Julia Sherman: Tell me how you came to make Oma and Bella?
Alexa Karolinski: I was freelancing in Berlin at the time and decided I wanted to learn how to cook. At the time all I could really make was scrambled eggs, and who better to teach me than my grandmother and her best friend and housemate Bella…that’s when I started cooking with them and writing the recipes down. Since they cooked from memory, I had to get them to use simple household products so I could later convert them into measurements. Real glasses, spoons etc. After a couple of months I moved to NY to start an MFA in Social Documentary Filmmaking and I decided to make my thesis film about them. After completing it two years later, I also got to finish the cookbook.
JS: You are a filmmaker by training, but you really pulled this cookbook together on your own. What was the biggest challenge you faced in that aspect of the project?
AK: Creatively, it was definitely getting the measurements right. I cooked their food for months on my own to see if they worked. And if it tasted like their food. I used to tell Bella that she wasn’t giving me all the information I needed, and her reply was that she could only give me 98%– I needed to find the last 2% on my own.
JS: And what about the choice to self-publish?
AK: I launched a kick-starter to finish my film and I promised people a cookbook as one of the gifts. Self-publishing was really a means to an end, because I couldn’t find a publishing house that wanted to make the book in the way that I had envisioned it. I used some of that money to self-publish, but I was heavily relying on my friends to help for very little–my friend James and my husband Basil with the editing, and Joana with the beautiful illustrations.
JS: I have a very close relationship with my Nana, and I have used her in my work a lot, but I was always afraid that my love for her personally would cloud my vision and prevent me from making something that was interesting to people who didn’t already adore her. Is that something you ever considered?
AK: Absolutely. But I think the same could be said for any project you truly care about. For me, my family screening was really important–hearing my brother say that the way you see them on screen is the way they really are. I think that if you make a personal project, it’s okay that your judgement isn’t objective. What was important to me was that I would make something that felt real.
JS: What do you want people to understand about Jewish food?
AK: Making good chicken soup is an art.
JS: What were some of the most difficult recipes to develop and test, and how did you work with your grandma to make sure the information was accurate?
AK: Aspic was difficult, because I find it disgusting. The smell when you melt the calve’s feet is like no other and I nearly puked many times, much to the pleasure of my grandmother and Bella. I think more than exact accuracy I had to actually learn how to cook. So much taste when you cook is dependent on the quality of the food and the time of year for the fruits and vegetables. It was about learning what to add more of to make it taste right and finding a way to write that down for others. That is why most recipes tell the reader to taste the food various times within a recipe.
When I was in the midst of writing the book, I spent three days cooking almost everything from the book and invited 20 friends over to try everything. Before they arrived my grandmother and Bella came by and tasted everything, approved most of it, and corrected other dishes.
JS: What role does cooking play in your life as an artist?
AK: I cook a lot and I love going to the market looking, smelling, and touching food. That is important to me as a human in the world and as an artist. Different foods are a basic part of life, so I love those foods as well as textures, colors, and things I haven’t seen before.
JS: Tell me a little about the project you are working on now–the new film.
AK: It’s a film about German identity through my personal experiences of growing up Jewish in Germany as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I’ve often felt that I grew up with other sensibilities to most of my non-Jewish German friends in Berlin. It’s going to be a film exploring the place and the people I grew up in and with.