Joan Nathan on cooking to remember, mourn and discover who we are

(RNS) — In honor of Joan Nathan, I am writing this in my kitchen. Nathan, as she tells us in her new “memoir in recipes,” “My Life in Recipes: Food, Family, and Memories,” does her writing in a dedicated area away from the stove. But here in my kitchen is where I’ve communed with her creativity and passion for Jewish cooking, and Nathan, known for watching people at work in their kitchens, has so often inspired my endeavors. So here I sit.

Those Nathan has observed at work in the kitchen include family members and later her husband’s family members, but also Julia Child, a friend who famously filmed a segment on Nathan’s PBS series “Jewish Cooking in America” in a Fairway supermarket in New York, perusing the kosher symbols on packaging; renowned food writer MFK Fisher; Mexican-food specialist Diana Kennedy; Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in California; and chef and organizer of World Central Kitchen Jose Andres, in the news of late after seven of the workers involved in the aid organization were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza.

Closer to my own nonprofessional foodie level are journalists Bob Woodward, David Brooks and Wolf Blitzer; the late Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem, whom Nathan worked for in her 20s; and ambassadors and other notable figures around Washington, where she lives.

But Nathan is no homebody: The new book functions in part as a travelogue of the many places she and her husband, Allan Gerson, a prominent attorney who died in 2019, visited and went for work — Morocco, Northern California, Israel, Paris and Italy (Florence, Pitigliano, Siena, Rome and Sicily), to name a few — and part an account of her relationships with people she met there. Happily, it also includes the recipes she found or invented along the way.

The charm of these recipes is that most are manageable for a competent home cook. The first one I tried is Gerson’s: a cheese and herb omelet, with an extra teaspoon of butter added. Review? Nothing with extra butter fails in the taste department. But the simplicity of the rhubarb torte inspired me to try something new, and succeed, at least in the opinion of my weekly Hebrew class.

Nathan appears to find the same excitement in new recipes. It’s a delight, she said, “just to learn about a recipe or an ingredient whatever it is,” Nathan said in an interview conducted by phone as she flew to a book talk in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I like to cook it and like being able to show something new or better to my readers.”

Nathan not only expands the range of foods one might cook, but explains the reasons for doing so. The experience of the new and exotic is a given: She invites the reader to cook a fassolia from Yemen, with white beans, onions and tomatoes, and to experiment with Moroccan preserved lemons. Sicily is represented in an orange marmalade reminiscent of one served at the hotel in Ortigia where Nathan stayed, above an ancient Jewish mikvah, or ritual bath. 

One might also want to preserve the foodways of ancestors, like those of her father’s family, some of whom were able to emigrate from Germany and some who perished in the Shoah.

Both the new and the traditional are served in most of these dishes. I have never attempted my grandmother’s gefilte fish recipe, but Nathan’s halibut gefilte terrine with fresh herbs grinds the fish up with sautéed vegetables, matzo meal and eggs and then bakes it in a mold, and seems both doable and an attractive innovation for this traditional Passover delicacy. Her recipe for horseradish sauce is so simple (grated horseradish and beets, vinegar, salt and sugar) and yet I’d never thought to make it myself, so used am I to the jarred preparation. 

This is the beauty of Nathan’s approach, incorporating the past while acknowledging the way people cook and eat today. The book includes a traditional matzo ball soup as well as a vegan one, commissioned by a young Californian, a vegan who nonetheless wants to pass on traditions she grew up with to her two children. Her name? Natalie Portman. The secret to vegan matzo balls? Chickpeas. 

“I feel strongly that, in the world we live in, tradition is important,” Nathan writes about Passover recipes. “It reminds us of where we come from and where we belong, differentiating each of us, in a good way, from everyone else. Our recipes, like our genetic backgrounds, define us. And yet sometimes we can find better recipes for certain things.” This sensibility makes the book fun for both brain and palate.

The ultimate reason to cook, of course, is to gather people and feed them. I asked Nathan what kind of cooking she likes most, anticipating the meals she has made alongside other chefs, such as the dinner for her 80th birthday last year, described recently in The Forward, or with Andre Soltner, Lidia Bastianich, Madhur Jaffrey or Child, as she describes in “My Life in Recipes.” Instead, Nathan told RNS, “I like cooking for Shabbat,” which she sees as “a party but not a party, in a way. It is a chance for me to try out what I have learned about all week.”

Now 81, Nathan thought “King Solomon’s Table,” her previous book, would be her last, but her editor at Knopf, Lexy Bloom, had the idea that Nathan should do a memoir cookbook. “When my husband passed, it was a good project to include him in my life,” Nathan said, adding that she never anticipated writing after he was gone. “It is bittersweet. That’s what life is.”

Nathan said her mother had been widowed at about the same age and taught her, “You had to make your own life, and put that to me.” 

Nathan concludes her memoir on the same note: “I so remember my twenties going through the anxiety of not knowing what my life would become. But that uncertainty made me open to new experiences and opportunities. Where will you find your muse? Who knows! That’s the great adventure of life.”

Life, the book tells us, contains a variety of flavors, bitter and sweet, and it is possible to find ways to savor them all.

(Beth Kissileff is co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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