Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"These are my farmers."

Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet 
by dee Hobsbawn-Smith 

Calgary’s Introduction to Regional Cuisine
When dee Hobsbawn-Smith opened Foodsmith restaurant in 1992, the menu changed every day in order to take advantage of local, seasonal products. All the producers were named on the menu. “I was way ahead of the curve,” dee explains. “It was a tough sell in a meat-and-potatoes town. Calgary has evolved a lot since then.”

dee’s father was in the Air Force, so the family were gypsies for most of dee’s childhood. But her mother was from Saskatchewan, and dee grew up eating and enjoying good Prairie food.

As a young woman, dee started taking university classes but soon realized that she wanted a portable, creative skill and switched her attendance to cooking school in Vancouver. She later completed her culinary apprenticeship in Calgary and then supplemented her formal education with cooking classes in Europe, which had a lasting impact.

Madeleine Kamman, who had a cooking school in Annecy, France, and a television program on PBS became dee’s mentor. “She showed me that in order to cook you have to understand chemistry and methodology,” dee says. “Then you can superimpose flavours and abandon the cookbook.”

Kamman took the class to Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in Lyon and to a local fromagerie (cheesemaker). “These set the benchmark standards to aspire to,” dee says.

A few years later, dee attended the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. “We cooked fish that were caught right outside in the bay,” dee says. “Europeans understood long before we did that you eat what you view.”

Before opening Foodsmith, dee also visited Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ iconic restaurant in San Francisco that was one of the first to highlight local food.

From Cooking to Writing to Advocacy 
 It was tough for dee as a young mother with two sons to run a restaurant that was undercapitalized, and she decided to sell in 1994. She turned her energies to teaching, cooking classes and freelance writing for the Calgary Herald, City Palate, and other local and national magazines. Her articles not only showcased local restaurants but also local producers.

dee’s first book, Skinny Feasts: Deceptively Rich Cooking the Low Fat Way, was published in 1997 and two more best-selling cookbooks followed. dee’s weekly Herald column featured a monthly round-up of the best butchers, bakers and specialty grocery stores. This evolved into dee’s fourth book – Shop Talk.

At the same time, dee worked with City Palate to organize an annual bus tour. Groups of up to 50 people would visit three or four local food producers, and dee would cook dinner with the ingredients that the group had picked up along the way.

In 2001, dee joined the steering committee for Slow Food Calgary. She served as president for three years and headed up the committee to choose the growers, cooks and youth delegates who would attend Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial gathering in Torino, Italy.

dee also worked with the Alberta government to develop Dine Alberta, an annual month-long celebration of local food whose goal was to connect consumers with growers and restaurants.

Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet 
When dee was writing Shop Talk, she realized that the chapter on local food producers could easily become its own book, and she began researching what became Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet. She had originally envisioned writing a regional book about producers in Western Canada, but when Touchwood Editions became the book’s publisher, she narrowed the focus to Alberta. “Food producers in Alberta have the same challenges and problems as farmers in Saskatchewan or British Columbia,” dee says. “The issues are virtually universal.”

Working her way through the alphabet, from A is for Asparagus to Z is for Zizania (wild rice), the book introduces readers to 76 sustainably-minded, small-scale, specialty food producers. The word ‘foodshed’ means gate-to-plate food in a given geographic region.

dee felt that it only made sense to include a recipe in each section as she agrees with Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, that consumers are co-producers and share in the food cycle.

The second section of the book discusses the politics, polices, ethics and issues faced by farmers today, from labour shortages and land use to animal management, succession planning and food distribution.

There is also an extensive reading list, detailed information on sourcing local food, CSAs (community-supported agriculture), farmers’ contact information and maps showing where the different producers are located.

These Are My Farmers
“I realized that people don’t know who is producing their food or how,” dee says. “It’s that sense of connection or community that is missing in our food system. We need to pay attention to who in our neighbourhood is feeding us and who we can turn to for food.”

dee is maintaining her connection with local food producers as she launches her book. In addition to readings at bookstores and Slow Food gatherings, she is spending two weeks in June travelling from Lethbridge in southern Alberta to Beaverlodge in the Peace Country on what she has dubbed the Rural Routes Reading Tour.

She will stay with farmers who will in turn invite their colleagues and neighbours to participate in potluck suppers with casual readings and conversation. They’ll meet in fields and ranches, around beehives and in a heritage grain mill. Dates and details for the tour can be found on dee’s website, The Curious Cook.

Moving Home
dee’s interest in writing has continued to evolve, and she is now apprenticing in short stories and poetry.

She met Dave Margoshes, a Saskatchewan author, at a writing workshop in Banff, and they are now living just outside of Saskatoon in her grandparents’ home on the land her family originally farmed.

“I moved to Saskatchewan so I would have the time to become a writer,” dee says. “My first publication in a literary journal was almost as big an event as my restaurant or my first child.”

Fortunately, dee will continue to share her concern for the local food community with her neighbours in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. Her experience with Slow Food Calgary will be of huge assistance in setting up a Slow Food convivium in Saskatoon.

“I really feel there’s a Canadian culinary community,” dee says, “Regional cuisine based on the local food in the different regions.”

dee will be reading from Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet at 7:30 pm on Thursday, May 3 at Atlantis Coffee, Regina, and at 7:30 pm on Thursday, May 10, at McNally Robinson Booksellers, Saskatoon, with her partner, Dave Margoshes, who will be reading from his new collection of linked short stories, A Book of Great Worth

Photographs provided by TouchWood Editions

1 comment:

Jeff Rasmuss said...

I just got this book! I'm excited to see what it's all about!