November 29, 2012
Who’s your bubbie?
When it comes to food, she might not be the short, Yiddish-speaking grandmother that comes to mind.
“Every family has a recipe that it holds dear, and every recipe has a person behind it, and typically, yes, it is your Yiddish bubbie,” said David Sax, author of “Save the Deli.” “But it can also be a grandmother who came from a Sephardic country, or a housekeeper who came from the Philippines and was the one who made Shabbat dinner every Friday night, or the prison guard who raised you but fed you well, lovingly.”
Sax is one of the founders of Beyond Bubbie, a new project and Web site sponsored by the Jewish creative think tank Reboot. Beyond Bubbie aims to mingle food, memory and meaning to produce a multisensory, visceral connection to Jewish (or another) heritage.
The project launched last week at the Skirball Cultural Center with a panel of five top chefs and food writers — four of them Jewish — exploring how food memories have affected their careers. More than 100 people showed up for appetizers, drinks, dessert and memories.
“I feel like my entire culinary endeavor, starting from when I was a kid, was about finding my inner grandmother,” said moderator Evan Kleiman, the host of KCRW’s “Good Food.”
Kleiman said she didn’t have actual bubbies in her life — because she was the youngest of all her first cousins, her grandmothers were gone by the time she came around. And her single mother was more about getting food on the table than cooking.
But she said she has cookbook bubbies, food mentors and strong food memories.
“Beyond the blood person of bubbie is bubbieness — the person who takes you in hand and believes they are feeding you more than just food, and really focuses their attention on you when you’re small,” she said.
Drawing out those memories can draw people closer to meaning, said Yoav Schlesinger, executive director of Reboot, a network of about 400 creative Jewish leaders who incubate new ideas for Jewish life. East Side Jews in Los Angeles, Sukkah City architectural competition in New York and the National Day of Unplugging are all Reboot projects.
“Reboot has always been about recapturing, revitalizing, reinventing, re-envisioning tradition, culture, meaning and ritual, and what could be more central to culture from a Jewish perspective than food?” Schlesinger said.
He envisions Beyond Bubbie as a multicultural endeavor, not just for Jews, especially since Jews today have multicultural families.
Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold comes from a multireligion family, and he told the Skirball audience that his Jewish bubbie, his father’s mother, was a terrible cook.
“My Jewish grandmother was famous for starting her Thanksgiving turkey at the end of October, just so it would be done on time. She broiled halibut for an hour and a half,” he said.
Gold’s mother, who converted to Judaism, did her best with matzah balls.
But it was his Southern Baptist grandmother, who grew up on a farm in northern Louisiana, who taught him what it meant to be in a kitchen, especially when she came to live with his family in her last days.
“I stood with her in the kitchen, forcing her to fry chicken, so I could learn how to do it,” Gold said. “And she taught me how to listen to the food — to close your eyes and listen to the sound of the chicken cooking.”
Gold said he’s tried to be a food bubbie to his own children, and he confessed to being a farmers market schmoozer — the guy who stands there giving advice about what to do with collard greens or purple cauliflower.
Gold also had a question for panelist Micah Wexler, whose acclaimed West Hollywood restaurant, Mezze, recently closed. Gold told Wexler he noticed that Wexler’s menu became progressively more Jewish in Mezze’s first year or two of being open. Was that deliberate?
Wexler said his cooking was deeply influenced by his grandmothers — one an artist and kitchen experimenter, and the other, Grandma Emily, who excelled at Ashkenazic fare.
At first that Ashkenazic influence didn’t show up on his menu, which leaned toward innovative takes on Mediterranean food — dishes like snail kabob and sea urchin couscous. Then one day he mistakenly received an order of chicken livers and decided to make his grandmother’s chopped liver and challah. Before long, his chef friends were all coming to try it out, and it soon became a staple at Mezze.
“I didn’t set out to be a modern Jewish chef. I think it just came from the fact that these were the flavors and this was the food I grew up around,” Wexler said.
Akasha Richmond, owner of AKASHA in Culver City and once the personal chef for Michael Jackson, has quite a bubbie to live up to. Her Russian bubbie’s knishes were like French pastry, she said, her kreplach like Tuscan ravioli.
“I never had better food in my life,” Richmond said. “I only had that taste once in recent years. I was at an Armenian Christmas event, and there’s this Armenian dish where they layer a thin pastry with cheese. And I started crying at the table, because I had been drinking a lot, and because it tasted so much like my bubbie’s knishes.”
After her bubbie died, she stopped eating Ashkenazic food and cooked with more of a Sephardic inflection. But soon after she opened AKASHA, she decided to try a Rosh Hashanah dinner.
“We made chopped liver, and I’m a health nut, but I realized it needed chicken fat. And I just kept putting in more and more chicken fat — and it was sooo good,” Richmond said. “People grabbed me, crying, saying how it was the first time they had their grandmother’s food in such a long time.”
Roxana Jullapat, who owns Cooks County on Beverly Boulevard, said butter was a major ingredient in her grandmother’s Costa Rican cooking, and though this grandmother died when she was 5 (all that butter gave her heart disease, Jullapat said), the food memories are burned into her consciousness. The scent of slow-dripped coffee with a mother lode of sugar and cream, and the stink of ripe tropical fruit, always bring her back to Costa Rica.
Jullapat, the non-Jewish chef present, said she often finds herself defending Costa Rican food — kind of like Ashkenazic food — and she proved herself to the Skirball audience with a dessert of Tres Leches, a gooey cake topped with meringue.
Sax’s own crusade to defend and revitalize the deli started when he was a child.
One of his most formative food experiences was at Yitz’s Delicatessen in Toronto, where his family went every Friday night.
“Mr. and Mrs. Yitz would greet us in the warm, loving way, as if we were their very own grandchildren,” Sax said. “Mr. Yitz used to practice judo, and he had these big, fat meat-hook hands, and he would shove them into these barrels of sunflower seeds and give them to us. We didn’t even like them — we shoved them into our pockets and threw them out later.”
But it’s that warmth and personal connection that burned the deli into his memory, and it is those kinds of connections that he hopes will spark deeper conversations as Beyond Bubbie grows with events in New York and San Francisco, and an organically evolving Web site, where dozens of people already have posted recipes and stories.
“It’s an easy way to start a conversation about things that go far deeper than food or ingredients. These things are very meaningful, and that is why when you ask any Jews anywhere about the subject of food, it tends to spark a long and passionate conversation,” Sax said.
For links and recipes from these chefs, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.