Judy Bart Kancigor is a contributing feature writer and columnist for the Orange County Register and the Canadian Jewish News, food editor of Orange County Jewish Life magazine, and a popular teacher of Jewish cooking and family life. She is the author of Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family (Workman Publishing), which chronicles five generations of her wacky family through its recipes, photos and stories, inviting the reader not just into the kitchen, but into a vibrant world of family and friends.
What motivated you to write this book?
Cooking Jewish actually came out of a self-published family cookbook I had done just for my family, I thought, several years before called “Melting Pot Memories.” My favorite aunt was dying and my daughter-in-law was expecting our first grandchild at the same time. One generation was coming and one was leaving, and I felt duty-bound to preserve our family history, the old family photos, the wonderful stories I grew up on and all that marvelous food! My little family project took off, and after I sold 11,000 copies I was approached by Workman Publishing to do an expanded version, which became Cooking Jewish.
The response from family to provide recipes for your book was so great that you had to cut many recipes - how did you go about deciding what to keep and how did you end up with 532?
When the book was first laid out, it was over 1,000 pages! My editor said no one would be able to lift it! We tried to pick the very best recipes, but some had to go. I wanted to make sure that we had a good mix of old and new, that my many relatives were represented (over 300 family members contributed) and that there was enough variety to appeal to inexperienced home cooks as well as seasoned professionals. It was harder to let go of the stories, frankly, and I fought for those like a mother bear!
Why do you think your call for recipes from family had such a great response?
When I first called for recipes and stories for Melting Pot Memories, the response was overwhelming. In-laws of in-laws begged to be in the cookbook. What started out as a paean to my mother’s side of the family, the Rabinowitzes, with whom we were so close, soon spread to include my father’s side and my husband’s relatives as well as those who had married into the extended clan. Our family is truly remarkable, and I think everyone felt proud to be counted in it. And let’s face it – who doesn’t like to see her name in print!
Since your book is all about the story that goes along with the recipe, what is your earliest memory of cooking?
Truthfully, I never really cooked with my mom. She didn’t bake cookies (we were always on diets!), but she was a super hostess who set a beautiful table, and I learned how to place a knife and fold a napkin as soon as I could reach the table! I really didn’t start cooking until I got married. (And yes, I really was a child bride - not quite 19). I used to consult my mother-in-law daily on the phone for instructions to duplicate for my new husband all the things he loved that his mother made so well. My first cookbook was Betty Crocker, and I remember cutting out recipes from Woman’s Day and Family Circle.
What is your best memory of cooking?
Every year for Thanksgiving my MO has been to serve new sides. About five years ago my daughter-in-law said to me when the meal was done, “Could you break with tradition and serve this exact meal next year?” That was the nicest compliment that crowned a really beautiful day. Both my sons and their families live out of town, and we were all together for that rare moment, my daughters-in-law helping me prepare and serve, my mom, who left us a year ago, sitting at the head of the table like a queen. I get all weepy remembering that one.
This month we are featuring classic Jewish recipes that some of our community have asked for. What do you think makes a recipe classically Jewish?
Outside of matzoh and a long-cooking Sabbath stew called cholent, there really is no such thing as Jewish food created by Jews. Wherever Jews have lived, they have absorbed the cuisine of their neighbors, modifying it according to the kosher laws and making it their own. A lot of the foods we think of as Jewish were actually Russian, Polish or German dishes or foods of many other cultures, dishes like pot roast, potato pancakes, blintzes, borsht, etc. Because the majority of Jews in the United States are of Eastern European background, these are the familiar dishes we usually think of when we think of Jewish food. But there is a whole world of Middle Eastern cuisine out there that is also Jewish – tabouleh, falafel, baba ghanoush, etc. So how does one “cook Jewish”? As I say on my website, “Cooking Jewish is tradition—heirloom recipes passed down through the generations. Cooking Jewish is devising modern spins on old classics. Cooking Jewish is preserving memories as we create new ones. Cooking Jewish is cooking from the heart, a memory in every bite. And you don't have to be Jewish to cook Jewish!”
How did this book bring your family together and would you recommend others do the same thing with their family?
Most gratifying to me is the fact that I did what I set out to do: leave a legacy of my family’s history to my grandchildren (and now there are four!) My relatives are proud to be a part of this project. They were all so sure we’d be on Oprah! And they are so grateful that our family history – its food, photos and stories – are there for their children as well. And yes, I encourage others to do the same with their family’s legacy. That is the theme of the talk that I’ve given at various synagogues and organizations across the county. Not everyone is going to write a book or even a cookbook, but we all can gather the recipes, stories, photos and other ephemera – newspaper clippings, documents, etc., those precious memories of our family – and pass them on to our children and grandchildren. The history lessons they learn through their own family’s history will never be forgotten.
What are your favorite recipes? Will you share them with us?
I have to say first and foremost, my mother’s Chicken Soup. There was so much love that went into that soup I was tempted to list it with the ingredients! My mother threw the whole produce market into that soup, and she was paid for her efforts in deep, satisfying flavor. For nostalgia value, chicken soup tastes first prize.
A recipe that has become one of my signatures is one I actually invented in a dream, Layered Hummus and Eggplant. The secret of my homemade hummus is the roasted garlic, which really mellows the dish, and it is spread on a platter with a layer of sautéed eggplant, then tossed with cilantro or parsley and toasted pine nuts. It is my most requested dish for potlucks.
For the third, I have to go with my Aunt Irene’s Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot, which translates into “almond bread,” is like the Jewish biscotti, those long, crunchy cookies just begging to be dunked. My mother loved them, and while she lived with us the last two years of her life, there was always mandelbrot in the house for her to enjoy after dinner with her tea. I’ve brought them to many a book signing with glowing reviews.