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Q&A with Judy Bart Kancigor, Author of Cooking Jewish

What began as a family project has grown into a phenomenon: Judy Bart Kancigor set out in 1996 to preserve her many relatives' recipes for her (then unborn) grandchildren. Her first grandson, Jason, was about to enter the world, and … Read More

By / December 10, 2007

What began as a family project has grown into a phenomenon: Judy Bart Kancigor set out in 1996 to preserve her many relatives' recipes for her (then unborn) grandchildren. Her first grandson, Jason, was about to enter the world, and her elderly aunts were each struggling with the various troubles of aging. It was clear that if she wanted future generations of her family to know who their ancestors were, they'd need someone to tell them, so Judy took it upon herself to act as a conduit for that self-knowledge. What better place to study family history than in the kitchen? Judy sent letters to her family soliciting their recipes and received them in droves. The first incarnation of her family cookbook, the self-published Melting Pot Memories, took on a life of its own. An initial printing of 500 copies sold out in six weeks, so Judy printed another thousand. Today, over 11,000 copies of Melting Pot Memories have found their ways into the homes, lives, and hearts of family cooks.

Judy's most recent collection, Cooking Jewish, continues along the same deliciously intimate path. Fattened up with over 600 pages of family (and extended family, and even some family friend) recipes, the book encompasses an enormous range of Jewish dishes, as well as some adopted flavors: Chicken Kiev is featured within pages of Chicken Biryani. Much more than a cookbook, Cooking Jewish is a beautifully written testimony to the importance of family, the universality of the immigrant experience, and the delight that comes from sharing food made with love and preserved for generations. The anecdotes and photographs that accompany each recipe will have you laughing out loud, and before you know it, you'll feel like an honorary member of the "Rabinowitz Family."

Always ready to dish, Judy recently answered some of our questions about her cookbooks, recipes, and family. Enjoy!

You were inspired to compile this extraordinary collection of recipes at a crucial family milestone: The older generation–represented by your four aunts–was, as you put it, "leaving," while your first grandchild was on his way. Why was it so important to you that your family recipes be preserved and passed on? What does our food tell us about who we are? I grew up surrounded by the love, warmth and delicious food of my large family. We lived in a two-story house with my grandparents right upstairs. Their place was the hub of the family, and I grew up listening to the stories. I wanted my grandchildren to know their history, hear the stories and taste the incredible food. We had left New York for California in 1971. My children have only rarely seen my large extended family. My grandchildren don’t even know most of them. I wanted to preserve the recipes and stories for them before they were lost forever. By giving them my grandmother’s challah and Aunt Sally’s jam cookies I keep their memories alive. Though it's filled with a whopping 532 recipes, "Cooking Jewish" is much more than a cookbook. It's a very personal, intimate family history, told through food, anecdotes, and photographs. Why do you think people who have no relation to you are interested in "joining" the mishpuchah? In other words, why do you think "Melting Pot Memories" and "Cooking Jewish" have been so sought after outside of your own family circle? The immigrant story is universal. Everyone can relate to families – the celebrations, the struggles, the characters, the tumult, the laughter, and the great food. And where do families always congregate – in the kitchen, of course! People tell me they see their own family’s story in these vignettes. And who wouldn’t relate to the humor. Our family saga seems to have tapped into people’s curiosity about their own family’s history, and I’m thrilled when they tell me they can identify. One of the good things about life in the Jewish diaspora is the outside culinary influences we've picked up and integrated along the way. Gil Marks, whom you acknowledge as a friend and influence, has scoured the globe collecting international Jewish recipes. Though primarily a Jewish cookbook, the recipes in your collection reflect the influence of other cultures, with flavors ranging from China to Italy. What are your favorite "foreign" flavors and cuisines? Let me tell you first why there is such a wide range. Over 300 family members – in-laws of in-laws – contributed recipes and stories, so the book is a reflection of their varied backgrounds and preferences. I asked people for their signature recipes; they gave me not only the recipes they grew up on, wherever that was and from whichever ‘tribe,” but also recipes they gathered from all sorts of sources, from an Italian neighbor to a gourmet cooking class. The Rabinowitzes are Ashkenazim, and “Cooking Jewish” reflects Eastern European cuisine. I grew up on brisket and kasha and knishes and knaidlach, so although I’ve never lost my taste for them, these are very familiar. But Sephardic flavors are exotic to me. I love the spices – cumin is my favorite! I could bathe in cilantro. I adore the Moroccan Spicy Apricot Lamb Shanks, which my daughter-in-law Tracey has adopted for holiday dinners. I never even tasted borekas until I learned to make them for this cookbook from a Syrian cookbook author. You set out on a quest to preserve your family's history and traditions, and ended up stumbling into a whole new career. How has your initial impulse to compile family recipes changed your life, and what have you learned along the way? I was a court reporter for 24 years, not really loving what I was doing. My job was to sit in a corner quietly tapping on a machine and give people back their own words…with no input from me. My parents were entertainers, and we were always in the limelight. My brother and I grew up playing with the microphones and entertaining guests. Both books have enabled me to draw on that background as I speak before various groups, talking about our family saga and the importance of preserving memories. It is unbelievable to me how the “impulse” you mention to memorialize my family history and cuisine has led to a whole new career at this stage of my life. And just about every step in this journey was unplanned. My self-published cookbook took on a life of its own, and I just followed where it led me. I learned if you put your heart and soul into something you truly love and are committed to and then put it out there, people will be touched, and who knows what can happen next. It’s exciting! How do you think Jewish cuisine has changed since your mom and aunts first started cooking? When my aunts and my mother would entertain, they always made the same dishes, even for each other. When we entertain today, we like to surprise our guests with something new. There was none of that. There was comfort and familiarity in always expecting Aunt Estelle to bring the gefilte fish and Aunt Irene the sweetbreads and Aunt Sally the kreplach in marinara sauce. When women of that era exchanged recipes, they always appended the work “enjoy.” No one apologized for the fat and sugar content. We never heard the term “guilty pleasure.” Food was freely given with love. Today’s Jewish cooks do what cooks everywhere are doing: streamlining the recipes, cutting the fat, making them healthy. No complaints from me about that! Yet, as a nation we’re fatter than we ever were, so what does that tell you? Maybe Aunt Sally was right. She always said it’s better to have even just a taste of the real thing. If you had to choose just one dish to introduce someone to Jewish cuisine, what would it be and why? Boy, that’s like asking me to choose my favorite grandchild. Funny thing is, there really is no such thing as “Jewish cuisine,” because very few “Jewish” dishes were originally created by Jews. I guess I would have to pick my mother’s unbelievably flavorful chicken soup. She packs the whole produce department into that brew! And I’d serve it with my Shiitake Mushroom Matzoh Balls, as if I were saying, “Here is a dish of a dispersed, adaptable people who have survived by absorbing the cuisine of whatever country they happen to live in and making it their own, who are committed to passing on their traditions to their children, who continually seek creative new ways to keep these traditions alive, and who give it with love.” What are you working on these days? Can we expect more cookbooks from you in the future? After four and a half years of recipe testing and writing the book, I’m having a blast touring the country and spreading the word about “Cooking Jewish.” I’ve even reacquainted myself with my friends! I continue to work on my newspaper stories and columns and do have a few ideas for a future work, but as I said in a prior answer, I’m just following where this whole adventure is leading me. It seems to be working so far!

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