Profile / Cooking with Chutzpah

It’s Friday afternoon and American cookbook author Joan Nathan and I are in a small, cramped deli deep inside Bnei Brak, eating cholent and kishke out of a single plastic bowl. We’re the only women among a crowd of ultra-Orthodox men buying food for the imminent Sabbath. One of the employees heads out the front door with an empty pot in hand, and Nathan quickly gets up to follow him, hoping to find her way into the kitchen in a neighboring storefront.

“Joan is very bold,” says Mark Furstenberg, a prominent baker from Washington, D.C. and her travel companion.

Spending a few days with Nathan gives you a clear idea of the chutzpah that enables her to find material for her award-winning cookbooks. Nathan, 68, has authored 10 cookbooks, including six about Jewish cuisine and two on Israeli cuisine. She may be best known for her 1994 book “Jewish Cooking in America,” which won the James Beard Award and the IACP/Julia Child Cookbook Award, and for hosting two seasons of the PBS series “Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan” derived from that book, which ran in 1998 and 2002.

Her goal is to preserve Jewish traditions, she says, and her recipes are often accompanied by the stories of the people who gave them to her.

“I interview people and watch them cook,” she explains. “I try in an honest way to gather people’s recipes and acknowledge them.” Nathan works with posterity in mind, seeking to capture recipes and stories that may not otherwise be passed on to the next generation.

“I always feel an urgency,” she says, diving into a story about a woman named Leah from Jerusalem and how she would prepare her chicken, stuffing bread, onions and paprika under the skin. Many people recall that chicken, though Leah has probably passed away by now, she says. “And it’s gone.”

Nathan was in Israel last month, speaking at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, visiting her daughter Merissa, who studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, catching up with dozens of old friends and conducting research for future projects.

She comes across as down to earth, and she doesn’t shy from physical contact. Shortly after our initial meeting, she asked me to sell her an unusual citron-fenugreek dip I’d picked up at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market earlier that afternoon. Later that evening, she confirmed that I’d had time to go back and buy more for myself.

Lily Sharon’s rugelach

All of her books, including her latest, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” ‏(Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $39.95‏), published late last year, feature a few paragraphs about each of the people who taught Nathan a recipe – who they are, where they come from. In this book, Nathan, who has a master’s in French literature, recounts the 2,000-year history of the Jews of France, and recounts Ashkenazi and Sephardic recipes she found in Paris, Alsace and the Loire Valley.

In conversation, she frequently recalls some of the many people she’s met and their recipes, from a Siberian cook who makes Passover preserves to Lily Sharon’s rugelach recipe. U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk made that recipe at a launch party for her 2001 book “Foods of Israel Today,” and won over then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with the taste of his deceased wife’s pastries, Nathan recalls.

She spends about five years on each book, says Nathan. Taken together, they could be read as comprehensive case studies about Jewish home chefs from around the world. “I love the research most of all. I love the process,” she says.

“I know that a lot of intermarried couples use my books,” she says, explaining that they offer a comprehensive yet approachable guide to Jewish traditions. “Marrying into a Jewish family is daunting,” she says. “But people aren’t afraid of my books. I think that’s a really important role to play.”

Bonding through food

I’d met with Nathan and Furstenberg that Friday morning at the farmer’s market at the Tel Aviv Port. Nathan picked up a round challah topped with seven kinds of seeds.
“It’s for Aharoni,” she told the vendor in American-accented Hebrew, referring to Israeli celebrity chef Israel Aharoni, a long-time friend; she was invited to his home for dinner that night. The vendor didn’t respond. “I don’t think he believes you,” I told her. “No, really, it’s for Aharoni,” she told him again, making sure he acknowledged her.

In the newly opened indoor section of the market, we ran into cookbook author Sherry Ansky. “She’s fabulous, more than I’ll ever be,” Nathan says of Ansky, who published a highly regarded book in Hebrew about the history of cholent two years ago. She and Nira Rousso are among the Israeli cookbook authors Nathan says she most admires: They go out and interview cooks, as opposed to copying other cookbooks, she says. She feels Israeli authors are better placed to write about Jewish food than she is, as “They can delve into Jewish food as much as they want. I’m an outsider.”

Nathan has been writing about Jewish food, including Israeli food, for nearly 40 years. She published her first cookbook in 1975, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” with Judy Stacey Goldman. She published her second book about Israel, “Foods of Israel Today,” in 2001. She is currently working on a documentary for American television with Roger Sherman, tentatively titled “Is There an Israeli Cuisine?”

She got her start writing about food while living in Jerusalem between 1970 and 1972, when she worked as foreign press officer for the late Teddy Kollek, then the city’s mayor. That was when she discovered how food can forge bonds, as well as the range of Jewish cuisines, she says.

At the time, Kollek was presiding over a newly reunited city. The Six-Day War was still fresh in the memory of East Jerusalem residents, who until a few years earlier had been living under Jordanian rule. Through food, the mayor was able to ease tensions and forge bonds with the city’s Arabs, visiting their homes and dining with them, Nathan recalls.

“I just could see what food did,” she remembers. “It just broke down so many borders,” she says, adding, “You can talk about commonalities.”

Nathan met her husband, international attorney Allan Gerson, in Israel, and ultimately returned to the United States. Nowadays she visits about once every year or two.
Israeli food has changed immensely since she started writing about it – a few decades ago, there was only one kind of lettuce available, and most home cooks didn’t use olive oil, as Aharoni put it in his panel discussion with Nathan at the book fair. Now, there is no shortage of greens and boutique olive oils, and the country is home to an array of top chefs. The culinary options have expanded exponentially.

“In the food world, very few people know that Israel has become so exciting,” says Furstenberg.

Asked whether she could have anticipated back then that Israeli cuisine would develop into what it is today, Nathan unhesitatingly says no. Despite her admiration, Nathan says she “would have hoped there would be more ethnic food.” While certain cuisines, such as Moroccan, play a prominent role in what people eat, members of the new generation aren’t cooking their families’ traditional dishes, she says.

“There isn’t the variation” there once was, she says. “I really wish they would spend more time preserving what they have right here.”

Nathan is not bothered by the profusion of restaurants proudly offering pork and shrimp here. “People go out of their way to be treif,” she acknowledges, adding, “Israel is a country like any other. I think that they have the right to do it. If it’s done well, it’s good.”

In her own work, however, Nathan is aware of the sensitivities involved in kashrut. “Even when I wrote my American cookbook, I made a point of making the recipes always mention that you can use chicken, if there was pork in it,” she says, referring to her 2005 book “The New American Cooking.”

She herself does not keep kosher, but says she generally separates milk and meat in the name of tradition. “I have to be honest about who I am,” she says.

‘Going fishing’ in Bnei Brak

After the farmer’s market, we head for Bnei Brak. We’re looking for small, traditional eateries in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox city. Nathan is constantly researching potential projects, including articles for The New York Times.

“This is a going-fishing day because you don’t know if you’re going to get something good or not, and it doesn’t matter,” Nathan says.

Once in Bnei Brak, an all-Haredi city of more than 150,000 just east of Tel Aviv, we walk down Rabbi Akiva Street through the center of the city. We encounter a bustling bakery and deli, where people are snatching up challahs for the Sabbath.

“I love the way they all put their hands on anything,” Nathan says, observing the customers.

We move on to two more delis, tasting cholents and spicy Jerusalem kugels. Nathan bites into a sample of the sweet and peppery noodle dish and hands the other half to me to try, too. At Friedman’s, a simple restaurant and deli owned by Hillel Friedman, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect, we find a tray of mafroum smack in the middle of the traditional Ashkenazi kugels and farfels. Nathan notes the North African stuffed potato dish as an example of how certain ethnic foods are becoming a central part of Israeli cuisine.

Friedman’s restaurant consists of a small room; and several of his grandchildren are underfoot. Everyone around us is speaking Yiddish. Friedman does not recognize Nathan, but speaks with her at length, offering us bright-orange kishke, cholent and soft potato kugel. Nathan looks contemplative as she eats; she says she’s always trying to figure out how her food is made.

“The Satmar Hasidim are known for good food,” she tells him.

We thank Friedman and head off. We’re the only people not dressed in traditional Orthodox garb on the street. Marveling at the cultural differences and how warmly we were received, Nathan remarks, “Just look at what happened to us today. It’s the power of food.”

Nathan says she has a special affinity for Ashkenazi food due to its nostalgia value. Her mother, now 97, is a first-generation American of Polish and Hungarian descent, and her father’s family was from Germany.

“My nostalgic food is still my mother’s chicken from Friday night,” she says. She was introduced to Sephardic food while living in Jerusalem. “The first time I ever really had Sephardic, food everything was so exotic for me. I remember eating those stuffed vegetables. They were the most extraordinary thing I’d ever had,” she recalls.

At this point, she likes Ashkenazi baking and Sephardi salads. Ashkenazi food, short on spices and vegetables, is particularly hard to do well, Nathan says, adding, “I have an affinity for good Jewish food. I think a lot of it is really horrible.”

Creating new traditions

Now often called the doyenne of Jewish cooking, Nathan says she didn’t have any grand goals when she began writing about traditional Jewish recipes 40 years ago.

“It started out as a lark, but early on, before it was popular, I realized a lot of these recipes were dying,” she says. Cookbooks like hers, however, have done more than preserve Jewish culture. Aside from Nathan, authors such as Claudia Roden, whose books include “The Book of Jewish Food” (1997‏) and “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” (2000‏), have written comprehensive volumes that cover a wide range of foods from different Jewish ethnic cuisines, creating a kind of cultural melting pot.

She agrees emphatically that these cookbooks are creating new Jewish cultures. “By having all these cookbook recipes from different cultures, you’re creating new traditions for your family,” she says.

Nathan says she breaks all cuisines down into three different categories – everyday foods, holiday foods and high-end chef foods. While everyday foods may change with the era and culture, she believes families should make it a priority to preserve their holiday recipes. “That’s what makes you who you are as a family,” she says.

Cooking with children is a particularly important way to pass down traditions. “The stories come out,” she says. Nathan herself has three grown children. “I get a call every Friday from my kids,” asking about recipes for Shabbat, she says. “I taught them all how to make challah.” After the book fair, she spent the evening cooking with her daughter Merissa and her friends.

“For children to have real memories, you need traditional foods that are returned to,” she explains, a subject she addressed at length in her 1988 book “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen.”

She bemoans the fact that nowadays many traditional foods are purchased, not made at home. As a result, family recipes are not being passed down and are being lost, she says.

“Saturday is when these foods should be coming out. A lot of this stuff is [purchased] prepared, though,” she says.

While cookbooks like hers encourage Jewish home cooks to try out other ethnic traditions, potentially changing their own families’ traditions, Nathan rejects the notion that this is a negative process.

Ethnic traditions have always been in flux, as people learn new techniques and foods as they travel, she says. “I think we are all looking for some nostalgia,” she adds, explaining that this nostalgia may well be for something that never really existed.

Family staples

Back in the heart of secular Tel Aviv, we drive down King George Street. It’s late Friday afternoon, and the sidewalks are thronged with people. Nathan marvels at how secular everyone looks.

Asked what she cooks at home, Nathan says she is constantly trying new recipes but still relies on family staples. One such recipe is the gefilte fish she learned from her mother-in-law, whose mother was murdered by the Nazis at the Belzec death camp. Her mother-in-law would top her gefilte fish patties with a fish head, with raisins placed in its eye sockets. When she made that dish, you could tell she was thinking about her deceased mother, Nathan says. “I always will make her gefilte fish as long as I live,” she says.

Her Passover seder next month will include five kinds of haroset, including one recipe she got from the food photographer Nelli Sheffer, who photographed “The Foods of Israel Today.” Before the seder, she will be hosting a group to make gefilte fish, and teaching her mother-in-law’s recipe. One guest is the wife of CNN political anchor Wolf Blitzer, a good friend. Nathan says she was surprised at how excited her friend was to be invited.

She’ll also be serving a brisket, maybe a Moroccan brisket, as well as salads and matzo ball soup.

“I try to show the Diaspora,” she says.


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