Foodsmith, author, chef, educator and poet dee Hobsbawn-Smith illuminates “the faces and personal lives of my farmers” eloquently in her latest book Foodshed – An Edible Alberta Alphabet to advance her philosophy of preparing food that has been grown by people the consumer knows.
At the Lyric Theatre’s Write Out Loud event Jan. 16, Hobsbawn-Smith spoke extensively about her journey with food and her latest tribute to its producers, a compilation of inspiring stories and recipes. Foodshed chronicles the evolution of her relationship with regional growers, beginning in 1992 when she opened her restaurant, Foodsmith, in Calgary’s historic Mission District.
Offering locally produced food in a menu that changed daily, she soon had producers flocking to her restaurant door with armloads of their rare and heirloom home-grown treasures. Over the years, Hobsbawn-Smith established relationships with hundreds of farmers throughout Alberta as a columnist for Calgary’s City Palate publication and related farm tours called ‘Foodie Tootles’. In Foodshed, she celebrates the earthbound tenacity of these producers in a niche-market industry where most are content but few get rich.
Hobsbawn-Smith quotes one of her producers and suppliers to fine restaurants, the Gruenebergs, as saying on their Greens, Eggs and Ham website, “You have a doctor; you have a lawyer; you have a banker. Who’s your farmer?”
She observed that most consumers are so far removed from producers, both geographically and intellectually, that they have lost a sense of connection to their food as an agricultural product.
As an urban dweller with a farm background, Hobsbawn-Smith ensured that her own two sons were exposed at an early age to local farms, arming each with a small curved and serrated knife for weeding and harvesting fresh produce.
“I took them out to farms. They helped pick strawberries, they helped weed the garden, they harvested raspberries in our own back yard, and they recognized the role that food played in their lives, and the end result is that I have two sons that I’m so proud of, who are professional cooks [who recognize] the importance of good food, healthy food, local food as the fuel that drives us forward. They’re so matter-of-fact about it, and so passionate about it. As a parent, I count them as a success story.”
Local food feeds people, not the capitalist system
Hobsbawn-Smith’s guiding principle is to buy produce and protein locally, because the average distance food travels from farm to fork is 1500 kilometres, burdoned with an unseen but significant carbon footprint. Factor in spoilage, and the cost far exceeds the sticker price.
“Your treats can come from a longer distance, but not the things we rely on as priorities,” she said. “I don’t want to give up cocoa or coffee. I have a serious coffee habit that I haven’t been able to kick. I don’t want to kick it.
“The way that I feel better about the distance it travels is that I’m very selective about the coffee beans that I buy – fair trade, organic, as ecologically sensitive as I can find, but the reality is that’s not where I spend the bulk of my money. A pound of coffee beans will last me a long time, but how many pounds of chicken do I go through, and I sure make sure I buy them from as close to home as possible.”
She added, “My focus has always been local growers growing for local consumers, and I think that’s really got to be the root of any successful agricultural system. The rest of it simply supports the capitalist system. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in feeding people.”
Back, but not backwards
She cites the current movement to small mixed farms and niche market producers as celebrating the “back, but not backwards” model advanced by local producers like Kathleen Charpentier of Sun to Earth Farm near Castor, Alberta. Many of these ‘new farm’ producers are tireless innovators, establishing remarkable production levels for small plots of land, yet they merely subsist on their efforts to create wholesome food using regenerative processes.
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