How an old-fashioned grandmother became an Internet superstar (with a little help from her grandson)
Two years ago, Bubbe didnt know from a website.
I didnt even know what an e-mail was, says the 83-year-old grandmother.
But that was before she became the star of Feed Me Bubbe, her popular online kosher cooking show produced by her grandson Avrom Honig, 25, of Worcester.
Now shes inundated with e-mail without exaggeration, hundreds, even thousands from fans from as far away as China and Africa who want help roasting chicken or stuffing cabbage, or to confide in her about their tsuris (troubles). Shes got a website (www.feedmebubbe.com), a frequently updated Facebook page (on the set right now working on the cholent episode), and an online store selling her T-shirts, aprons, even a Feed Me Bubbe ringtone (original klezmer music, composed by a fan). On Tuesday shell be featured on a PBS Frontline documentary, Digital Nation, which explores the impact of digital technology on peoples lives.
“If a fortune teller ever told me at this age that I’d start a new career I would never have believed them, ’’ says Bubbe - the Yiddish word for grandmother - who worked in a bank until she was 73 and after that did “nothing spectacular. I went to the senior center a couple times a week. Did cooking and housecleaning. The regular thing.’’
Bubbe’s newfound fame is a uniquely 21st century phenomenon, made possible in a world where anyone who blogs, tweets, Facebooks, or YouTubes can vault to celebrity. But this is also what makes Bubbe’s story so unusual. Until recently, her life was so low-tech that she thought the Internet “came out of the air, just like nothing.’’
Though she didn’t set out to do so, Bubbe has managed to stand out from the pack by embracing the new technology while just being herself, cooking old-fashioned dishes in an old-fashioned kitchen in old-fashioned ways. In the process, she has tapped into a market of peripatetic, family-starved young people who are hungry for more than just chicken soup. They’re hungry for Bubbes.
For that very reason, Bubbe - who lives in a suburb west of Boston - doesn’t disclose her real name on the show, and she declined to give it to the Globe as well. “I never want to be recognized. People write me and say I remind them of their own grandmother,’’ says Bubbe, a short, stooped woman with white hair, a kindly face, and arthritic fingers who believes she fills a void in the lives of grandmother-less viewers. “So how can I have another name?’’
“People have said they’ll break my neck if she changes it,’’ Honig says. “And Bubbe was, like, ‘I can’t redo the kitchen?’ ’’
Her recipes are similarly retro. She’s taped more than 30 “Feed Me Bubbe’’ episodes so far, including “Bubbe’s Burgers,’’ “Sponge Cake,’’ “Cheeze Blintzes,’’ and a three-part chicken soup series. Every once in a while she throws in a story - “I learned this in the Catskills!’’ - and ends each episode with a “Yiddish Word of the Day’’ and a Julia Child-esque sign-off, except instead of “Bon Appetit’’ it’s “Ess gezunterhait’’ (“Eat in good health’’).
The lanky Honig, who has a communications degree from Worcester State College, got the idea for “Feed Me Bubbe’’ two years ago when he needed a job and wanted to make a demo tape for job interviews. His father suggested he do a video of Bubbe cooking. Bubbe agreed, reluctantly. “I thought I’d do one, I’d do two,’’ says Bubbe, agreeing to start with “Jelly Jammies,’’ a variant of strudel and a family favorite.
The production values were less than stellar. The camera was shaky. Bubbe’s hands were out of the frame. The sound of the mixmaster drowned out her voice. Still, Honig got it done and posted it online.
And then the e-mails started. “It caught us by surprise,’’ says Bubbe.
She heard from a woman named Betty who wrote that she was making Bubbe’s sweet and sour meatballs and “Jelly Jammies’’ that week. “I never had the privilege of being in the kitchen with my own Bubbe,’’ Betty wrote. “Watching you brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart. . . . I would like to adopt you as my own Bubbe.’’
Another woman threatened to adopt Bubbe, gushing: “I absolutely love you, Bubbe.’’ (“You certainly can adopt me,’’ Bubbe replied.)
“We’re talking the whole world!’’ says Honig, his voice rising to a high pitch. “We’re getting e-mail from, like, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia. This is the craziest thing that could ever happen to someone!’’
Honig, who seems to operate only at one speed - full throttle - immediately saw the marketing possibilities for “Feed Me Bubbe.’’ He’s posted her recipes online, recruited sponsors, developed merchandise, partnered with other websites such as www.fridaylight.org, where Bubbe demonstrates how to light candles for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
Twice, she and Honig have gone to California for a Video on the Net conference, once as speakers on a food panel and once to promote the show at a conference booth. “I was running around the whole convention handing out ‘Feed Me Bubbe’ cards to anyone I could find,’’ Honig says. “Bubbe would start talking to them, and they would melt.’’
“I’ve become an expert in Twitter and texting,’’ says Bubbe, who has no computer of her own.
She’s also starting to call the shots in her video episodes, as she did recently for a promo for an upcoming cooking segment.
“Peppered steak is coming up next episode?’’ she suggests as Honig roughs out a storyboard on the kitchen table.
“Interesting,’’ he says, noncommittally.
“Details of peppered steak will be coming next video,’’ she decides.
He counts down from 10, shoots the promo - with a plug for Bubbe’s “Frontline’’ appearance - and it’s a wrap.
“Ess gezunterhait,’’ she says, as always. “Enjoy!’’