Joan Nathan, pioneering Jewish food maven, dishes all in her new autobiography


((JR)) — Joan Nathan had just settled in for a conversation about her most recent book, “My Life in Recipes,” when the food writer became distracted.

A media personality was coming for lunch the next day, she said, but she realized she was missing two of the ingredients for the matzo balls she planned on serving. She paused to search for what she needed while also musing about what substitutes she might use in their place.

A few days later, Nathan reported success: The luncheon was “lots of fun” and the matzo balls were delicious, she said, though she added, “They could have been cooked a tad bit more.” That forthright response is in line with the Joan Nathan whom readers have come to know from reading and cooking from her 12 cookbooks.

Now, Nathan, 81, has released a 436-page autobiography, “My Life in Recipes,” that looks back at her storied career, from her childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, to the research and writing that has made her the undisputed doyenne of Jewish food writing. Not that Nathan says she has spent much time thinking about her broader impact.

“I guess I have made a big contribution to the Jewish world. I never thought about it,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I humanized Jewish food all over the world and I think I made it important for people to realize it is part of their lives.”

The stories in “My Life in Recipes” date back to before Nathan’s birth in 1943. Many of the recipes that accompany and enrich the memoir were passed down within her family, like the matzo balls (tweaked with the addition of nutmeg and freshly grated ginger); a sweet- and-sour fish reminiscent of a dish her father enjoyed growing up in Augsburg, Germany; her German great-grandmother’s challah, made with mashed potatoes; and her mother’s cole slaw.

Nathan believes the cole slaw — made with orange juice and pickle juice — is a riff on a recipe that first appeared in a 1901 cookbook published by a Jewish woman to help recent immigrants, many of whom were Jewish, integrate into American life.

“Sometimes there are familial salads, secret salads, that you want to keep within the family. These are things I have learned and respected over all these years that I have been writing,” Nathan said. “She [my mom] probably took it originally from ‘The Settlement Cookbook’ and then she played around with it. That is how home cooks do it.”

Cookbook author Joan Nathan demonstrates a 60-minute Moroccan challah in advance of her book “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” at her Washington, D.C. home on Oct. 12, 2010. (Getty Images)

Other recipes in the new book, such as kolo, an Ethiopian barley snack, were picked up from friends and from some of the people in out-of-the-way places Nathan has met and befriended during her many years as a food writer.

In 1970, when she was 27, following graduate studies in French literature at the University of Michigan and a stint working as a bilingual assistant in French and English at the United Nations, Nathan moved to Israel and eventually became Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek’s foreign press attaché. While in that position, she became intrigued by the good food served in people’s homes in Jerusalem. That nterest culminated in the first of her cookbooks, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” which she wrote with her friend Judy Stacey Goldman.

During that same 30-month period she had a defining meal that changed the trajectory of her life. She and Kollek were invited to a local Arab village to meet with the mukhtar, or village head. Kollek didn’t want to go because he knew that the mukhtar wanted a new road built, one that would be very expensive. But they went and by the end of the languorous, sumptuous repast at the mukhtar’s home, the village got a road and Nathan got a lifelong career.

“That meal showed me how food can break down barriers and bring people together,” she writes. “I understood then that food is not ornamental — it is central, and worthy of study — and that I could explore the world through food.”

Related: Joan Nathan’s Raspberry-Walnut Rugelach, from “My Life in Recipes” (The Nosher)

Following her return to the United States, in 1974 Nathan married attorney Allan Gerson, whom she met in Israel. The couple moved to Boston where she studied at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. While there, she wrote a paper, “Food Traits: An Overlooked Component of Ethnic Identity,” for a class on ethnicity and politics taught by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who soon after was elected to the U.S. Senate, representing New York. Nathan also wrote about ethnic food for a column in The Boston Globe, and when she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. in 1977, she found a niche at the Washington Post in focusing on Jewish food.

Mitchell Davis, a food consultant who spent 27 years at the James Beard Foundation, most recently as its chief strategy officer, recalls Nathan as among a handful of women who “had a tremendous passion and precision and capacity to understand and translate different food cultures around the world” and made a broad impact as a result.

“If Julia [Child] was the first, I put Joan in my mind along with Marcella Hazan for Italian food, Madhur Jaffrey for Indian and Paula Wolfert for Moroccan food,” he said. “Because of her persistence and precision, and finding the story and getting it right, she did for Jewish food what all of those people did for other cuisines.”

Nathan gets her stories by finding her way into people’s homes and kitchens and listening to them. Food writer Leah Koenig, who is the author of seven cookbooks including the encyclopedic “Jewish Cookbook,” remembers a trip she took to Israel in 2010 with Nathan to explore what Koenig calls “the then-burgeoning food scene there.”

“It was an honor to see her in action as a researcher,” Koenig said. “I remember one day in the Jerusalem shuk where she literally followed her nose into the kitchen where a man was preparing an interesting chickpea dish. I watched in awe as she asked him question after question. Her genuine enthusiasm and curiosity were absolutely infectious and she walked away with a story, a recipe, a friend and a source she could return to.”

Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan at a National Yiddish Book Center event in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2011. (Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Cookbook writer Adeena Sussman notes that Nathan not only talks to people to learn their food stories, but she cooks with them, too. Cookbook author Katja Goldman spent a couple of afternoons in her kitchen with Nathan about 30 years ago, once to shape challah with her and another time for a story about varieties of stuffed pasta, such as Italian tortellini and Chinese wontons. Goldman showed Nathan how she made kreplach, an Eastern European meat-stuffed dumpling that is served in soup.

“She had me show her how to do it, discussed the process and asked a lot of questions,” said Goldman.

Nathan gets people to open up to her and share their recipes by showing an interest in them.

“When you want their recipe, you are acknowledging that you accept them as human beings,” said Nathan. “They will share with you. It’s being yourself with somebody and showing an interest. You have to get into their homes.”

In 1994, Nathan received a James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook for her fifth cookbook, “Jewish Cooking in America,” in which she documents, in her words, “how varied Jewish food can be.” Most of the recipes are attributed to the individuals who shared them with Nathan, with introductory notes about the roots of the recipe.

“She makes the point very early on in ‘Jewish Cooking in America’ that Jews have always adapted to where they have gone and have taken advantage of local ingredients,” said Matt Sartwell, managing partner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a Manhattan bookstore specializing in culinary themes. In her chapter in the memoir titled “My Holiday is Passover,” she shares a recipe for gefilte fish made with American halibut, a saltwater fish, which is a change from the classic gefilte fish made with the whitefish and carp found in Eastern European lakes.

Cookbook author and self-described nice Jewish boy Jake Cohen, 30, cites “Jewish Food in America” and Nathan’s work ferreting out Jewish food from around the world as the “reason I am able to do what I do today. She paved the way.”

Nathan, Cohen said, “pioneered preserving tradition and family recipes. We had a recipe box of my great-grandmother’s recipes. If it wasn’t from the family, you didn’t have cookbooks to cook from. What she did was provide resources for people who don’t have family recipes.”

The recipes Nathan writes, said Cohen, are different from the recipes he was trained to write in culinary school.

“I write in a cold, scientific way [recording] how the recipe will be easily conveyed in words,” he said. “Hers is through feel. It feels like an oral tradition passed down from my grandmother.”

In a food world increasingly rife with contestation over the origins and cultural ties of particular foods, Nathan in some ways represents a throwback to a simpler time. When podcast host Kara Swisher recently asked Nathan if Israeli food was stolen from Arab cuisines — a charge often leveled against it —Nathan said she does not delve into food politics.

Yet she also offered an answer about hummus: “It’s not stolen,” Nathan said, adding that it was popular across the region. She credited American Jews who began traveling more regularly to Israel in the late 1960s with popularizing the chickpea spread in the United States. She also said she was saddened by the friendships between Jewish or Israeli food writers and Arab food writers that were “destroyed” amid the current Israel-Hamas war. She said she hoped to see a ceasefire, and praised the efforts of World Central Kitchen chef Jose Andres to feed Palestinians in Gaza. (The conversation took place before the Israeli army killed seven World Central Kitchen workers, causing the group to suspend its operations.)

And she offered a suggestion for a dish that could one day become associated with memorializing the Oct. 7 attack on Israel the same way that hamantaschen are a symbol of survival on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Mujaddara, a lentil-and-bulgur dish that appears in “My Life in Recipes,” is fitting both because it is popular among both Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, Nathan said, and because it is often eaten before Tisha B’Av, a Jewish holiday of mourning.

“Why would you have something happy to memorialize a tragedy?” Nathan asked. “But it tastes good … and it’s a humble dish. That’s what I would use.”

Nathan began “My Life in Recipes,” which she claims will be her last book– “I have written a dozen! That’s good!” – when the pandemic struck in 2020.

My husband had just died, it was a time of reflection,” said Nathan. “I looked at the body of my work and I wanted to share it. It took a long time to get ready to write it because I had to go through all of my letters and my files. I had to contact people I hadn’t spoken to in 50 or 60 years.”

Nathan’s Rolodex is packed after decades of culinary exploration. But she believes forging more intimate relationships around food can be just as powerful as discovering previously unsung food traditions in far-flung places.

“It is so important for children to talk to their parents and their grandparents and find their past and their path to the future,” she said. “We need the connection. Otherwise we will all be the same. And we don’t want to all be the same.”