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Judy Bart Kancigor

Judy Bart Kancigor

Judy Bart Kancigor admits that her family has always fascinated her. "In the early 1980s, Jewish genealogy was my hobby/obsession. I worked on our family tree and researched my grandparents' birthplace, which was Slonim, a shtetl [village] in what is now Belarus." She added a map of the town to her cookbook, along with photographs by renowned photographer Roman Vishniac. "Coincidentally, Vishniac's father was also born in Slonim," Kancigor explains. "His daughter, Mara, kindly gave me permission to use his photos of the town in my book."

A Recipe From Memory
With her aunt facing heart surgery and her first grandchild about to be born, Judy Bart Kancigor asked herself how she could preserve her family's recipes and stories for the next generation. Compiling a family cookbook was her answer.
By Sharon Boorstin When Judy Bart Kancigor set out to compile a collection of family recipes, she did not realize that it would transform her life. In four years, her self- published Melting Pot Memories—which includes 600 recipes from 160 members of the Rabinowitz clan—has gone through seven printings and sold nearly 8,000 copies. Along the way, Kancigor has become a nationally known food writer, cooking teacher and public speaker. At age 59, she recently put her 25-year court-reporting job on the back burner to devote herself to her new career. The vivacious Kancigor, who lives in Fullerton, Calif., but still speaks with the colorful Brooklyn/Belle Harbor accent of her youth, explains what motivated her to create the cookbook. "My aunt Estelle was facing heart surgery and my first grandchild was about to be born, and I thought to myself, what will happen to the older generation's recipes and family stories? How can I make sure they're passed down to future generations?" At first, Kancigor asked only for recipes from close relatives, but when word got out about what she was up to, the project ballooned. "The whole mishpoche [relatives] begged to be in my cookbook and then everyone's mechutanim [in-laws]," she says. "I couldn't leave anyone out!" And they weren't just sending recipes. "My cousin Frank wrote about the day before his wedding, when his future father-in-law said that if he wanted to change his mind about marrying his daughter, fine, but there would be three burly hoods waiting to break his legs." Kancigor decided to include the humorous anecdote in the cookbook, as well as the nostalgic letters, poems, jokes, drawings and old family photos that poured in. At her brother Gary's suggestion, Kancigor also incorporated the story of their father, Jan Bart, a popular Borscht Belt singer and cantor who, by the time he died at age 52 in 1971, had raised more money for Israel Bonds than any other entertainer. In Melting Pot Memories, the tribute to Bart is illustrated with photos of him on his radio show, surrounded by the Barry Sisters and boxes of Manischewitz matzo (his sponsor). Aunt Hilda's Cherry Chili Chicken
from Melting Pot Memories,, by Judy Bart Kancigor

1 (16-1/2 oz.) can pitted black cherries
3/4 cup raisins
2 large chickens, quartered garlic powder, salt, pepper, paprika
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 (12 oz.) bottles Heinz chili sauce
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
2 large onions, sliced thin (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup sherry or wine Pour juice from canned cherries over raisins to plump. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season chicken with garlic powder, salt, pepper and paprika and brown in large heavy skillet in oil. Place onion slices at bottom of large baking pan. Cover with chicken, skin side up. Mix chili sauce, water, brown sugar and raisins with the cherry juice and pour over chicken. Roast uncovered for 30 minutes, basting occasionally. Drain liquid from chicken, and in medium saucepan over medium-high heat reduce sauce to 1/3 its volume or until thick. Mix with cherries and sherry or wine. Pour over chicken, and roast 1/2 hour longer, basting occasionally. Serves 8. Dipping sauce for latkes: Save some reduced sauce before mixing with cherries and sherry or wine. Serve warm. A nice change from applesauce.

Kancigor admits that her family has always fascinated her. "In the early 1980s, Jewish genealogy was my hobby/obsession. I worked on our family tree and researched my grandparents' birthplace, which was Slonim, a shtetl [village] in what is now Belarus." She added a map of the town to her cookbook, along with photographs by renowned photographer Roman Vishniac. "Coincidentally, Vishniac's father was also born in Slonim," Kancigor explains. "His daughter, Mara, kindly gave me permission to use his photos of the town in my book." The cookbook begins with a historical overview of five generations of Rabinowitzes: "1907—Mama Hinda steps off the boat," she writes about her grandmother, who lived upstairs with her grandfather in the two-family dwelling where Kancigor grew up. "Under the babushka lies the hope for a new life, the determination that her children will be educated and succeed. A yahrtzeit [memorial] glass is her measuring cup; a hand chopper, her Cuisinart."
Aunt Sally’s Old Fashioned Apple Cake
from Melting Pot Memories, by Judy Bart Kancigor

3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/4 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 medium Macintosh apples, peeled and sliced thin
1/2 cup apricot jam
Juice of 1/2 lemon On medium-high speed, beat eggs well. Beat in sugar a little at a time. Beat in oil and vanilla. Mix flour, baking powder and salt. Change speed to low and blend in. Cover bottom of greased 8- or 9-inch square pan with half of mixture. Mix apples with apricot jam and lemon juice and spread over batter. Cover with remaining batter. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees. Serves 9–12.

Crediting her grandmother for sparking her passion for food, Kancigor says: "In our house, everyone was on a diet, but upstairs, Mama Hinda was always baking. On Fridays, with the aroma of the challah wafting downstairs, no one had to coax me and my brother to run up and light the candles with her and Papa." Ironically, food—her onetime nemesis—is now the basis of her career. For years her weight would yo-yo 60 pounds or more. "I could never keep weight off until about 10 years ago, when a nutritionist diagnosed that I was hypoglycemic. Once I gave up sweets, my binge days were over." Testing the recipes for the cookbook was therefore a challenge. "Especially the desserts," she admits, "which, since this is a Jewish cookbook, comprise the largest section in the book." Her mother, now a lively octogenarian, came to her aid. Lillian Bart sang with her husband on the Borscht Belt and headlined at Radio City Music Hall when she was pregnant with Kancigor. "My mom is my right arm, my sous chef, my best friend," she says. "She would help me bake, and then she would take the finished sweets to our temple [Beth Tikvah in Fullerton], where she volunteers, and poll everyone who tasted them: ‘Was it sweet enough? Was it delish?' The rebbitzen said that was the best five pounds she ever gained." Aunt Sally, who was considered one of the best cooks in the Rabinowitz family, helped in another way. Kancigor spent three days with her in Florida to determine which of her hundreds of recipes to include. "Aunt Sally was 89 at the time, and we went through her recipes slowly, one at a time," she recalls. "This was a woman who remembered everything she had ever baked. I'd say, ‘Aunt Sally, did you grease the pan for your cakes?' And she'd say, ‘Ask me which cake and I'll tell you if I greased the pan.' " After a year and a half, Kancigor was finally ready to have the book published. She researched small cookbook publishers around the country and zeroed in on G&R Publishing in Waverly, Iowa, because they were the most flexible. With trepidation, she printed 500 books. "I thought I'd be tripping over the leftover books in the garage for the rest of my life," she recalls, "but after they went out to my relatives, I began getting book orders from people I didn't even know. All the books were gone in six weeks." As news of Melting Pot Memories spread, Kancigor was invited to speak to groups—especially Jewish women's groups—throughout the country, not just about her book, but about the importance of preserving family histories and how to put together a family cookbook. "I always tell people to ask their relatives not just for recipes, but also for humorous family stories, photos, and ephemera like news articles, menus, even kids' drawings." Kancigor also explains how to research family history. "I advise anyone who is interested in genealogy to go to www.jewishgen.org and to read From Generation to Generation, by Arthur Kurzweil. These are my two favorite sources for searching your Jewish roots." She has been surprised that most people who read her cookbook hardly mention the food. "They especially love the stories, the photos, the history—which remind them of their own families," Kancigor says. She admits to having included a few recipes that she never expected people to make, like kishka and Aunt Sally's lung and liver kugel. "An old recipe is like a window into a bygone world. I wanted the children to know our family's experience." Since the contributors to Melting Pot Memories range in age from 10 to 92, the book features contemporary as well as old- fashioned Jewish recipes. "Many people who cook from the book tell me they started with my Aunt Hilda's Cherry Chili Chicken, which is very '50s," says Kancigor. "And everyone who tries Aunt Sally's apple cake says it's just like their bubbe used to make." Last April, in Montreal, Kancigor joined a panel discussion about memoir cookbooks at the International Association of Culinary Professionals convention with Ruth Reichl (editor-in-chief of Gourmet) and this writer (author of Let Us Eat Cake). She obviously made an impression. "Afterward, representatives from Workman Publishing approached me and said they wanted to publish my book. My knees were shaking," Kancigor recalls. "The people who publish The Silver Palate and The Cake Doctor wanted to publish my cookbook? Who knew?" (Workman will publish Melting Pot Memories in 2005. In the meantime, copies are available via Kancigor's website: www.cookingjewish.com.) Sharon Boorstin is the author of Let Us Eat Cake: Adventures in Food and Friendship (ReganBooks/HarperCollins).