Judy Bart Kancigor was expecting her first grandchild when her favorite aunt became gravely ill. “That’s when it hit me,” says the California mother of two and grandmother of four.
“One generation was leaving, another was arriving, and how would my grandchild learn our family history? Would he hear the stories? Would he be able to taste all the wonderful family cooking?”
And that is when the light-bulb lit up: collecting all those stories and recipes would be the greatest gift she could give her grandchildren. And so she began contacting members of her large family, asking each for their best recipes and for any story that was connected to the recipe. Within several years, Kancigor had collected recipes from 300 members of the large Rabinowitz clan and turned the most popular ones into a small cookbook for her family.
“I called it Melting Pot Memories,” said Kancigor, “I never dreamed anyone besides my family would ever see it.”
But 11,000 people bought the book, and five years ago, she began sorting through all the recipes and stories and photographs she’d collected to create a second much larger cookbook, Cooking Jewish: 532 Recipes From the Rabinowitz Family (Workman), a touching and often hilarious love letter to her family that was released by Workman Publishing last month.
“Even in-laws of in-laws contributed,” says Kancigor “and over and over again I was moved by people’s tributes and remembrances of their grandmas, nonas, imas, and nanas to tell the history of a family from its 19th century neighborhood in an Eastern European 'shtetl,' or village.”
Every recipe tells a story, she says, and sometimes a recipe can make the past seem as current as the dinner table. One such recipe is her Grandmother Ruchel’s (her father’s mother) cholent.
The slow-cooked stew tells a story about religious custom, says Kancigor: “Observant Jews do not work on the Sabbath, and so centuries ago they created this dish, which could be started before sundown on Friday, placed in the oven of the village bakery and cooked overnight so the meal could be served after services on Saturday.”
The stew shows what life was like in the tiny shtetls of Eastern Europe: They were poor and had little meat, so they had to create a dish that could be stretched with potatoes and beans to feed a large family.”
Her paternal grandmother’s recipe, which was passed down by her daughter, Isabelle, has changed, generation by generation, and each “tweak” tells another chapter of family history. There was an increase in the amount of meat they enjoyed when the family migrated to America in 1930. There is a ghost of the village they left behind: Only 20 of its residents survived the Holocaust, three of them Rabinowitz cousins. There is the addition of wine and fresh vegetables that prosperity in the New World brought to the family cholent.
And most of all, there are hints of idiosyncratic cooks. “My Aunt Isabelle told us that practically anything can go in a cholent: "Use your imagination!" says Kancigor, adding “And I did in the version I call ‘Had-to-Try-It Cholent.’"
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