NEWTON, Massachusetts — Through her award-winning cookbooks, acclaimed food writer Joan Nathan has taught generations of families how to make Jewish recipes from the US, Israel and France. Now, all the world’s her stage.
In her newest book, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World,” Nathan shares over 170 recipes from a diverse array of cultures — all through a Jewish perspective.
In an exclusive interview with The Times of Israel, Nathan had a hard time choosing a favorite recipe from among the almost 400 pages worth in her new book.
“There are so many,” she said. “I loved fessenjan, a nut and pomegranate stew from Persia. I love kukusa, an Azerbaijani egg dish with walnuts sprinkled on top.”
There’s also “a tamarind meatball dish [from] Syria,” and “fideos — tiny little noodles, [in a] cinnamon-laced tomato sauce [from] Rhodes,” as well as “a lasagna, and kasha varnishkes from Poland that I tasted in Netanya.”
Nathan calls “shtritzlach,” or blueberry buns, her most unexpected recipe.
“It’s a Polish pocket pastry,” she said. “People knew it as the Jewish dish of Toronto. It’s really good, sweet on top, with a sugar coating, delicious. I would never have thought it was a traditional Jewish dish. It’s [originally] from southwest Poland. I traced it back to the three people who made it. I had never heard of it.”
The idea for the book arose from an equally unexpected discovery in Kochi, India, and a synagogue in Kochi’s Jew Town.
“I looked at a sign that said ‘Jews have been in India since the time of King Solomon,’” Nathan recalled. “That’s what really got me onto doing world [cooking]… I guess it sort of all came together.”
Another key ingredient was a chance to see the world’s oldest cookbook, a cuneiform tablet in Akkadian, in the collections of Yale University.
“I realized, it was 1700 [BCE],” Nathan said. “King Solomon was 1000 BCE. It was not until 1400 BCE that Abraham went from Ur in southern Iraq to the Holy Land. There were no monotheists till then. It became very interesting to me — the development of food, the development of Judaism.”
As she worked on the book over six years, she found three common denominators.
“One, the dietary laws, no question,” she said. “Even if you were not very religious, in the back of your mind, you always thought [of them], and Jewish laws in general [are] so much a part of Judaism.”
She said that while she does not keep kosher, “I like kosher cookbooks.”
Then, there was “the ability to look for new foods,” which she said is also “very much part of Judaism.” She noted that in the Book of Kings, “Jews went out looking for spices, jewels, peacocks, the freshest stones, throughout the known world as far as India. They were grain dealers, bakers, vintners.”
Third, she said, “Jews [were] always getting kicked out, [and] therefore looking for new foods. They had to adjust food and dietary laws to new places.”
In El Salvador, “what I had instead of potato pancakes were yucca pancakes with cilantro cream,” she said. “Yucca is something eaten more often than potatoes [there].”
There are certainly geographical variations in world Jewish cuisine, including among Sephardic and Ashkenazi food.
“In the Middle East, there are more vegetables,” Nathan said. “Meat is sort of an addition. Eastern Europe would be more meat-heavy. There is more meat [there], and also [in] France and Italy. The more southern you go, the more vegetables. It makes sense. [They grow vegetables] year-round.”
It sounds like most of Nathan’s recipes can be prepared relatively quickly.
“Some recipes do have more ingredients,” she said. “I try not to make that many. Too many [ingredients] would make them real complicated. Some, like Moroccan burekas, making them, once you get [the hang of them], it’s easy. It takes a while to figure out the dough. You put butter in. It’s a little bit complicated but not too complicated… The batter, you just have to play with it.”
She did note that her beloved fessenjan takes “more time,” although it sounds worth the wait.
At an April 27 event called “Rising to the Top: A Conversation with Jewish Women in the Culinary Arts,” a Newton, Massachusetts, audience stood patiently in line for autographed copies of Nathan’s latest oeuvre.
The event honored Brandeis University’s Hadassah Brandeis Institute — an international academic center dedicated to research on Jews and gender — and its director Shulamit Reinharz, who is retiring in June after a 35-year academic career. It also recognized Nathan and three fellow Jewish women in the culinary arts: Laura Trust, president of Finagle A Bagel (the event was held in its test kitchen), and Rachel Munzer and Rachel Sundet, co-owners of Mamaleh’s Delicatessen in Cambridge.
Reinharz, a sociology professor at Brandeis, founded the Hadassah Brandeis Institute in 1997. Her husband, Yehuda Reinharz, was the university’s president from 1995 to 2011. She appreciates that Nathan provides historical, cultural and religious context to her recipes.
“I think that Joan Nathan should be viewed as a researcher,” she told The Times of Israel.
Reinharz recalled reading Nathan’s first cookbook, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” which she co-wrote with Judy Stacey Goldman in 1974.
“It has the same quality,” Reinharz said. “It’s not just a cookbook. Every recipe has a larger story, where she got the story, and why it’s meaningful.”
In fact, Nathan told The Times of Israel that earlier in life, “I really wanted [to write about] sociology or anthropology. I wrote ‘The Flavor of Jerusalem’ on a lark. I lived in Israel. At the time, I [worked] for the mayor of Jerusalem, [Teddy] Kollek. It sold 25,000 copies.”
Reinharz bought one of those copies while in Jerusalem. At the event, she held up her copy, noting that it was “very ratty-looking, because I use it all the time, not only to cook but to read.”
“The Flavor of Jerusalem” would become the first of 12 books for Nathan. She won an R.T. French Tastemaker Award in 1985 for “An American Folklife Cookbook,” and a James Beard Award in 1994 for “Jewish Cooking in America.” She also hosted a nationally televised series on PBS, “Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan.”
In recent decades, Nathan has had company on the shelves, including British author Claudia Roden — whose 800-recipe opus from 1996, “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York,” is mentioned in the bibliography — and French author Annabelle Schachmes, who wrote “La Cuisine Juive” (Jewish Cooking) in 2015.
Nathan told the audience that today, unlike years past, there are “loads of Jewish chefs,” such as Michael Solomonov of Zahav, who won the Outstanding Chef of the Year at the recent 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards, and Michael Tusk of Quince, who won a Beard Award in 2011.
But, she said, “even to this day, there are very few women chefs. It’s an all-boys-network of male chefs. I sure have noticed it. There are so many good woman chefs.”
“I felt cooking was a way of breaking down barriers between people. Teddy Kollek in Jerusalem, I could see how he broke down barriers [by] eating [people’s] food, Jews, Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem,” she said.
“I had an idea and went with it. There were not that many, certainly not Jewish cookbooks in those days. I’ve always gone on with what I wanted to do. It’s not so easy now to do it. There are so many of us.”
But there is only one Joan Nathan. And her newest cookbook is arguably her most ambitious. Poignantly, it was released just a month before Mother’s Day on May 14. Nathan’s mother, Pearl Nathan, died at age 103 in February.
Joan Nathan and her husband, Allan Gerson — a former prosecutor of Nazi war criminals who has represented victims of 9/11 and the Lockerbie bombings — do have a simcha to prepare for: their son’s wedding. Nathan reflected on family dynamics across generations.
“I guess things don’t change much,” she told the audience. “I didn’t listen to my mother. My father asked, ‘Why don’t you become a real estate agent and make some money?’ It sounded boring. My own kids don’t listen to me.”
While preparing and tasting her new recipes, the culinary world will continue listening to Nathan.