Let's Eat

Why Joan Nathan’s recipe memoir will touch your heart

Writing her life story and the recipes that filled it helped the American doyenne of Jewish food after losing her husband


Happy days: the extended Nathan-Gerson family celebrate Joan's birthday

Joan Nathan is America’s Claudia Roden and Evelyn Rose rolled into one. The octogenarian has been writing about Jewish food over several decades. Countless Jewish cooks in the US will own one of her 12 cookbooks, which deal with not just haimish classics and festival foods but also regional recipes from all over the world and their provenance.

But in her most recent book My Life in Recipes — Food Family and Memories, published earlier this year it gets personal, with Nathan also sharing her own story.

I caught up with her via a video call a few weeks ago from her home where she was between book tour dates. Between morning exercise and a series of phone interviews, she was eating a plate of scrambled eggs and asparagus. “I had practically nothing in my house to eat — I need to go to get groceries today” she tells me between mouthfuls.

Early in our chat (and from the book) it’s apparent the writing process was also a way for her to mourn husband, Allan Gerson. The lawyer and father of their four children died in November 2019, only three weeks after being diagnosed with a rare brain disease that kills just one in a million each year. She was heartbroken. “I wanted to write something where I incorporate him into my life.”

Gerson is present throughout the book, from their first meeting when both were working in Israel in the 1970’s to his omelette recipe — “it was the only food item he knew how to cook in all the years we were married” — and the trip they took to Israel for his 74th birthday — the last they celebrated together.

Nathan admits had not planned to write this, her twelfth book. It was born, she explains, out of a visit from her editor who came to stay with her for a weekend. Nathan had shared with her all her old letters, manuscripts and diaries. “I didn’t think I had another book in me” she confesses, but her agents had other ideas. “She said ‘why don’t you write a hybrid book a memoir cookbook. Not one recipe – the way some of them are at the end of a chapter — but throughout. Sort of the most fun of your life.”

Recipes are woven through her story — there’s a sweet and sour salmon with lemon ginger and brown sugar recipe adapted from the carp her father Ernest Nathan enjoyed in Augsburg (Germany) before emigrating to the US. “I really love this German sweet and sour fish — I went to a dinner party recently and the hostess made this recipe perfectly.”

And then there’s baba ghanouj she enjoyed while living in Jerusalem in the 1970’s when working as foreign press attaché to the then Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kolleck. Although she discloses that she struggled to replicate its exact flavour.

“I spent a lot of time in East Jerusalem, so I knew good baba ghanouj. I also knew most of the ones I tasted [in the US] were not the real deal and mine wasn’t exactly right. So I took it to a Palestinian restaurant in Washington — founded by someone who’d come over in the 1970’s. She’s long gone but they make the food exactly the way she made it. They told me what was wrong with mine and they told me exactly how to do it with just a little bit of onion. It was perfect — just how I remembered it.” 

In the book she describes her career lightbulb moment. It was during her Israel years. She had gone to visit the local mukhtar (village leader) at an Arab village with Mayor Kolleck. The mukhtar was campaigning for a new road and Kolleck was adamant it was beyond his budget.
There followed a huge banquet of endless mezze dishes served with oven fresh pita, then fragrant chicken cooked with cumin, cinnamon and pine nuts plus sauteed onions, stained pink with sumac all served on top of more pita soaked on olive oil.

“By the end of the meal” Nathan says “the mayor agreed to the road, and she had discovered her lifelong career: “That meal showed me how food can break down barriers and bring people together. I understood that food is not ornamental — it is central, and worthy of study and that I could explore the world through food.”
In a world where those barriers are worse than ever, memories like this seem ever more poignant. 

Decades later, Nathan remains endlessly curious about food. During lockdown she and a friend happened to be discussing the foods they were missing. Both hankered for a sabich — the aubergine and egg-packed pita. Despite Nathan having lived in Israel in the 1960’s and written about food for decades, neither knew where it originated. So, she immediately set about finding out.

Nathan writes that Israel’s iconic sandwich was invented by an Iraqi immigrant named Sabich (Sabih) Tsvi Halabi, owner of a tiny snack kiosk next to a bus stop in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan suburb.

Nathan went straight to the source, contacting Tami Shem-Tov — Halavi’s daughter. Shem-Tov had written a children’s book about how the pita-based snack was created by her father. The story goest that on Sunday mornings his bus driver customers would ask what he could offer to fill their sandwiches. Sabich’s fridges contained leftover hard-boiled eggs and fried aubergines that he’d prepared on Friday for his family’s Shabbat breakfast. He stuffed these into fresh pita and a star was born.

As we finish our call, I mention a recent Nigella Lawson recipe for ‘scuffles’ which I’d seen that day. Lawson describes the rugelach-like pastries as American. I ask if Nathan had heard of them. She had not. I mention that they might be Canadian. The next day she emails me to share that know she’d consulted Jewish Canadian food writer, Marcy Goldman who confirmed them to be a Ukrainian Canadian bake made from a rugelach-like dough. Mystery solved — and Nathan was off to bake some for herself.

My Life in Recipe: Food, Family and Memories (Knopf) 

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