Whether it's Aunt Harriet's famous bean casserole with crumbled potato chips or the traditional dumplings made in Chinese-American kitchens, the holidays mean family noshing. And the customary holiday treat in Leo Beckerman's home has always been the homemade potato latkes that barely make it out of the frying pan before disappearing.
The co-owner of San Francisco's popular Wise Sons Deli in the Mission district, Beckerman has made a career out of nostalgic -- but carefully handmade -- Jewish food. The cuisine's enduring symbol has to be the Bubbie. Technically speaking, that's a Jewish granny, but in the hearts of food lovers everywhere, it's anyone's nana, auntie or nurturing friend who dispenses cheek pinches and keeps the cookie jar full. So it's only fitting that Beckerman is involved in a new project devoted to Bubbies everywhere.
The chef is a contributor to the new BeyondBubbie.com, which showcases the stories and recipes passed down through generations, and he will be one of a host of local food celebrities featured at the January launch party at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum -- in an Iron Bubbie Knish-Off, no less.
Naturally, we had questions -- about food, tradition, holidays and Bubbies.
Q What are your favorite holiday food memories?
A In my family, making latkes would be an entirely kitchen event. There is no sitting down to eat latkes. There's no travel on a platter from the kitchen to the dining room. It's all in the kitchen. It's all burn your fingers, burn your mouth. How many can you get in at once?
Q Tell us about your typical Hanukkah meal.
A To me, a Hanukkah meal is obviously heavy on the fried food. The latkes -- that's a big one. But every Jewish holiday has a brisket and, ideally, something to help you cut through all the grease and oil. Now that I think of it, I wonder if we ever got that far. Normally, if latkes are the appetizer, we never got to the meal.
Q What's the classic Bubbie experience?
A It involves more food items and more preparation than you could imagine. The kid runs in and has one day or a couple of hours to spend with Bubbie, but Bubbie's been cooking for three days for this. Plying people with food, all these items that are very traditional or have meaning beyond sustenance.
Q How does the whole Bubbie motif fit into a multicultural region like the Bay Area?
A Around here, it's about the love and care of parents and grandparents. It's much more than just Jewish. It's the same thing as good home cookin' -- and who does better cookin' than grandma? It's mom squared.
Q What if a Bubbie has the love part down but can't cook?
A To me, with a Bubbie, there's a lot of food involved because, stereotypically, that's how you expect a Bubbie to show love and affection. "You're skin and bones, eat something!"
Q What about your Bubbie? What did she cook?
A My Bubbie -- I called her Grandma -- was a great baker. One of the things we sell in the deli is babka. Babka comes from the same root as Bubbie. Literally, like "grandma cake." Hers was very different from what we serve in the deli, but when we first started, we had babka wars -- "Whose Bubbie made the babka that's the right babka?" What we have now is its own thing, but when we first started, that was something that was personal to me.
Q Did the Bubbies -- yours and your business partner Evan Bloom's -- contribute recipes for the restaurant?
A The recipes came from my mother and grandmother -- my mom's mom. My dad's mom was famous for opening canned vegetables. I have some of my mom's mom's recipe cards. You remember before recipe books, people had recipes on 3-by-5 notecards. Before she died, I made a point of going through those with her, the treasure chest of little recipes.
Q Do you use those recipes, or have you reimagined them?
A There are no recipes we use that are 100 percent unchanged. Everything has been tinkered with. We have some recipes from my grandma's recipe cards or parents. We even have a number of community cookbooks, "The Sisterhood of So-and-So Synagogue Cookbook." One of the greatest things about those is that you have six recipes for the same thing -- Mrs. Cohen's Matzoh Ball Soup, Sandra's Husband's Favorite Matzoh Ball Soup -- and they're all different. It's unbelievable. We definitely have drawn upon quite a few sources for those recipes.
Q What does the Beyond Bubbies project have in common with the deli?
A Wise Sons Deli creates nostalgic food. Many of our dishes are reminiscent of a different time or memories people have associated with delis. The joke we have -- it's literally on the menu -- is "We have matzoh ball soup, but it's not as good as your Bubbie's." It's the type of food that's a conversation starter. "Oh, the ball's too big." "The ball's too small." "It's too soft." "It should sink." "It should float." It's a very personal thing, and everyone brings their own personal experience to the deli. I know this happens to delis across the country.
Q Neither you nor your co-owner, Evan, have formal cooking experience. How did you learn this stuff well enough to run a successful restaurant?
A Through a lot of hard work and trial and error. I like to say mostly error.
Beyond Bubbie Fest
San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum is throwing a welcome bash from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 24 to celebrate the launch of BeyondBubbie.com.
Hosted by James Beard Award-winning author David Sax, the festivities include food and wine tastings, an "Iron Bubbie Knish-Off" between Wise Sons Deli owners Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom; a comic discussion between sommelier Amy Goldberger and comedian Caitlin Gill; and storytelling by The Kitchen Sisters of NPR, Karen Leibowitz of Mission Street Food and Leah Rosenberg from Blue Bottle Rooftop Cafe.
Tickets are $10 for museum members and $15 general admission. For details, go to www.thecjm.org.