Fern Bogot was photographed by Leah Missbach in April 2000 as part of the CITY 2000 photodocumentary project. I interviewed her the following September in her home, which was liberally decorated with food-related tchotchkes.
My name is Fern Taylor Bogot. At the moment the picture was shot, I was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover with friends and family. The person who is eating on the left, her name is Ina. She's a chef who has an incredibly positive reputation in Chicago. In a few months Ina is opening a new restaurant, and I'm going to help her. We'll feed many people and make them very happy.
I used to be in the family business, food importing. Now I'm a fund-raiser. I work with a couple of nonprofit organizations, helping them take money out of people's pockets and having the people enjoy the experience. I do special events, I work on campaigns, and how much work I'm willing to do just depends on whether I like the cause or the people involved. I'm not working at a job, so I have that luxury of being a volunteer.
The first group I worked with is the Inspiration Cafe. When I started with them, they called themselves a restaurant that feeds the homeless. Now we're a nonprofit organization that through its social services helps men and women exit homelessness with dignity and respect. Our main focus is our meal program. People who are homeless but actively working their way out of homelessness come through our program, and they're required to come to our meals, which are breakfast every day and dinner four nights a week, cooked and served by volunteers. It's a wonderfully nurturing experience on many levels. People order off a menu. If you want six eggs with bacon, sausage, ham, and pancakes, French toast, and muffins, you can have it. If you want to send the pancakes back because they're too well-done, you can do that. It's restaurant style. The waitperson comes to you and says, "My name is Larry, what's yours, how can I help you, would you like more coffee?" And it works. People are treated with dignity.
Project Kesher is another organization I volunteer for. We work with Jewish women in the former Soviet Union. Women from the Western world who have expertise in some area will go over and run a seminar about leadership training, grassroots organizing, health care, personal safety, other topics that are of import to women over there. Plus a little bit of Jewish stuff, because we're a Jewish organization.
This summer Project Kesher planned a trip to Ukraine, to Kiev and Crimea. My husband Norman was going to come with me, so the executive director says, "Hey, we're going to be there over the Sabbath, who's going to read Torah? Maybe Norman wants to do it." So I said if he's going to read Torah, why don't you give him a bar mitzvah? Because he'd never been bar mitzvahed. So we decided that Norman was going to have a bar mitzvah in Ukraine. Poor guy. I feel terrible about that. And I said, you know what, maybe I could do a fund-raising campaign. So I wrote this letter and it said, "Most of you know that my husband is a late bloomer, he didn't talk till he was 4, he didn't get married till he was 40, and he isn't getting bar mitzvahed until he's age 48. Please help me honor Norman by contributing to Project Kesher." I sent it out to 240 people, and we brought in $10,300.
Norman felt an astounding connection to the people in Ukraine. His mother's family comes from Odessa, which is on the coast. He lived in the same house with his grandmother and great-grandmother. And when he would say to them, "What was it like in Russia? Speak some Russian. Tell me about Russia," they would say, "We are American now; we don't speak Russian. Russia was bad, bad, bad." So he has this complete disconnect from his heritage, he has no idea...and he walks into Kiev and there's people smoking cigarettes like this [she cups her palm under her chin], and Norman says, "My God, that's the way my grandmother smoked!" And they had that same voice, that same accent, that same shoulder movement that they had in his house. And he said that whole distance just collapsed for him.
My father was born in Kiev, my mother in Lithuania. They met in Chicago. In 1930, when my father was 13 years old, he and his two sisters, who were twins, and their mother--and maybe the father, I think all of them--got on the boat and came to New York. It was the pogroms. And fortunately a couple of other family members had gotten out earlier and come to the United States and settled in Chicago. My grandfather's brother-in-law had sponsored them with the idea that my grandfather would be the rabbi for a small synagogue, which he did for a year and hated every single moment of it. He was a rabbi, but not the type to lead a congregation. He was more a mohel--a circumciser--and a chicken slaughterer. You had to be a rabbi to be in the kitchens and the slaughterhouses, because the animals have to be slaughtered in a certain way. And they have to be free of blemishes, and have no diseases, so the rabbis have to know what the animals are like. My grandfather specialized in chickens.
My mother's father was also a rabbi. Where my father's father was like a scholarly rabbi, my mother's father was more like a salesman rabbi. He left Lithuania in the 1890s and went to America to seek his fortune, but then he went back to Lithuania. But his son, my uncle Morris, my mother's older brother, also went to the United States and he stayed here. My mother had never met him, because he was gone before she was born. But she knew about him, and she wrote him letters.
In 1934, '35, '36, my mother was living in Palestine. She wrote to Morris saying, "Mother and father really need help, we need to get them out of Lithuania." And he wrote back from Chicago and said, "Everything's fine, don't worry about them." So she gets a letter from her parents saying things are not good in Lithuania, and she writes to her brother again and says, "I really think we need to get them out, could you buy them tickets?" And again he said something like, "I'm sure everything will be fine." And then she got one final letter that said, "The clouds are getting darker." She never heard from them again. The whole town was destroyed. Her parents and her sister and brother-in-law and their two kids were killed. So when my mother left Palestine she came to the States. She lived in San Francisco, Miami, and I think Mexico for a while. Eventually she came to Chicago, where she met my father. A mutual friend fixed them up.
Uncle Morris, her brother, first came to Chicago in the 30s, and he was in business all the time, every moment of every day. One of the businesses he started was Sip-Aid, which is now Kool-Aid. He and a partner came up with some drying process to make a fruit-flavored drink powder that you would add water to. I don't know what happened with it, but I know Morris didn't get rich. He went in and out of business a million times. Eventually he started something called Overseas Importing Company--I have stationery from that. But I also have the beginning books from the Chicago Importing Company, which I eventually took over. They started in the 30s importing dried mushrooms from Poland and places like that, and they were one of the first to bring in Lindt chocolate--a very famous brand name. When I took over we had 1,400 items, from sardines and cod liver bits to saffron and tea and olive oil and anchovies and jams and honeys and syrups and soup powders--that's just in the food line. My main love was the candy lines: we had absolutely anything you wanted, anything.
I don't know where Morris's knowledge of the food business came from. But he got in with a bunch of interesting people, he had a very good following, and he had the business when my father met my mother. When they first got married I think my father was unemployed. So he started working for my uncle Morris, then Morris made him a partner. Morris passed away in 1970; he slipped off a truck and hit his head on the concrete and that was the end of that. So my father took over then. And I started working there in '76, a year out of college, and when my father passed away in '85 I took over. We were on Randolph Street, where they'd set up in the 30s. And then we bought the building around 1970. Actually my mother bought the building, because my uncle was a socialist. He didn't want to own property, he didn't want anything. So when the building came for sale he said he didn't want to buy it, and my father said he didn't want to buy it, and my mother said, "You guys are nuts!" And she bought it. When I sold it, two years ago, right before she passed away, I told her how much we were selling it for, and she laughed, she laughed a lot. We sold it to the owners of a graphic design and marketing firm. Now it's probably worth twice what they paid.
The business was changing when I got into it. We were wholesalers. We would buy an item for a dollar--say it's a little tin of candy--and I would tack on a 25 percent increase to cover my costs, and you as a shopkeeper, you would buy it at a dollar and a quarter and you'd add anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. So let's say you decided to sell it for $2.50. Well what happens when you walk into Walgreens and see that tin of candy for a dollar? What are you going to think, who are you going to blame? And if you think I'm overcharging you on that item, you'll think I'm overcharging you on everything. Walgreens buys in the 200,000-pound or $5 million category, and I was buying in the 10,000-pound, $2,000 category. They got bigger perks. They got bigger discounts. The lines were getting very fuzzy between wholesale and retail, because of the national chains and their buying power. And the suppliers were no longer being run by the people who started the businesses, people who would have told Walgreens, "That's not fair: I can give you a better price, but you can't go and undercut my smaller customers who've been buying this stuff for years." I recognized times were changing and it was time for me to go. I closed the business in '96.
My mother passed away two years later, and she left a chunk of change that I had no idea she had. That has allowed me to spend the last couple of years looking for what will make me happy and what will help me change the world a little bit at a time.
The new restaurant is on Randolph Street, about a block and a half from where Chicago Importing was. I'm right back where Uncle Morris started. It used to be a warehouse district, and now it's becoming all offices and lofts and trendy restaurants. Our restaurant will be called Ina's. It'll be Ina's recipes, Ina's menu. We'll have somebody in the kitchen creating that stuff, and we'll both be in front, welcoming people and schmoozing. But I'll also be in the back working with the community: whether that means the governmental community--'cause Ina's got friends in high places--or whether it means the unions, because they're in the neighborhood, or the housing projects, 'cause they're in the neighborhood too, or the new loft people or the wholesalers or the truck drivers or the corrugated box plants or the police station. All those people are different communities, and they'll all be eating with us.
When I used to go to Sterch's on Lincoln Avenue, I was always in awe of Bob Smerch--that people would come into this bar and pay money just to be in his presence. I like the idea that people will pay money to be in my presence. I don't have the energy to have a garden party or a dinner party every week. But having a restaurant, having someone in the kitchen who can create French toast for Table Three because I suggested it to them, that will be wonderful.
Postscript: Fern is director of community relations at Ina's, which opened in March 2001. Her latest fund-raising project is a new food program called First Slice.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Leah Missbach.