Can the term “granny chic” apply to food? I hope so. Because at some point in my life, I started eating like my grandmother. Rhoda Gurevich, a Latvian Jew who immigrated to Worcester in the ’70s, ate farmer’s cheese on toast for lunch. (Which I love.) I’m also the only person I know under 80 who adores fruit compote. Come Passover, my grandmother’s ideal dessert was sponge cake with a dish of stewed dried fruit brimming with plumped-up prunes, apricots, dried apples, and raisins. (Mine, too.)
My grandmother died in 1998, and much to my chagrin, the compote all but disappeared from the holiday table. But the sponge cake lives on. It’s not a family recipe, at least not in the conventional sense. My mom, Anna Gershenson, inherited it from a co-worker when she herself was a recent immigrant (my grandmother followed a short time later). When my grandmother tasted the cake, it was love at first bite. It turns out it was just like her mother’s Passover sponge cake. Unwittingly, my mom was continuing a tradition. And thus, the cake became a Passover staple. Mom would make two sponges each Passover — one for the Seder table, one for my grandmother to relish for the rest of the week.
Now my mom is a grandmother, and last year, her recipe for Passover sponge was published in “The Gefilte Manifesto,” a book on Ashkenazi foods by my friends Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, cofounders of gourmet gefilte fish business The Gefilteria. Hm, I thought — maybe it’s time for me to give it a try.
With the memory of my mother making the cake fresh in my mind, I followed her meticulous instructions. I sifted the matzo cake meal and potato starch three times. I took care to scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl while I was beating the sugar into the egg yolks. I used a light hand when folding in the egg whites. I was relieved to see the volume of the batter increase, and that I hadn’t knocked all of the air out of it.
While I worked, I doubted myself at every turn. It’s a lot of pressure, baking your mother’s recipe for your grandmother’s favorite cake. Grandmas aren’t only looming large in my world. They’re influencing professional chefs, cookbook authors, and artisanal producers, too. “If you’re a chef these days and don’t have a grandmother dish on the menu, you better call up your PR agency because you’re not part of the game,” says Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boite, a maker of spice blends sold at Sofra, Eataly, and Formaggio Kitchen.
The term “grandma food” is in many ways just another iteration of comfort food — i.e., what chefs want to be eating, even if it’s not what they’re making. “It’s home-cooked food,” says Leetal Arazi, a pastry chef who, with husband Ron, formed New York Shuk, a maker of Mediterranean pantry staples they sell online, inspired by the home cooking they knew in Israel. “It’s not the kind of food that’s been played around with tweezers on the plate. If someone asks me ‘What do you feel like eating?’ I’ll say something that my mom made, something that my grandmother made — it’s never something I ate at a restaurant.”
Part of the trend has to do with getting in touch with one’s own culinary heritage. Increasingly, gastronomic Dorothies are discovering that, in the end, there’s no place like home. “It’s like a ‘Chef’s Table’ episode,” says Arazi, referring to the Netflix series. “Everyone has to go to France to realize that the food they know is actually good, and to pay attention to it.” Arazi’s business is mostly focused on selling harissa modeled after what the matriarchs in Ron’s Moroccan-Jewish family make. The trend extends past Jewish cooking. “Part of the inspiration for Gefilteria was going to Smorgasburg” — a hipster food bazaar in Brooklyn — “and artisan food markets and seeing Koreans make kimchi,” says Yoskowitz. “They didn’t call it ‘grandmother’s,’ but they called it ‘Mother’s’ or ‘Mama O's.’ I saw a lot of Italian chefs taking home-cooked meatballs and other dishes to the street. Liz and I asked ourselves: Why aren’t people doing this with Jewish food? That’s when we got started.”
Another defining aspect of grandma cuisine is narrative. It’s not just about the food, but the stories behind it. Josh Lewin, chef-owner of Juliet in Somerville, formerly worked at Beacon Hill Bistro; when he hosted his first Seder there in 2013, his dishes — which included brisket with melted red cabbage, and matzo brei topped with salmon roe and ramps — were inspired by bubbe. “People were touched by how sincere our story was,” says Lewin. “If your cooking is excellent and the story is good, people will want a real connection, not just to me, but to my grandmother.”
Lewin's grandmother has since passed away, but not before she had the chance to partake in his Seder. As her generation ages, a mission is developing, especially among millennial chefs, to learn the family recipes. “A lot of folks are passing away, and it feels among some of our peers in the food world that there is an urgency right now,” says Yoskowitz, who is 32. “Nostalgia is at a real high. The other piece of it is, we are all looking back toward grandmas because we feel something has been lost and is missing.”
Some professionals take a more grounded view. Joan Nathan, the author of many Jewish cookbooks, including the new “King Solomon’s Table,” has made a career of seeking out Jewish family recipes. But she doesn’t see them through rose-colored glasses. “Everyone has nostalgia for the authentic, but I don’t think the authentic was necessarily so good,” says Nathan, who’s not afraid of making small improvements to enhance an heirloom recipe. For instance, in her latest book, she takes the liberty of adding extra butter to a grandmother’s blueberry buns. “I am looking for family recipes, but I’m trying to make them better. I think that’s the key to creating a good cuisine.”
Back to the cake. I baked it, and it looked right. The top was brown, the edges slightly browner. I let the cake cool, inverted, just like Mom said. Then I took a knife and carefully unmolded it. I cut a piece. The slice had a good bounce, with countless tiny holes that made it rebound after each bite. Moist and lemony, it was actually on par with my mom’s. Maybe one day, could I dare to dream, it might be even better?
My mom, for one, thinks so. She sees improving on family recipes as part of the cycle of life. “It follows the paradigm that the next generation does better than the previous generation,” she told me. “That’s progress.”Follow Gabriella Gershenson on Twitter @gabiwrites.
A previous version of this story cited the incorrect age for Jeffrey Yoskowitz. He is 32.