An early notice in the Winnipeg Free Press describes it as an exploration of “the notion of hunger — particularly the hunger of the soul….this collection of farm-to-table essays tackles floods, the plight of refugees, aging gracefully, cooking methods passed down through the years and more.”
When chef and writer dee Hobsbawn-Smith left the city for rural life on a farm in Saskatchewan, she planned to replace cooking and teaching with poetry and prose. But—as begin the best stories—her next adventure didn’t quite work that way.
Food trickled into her poems, her essays, her fiction. And water poured into her property in both Saskatchewan and Calgary during two devastating floods.
Bread & Water uses lyrical prose to examine those two fundamental ingredients, and to probe the essential questions on how to live a life. Hobsbawn-Smith uses food to explore the hungers of the human soul: wilder hungers that loiter beyond cravings for love. She kneads themes of floods and place, grief and loss; the commonalities of refugees and Canadians through common tastes in food; cooking methods, grandmothers and mentors; the politics of local and sustainable food; parenting; male privilege in the restaurant world; and the challenges of aging gracefully.
It is an elegant collection that weaves joy into exploring the quotidian in search for larger meaning.
Here’s a starred review in the October 2021 issue of Quill & Quire, written by Sarah Ramsey. Below is the review in its entirety:
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).
Hobsbawn-Smith tells the reader of how she learned to cook and of teaching her children to cook in turn. her roles a parent, poet, chef, and food advocate inform her approach to food: the prairie landscape informs her culinary narrative. In the essay “Prairie Pragmatic,” she revisits her grandparents’ belief in a simple, local prairie diet and reconnects to the land that nourishes her and draws her home.
The author speaks about the flow of time and savouring the flavours of the soil and the se. In “Annual Canning Bee,” she joyously recalls memories of a canning bee with a chili sauce recipe of her great-great-grandmother’s that she has made her own and which her children will share with their children. The “briny-sweet and cloying” first taste of fresh oysters, “scented by the sea and the sea breeze,” is remembered in “Shells.”
In the lyrical essays “Watershed,” “Floodplain,” and “prodigal,” Hobsbawn-Smith thoughtfully considers place as well as loss. In “The Lake, Leaving,” she writes of the winter landscape as a practice of surrender, patience, and determination. “Handmade,” on the other hand, extols the comforts of cooking and the wondrous transformation of flour, yeast, and fire as the author meditatively braids a Finnish bread called pulla.
The book, completed during the COVID-19 pandemic, shifts to matters of food justice to observe the failings of global food production and distribution, the plight of migrant workers, and the struggle facing restaurants. Despite the inequities in our food systems that the pandemic has laid bare (in food production, distribution, labour, and sales), Hobsbawn-Smith is hopeful that readers have returned to their kitchens, albeit by necessity, to rediscover the joy of cooking. And in the zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement, when many chefs have been called out for their abusive behaviour, Hobsbawn-Smith also comments on toxic male privilege in the restaurant world.
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.”
Here’s an excerpt from writer and author Karen Anderson’s blog, Savour It All:
“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.”