Friday, April 1, 2022

Writing about cooking is not always just about food: Bread and Water

 I  have just finished re-reading dee Hobsbawn-Smith's luminous Bread and Water, and the second reading was worth it. Our lives are infused with food and drink, so the spine of dee's book immediately captures us and underscores what is important:  our relationships with others, with pleasure, with the planet.  And, oh, the writing about food!  The metaphors!  "Summer flows from spring like a butterscotch sundae." The fragrances and colours!  When dee writes about food, it's a sensuous experience; she brings her poet's eye and ear to everything within her purview.

In some ways, this book of essays is a memoir.  Were she not happy with the incisive Bread and Water, her title could have added that this was a book about family or a book about finding oneself.  A book about taking risks--whether it's jumping with a horse or leaping into a job she wasn't ready for.  But the essays, not arranged in any chronological order--not, indeed, subject to chronology--balance self and subject carefully.  Memoir, as I understand it, differs from autobiography in that it doesn't even attempt a full accounting of one's life, instead using one's experiences as a lens on another topic altogether, albeit a topic that is central to the writer's life, curiosity, or passions.  The architect Philip Johnson built himself a completely glass house--a simple but hardly livable structure--it had no library or sewing room.  There's a story about the first night he spent there and actually inhabited the structure with the lights on.  He phoned a friend to say "You've got to come over.  I've turned on the lights and all I can see is me me me me me!" Autobiographies can be a bit like that.  Memoirs are as curious about the world as about the self.

Dee links cooking and caring for others through the way family and food intertwine in her essays.  We learn about her grandmother, who was generous with her time in the kitchen, teaching dee to make transparent strudel dough and showing her a central paradox that's almost existential:  "Time has no meaning in the kitchen.  Time means everything in the kitchen."  Like all craftspeople, dee's grandmother knew that when we're cooking we commit ourselves to taking the time to do it right.  But when we're feeding a large family, getting the timing right so every dish meets perfection at the same moment marks the cook's devotion to her or his craft.

We learn about dee's peripatetic life as an air force brat, at one point fetching up on the Vancouver Island coast and often gathering oysters for dinner. We learn about her father's cooking career, begun after dee's Mom could no longer cook, and about how his spread sheets showed the way he experimented with a recipe.  We learn about her teaching her sons to cook and their choice to become chefs.  We are invisible guests to the times when she cooks with these now adult children and how that brings back whole wafts of memories along with pleasure in the present.  Some nights after I've had a rough day, Bill might ask me whether I really want to cook.  I know he's being attentive and helpful, but he doesn't love cooking, so he doesn't quite grasp the fact that those are the very times to cook. The physical and sensuous experience of making pleasure for someone else perfectly balances with an intensive day writing.  I've always thought that cooking combines basic yet pleasurable self-care with our drive to be generous to those we love and to give them pleasure; dee profoundly shares that belief. 

Dee also links cooking with care and gratitude for the planet by writing about her commitment to slow food, a commitment to knowing your local farmers, cheesemakers, and vintners.  Dee comes to the prairie version of the 100-mile diet via learning to cook with Madeleine Kamman in France.  Madam began her days with her students by taking them to the market to see what was fresh, a practice dee translated to her Calgary restaurant, Foodsmith. There are points when the 100 mile diet severely limits what one can eat or drink--the thought of a morning without coffee terrifies me, and dee was saddened by the loss of the spices that can make a lovely Moroccan or Indian stew out of a bit of meat, some beans or pulses, and a few vegetables.  Without olive oil, she learned to cook with rendered duck fat. She uses local vinegars and home-grown herbs to give her dishes panache. "What grows together goes together," she tells us.  But she also teaches us that the fresh, intense flavours of local food make simple cooking into something remarkable. Here is dee's "bellweather moment.  My reconnection to a local diet came with unexpected benefits.  A deeper sense of immediacy and place meant I ate what the moment and the weather rendered possible....Casting this net created a symbiotic network.  I knew the people who grew my food and they knew me."  She pleads with us to make time for good food and the relationships it builds with growers and family and friends, and to realize that "locally grown will feed  us better than what has travelled thousands of miles."   

The pandemic has made many of us leery about eating out.  Dee gives us insight into what goes on in the backrooms of restaurants:  the sexism, the physical demands of coping with the heat of a kitchen and staying on your feet for hours on end.  And high-end restaurants are hardly the worst:  dee's first job in Fernie B.C. involved buses "parked like ghostly mastodons," unloading hungry tourists at ten and four everyday, where dee was expected to organize the many moving parts of a kitchen.  It was a lonely, exhausting, isolating job from which she fled.  Essays like "Cooking for James" and "Love Affair with a Wolf" (a riff, I suspect on M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf), she gives us the insider's view of restaurants.  You know what?  Maybe we should occasionally tip more generously.  And maybe, when we've really enjoyed a dish, we should send a comment back to the chef.  They are unsung heroes and only get complaints, I'll bet. 

Dee has certainly had experience with water.  Her Calgary house was flooded in June 2013 by the Bow River.  Her prairie farmhouse was graced by an ad hoc lake in 2011, the result of record-breaking snow fall which came swift on the heals of a summer of unprecedented rain.  She made lemonade of lemons when she and her husband Dave held mid-winter bonspiels,  feeding them, of course.  But the essay called "Floodplain" is the occasion of some of dee's most poetic and insightful writing.  I think I'll just end my casual review with her words.  They will show you what a treat you have in store:

"Water is light, mirror-glass physics, angle of incidence equals angle of refraction.  Is mercury droplets.  A sheet. Ice/steam/fluid.  Invisible.  A rock-chipped diamond.  A skater's agony.  A skier's liftoff above the T-bar.  Raft supporter, life raft.  Float.  Inhale, and death to all but fish.  Life and death.  Water is blue green aqua emerald azure cobalt sapphire cerulean indigo.  Sea of Tranquility.  Sea of despond.  Sea of heartache.  Water is in.  Out.  Fashionable bottles, stored, iced, jugged, poured, hoarded, squandered.  Water is hip. The arctic, tamed and bottled, icerbergs with olives and a twist.  Tankers, plastic bottles forming floating islands of post-industrial despair in the oceans.  Glasses.  A mattress.  Water is eternal. Evanescent. A desert. An ocean."  

1 comment:

  1. omg Kathleen. Thank you for your insights and close reading and generous commentary.