Dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s Bread & Water is a bittersweet love letter to the prairies, her Hutterite ancestors, her family, and the deeper hungers they satisfy.
The essay collection, which won the Saskatchewan Book Awards’ Non-Fiction Prize, includes Prairie Fire’s 2018 non-fiction contest winner “Wiebo’s Way” about a newly divorced Hobsbawn-Smith’s visit to the compound of fundamentalist patriarch and gas-well saboteur Wiebo Ludwig.
Though Bread & Water may sound like basic fare for the work of a French-trained Chef, the title’s simplicity reflects these essays’ groundedness in the basic human need for connection—to the land, traditions, and loved ones—represented by the shared baking and breaking of bread.
“In cooking,” writes Hobsbawn-Smith, “we express our deepest feelings about the nature of the universe, our deepest faith and connection to all that is primal and irresistible…. our self-reliance, our willingness and ability to care for others.” (185)
The book unfolds Hobsbawn-Smith’s relationship with food and water from her childhood as an air force brat living on oysters, to Saskatchewan farmgirl baking strudel with her grandmother, to culinary student in France and restauranteur in Calgary, and finally, her return to the country garden she and her partner inherit.
Bread & Water isn’t all motherhood and apple pie. Hobsbawn-Smith calls out the harsh environment of the professional kitchen, its misogynistic “cowboy culture” and low wages for physically demanding labour.
Recalling her mentor’s instructions to “Make enough batter to account for loss,” Hobsbawn-Smith wonders if this advice “extended to people, to families, to children, to pets. To careers.” (35) Loss in Bread & Water comes in the form of flood, both its swelling and receding. It also appears in the death of her father, her brother, the flight of her sons from the nest.
For Hobsbawn-Smith, food grows at the intersection of rural and urban, and her lifestyle and advocacy work embody the locavore, slow food movement of both her urban training and her rural ancestry. She describes the challenges of forgoing pineapple for Prairie flavours…and the benefits of relationship to local growers. (72)
This rejection of food as commodity is never more striking than in her sadness over the retreat of the flood waters around her home. The land, to Hobsbawn-Smith, is not only valuable for how much food it can produce, but for welcoming shorebirds and the writing muse.
As one might expect from the author of the poetry collection Wildness Rushing In (Radiant Press, 2014), Howsbawn-Smith’s food descriptions are rhythmic and zesty, like the “quick-quick, double-time burnt-before-you-know-it staccato” of sautéing. (4) Mouth-watering language is not reserved for the kitchen: here is pea soup fog, and there, fabric-store velvet like ripe peaches. (181)
And she is deliciously funny: as she compares endless cabbage to the tedium of Hugh Grant playing himself (63), describes rhubarb quest for world domination (67), or narrates that time she invited a famous TV Chef to her apartment for crepes.
In a book where summer “flow[s] from spring like a butterscotch sundae” (69), readers can expect to feel hungry. And maybe even, stirring within, a longing to knead.
Bread & Water: Essays
by dee Hobsbawn-Smith
University of Regina Press, 2021, 233 p.p., $26.95
Angeline Schellenberg is the author of Tell Them It Was Mozart (Brick Books, 2016) and Fields of Light and Stone (University of Alberta Press, 2020), and the host of Speaking Crow on Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg).