When Joan Nathan wanted to learn to make kubbe, meat dumplings, she found a woman from Kurdistan who sat on the floor of her Jerusalem home every Friday and made them for 60 members of her family.
Nathan is a master at tracking down the keepers of family culinary traditions, like the great-granddaughter of an Alsatian settler in a small town in Arkansas who taught her to make a snail-shaped pastry called schnecken. Whether through serendipity or advance planning, Nathan manages to get invited into kitchens both lavish and modest all over the world. Ever curious, she elicits stories of migration, recipes in all their nuance and invitations to return.
There’s a joyousness in her writing and an approach that’s infectious, a sense that the reader too could wander into an Indian home in Kerala and learn to make Idli, steamed rice dumplings.
Every recipe in Nathan’s latest masterful cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World” (Knopf), has a back story. She writes of visiting El Salvador, where the Jews drive to Guatemala to pick up their orders of kosher meat and other ingredients. The country has one synagogue, and when she went to a potluck dinner there, the sisterhood president brought latkes made of yuca, a local root vegetable.
There’s a joyousness in her writing and an approach that’s infectious, a sense that the reader too could wander into an Indian home in Kerala and learn to make Idli, steamed rice dumplings. Nathan understands that food is about more than food, and appreciates the great pleasure in breaking bread — better yet, kubbanah, Yemenite overnight breakfast bread — with others.
The vegetables have stories too, like a recipe for “Slow-Cooked Silky Spinach and Chickpeas,” from Athens, which used to be cooked in a communal oven overnight — the recipe has been around for two thousand years. Her recipe for a “Bulgarian Eggplant and Cheese Pashtida,” with origins in Spain, comes from the cleaning woman of a friend of a man she met at a party in Jaffa.
Nathan grew up in Westchester and then Providence, R.I. In an interview in a Manhattan café, she says that her mother did little cooking until Joan was about 18; their family meals were made by a cook, and she remembers some great southern dishes. Her father loved good food and food adventures. One of the first times she realized that different people eat different foods was when she was about 13 and living in Larchmont, where there weren’t many Jews, and her family brought bagels from the Bronx to a neighbor they suspected might also be Jewish.
Later on, when working in Jerusalem as Mayor Teddy Kollek’s foreign press attache, Nathan began to learn and take great interest in the different foodways of Jews from different communities. She wrote her first book, “The Flavors of Israel,” there.
Returning to the U.S., she worked for New York City Mayors John Lindsay and Abraham Beame, and in 1974 she co-founded the Ninth Avenue Food Festival. That first year, with practically no budget, the festival attracted a crowd of about 150,000 people who turned up to stroll and taste local foods — at the time, there were many family-owned bakeries and shops on the far West Side.
Since then she has written 10 additional cookbooks, including “Jewish Cooking in America” and “The New American Cooking” – both of which won James Beard Awards — and, most recently, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” She hosted a PBS television series based on “Jewish Cooking in America.” Now 74, Nathan lives in Washington, D.C., and on Martha’s Vineyard. She and her husband Allan Gerson have three grown children.
Her research for this book of more than 170 recipes took her beyond kitchens into some great libraries around the world. At Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, she held the earliest known “cookbooks” — clay tablets with 44 recipes inscribed, from about 1700 B.C.E. In England, she visited the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University to look into food-related ancient documents, and she found letters about the ancient spice trade along with some very early versions of shopping lists.
What has kept Jewish cooking vibrant over the centuries… is the fact that as Jews have moved from place to place, they have both been influenced by and have influenced the food cultures around them.
She also studied archaeological findings and biblical texts for their references to food of the times, when bread, wine and olive oil were, as now, diet mainstays. King Solomon’s wives, who came from many lands, would have brought pomegranates, dates, olives and other foods, along with varied methods of preparation. “Our mythology of Solomon and his reign overflows with a table full of food from the then-known world,” she writes in the book’s introduction, which provides a brief history of Jewish cuisine and its evolution.
What has kept Jewish cooking vibrant over the centuries, she explains, is the fact that as Jews have moved from place to place, they have both been influenced by and have influenced the food cultures around them — incorporating local ingredients and flavors and passing along their own — to varying degrees, always with attention to the distinctions of kashrut, and the traditions of the holidays.
When people talk about food, they are often remembering foods they loved; in fact, the taste of food (along with texture and smell) is closely linked to memory. But, says Nathan, memory and notions of authenticity can be deceiving. Pointing to a single delicious chocolate rugelach we are sharing, she says, “This rugelach is probably better than what our grandmothers might have made. We now have better quality ingredients, better chocolate, better techniques.”
And food looks better these days. “Traditional Eastern European cooks didn’t have much money and they made food with great care, but the food wasn’t pretty. Now, we’ve changed so much. You eat first with your eyes. There are so many colors available.”
When I ask if there’s a spiritual side of food, she says, “I love doing Shabbat dinner. I’m not particularly religious, but I like to bring all these recipes to the table and have people talk. What I like about Shabbat gatherings at our house is that you forget about the time and just relax.”
For post-Passover, the book offers “Multi-Seeded Fennel-Flavored Challah”; “Delkelekh, Cheese Danish” pastries (great for Shavuot) and “Libyan Saefra, King Solomon’s Cake,” a dairy-free Sabbath cake infused with dates, cardamom, cloves and orange juice.
And there’s “Gondi Kashi, Rice with Turkey, Beets, Fava Beans and Herbs,” a recipe shared by an Iranian Jewish woman, Violet Sassoni, who moved to Los Angeles in 1979 — the dish had been described to Nathan by Sassoni’s daughter, a food blogger, as a dish “unlike any other.” The Sassoni family traces its links to Persia to about the 15th century, when many Jews moved there from Spain. This spring dish might have been made for Passover by those who eat kitniot, or legumes, during the holiday. When it’s perfectly cooked, each grain of rice is separate, capturing the flavor of the meat and herbs.
“Noshe jan,” Nathan’s host said, as she served the dish. “May your soul enjoy it.”