In the cool sunshine outside his weekend house and farm in Sonoma, Sam Mogannam is digging heirloom carrots with his 7-year-old daughter, Zoe, when his parents and siblings arrive for Thanksgiving. This tight-knit family has always bonded over food, and not just at the holiday table. Sam, a trained chef, and his brother Raphael took over the Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco's Mission District from his parents 13 years ago and transformed it from a neighborhood convenience store into what is arguably America's most ambitious grocery.
Anne Walker. Photo © Quentin Bacon.
Bi-Rite embodies everything a food lover could hope for in a shop. It's one of the first markets in the country to grow some of its own organic produce: Sam plants herbs and Meyer lemons on the roof of the store alongside beehives for honey, and he raises heirloom vegetables on his farm in Sonoma (pastured eggs and grass-fed steer are in the works). Bi-Rite's butchers bring in whole heritage hogs each week to make bacon and salumi. The market is so highly regarded that Sam is working on a cookbook about the best way to shop at a grocery store, to be published next fall.
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Sam and his pastry-chef wife, Anne Walker, also own Bi-Rite Creamery across the street, turning local Straus Family Creamery products into amazing ice creams in flavors like honey-lavender, balsamic-strawberry and salted caramel. Down the street, they opened 18 Reasons, an event space where they hold gallery exhibitions, butchering classes and artisanal cheeserelease parties.
Photo © Quentin Bacon.
Sam never would have taken over Bi-Rite, he says, without encouragement from his father, Nabil, who emigrated from Ramallah, Palestine, in the 1960s. Sam wanted to be a chef, not a grocer, so he went to culinary school and opened his own bistro. "But my dad always said a restaurant was a terrible business for a family man," he says. "And I knew he was right. So I decided I'd turn our little family shop into the Chez Panisse of retail, building community through food."
Sam's Palestinian background hasn't played a big role in the offerings at Bi-Rite, but it has influenced what he and his family have for Thanksgiving. His mother serves a carrot salad with a lemony tahini dressing, as well as a stuffing she's been making since he was a kid, a fragrant mix of rice, lamb, pine nuts and sweet spices like cinnamon. "I don't know exactly why she serves this stuffing with turkey," Sam says. "But it's a traditional Palestinian combination for stuffing grape leaves, zucchini or tomatoes." He remembers dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins crowding into his childhood home to share that stuffing, and to talk and argue in an Arabic-English hybrid: "It was like what people call Spanglish, except I guess you'd call it Arablish."
Sam Mogannam. Photo © Quentin Bacon.
Because of his classical-cooking background, Sam brings French and Mediterranean influences to his Thanksgiving dishes. He makes a salad with beets, blood oranges and feta, sprinkling in sumac (a tangy spice) for a Palestinian touch. In a move that would shock Thanksgiving traditionalists, he doesn't roast a whole turkey. Inspired by the French approach to duckhandling the leg and breast separately, to account for their different cooking timesSam breaks down the turkey before cooking. He makes stock from the backbone and wings and uses it to braise the legs; he roasts the breast on its own. The leftover braising liquid from the legs, he says, "ends up being the base for the best turkey soup."
But braising turkey turns out be more Palestinian than Sam realizes. His mother, Mariette, tells him, "Grandpa was a tailor in Bethlehem, and I could see out the shop window onto this farm where they always had a few turkeys clucking about." Turkey was a luxury, but Mariette's Catholic family often had one for Christmas dinner. "Except my mother never cooked it in an oven, because we didn't own one," she says. "It was always in a huge pot, with its own broth."
With that, she turns to peel heirloom applesfrom her own orchardfor Anne's free-form apple tart. And a new French-American-Palestinan holiday dish is born.
Daniel Duane is a contributing editor at Men's Journal.