As a child, Joan Nathan knew it was Rosh Hashanah when the blue plums were in. “My mother would have me put the plums delicately into her cake, and that meant it was Rosh Hashanah,” she told me by phone from her home in Washington, D.C. “Maybe that’s how I started thinking seasonally about food.”
Having grown up in Rhode Island in an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) home, Nathan quickly became intoxicated with the new flavors of Israel while working in the early ’70’s as a foreign press attaché for the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, “Rosh Hashana had always meant chicken and matzo balls and apples dipped in honey. Then I went to Israel, and it blew my mind. I remember going to a Yemenite home for Rosh Hashanah and thinking – where’s the apples and honey? They had pomegranate. In Israel there are all these different taste sensations. That’s what got me interested in writing about food.”
Eleven cookbooks later, Joan Nathan is the undisputed authority on Jewish cuisine and its diverse and tangled roots. Her latest and perhaps most ambitious book, “King Solomon’s Table” (Knopf, $35), with over 170 recipes traversing the globe, uncovers Jewish culinary history via her research trips to far-flung countries as well as visits with immigrant communities. “First-generation immigrants always have the best recipes,” she noted.
A tireless investigator and good listener, Nathan entered the kitchens of both ordinary families and popular restaurants, interweaving personal stories with historical background and fascinating commentary.
“I always thought Jewish food was rooted in Israel, but in fact it is rooted all over the world,” she said. It really started in Babylon where the oldest cookbook – 44 recipes written on cuneiform tablets – was found dating from 1700 B.C.E. What keeps it together are, first, the dietary laws. Also, Jews were always merchants, traveling the world, looking for new things to bring back. Then throughout history they were kicked out of so many countries and adjusted their food to the regions in which they were living. Learning the story about a recipe teaches you so much about the past, and about food.”
It is the holidays, of course, when a family’s most precious traditions are forged, and Rosh Hashana, “the anniversary of Creation,” a solemn yet joyous holiday with its universal message of hope for a sweet new year, offers ample opportunity to pass along treasured traditions and create new…