A friend flipped me an email about a reading in Toronto by Prairie writer dee Hobsbawn-Smith from her book, Foodshed. Her book is about Alberta food and farmers, making this an unusual event in urban Ontario. It turns out, this isn’t the only way that it’s unusual.
The event is described as an informal potluck at somebody’s home, with discussion of local food systems and food politics. This sure doesn’t sound like the high-status gastro-porn that surrounds so many food-related events in the city.
Later, I manage to get hold of Hobsbawn-Smith at her Saskatchewan home after she finishes the 10-day reading tour in the East.
Writing the 2012 book gave Hobsbawn-Smith the opportunity to talk about farming and food with a lot of people. She drove 5,000 km through Alberta, from the south up to Beaverlodge in Peace Country. “My farmers hosted me in greenhouses and in orchards and in tomato fields and in asparagus fields and had house readings for me and invited their families and friends,” she exclaims. “It was the most amazing road trip and book tour.”
By “my” farmers, she is referring to the farmers she writes about in her book. “It’s been really warmly received, and I count all of those people in the book as friends,” she says. She attributes the friendships to the fact that her book is about more than food, saying, “Food has a way of infiltrating everything, so I heard about their personal lives as well as their professional lives.”
In the book, Hobsbawn-Smith talks about what she calls the great food divide: to buy on price or to buy on story; to shop for a commodity or to shop for dinner. By putting a human face — the human story of “her” farmers — alongside the farms and food in her book, she narrows that divide. “Just about everyone who reads it comes away with a sense of the scope of the politics that underlie the food-growing world,” she says.
Rooted in food and farming
Her own story is deeply entwined with food and farming. “I grew up drinking raw milk,” says Hobsbawn-Smith as she talks about being a farmer’s daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. Raised in Saskatchewan, she moved to Calgary in the 1980s, becoming a cook, caterer, restaurateur, and classically trained chef.
In 1992 she opened a restaurant called Foodsmith. With an interest in locally produced food, she focused on Canadiana cuisine. “I bought from and championed what few local growers existed in Alberta at the time, and who were willing to do business with such a small bistro,” she says. Some become lifelong friends. The restaurant even showcased her own personal farm connection: Her grandfather’s old dairy shipper’s milk can with the restaurant logo.
She kept the restaurant less than two years, finding it difficult to balance with two young children. But she stayed in the realm of food, running a small catering company, teaching cooking classes, and raising her children.
In 1997, her first book, a cookbook called Skinny Feasts, was published. She began writing for the Calgary food magazine City Palate, and writing the “Curious Cook” column in the Calgary Herald, which ran from 2001 until 2008. Her columns, she says, were about more than chefs, recipes, ingredients, and kitchen know-how: They also covered topics such as growers and rural land use.
In 1998, she started giving “Foodie Tootle” tours to city folks, taking them by bus to farms and ranches, ending the tours with on-farm dinners. Over the 12 years she did the tours, she took more than 600 people to over 50 farms and ranches.
“An Edible Alberta Alphabet” is the subtitle of Foodshed. “It’s the most political and serious book I’ve ever written, but I wanted it to have a layout that was really user friendly and visual too,” she explains as we discuss the A-Z alphabetical organization of farms by what they produce. (Q, by the way, is for quackers, a.k.a. ducks).
While the book contains recipes (in the butter chicken recipe she advises readers not to flinch at the large amount of cream) it is far from a cookbook. “The material in it ranges from deaths caused by farm accidents to land appropriation or land annexation, and the issues of labour in a really tight market.”
Along with the political and serious matter, she also paints the setting. Keith and Bev, for example, are two farmers she visits, and she describes her visit as follows: “Inside the old house, the day unfolds like an oil painting from another era. The ranchers stand close to the wood-burning stove, capturing its heat on their weathered skin, then move to the acre-long kitchen table.”
Foodshed is as much a book about people as it is about food. Early in the book she says, “Much as the great short-story writer Raymond Carver lit up the lives of working-class Americans, my goal is to illuminate the faces and personal lives of my farmers.”
The faces she illuminates experience joy, pain, success, and failure. There are a few failed marriages. The feelings she shares are about more than just farming. Readers learn how one farmer, Joe, takes pleasure in drumming, and has a second album that blends R & B with jazzy tones. Farm couple Rhonda and Brian first exchanged phone numbers at Vegreville’s annual Ukrainian Easter egg festival.
As she shares the farm stories, readers also hear how some farmers have recreated their businesses so they can continue to make a living from the land. Phil, for example, was a poultry farmer who became a greenhouse grower. First, he tried wholesale, but then realized that retail works better for him. Gerwin shifted gears from hogs and cattle into ducks, as a result of the BSE crisis.
The stories also share how frustrating it can be for farmers who just want to farm yet hit regulatory or bureaucratic hurdles. Andreas has had many challenges in reinventing his farm and laments that, “Banks don’t make decisions in house,” explaining that there is no room for vision or for personal story, just a computer screen with drop-down menus and boxes in which only conventional products fit. Peter talks of being laughed out of the building when he took his plan for raising bison to the bank.
The stories are not all rosy. Bernie lost his brother to a traffic accident. Richard, a livestock farmer, develops thyroid cancer so must take on a young partner, Blake, and get his adult son, Ian, to return to the farm.
Hobsbawn-Smith’s own narrative is woven in when she shows the picture of her friend Kathleen on a bridge, waving to her. Kathleen’s late son Nathan, who was killed in Afghanistan, was best friends with Hobsbawn-Smith’s eldest son.
Home on the farm
Hobsbawn-Smith describes herself as a creator of stories, poems, essays, novels — and food. It’s an interesting combination. When I ask how food fits in with the written word, she explains that her mother comes from Hutterite background, and how, in the old world, Hutterites were artisans and craftspeople as well as farmers. As craftspeople, they made things with their hands. In her case, she writes, sews — and cooks — using her hands. What they have in common, she says, is tangible, visible results. “The act of making something beautiful — even if it’s something beautiful you eat and then is gone — is an act of hope.”
In 2010, after 27 years in Calgary, Hobsbawn-Smith moved back to 18 acres of the family farmstead in Saskatchewan. The old dairy shipper’s milk can came back with her from Calgary.
Today, writing is her focus. She has contributed to six books, co-written two books, and written five books of her own.
After “the” flood of 2011, “we live beside a lake,” she tells me, saying she’s been told it will take years for the water levels to go down. In the meantime, she enjoys watching birds. “Even my poetry has food and water running through it.”
Foodshed has won international literary awards. “It’s pretty cool for a little book,” she says. She continues to write. At the moment, she is writing essays, a novel (which has farmers in it), short stories, and poetry.
This article was originally published as. ‘My’ farmers, in the February 3, 2015 issue of Country Guide
Calgary’s growing cuisine
dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s 2008 book Shop talk: The Open-All-Hours Insider’s Guide to Finding Great Ingredients in Calgary, the Bow Valley and Beyond, looks at finding ingredients — many of them for cuisines brought by people coming to
Calgary from around the world. It describes where to find Asian, East Indian, Middle Eastern, and European ingredients in the city.
“Eating in Alberta, there aren’t many boundaries as far as culture goes, anything that you eat in other parts of the world eventually shows up in Calgary,” she says.
She expects that farmers will begin to grow more ingredients reflective of the cultural diversity in the city. “For instance, a wider variety of brassicas,” she says as she talks of growers she knows raising greens that 10 years ago would have been found only in “ethnic” restaurants. “The truth about Alberta is that a lot grows there,” she says.
Beyond farming, she thinks there will be changes in food processing, saying, “It’s not just what’s going to be grown; part of it is going to be how food is processed.”