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 late 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 as 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 sea. 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 behavior, 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 Transcendental Gastronomy (1825): “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”