Anya Ku and Elazar Sontag are perhaps an unlikely pair. Ku is a photographer who honed her craft taking portraits for her high-school newspaper and yearbook. Sontag is a cook and blogger who’s done stints at Oakland restaurants Pizzaiolo and Duende. Ku wasn’t “much of a foodie.” Sontag didn’t know the first thing about photography. But they’re both passionate about both their crafts and community building in Oakland, so when a mutual friend introduced them, they immediately struck up a conversation on Snapchat.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, but awesome too,” said Sontag. “A proof of the new age.”
Proof of this new age of communication, sure, but also of the duo’s age. Ku is 19, and Sontag is only 17 — and as of this December, they will have finished writing, photographing and printing a full-color cookbook about Oakland. They’re doing this all while still enrolled as full-time students; Ku is at UC Berkeley and Sontag is in high school in San Francisco.
“Flavors of Oakland” is a narrative cookbook that tells the story of 20 local cooks, each representing a different ethnicity and neighborhood in Oakland. The cookbook includes recipes for dishes from Sri Lankan crab curry to Tibetan blue-cheese soup, and the cooks profiled range in age from teenagers to grandmothers. It is, Ku and Sontag explain, a portrait of the city they love, one that is far more diverse than what is depicted in typical Oakland-focused cookbooks and stories.
In Oakland restaurants, said Sontag, “there’s an elite, and they’re great. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them. They have in some ways formed the food community, but they don’t represent a large part of what we love about Oakland, which is that it’s a bizarre city with all of these cultural, racial, and sexual identities.”
Added Ku: “It’s not about some restaurant owner who has a restaurant in Oakland but might not live here. It’s about your neighbor, the person who cooks at your church. It’s about your own community. It’s very grassroots.”
This idea was especially important to Sontag, who realized that he was learning from a collection of cookbooks that aren’t available to the vast majority of Oakland residents. “The cookbooks I would buy that were cool at the time, they were easily $40 or $50,” he said. “Those are not on the shelves of Oakland homes. That’s just not realistic.” So he and Ku have structured their cookbook project in such a way that they will be able to sell copies of the book at cost, while also giving away free copies to schools, public libraries and community organizations.
Much of their initial ingredient costs were fundraised through a $1,500 campaign; Ku and Sontag are currently raising money through a second Indiegogo campaign to pay for the book’s printing. They’re asking for supporters to essentially fund the production of multiple books in exchange for their own copy. “You’re pre-ordering your copy with the intent of making it more affordable for others,” said Sontag. “Those who are able are donating, say, $50, and that money allows us to print four extra copies that will just go into bookstores.”
Once the book is printed, Ku and Sontag hope to sell it for just $15. “The entire mission of the original project,” said Sontag, “is that is would be accessible to everyone in Oakland.”
They’re able to have this freedom to price and distribute the book as they’d like because Ku and Sontag are self-publishing “Flavors.” They said that they have had interest from outside publishers, but ultimately decided to do the work themselves because “it’s our baby and you don’t want to give your baby someone else,” said Ku. Ku and Sontag have produced all of the book’s content and their friend, Kerry Tremain, did the book’s design.
Despite not having the backing and publicity of a publishing house, “Flavors” is already showing signs of success. Fundraising is going well, Ku has found interested book sellers and Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf has written the book’s introduction.
“It’s really hard to feel like we’re the underdogs,” said Sontag. “We’re really on the city’s shoulders and you can feel it…. It’s not so much a political connection, but it says that [the book] is really legitimate. People want to be involved.”
All of this interest likely stems from the fact that Ku and Sontag have really let their contributor’s voices shine. “It’s as much of a storybook as a cookbook,” said Sontag.
For each profile, Ku and Sontag came into the cook’s home and watched him or her prepare a chosen dish. Ku taught herself how to take the food photos, often improvising as the ambient light changed, and Sontag scribbled cooking notes in a single “flimsy” cardboard notebook.
“I would sort of peek over their shoulder and they’d be moving really fast because they’d forget that I’m trying to write a recipe and I would just keep up as best as I could,” he said.
“Most of these people don’t write down their recipes so, we had to ask, ‘Could you measure that out for me? I know you don’t usually do that,'” added Ku.
After they finished cooking, they would all sit down for a meal and talk. “Sometimes we talked for four hours,” said Sontag. “So sometimes we would get home at one in the morning and have school the next morning. I’d think, ‘This is the worst project I’ve ever done,’ but then the next morning we’d be right back at it.”
The stories and recipes that had the pair most excited were always the ones that surprised them. Ngan-Ha Ho immigrated to the United States from Vietnam at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Sontag re-told the story of her family’s decade-long attempt to get out of the war-torn country and how she’s now married to the owner of Aunt Mary’s Café. Ho cooks traditional Vietnamese food at home. “You can go into Aunt Mary’s and see her and she’s just this hand-basket of smiles and love,” he said. “You would never know that she had this crazy story.”
Ho prepared a vegetarian noodle wonton soup for the book. The wontons are filled with mushrooms and scallions, and they sit with noodles and steamed bok choy in a carrot-daikon broth. It was Ku’s favorite recipe. “I’m not a big soup fan, so I was surprised by that one,” she said.
Sontag agreed. “This was one of the most fun recipes for me to write up because there were so many steps. And you kind of have to warn the reader at the beginning to just wait on it. You’re gonna get there, it’s gonna be delicious, but it’s a care package.”
Another favorite recipe of Sontag’s was a Tibetan blue-cheese soup made by Tenzin Yangkyi Sinzitsang. “Anya made that connection and she sent me an email to say we’re making blue-cheese soup. She didn’t say it was Tibetan or anything. I thought, ‘This is going to be the worst cookbook of all time. This is trailer-park food,’ ” he said. “But then we get there and I see [Sinzitsang] and she’s so excited. It was one of those ignorant moments where I finally realized that this is a cultural dish. This is really important. And the soup was incredible. It was so good.”
(For the curious, the blue-cheese soup also contains chicken, tomatoes and vegetables. Sinzitsang served it with a pan-fried bread called logo momo.)
Ku and Sontag met their contributors in many different ways. Their first few connections were made through friends. “We did a lot of posting on Facebook, reaching out to people that we know,” said Ku. “It was really slow in the beginning because we didn’t have much to show.” But, as with other grassroots projects, momentum began to build.
Sontag even made a connection on a late night Uber ride back from San Francisco. He was talking to his driver for a few minutes before asking if he happened to be Eritrean, which was a community the pair needed to include in the book. As it turned out, the driver was Eritrean, an Oakland resident, and friends with the cook and owner of Café Eritrea D’afrique. “I told him the whole story and he ended up turning off the meter and driving me all the way home,” he said. Sontag and Ku later went to dinner at the café, and the owner agreed to be in the cookbook.
“There was no formula for finding people,” said Sontag. “It was in any way possible. It’s Oakland, so we looked everywhere. We were always on the lookout for a year.” They finished their interviews in late July.
Both Ku and Sontag agree that their age has mostly been an asset to the project. They acknowledge that they’ve been asked multiple times if the book is a school project — “I hated that question so much,” said Sontag — but community members have been happy to help and invite them into their kitchens. “When people see young people that are excited about something they really want to help,” said Ku. “Being young gives us another level of trust, even if they might not view us as professionals.”
Plus, said Sontag, “We were learning. We were [in their kitchens] as students.”
Indeed, Ku and Sontag have approached the “Flavors” project with as much curiosity as ambition. Sontag speaks with visible enthusiasm about each dish he learned to prepare. Ku says that working on the cookbook has changed her perspective on food. “Watching all of these people from all these different backgrounds is something that I found very beautiful,” she said. “Food wasn’t very much present in my life before, but after going through this project, I found a spot for food in my heart that I didn’t realize was there.”
A narrative that has consistently appeared in many of the stories in “Flavors” is that of change. Ku and Sontag purposefully chose only contributors who have lived in Oakland for more than two years.
“There’s something very important about [talking to] people [who’ve lived] here long enough to see some of the change that’s happening now,” said Sontag. “It gave us this feeling that it was important that we do something and represent these people because they might not be here forever.”
And Ku and Sontag don’t just want to share individual stories. They also want to better connect communities. When the book is published, they plan to throw a big celebration. “We don’t want to just release the book,” said Ku. “A big part of the idea behind the book is to have people interact that might not normally interact, so we want to bring all of these people that represent all of these different cultures together.”
“We want to step back and let people do what we’ve been doing the whole time, which is to just connect,” added Sontag. “We’re just trying to keep it Oakland in every way that we can. It’s exciting that the book is coming out now because so much of the city is changing right now. And I think the city really needs and deserves this.”
What will Oakland food scene look like in 10 years? (09.17.14)