Cookbook as diverse as Oakland has a Jewish backstory

When Oakland residents Elazar Sontag and Anya Ku were fundraising for their cookbook “Flavors of Oakland,” among the first places they turned to were their synagogues.

“Everything about Judaism feels very grassroots,” said Sontag, a Tehiyah Day School alumnus who grew up with the Coastside Jewish Community in Half Moon Bay and now attends Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

Ku, who grew up attending Kehilla Community Synagogue, said that it was at a brunch at that East Bay congregation when she first talked about the book project and ask for contributions.

When a few people responded, it gave her the courage to try again at another synagogue event.“It’s a community that’s so supportive of each other,” she said.

“Flavors of Oakland” is part cookbook and part love letter to the city.

With a foreword by Mayor Libby Schaaf and essays by well-known Oakland chefs Charlie Hallowell (Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, Penrose) and Paul Canales (Duende, former head chef at Oliveto), the book focuses on 20 Oakland residents talking about a dish they like to make at home, along with the recipe. Sontag and Ku observed them as they cooked and shared favorite family recipes; Sontag took notes and Ku snapped photos.

At the same time, they were juggling jobs in the food and beverage industry. Sontag apprencticed at Pizzaiolo and Duende, while Ku worked at Peet’s Coffee. But the main thing that occupied their time during this endeavor was homework and school. As in high school and college.

Anya Ku and Elazar Sontag

Sontag, 18, just finished his senior year at Drew High School in San Francisco and will be attending Bard College in New York in the fall. Ku, 20, will be a senior at U.C. Berkeley next fall. Though Sontag was still in high school while working on the book, don’t even ask if this was for a school project. They hate that question.

Sontag has been interested in food for as long as he can remember. His bar mitzvah, which took place on Purim, featured a Persian feast that was mentioned in the Forward. He attended a cooking camp for kids called COOK! and now can be found there teaching kids as young as he was when he started. For Ku, her passion is photography, which she honed by taking photos for her high school newspaper and yearbook (she attended Oakland Tech).

A mutual friend introduced them, “because there aren’t that many young people so intensely following what we we’re passionate about,” said Sontag. So they met over the social media network Snapchat, and over time, started cooking up an idea for a website like “Humans of New York” — except it would use food as a lens to celebrate the cultural diversity of Oakland.

One day, Sontag shot Ku a text. In thinking more about it, he said, “I thought, ‘This is genius. Why haven’t we done this yet?’ It’s the perfect way to explain to others our love for Oakland, and get to work with our passions, and eat a lot.” Within the next few days, they began a blog, which, after raising more than $16,000 via crowd-sourcing, turned into a cookbook.

They were very clear that the book should include people from all neighborhoods of Oakland.

At the time they were working on the concept, a lot of media had taken to calling Oakland “the new Brooklyn,” said Sontag, rolling his eyes. In particular, one report “claimed to be representative of the entire city, even though they never went east of Piedmont Avenue.”

“That’s this much of Oakland,” said Ku, indicating a small amount with her hands. “Where’s all the rest? It was important to us to represent as many people as we could, from all the way east to all the way west, and give everyone an opportunity to have their story shared.”

It is not lost on either of them that while Oakland’s culinary star continues to rise, many of its restaurants are inaccessible to a large swath of the city’s residents.

Many of those whose stories are in the book are immigrants from places such as Eritrea and Vietnam. The subjects had to have lived in Oakland for at least several years. Gentrification is also one of the topics they talked to their subjects about, as is the fact that many longtime Oakland residents fear they will no longer be able to afford to live there.

The one Jewish participant in the book is a woman named Ruth, who shares her recipe for M&M challah.

“She spoke 10,000 miles a minute and the interview was 3½ hours long,” said Ku. But Ruth was the perfect example of what they were looking for: In the community-building spirit they were after, Ku said they hoped their book would break down barriers between people who would not normally know each other, or eat each other’s food.

“We wanted to showcase home cooks, so that you could read it and know what your next door neighbor is cooking,” she said.

The book is self-published and is being sold on a sliding scale to make it available to more people; Sontag and Ku hope to subsidize copies for libraries and schools from those who pay more.

“Flavors of Oakland: A Cookbook in 20 Stories” is available at www.flavorsofoakland.com and at East Bay bookstores. In addition, Sontag and Ku will be interviewed by me at the Berkeley branch of the JCC of the East Bay at 7:30 p.m. June 30. For more information on the event, visit www.jcceastbay.org/localfood.

Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. Her website is www.theorganicepicure.com.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."