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From the Deli to Your Kitchen

Stuck at home? The new cookbook from Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen will keep you well-fed.

Leah Koenig
May 04, 2020
Courtesy Chronicle Books
From 'Eat Something'Courtesy Chronicle Books
Courtesy Chronicle Books
From 'Eat Something'Courtesy Chronicle Books

Imagine the cover of a Jewish cookbook. Now imagine this: a fat-slicked roast chicken—charred and glistening with a squashed lemon cheek jutting out of its cavity—held forth by a juice-covered hand. The image is raw, visceral, almost obscene. But as the cover image of Eat Something—the new cookbook by San Francisco’s Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen—it totally works. After all, is there anything more delightfully Jewish than a bit of loving, “Eat eat, you’re skin and bones!” bubbe aggression?

Courtesy Chronicle Books

According to Evan Bloom, the co-owner of Wise Sons and co-author of the cookbook along with food writer Rachel Levin, the provocative cover was entirely by design. “We did a whole other cover shoot, but didn’t use any of those images because they were too boring,” Bloom said. “We didn’t want this to be some trendy book with reclaimed wood tables, natural light, and glowy overhead shots.” Scanning through the pages, it is clear they delivered on that goal.

Eat Something takes a deeply personal dive into the psyche of Jewish American life—opening with a vintage photograph of an in-progress bris and loosely following the lifecycle (bar mitzvahs, summer camp, J-dating, marriage—gasp, intermarriage!—and the rest). There is an ode to the “ancient Jewish tradition” of eating Chinese food for Christmas dinner and corresponding recipes for Cold Takeout-Style Noodles and Pastrami-Fried Rice. There is a section about visiting grandparents in Florida paired with a photo spread of the insides of your grandma’s pocketbook (Tic Tacs “for the breath,” a napkin “for schmutz,” and packets of Sweet ‘N Low, and Werther’s Originals for anytime). A recipe for the bona fide zayde dish of sour cream and canned peaches follows. (Eat Something’s version offers instructions for homemade “canned” peaches in syrup.)

And there is food. So much food. Wise Sons delicatessen had made a name for itself in San Francisco (and Tokyo, where they opened a satellite restaurant in 2018) for its irreverent and deeply delicious takes on Jewish delicatessen and other Ashkenazi-inspired cuisine. There’s brisket braised with mustard and beer, and caper- and dill-spiked whitefish salad on challah toasted in schmaltz. Their sweet-and-sour meatballs are sweetened with pineapple juice, their babka enriched with butter (“challah should always be pareve, but babka should have butter,” Bloom said), and their matzo is crumbled and fried into “matzoquiles”—a salsa and sour cream-smothered hybrid of matzo brei and Mexican chilaquiles.

Bloom estimated that at least 80% of the recipes in the book are things that appear (or have appeared) on the restaurant’s menu. The remainder is rounded out by choose-your-own-adventure spreads for “the ideal brunch” (think: grapefruits, bagels and schmear, smoked fish, and ice cold grapes), instructions for setting up a latke bar on Hanukkah, and a hamantaschen recipe that starts with store-bought cookie dough. “Maybe you don’t have time to make three dozen hamantaschen for your kid’s class completely from scratch,” the headnote reads.

Also not from scratch: the book’s honey cake recipe. Bloom recounted going through his grandmother’s recipe binders and finding plenty of dishes that came from the package. “There were actual cut-off box tops in there,” he said. At Wise Sons restaurant locations, any honey cake served is homemade. But the book’s recipe begins with one 15¼ ounce box of vanilla cake mix that gets spiked with cinnamon, allspice, fresh orange juice, and a glug of whiskey. “I have no qualms about Betty Crocker. (Not a Jew. Not even a real person!)” the headnote reads.

Courtesy Chronicle Books

Just like the Wise Sons restaurants, which do not serve pork or shellfish but are otherwise not kosher establishments, Eat Something is decidedly not kosher. In the summer camp spread the “Big Macher Burger” recipe (enriched with chopped pastrami and topped with American cheese or “cheddar, if you must”) is included as a reminder of the last meal many Jewish American kids eat before shipping out to the kosher-style mess halls at camp. But despite its transgressions, there is no questioning that Eat Something, like Wise Sons, is a pure celebration of Jewish cuisine in all its diverse, diasporic beauty.

Eat Something was published on March 3—just weeks before the entire country (and world) turned upside-down from the coronavirus. And like virtually all books published in the spring of 2020, any meticulously organized plans for a book tour went out the window. “We had events planned and East Coast stuff in the works,” Bloom said. “We had one in-person event and then the rest of them got scrapped.” The restaurants were also forced to pivot toward pickup and delivery only.

Still, Bloom has chosen to take the optimistic approach. “We waited relatively long to do this book so we could make something we were proud of,” he said, noting that Wise Sons started getting calls from publishers the first year they opened. “The goal is not to strike it rich. We just want to get these recipes in people’s hands.” Fortunately, Jewish cookbooks tend to have seasonal lives, with sales spiking whenever a holiday rolls around. So the book will live, God willing, longer than the virus.

Bloom said their restaurants were also doing better than expected, particularly during Passover, which saw one of their busiest catering years ever. “We had to upgrade the service twice because it kept crashing,” he said. “We planned for low sales, but then had to scramble to keep up.” The overwhelming response from comfort-food-craving customers—emails that said things like, “Thank you for making our Passover Seder taste like home”—brought Bloom to tears.

The long-term impacts of the coronavirus on the restaurant industry remain uncertain. But while we are all cooped up in our home kitchens, anyone hankering to get back to Wise Sons (or their favorite local delicatessen), can take solace in a plate of DIY cured lox and a couple of squishy, homemade onion rolls.

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