A seasoned foodie

Joan Nathan's recipe for writing her cookbooks is three parts oral history, one part travelogue and a pinch of Jewish soul food.

joan nathan_521 (photo credit: (Michael Lionstar))
joan nathan_521
(photo credit: (Michael Lionstar))
For Joan Nathan, preparing a cookbook is a bit like writing a research paper.
First she reads as much as possible about the topic’s historical roots, even turning to relevant novels. Then she makes a list of people she needs to interview. For her latest book, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, she divided up the country geographically.
“And then I [went] to France,” says the doyenne of Jewish cooking. “Once you get there, you find other things. There are certain things I wanted to do. I wanted to see what it was like being a hidden Jew during the war. There’s a point when you get bored with your interviews and you realize you’ve heard this before. So you have to pick the best stories; I think I picked some pretty good ones. And then you’ve got to substantiate them. Then, of course, there are the recipes.”
Here recently for the Jerusalem International Book Fair, to participate in a panel on “The Changing Jewish Kitchen,” Nathan talks to The Jerusalem Post about the topic of her talk, her latest book and Israeli cuisine. Over breakfast at the Polly Restaurant at Jerusalem’s A Little House in Baka hotel, she says she did not expect this cookbook, her 10th, to be so successful.
“This has been a very surprising book for me because when I did it, I didn’t expect anyone to buy it and now it’s already in its second printing. People like French food much more than you realize,” she says.
A beautifully illustrated collection of vignettes from local Jews and recipes as diverse as cholent, Moroccan chicken tagine, Polish gefilte fish and raisin and almond coffee cake, the selection doesn’t seem so different from the cuisine found in Israel, showing the varied ethnic mix of Jews in both countries.
“Where did it start – that’s the other question,” reflects Nathan. “The gefilte fish didn’t start in France, that’s for sure. They’re Poles and they’re Russians, but the French themselves don’t think of themselves as anything but French.”
And historically, many foods that were originally French traveled with Jews when they left France.
“Jews went to North Africa during the Inquisition and a lot of Jews came back, so a lot of the old recipes are coming back in different guises.”
Jews also left their own mark on French regional foods.
“Jews brought chocolate to France, Jews were always the best producers of foie gras – Jews are inextricably bonded to French food and to French food trends. In the Middle Ages they were grain dealers, they were cattle dealers, wine dealers, they were bakers,” says Nathan, rattling off a list of French Jews who were influential in other areas.
She cites as inspiration such wide-ranging influences as Yisrael Aharoni, Binyamin Metudela and the home cooks she meets while researching her books.
“Binyamin Metudela was the census taker of the Jews – I would have loved to have known this guy. He went all over the thenknown world. He looked at Jewish communities wherever they were and he documented them,” she says.
Something of a census-taker herself, Nathan does her own fair share of traveling the world in search of the roots of Jewish food.
“Of course I had to come here for the book, because I realize that everything ends up coming back to Israel,” explains Nathan, who lived in Jerusalem during the 1970s while working as mayor Teddy Kollek’s press attaché. In fact, her first book was called The Flavor of Jerusalem and in recent years she has been visiting annually.
Israel has come a long way since the days when felafel was a staple, she says.
“I always thought that Israel does things that everybody else does, but with a vengeance,” she muses about the latest developments in local food. “When I was here last year, my favorite restaurants were Herbert Samuel [in Tel Aviv] – his salads are unbelievable – and Mahaneyuda [in Jerusalem]. When I was living here there were maybe one or two Italian restaurants, but expensive. You would go to the King David [hotel in Jerusalem], but most people would get felafel on the street or they would go to cafes. Now there’s just everything and there’s co-ops, health food – and a lot of Tunisians have brought French food. It’s pretty amazing what there is in this country.”
The tomato salad at Herbert Samuel, she says, “is the best salad I’ve ever had.”
She also likes to buy spices here and she recommends the local Pereg brand to chefs in the US.
As for Jewish food, preserving traditions and recipes is a mission for Nathan.
“I think that thanks to people like me a lot of them [are being saved]. My mission is to try to record the recipes because writing, video, it’s so important,” she says. “In the States a lot of comfort food is sushi. If that’s all you’re going to leave for your children – what is it?”
The legacy is what really matters to Nathan, who has three grown children and lives in Washington, DC, and Martha’s Vineyard with her husband.
“I think it’s really important to get these recipes before they’re changed so much that they’re no longer the same recipes, and that’s the legacy that I’d like to leave,” she says. “It’s certainly not what I started out doing but I can see that it’s really important.”
Her answer to people who claim they don’t have time to prepare food at home is: “I always say it takes less time to make bread than it does to go to the store.”
And what does an experienced food writer like to cook at home?
“I love testing recipes and I love cooking from my books. I love doing a lot of Middle Eastern foods – my humous is very famous,” says Nathan, adding that two of her main staples are za’atar and preserved lemons. “I love working with breads and pies. I like doing brisket; I like trying things. I don’t like putschkying, but I like food to taste good.”