and hatred to open this brief, reflective anecdote. It is an accomplished piece of writing, the colloquial voice mercurial, the metaphors a delight, “the cousins are potatoes, all their blind eyes turned on you.” How splendid the vigour of the language, how subtle and dangerous to slip in the huge question, “Who lives like this?” And then to lock it down with those last two lines. Congratulations. Your work was good. Keep it up.
~ Judge Patrick Lane, 2012 Freefall Poetry Contest
Written with heart and intelligence, Bread & Water: Essays is continually entertaining and rewarding. The tone – self-aware, curious, a little vulnerable – is at once individual and communal, and creates a winning humility perfectly suited to the essays’ explorative nature.
~ Judge Tim Bowling, SK Writers’ Guild 2014 John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award (for Bread & Water)
Personal and personable, the lyrical quality and depictions of a life well lived are sketched with an open heart in this generous collection. Turning a poetic eye outward to reflect on the world and then inward to find peace, the author gracefully explores the art of essaying.
~ Judge Lori A. May, SK Writers’ Guild 2014 John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award (for Bread & Water)
dee Hobsbawn-Smith, well known for her cookbooks and as a food advocate, steps up with her first collection of poems, Wildness Rushing In, an ambitious and mostly accomplished debut… she makes her connections eloquently and with a minimum of fuss… I have been at the lake for ten days is as lovely a mathematically structured poem as you’re likely to find.
She mines the memory field – “memory’s cobwebs closing in,” Aide-memoire, “your memory conjures” – for subjects, digging into her childhood, motherhood, her return to the family farm, the bounties of late love, and… the writing life. Every freshly minted poet needs a hymn or two to poetry itself.
With poems such as ‘The end of the drought’ and ‘Pears’ and lines such as “greens half-dressed in a lament of vinegar” and “a windshield full of stars/weeps for what can’t be said” to end a poem about impending divorce, Hobsbawn-Smith introduces herself as a poet to be taken seriously.
~ Bill Robertson, reviewer, The Saskatoon Star Phoenix
Among what impressed was Hobsbawn-Smith’s range of form (she incorporates prose poems, the villanelle, couplets, quatrains, a glosa, and less formally structured pieces), and her liberal use of personification. Snowflakes “swathe\the metal braces and rusty frames\of the tools in the farm field,” morning fog is described as “smoothing\the landscape,” and sun “rubs the ashes\from the forehead of the sky.” In her poem “The great divide,” a remembrance of a drive home with sleeping sons in the back seat of the car, she writes “a windshield full of stars\weeps for what can’t be said.” So lovely, and weighted with meaning… In the fourth and final section of the book, titled “late bloomer,” Heartbreak is dealt with in strong metaphors. The poem “Tsunami” includes “She sinks, anchor\leaden, tide at low ebb,” and in “Growing” we read: “She has burned old letters that have seared\her with their heat.” … Perhaps the strongest metaphor, however, appears in the poem “Homesick.” The poet recalls “Gran’s arms\full of billowing shirts like cumulus fluttering\around her, tethered\by the clothespins in her hand.” I love the juxtaposition between the soft, ethereal clouds and the hard, practical clothespins… Wildness Rushing In is a poetic account of the fluctuating seasons of one’s life: the good, the bad, the creatures (Hobsbawn-Smith gives birds and horses extra attention), the personalities, the landscapes, and the everyday occurrences that play out beneath the “high blue tent” that is the sky. Kudos to the author and publisher, Hagios Press.
~ Shelley Leedhal, author of I Wasn’t Always Like This
“dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s [What Can’t Be Undone] stories begin when love and comfort have faded, or the fatal accident has happened, the fire has burned the house, loved ones or brutal ones are already in their graves. What is left to write about? I’d say a whole lot. Hobsbawn-Smith’s characters are not life’s victims but life’s bludgeoned survivors. Like their earthy forebears, these modern descendants learn to live with regret, and they keep on keeping on. This kind of gutting it out is the very definition of Western grit, and these fine stories are parables of resiliency.”
~ David Carpenter, author of Welcome to Canada
With these carefully crafted stories [in What Can’t Be Undone], dee Hobsbawn-Smith reminds us of why we tell stories at all: to entertain, to reflect, and to render our lives and relationships in a way that is simultaneously simpler and more complex.
~ Johanna Skibsrud, winner of the ScotiaBank Giller Prize for The Sentimentalists
As an author, an artist, a cook, a thinker . . . dee has created an important treatise on the evolution of culinary Alberta [with Foodshed]. This is a great book, as free-form and unconventional as the author herself.
~ Anita Stewart, Member of the Order of Canada, Culinary Activist, Author, and Founder of Food Day Canada
[Foodshed is] A rich encyclopedia of facts, farm-gate lore and original recipes… a politically engaging narrative in which Hobsbawn-Smith articulates the challenges and joys faced by small-scale producers… don’ t let the alphabet theme fool you. This is no tame nursery rhyme; it is a locavore call to arms.
~ P. D. Robertson, The Globe and Mail
If food is inspiration for Dee Hobsbawn-Smith, the people who grow it are her role models, mentors and friends, all rolled into one. They are also the basis of her new book, Foodshed, An Edible Alberta Alphabet – a provincewide guide to the gutsy growers who put food on our tables.
~ Liane Faulder, The Edmonton Journal
[Foodshed] serves up well-researched explanations of current food issues and trends, and still manages to keep the whole meal appetizing enough that we’ll want to go out and reap the bounty… The work is a synthesis of her 20-year-plus, Alberta-based career as SAIT culinary grad, chef, restaurateur, culinary educator, consultant and advocate.
~ Karen Anderson, The Calgary Herald
[Skinny Feasts is] an informative and quirky (if wordy) guide to an eclectic West Coast style of cooking. She has assimilated more scientific knowledge about the workings of the kitchen than most writers, and uses this to advantage in discussing techniques. She is also, in the best grow-your-own tradition, a bit of a produce freak.
~ John Allemang, Quill & Quire
I first met dee in her days as a chef and restaurateur; I have come to know her much better as the extraordinary investigative food journalist that she is today. [In Shop talk], dee has chronicled the enormous progress of our city’s culinary resources.
~ Sal Howell, proprietor, River Café, Calgary, AB
dee Hobsbawn-Smith is the undisputed queen of all that is local and regional in foodstuffs. She knows more about Alberta growers and producers than anyone else on the planet. And it’s a good thing she can write as well as she does, so we can all know about and appreciate what is going on in our back yard.
~ Kathy Richardier, editor & publisher, City Palate: The Flavour of Calgary’s Food Scene
For the past 20 years, dee Hobsbawn-Smith has been a noted and respected public figure in the “food scene” in Calgary. (And yes, she does insist her first name is lower case. And if you ask, she’ll say her hyphenated last name is backwards – that Smith-Hobsbawn doesn’t quite ring with the same authority. And she has a secret personal passion for multi-coloured toenails, each one painted a different Crayola candy shade.) But don’t let any of those idiosyncrasies get in the way of understanding dee might be eccentric, but in the way all artistic people are somewhat off-plumb. It’s what makes dee and her fellow professional chefs curious and experimental in their kitchens – which are to them what easels and oils are to painters. In turn, they deliver to us, their waiting public, the best food that can be produced under any circumstances. Dee is the kind of chef who believes you cook with what nature gives you, not with exotic ingredients that require a trip to New York for the supplies. Dee’s interests are never far from food – writing about it, experimenting with it, cooking it, serving it, and loving it. She ran her own restaurant and catering company for years, and is one of the founders of Calgary’s slow-food movement. (After all, eating is more that just gathering the calories, it’s a process requiring care, and a matter of love. Dee believes like love, it shouldn’t be rushed.) It is a pleasure to be counted among dee’s friends – those lucky people who have been in her own home kitchen, and sampled what curiosity, talent and interest can produce from ingredients that are available to all of us. What dee’s explorations in her own home can teach the rest of us is that one doesn’t have to be a professional chef to be curious and brave.
~ Catherine Ford, author
“Whew, speaking of roadtrips. We had a wonderful, crazy, whirlwind trip to the mountains this week. ..It was especially exciting because I was able to see all kinds of West-centric books for the first time that we’ve been featuring on 49thShelf, including Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet by dee Hobsbawn-Smith. I’ll admit that Albertan food was not exactly a passion of mine, but: I have been mad about this book’s cover design since the first time I saw it, and I LOVE alphabet books, which rarely cater to my reading level and so I had to own this. I was not sorry. It turns out that reading about Alberta’s food culture is the most splendid way to learn about Alberta proper– its demographics, culture, topography, geography, climate, politics, and environment. It was an extraordinary education, and wholly engaging to read.”
~ Kerry Clare, Pickle Me This
49th Shelf’s 10 Short Story Collections You Should Be Reading This Spring
February 2, 2015 “We’re celebrating short stories this month at 49th Shelf, but the celebrations are going to stretch on through the spring with the release of these much-anticipated collections by both emerging and established writers.
Why we’re taking notice [of What Can’t Be Undone]: Hobsbawn-Smith does it all—her award-winning poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism have appeared in Canadian, American, and international literary journals, books, newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published in 2014, and we love her book, Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet. What Can’t Be Undone promises a similarly compelling sense of place.”
Here’s a profile published on Room Magazine‘s website.
And here are excerpts from a review written by Tia Christofferson of my short story collection What Can’t Be Undone that appears in FreeFall magazine’s Spring 2019 issue:
“She tells fascinating stories of human connection and passion in the midst of loss and tragedy. With captivating and sometimes haunting imagery, Hobsbawn-Smith cultivates images of the Albertan landscapes that house her troubled and honest characters… realistic and human depictions of people coping with adversity… Striking imagery runs throughout the entire collection… with her naturalistic descriptions, Hobsbawn-Smith makes the reader feel as connected to the stories’ settings as her characters do. Hobsbawn-Smith’s stories display her extraordinary ability to take an abstract concept and mound it into a tangible object….[and] her skill at articulating what seems indescribable… Intertwined with enthralling images of Alberta scenery is an examination fo what compels us after loss and tragedy.”
And because we are on the subject of comments, here is a clip from judge Myrna Kostach’s comments in awarding the 2018 Prairie Fire Press McNally Robinson Booksellers Creative Nonfiction Writing Contest to my essay, “Weibo’s Way”:
“From its opening paragraphs, I was in the narrator’s ‘astonishment’ in the world of Wiebo Ludwig and his extended family on Trickle Creek Ranch in northern Alberta, the site of their collective defiance as saboteurs of oil and gas installations in the area. But I was also immediately immersed in her own world of emotion and memory as she ‘allowed’ herself to ‘succumb’ to Wiebo’s charisma and charm… I was also struck by [her] vivid observations of this household [there are many examples of her literary craft in these], her merciless self-examination in the midst of community a d her mordant reflections on her past life even as she sticks to her broad journalistic assignment to investigate ‘the human side’ of this notorious ‘eco-warrior.”