Beyond Bubbie: The stories they told

The Beyond Bubbie (not “Beyond Bubble”, though someone’s bound to read it like that at some point) project started with participants of Reboot–a non-profit group designed to re-imagine the cultures, traditions and rituals of Jewish life discussing bubbies and the food memories they created. According to the Beyond Bubbie website,

…we came up with the idea to “reboot” the process of sharing of recipes by creating a place to link them to the stories that make them special. This rebooting can take many forms: for some, it could simply be a place to remember and honor your Bubbie and for others, it could mean taking a beloved recipe and reinventing it for modern culture, sans mazto balls. Even still, it could be a place to incorporate ingredients from your childhood into your standbys. Gefilte fish tacos, anyone?

Beyond Bubbie events have happened all over the U.S. and last week it brought an evening of storytelling to Toronto, hosted by Toronto-born David Sax, author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.

Not only bubbies, the project involves their cross cultural equivalents too. The 9 storytellers included 5 life-long Jews (including some chefs), 1 half Jew who fully converted to Orthodox Judaism, an Anishnawbe (Ojibway), a writer with a Protestant (?) English grandmother and a playwright/novelist/actor with a French Canadian depression-era grandmother who lacked affection. The theatre was packed with 200 people in the audience. I enjoyed it a lot.

Host David Sax kicked things off and mentioned leftover cinnamon hearts in stir fry – economical, yes?

Chef Anthony Rose of Rose and Sons and Big Crow, who grew up in a kosher home in the same neighbourhood as me (his brother and I were in the same high school classes) told two stories: A brief one about his first bacon experience with his uncle (he didn’t say it but it sounds like he practically heard angels sing) and the longer one about his grandparents’ influence on how he cooks today. Weekly visits up to the cottage meant weekly visits to farmers’ markets on the way and an appreciation for fresh, local food. Once at the cottage, fishing was a catalyst for the story: He described catching and cleaning the fish, and then his grandmother working magic, putting together a sandwich that seemed so unlikely. He couldn’t remember the type of fish – perch? bass? sunfish? – because the type of fish didn’t matter.  The buttered challah, the breaded and pan fried fish, the farm fresh lettuce and tomato and the JARRED gefilte fish – those matter. Although he claims he would never use jarred gefilte fish, and the sandwich isn’t on any of his menus, the simple fried fish sandwich is one he’s taken with him to the restaurants he’s worked at in different forms. He says that it epitomizes how he cooks. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Author and radio columnist Sarah Elton, not Jewish, told the audience that her grandmother was obsessed with where her food came from. How many miles had it traveled? Who grew it? This makes sense when you know that Sarah’s book Locavore was a best seller. I wrote a little bit about Locavore in an article I wrote for Bamboo Magazine before it shut down and interviewed Elton during that time. Elton’s “bubbie” story discussed her grandmother’s Butter Bean Soup. After Thanksgiving this year she made turkey stock with the bits. That stock became Butter Bean Soup that tasted exactly like her grandmother’s. She was transported. You can Sarah’s her account of the story at her blog. Recipe below.

Denise Booth talked about being born native on a reserve, being raised by in Toronto’s West end by white people, and learning how to cook native from the native “grandmothers” when she went to work for a native centre. Of fry bread, aka bannock, she said, “There are as many recipes as there are women.”

recipe card

[Googled image from a blog last updated in 2010.]

What I learned from Chef Alida Solomon (whom I’ve been told also went to my high school) and her mother Maureen was that Maureen now works at Alida’s Italian restaurant, Tutti Matti, and on Friday evenings brings out the shabbat candles etc. to “make shabbat”. Sax quipped that it was a “Haymish, Tuscan Shabbat”, which will make sense to you if you’re Jewish. If you’re not, you can still appreciate the cultural fusion. It’s that cultural fusion that Reboot is talking about. Alida was able to speak about both her Jewish mother and the Italian Nonna who mentored her in Italy. It was beautiful.

Then there’s half-Jew Dino Venasio who grew up in an Italian family eating all sorts of pork products and lots of fresh food, made “all the good treif [unkosher] stuff” when cooking at restaurant Spacco, converted to Orthodox Judaism, gave up the pig, and now owns kosher deli Ben & Izzy’s. His story was one of the most fascinating. His Nonna now makes vegetarian food for him when he comes over. Asked what he misses most now that he’s kosher, he replied, “cheeseburgers and bacon”.

Finally, TV and radio personality and writer Rose Reisman, whom I’m slightly hesitant to discuss because around my home her name is practically a curse word. I’m letting myself rant here because part of the nature of blogging is to inject personality and I usually like to add my own context to posts about events (and you know, if I ever publish that David Sedaris-esque book that I’m unofficially writing…).

Reisman’s bio for the event describes her as “one of this country’s leading authorities on the art of eating and living well”, which you’d think would jive with me, but it/she doesn’t. Here’s why: We’re regular viewers of Breakfast Television in my home. She’s a regular guest. In her segments – as well as “Choose it and lose it” columns in Metro  – her approach is “eat this, not that”, both options being fast food. This most definitely does not jive with our food and wellness values. She doesn’t tell people to eat greens or drink smoothies. She’s not singing the praises of home cooking or kale- though she’s written cookbooks that, as far as I can tell, are regular cookbooks. She’s talking about straight nutrients such as fiber, sugar, fat, carbs. She’s talking calories. She’s offering alternatives of one type of fast food for another at the same or different restaurant franchise. This is the issue. Sometimes it seems she’s helping out Swiss Chalet or Wendy’s.

And so, when Reisman comes on the TV, we yell statements such as, “Or, they can eat real food!” We get angry. Sometimes we startle the dog. I do understand the usefulness of advising people to choose a butter croissant instead of a scone while in line at Starbucks but that’s just not how people get/stay healthy. And so, while her storytelling was amazing and included a great video clip of her and her no-nonsense, straight talking mother on the now-defunct TV show Loving Spoonfuls (click on “episodes” and scroll to 16), when I heard that weight-related issues such as diabetes has claimed multiple lives in her family I thought, “Why?? Why do you encourage people to eat junk food??”

And as I watched this nice woman with good-but-disagreeable intentions on stage the rage returned. I ranted to my neighbour on the way home, my voice quickening and getting higher in excitement, hands gesticulating, and here I am devoting multiple paragraphs to it instead of just the one bolded sentence above (oh, I removed an entire paragraph & various sentences). I want to like her approach, because people will eat junk, I just think that people are better educated to eat real food and I don’t believe in dumbing down health education. As JJ Virgin says, your body is not a bank account. Calories in, calories out, is too simplistic of an approach to health and weight. Our body does better with foods it can easily digest, not foods it doesn’t understand. For more information on that, read JJ’s book The Virgin Diet or find her interview on the Underground Wellness podcast. Don’t let the book’s subtitle, which sounds like hyperbole, throw you. The book is solid.

Phew.

Beyond Bubbie, a little deli…

After the stories came the food. Of course there was food. Dino had provided pastrami sandwiches and Project HaMotzi provided Cafe Lavan, a traditional Yemenite white coffee from Israel brewed with spices and green Arabic coffee beans. I was on day 9 or something of a cold and sadly, could not properly taste the pastrami. I sort of feel like I cheated someone else out of a pastrami sandwich.

Want to get involved with Beyond Bubbie?

Anyone can submit a story or recipe to the Beyond Bubbie website.

Recipe: Grandmama’s Butter Bean Soup (Sarah Elton)

Ingredients: 

3 tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 spears of celery, diced
1 bouquet garnish (or your own selection of herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage and parsley)
8 cups of stock, turkey or chicken (homemade is best!)
1 cup giant lima beans or butter beans, soaked overnight
salt to taste

Instructions: 

To make my grandmother’s soup, heat the oil in a large pot and slowly brown the onions. Add carrots, potatoes and celery and cook on low heat for about five minutes. Cover the pot with a lid but check periodically to make sure the veggies aren’t sticking. Add the herbs, or the bouquet garni, and stir while you cook for about a minute more.

You will have soaked the beans overnight, they will have more than doubled in size, their tight skins stretching over their expanding flesh. Strain any excess water and add them to the pot, quickly followed by the stock. (By quickly, I mean don’t leave them to cook for long before adding the stock, but don’t feel too rushed either.)

Cover and simmer until the beans are cooked through, soft and buttery–there’s a reason they are called butter beans! This will take at least an hour, but likely more. Salt to taste.

(Reprinted with permission.)

Related articles:

Smoking Hot Kosher Delis Come to Toronto and Texas (The Jewish Daily Forward)

How grandma’s cooking became foodie fare (Mississauga.com)

[The Featured Image you saw above the post excerpt if you came to this post from the home page is from Cooking the Best Recipes.]

2 Responses to “Beyond Bubbie: The stories they told”

  1. November 19, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    And now I’m the Bubbie 🙂  I’ll send you my recipe for vegetarian chopped liver – it tasted as good or even better (especially if shmaltz and your stomach don’t agree with each other).  Who remembers greben?

    • Andrea
      November 19, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

      Thanks Mom.

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