Let's Eat

Doing the dishes from the past

Cookery book writer Joan Nathan is almost a household name


Joan Nathan has been described as the Jewish Julia Child.

For those not clued up on American cookery writers, Child was the American cookery book writer credited with bringing French cuisine to the US public in 1961, and immortalised in the film Julie and Julia.

Nathan's long career writing about Jewish food - which also led to a television series - has made her the Grande Dame of Jewish cooking in America.

I spoke to Nathan earlier this year, just before Passover. She was planning her family Seder, to which she was expecting 32 guests, and an engagement party for one of her two daughters to be held the day before. She clearly thrives on welcoming guests into her home - recently featured in the Washington Post.

Nathan is friendly and approachable. Her writing, similar to Roden's, is less lists of recipes, and more food anthropology - telling the stories of the writers of those recipes and the dish's evolution. Her mission, to preserve the recipes of our ancestors by hearing their stories and recording the recipe they cook for her.

She had not intended to become a food writer. The diversion from a career in politics happened when she was working as foreign press attaché to former Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. She took up the post, in her mid-twenties, after completing a Masters degree in New York.

"My job was to learn about Jerusalem and to talk to the foreign press."

Nathan says she had always loved to eat and had been exposed to a wide range of foods as a child.

"Growing up, my German father took me out to eat regularly and his sister - my aunt - made wonderful Bavarian food. He also sent me to Grenoble to learn French, when I was 15 or 16, as he believed a young girl should learn a language. That exposed me to great food."

In Israel, her interest in food grew. It wasn't restaurant food that sparked her interest, however, but what she ate in people's homes.

"Teddy Kollek liked to eat, and I noticed that when he went to people's houses and he sat down and commented on their food, they relaxed. It broke down barriers," she explains.

It was there that she first tasted Sephardi food, and began asking people for their recipes and recording the stories behind them.

Something that she describes as a bit of fun, turned into a serious project when she returned with her notes to New York and co-wrote The Flavour of Jerusalem with a colleague from Mayor Kollek's office, Judy Stacey-Goldman. Recipes are included from Russian nuns, Hungarian restaurateurs, kibbutzniks, a Persian policeman and a whole variety of characters.

Publishers Little Brown took on the book three years after her trip. She had been rejected by 16 other publishers. To her surprise, it sold 25,000 copies - a lot of books in the 1970s.

"Writing that first book I learned so much, it was like a cooking lesson for me," she laughs.

At that time her expertise was more on Israeli food than Jewish as her upbringing had been fairly secular.

Partly to educate herself, she wrote The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, a book that has remained in print since 1979. Again the book consisted of recipes given to Nathan when she visited people's kitchens. This was followed by Jewish Cooking in America, which examined how the US had affected Jewish cooking and vice versa.

"Each of my books is a term paper and this one was so much fun," she laughs.

She had by this time chosen food writing as a career to fit around her three children. "I would work when they slept or were at nursery school," she says.

Nonetheless, she seems genuinely fascinated by the people she meets.

"The first thing I look for is a good story but I also look for a good recipe."

She told some of these tales in a 39-part television series on Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan which she filmed for US television channel PBS.

With 10 books under her apron and her children all grown up - she continues to sniff out stories. Her most recent book, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous being about her search for Jewish cooking in France.

"I don't want these really good recipes to die."

This weekend at Gefiltefest, the JC is privileged to be hosting a conversation between her and Claudia Roden.

In another festival slot, Nathan will be demonstrating a rugelach recipe.

"It is not so much known as a Jewish dish here as in the US. It has gone mainstream - you can even buy good rugelach at Costco," she shares. "You can get all kinds of rugelach - chocolate, all kinds of jam. Whatever trends there are in food, go to rugelach now - the same way they do to bagels."

The full story on this sweet snack will be revealed at Nathan's demonstration on Sunday.

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