In the lead-up to Room’s food issue we feature an interview with dee Hobsbawn-Smith, award-winning writer, poet, and local food advocate, whose first published poem debuted in Room in 2007. Dee is no stranger to food. She lives near Saskatoon on land from her family’s farm. She trained as a chef in France, Canada and Ireland, and opened a locavore restaurant, Foodsmith, in Calgary in 1992. A career as a caterer, freelance writer, cooking teacher, and cookbook author followed. Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet, a passionate defence of local, small-scale food producers, came out in 2012. In 2014 her debut poetry collection, Wildness Rushing In, was published, followed by a short story collection, What Can’t Be Undone, in 2015. Dee is currently working on a novel, a collection of essays, and new poems.
In the past, dee, you focused exclusively on food writing. How does food make its way into your current poetry, fiction, and essay projects?
It’s a pretty organic, albeit sideways, process that happens – mostly – without my managing it. I spent so many years cooking, then researching and writing directly about food that I feel done with that aspect of the culinary world, and now only rarely write a food-centric piece. Nowadays, I’m more fond of using food as metaphor, so food slips in as garnish, not the main course. For instance, a fictional character might be a cook who loves cumin or lamb shoulder, but the story isn’t necessarily about the act of cooking or the life of a cook. Or a poem may include coffee or knives or eggplant, but won’t necessarily be about coffee or eggplant or knives in the literal sense. Having said that, though, on senatorial sober second thought, the exception is my in-process series of essays, a manuscript titled "Bread & Water"… and an active file titled “dee’s food poems”… and plans for a linked short story collection that centers around a chef. Maybe my love affair with food is more overt than I realized!
You are working on a collection of essays, "Bread and Water", which won second place in the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award. How do these essays differ from your journalistic pieces?
Ah, good Q. These essays aren’t about how to cook or how food grows or what goes with what, or any of the myriad ways to explore food from a journalist’s point of view; instead, they examine my attitude toward food and cooking, and how food has influenced my worldview. Like any good personal essay, they rely on voice, but sometimes in a form that has more in common with lyric poetry than inquisitive essay. So – more personal, but still reliant on the tools of good fiction: plot, narrative, dialogue, setting, characters – and as CNF can, they sometimes go sideways in ways that aren’t the norm in journalistic pieces.
In Foodshed you wrote profiles of Alberta farmers, ranchers, orchardists, and wine-makers. I had a sense that these “makers” made their way into some of the characters in your recent short story collection, What Can’t be Undone. How has writing and thinking about food-producers informed your subsequent work?
None of the stories in my debut fiction collection is reflective of “my” farmers profiled in Foodshed. But the novel I am working on contains rural agricultural elements gleaned from my work as a culinary journalist, and as I mentioned, I am gestating a linked story collection that features a chef (and perhaps several growers).
In your recent role as Writer in Residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, you ran a memoir-writing workshop entitled, “Taste of Memory.” Why is food such an effective mnemonic?
Taste and smell are linked to the first and most crucial bond: that of a mother and her nursing baby. Throughout our lives, our breath continuously conveys smell to us – the sweetness of a breast-fed baby; our lover’s aftershave or perfume; our favourite childhood food treat; the air after rain. Each aroma travels straight to our brain without intellectual or logical interference, so we experience a primal – gut-level – response intimately hard-wired to our past. Those facts are incontrovertible, impossible to circumvent, and writers are wise to make use of them even when not writing directly about food. So… we share our troubles over freshly made coffee, share confidences over Earl Grey tea, share secrets over a chocolate chip cookie, share guilty pleasure over a bowl of butterscotch ice cream. Writers seduce with food and drink, sometimes turn to food for comfort, and most viscerally, evoke what food helps us remember.
As an organizer with Slow Food Saskatoon, you run an annual fund-raiser called “Eat These Words” where local MFA in Writing students are invited to read from their work. What is the intersection between a Slow approach to food and, say, the creation of a poem?
Another good Q. As the late great Ezra Pound said, “Wait.” Time is the secret ingredient to high-quality writing and cooking, and I am not talking about crock pots! In the larger sense, in creating good, clean and fair food, Slow Food invokes respect for terroir – that inscrutable and synchronistic blend of place, aspect, soil, science and weather, all of which we have no control over. Up close, cooks and gardeners know that time is the invisible but essential element: you can’t rush braised lamb shanks, nor hurry the carrot crop! Ditto writing of any sort: after the initial capture of an idea in a first draft, a good writer puts the work away so the piece can cool, and her sense of dispassion – essential to good revising – can kick in.
You write widely, in variety of forms. How do you shift from one to the other in your writing practice?
Mostly seamlessly, although I am surprised when, in the middle of this long novel project, my brain turns left and comes up with a poem or essay! I think of myself as a poet first and foremost, and when I arrive at a thinking break or am between novel drafts, I turn to poetry for catharsis and oxygen. The unexpected poems and essays that gracefully arrive out of the blue – so that the writer merely serves as the recording conduit, the amanuensis, in some sense – are the ones I feel most grateful for. But I have also written essays/poems that defy classification.
What are you reading these days? How is it influencing your work?
Best American Essays 2015 edited by Ariel Levy; Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forché & Philip Gerard; Washita by Patrick Lane; 100 Years of Best American Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore & Heidi Pitlor; Startle & Illuminate, Carol Shields on Writing, compiled by Anne & Nicholas Giardini.
Lane for his compressed elegance and clarity. Shields for wisdom. Best American Essays 2015 for insight. Writing Creative Nonfiction for form. 100 Years of Best American Short Stories for variety of voice, content, form, style.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with Room blog readers? Maybe a recipe? Hint hint.
Thanks for asking. Teehee. Here’s my current fave eggplant dish, adapted from a recipe shared with me during my Calgary Herald years by chef Rosie Gair of The Trough in Canmore, Alberta.
Serve warm or cold as a tapa, with grilled or roasted meats of fish, as a filling or garnish, or straight from the bowl. This keeps well in the fridge and it’s addictive.
4 globe eggplant (peeled) or 8 Asian eggplant, (unpeeled) sliced into ½” rounds
olive oil for drizzling
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup malt or apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. fennel seed, dry-roasted and ground
2 tsp. cumin, dry-roasted and ground
1 tsp. cracked black pepper
1 tsp. coriander seed, dry-roasted and ground
1/4 cup garlic cloves
1/2 tsp. smoked hot paprika
1/8 tsp. hot chili flakes
salt to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Set the oven at 400 F. Arrange the eggplant in single layers on several parchment-lined baking sheets. Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast the eggplant, uncovered, until nicely browned and soft at the centre, about 10-15 minutes, turning once. Chop the cooked eggplant into strips or quarters, transfer into a bowl and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Heat all remaining ingredients except the oil in a small pan, then cool, and add with the oil to the eggplant. Mix well and marinate 6-24 hours.
Theressa Slind is a librarian and beginning writer from Saskatoon. Her fiction has appeared in Grain and paperplates.