The evolution of Bi-Rite Market owner Sam Mogannam’s affection for his mother can be charted according to his relationship to her baba ghanoush. As a kid he hated the mashed eggplant spread. But by the time he entered culinary school in the ’80s, he had what he calls an “epiphany meal” — and from that night on he craved her creation.
Mogannam shared his anecdote of food and family in a conversation on stage with his Bethlehem-born mother at “Beyond Bubbie: Stories from the Recipe Box,” a lighthearted Jewish food extravaganza combining a knish-making competition, food and wine sampling, culinary stand-up comedy and — most of all — stories that interwove food, family and memory.
The event was held Jan. 24 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum as a launch for BeyondBubbie.com, a nonprofit website that asks people to share recipes and stories about Jewish food, family and tradition. The crowd of 150 was peppered with older people, many probably bubbes themselves. Similar launch events were held recently in Los Angeles and New York.
“The goal of these events is to inspire people,” said master of ceremonies David Sax, the author of “Save the Deli.” “We want to keep that intergenerational conversation going. If grandma’s not going to be at the stove teaching you, then you can preserve the knowledge this way.”
Such cross-generational dialogue was featured in the signature event of the evening, the “Iron Bubbie Knish-Off.” A twist on the “Iron Chef” TV show, the competition pitted Wise Sons Deli’s Evan Bloom and his mother, Linda, against co-owner Leo Beckerman and his stand-in bubbe, Lynn Ruth Miller, a 79-year-old Bay Area comedian.
To show the intricate knish-making process, the teams were presented on video — from shopping at the Ferry Building farmers market to the careful folding in of the potatoes to the knishes’ entry into the oven.
Though the crowd appreciated the film, it hungered to judge the results. With ballot cards in hand, each attendee was served a small knish from each team.
“I liked the guts of Leo and Lynn’s. It’s more traditional,” said Kelly Snider of Oakland. Debra Slone, also of Oakland, preferred the Blooms’ version. “I don’t come from a big knish background, but it was nicely constructed and crispy. It was very comforting,” she said.
When the ballots were counted, the winner was the mother-and-son Team Bloom.
Earlier, the conversation between Bi-Rite’s Mogannam and his mother, Mariette, played like a facetious food-themed family therapy session. Mom described how she couldn’t pass on her recipes to her son because “there is no recipe. You take a little of this, and a little of that.” She ribbed him for his work in culinary school when he entered competitions requiring precisely fashioned dishes set exquisitely on marble surfaces.
“It was beautiful art. That’s all it was, beautiful, just not edible,” she said.
The Mogannams were followed by the Kitchen Sisters, of NPR fame, who told a story about one of the “hidden kitchens” they discovered: a Lebanese barbecue pit in the heart of Mississippi blues country featuring kibbeh, or ground lamb.
Karen Leibowitz, co-author of “Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant,” shared what might have been the most touching story of the night: a tale of her own bubbe, who rarely cooked for her growing up beyond slicing a bagel and folding hamantaschen. After her grandmother died, Leibowitz discovered her recipe for rib roast and potatoes and tried it out, enabling her to connect with her bubbe more deeply.
Her story emblemized the night’s theme of food, family and memory — which is also the theme of Beyond Bubbie, a project of the 11-year-old Jewish nonprofit Reboot.
Beyond Bubbie has been expanding its presence in the Bay Area, having partnered with the Osher Marin JCC for a four-part Jewish cooking series (there is one more to go, on March 14). With funding in part from the Bay Area–based Koret Foundation, Beyond Bubbie is planning more local events and ramping up its efforts to get website participation.
Also, the project is asking people to go beyond seeing only their grandmothers as bubbes. Anyone can qualify as a bubbe — as long as they have played the role of comforter and nurturer through food.
“We all need to go out and find our bubbes,” Slone said. “For me it was the woman who lived in my grandmother’s apartment building who used to make pound cake every week.”