Finding the ingredients of culture in recipes

Joan Nathan had to dig out information for her new book on Jewish cooking in France. Joan Nathan had to dig out information for her new book on Jewish cooking in France. (Michael Lionstar)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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Each year, as Hanukkah approaches, cooks across the country haul out their latke-spattered editions of Joan Nathan’s cookbooks. Nathan grew up in Providence and now lives in Washington, D.C.; her award-winning books include “Jewish Cooking in America,” and “The New American Cooking.” She will speak in Boston this week about her latest, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.”

What books did you read as background for this project?

I read commentaries by Rashi, a philosopher and rabbi in the Middle Ages — I’d go through the Bible and look at food, then see what he had to say. I went to the Library of Congress and looked through 16th- and 17th-century French cookbooks. It’s detective work. They don’t mention Jews, but Jews were part of the culture.

I also looked at novels. That’s how you really round out what you’re doing. I read “Sarah’s Key.” I read one of the “Rashi’s Daughters” books by Maggie Anton. I read Irène Némirovsky, “Suite Française.” I read “The Last of the Just” by André Schwarz-Bart. Sometimes I get nothing, because food is not always mentioned, even in French books.

My favorites are both from 1929. “Gastronomie Juive,” by Suzanne Roukhomovsky, who talked about the Jews of Alsace, of Romania. She understood what I understood: The Jews in France come from everywhere, and traditional food is different in every region. And “Cuisine Juive, Ghettos Modernes,” by Édouard de Pomiane. He went back to Poland, and looked at ghettos and how the Jews ate there.

You did a master’s degree in French literature.

Right. I did my thesis on the image of Esther in the work of Proust. I had a bigger understanding of Proust through his relationship to his mother [who was Jewish]. They played this game: She would read a line of Racine’s play “Esther,” and he would respond with the next line. That was her favorite play.

What cookbooks do you like to read and cook from?

I still love to read Julia Child. She really knew how to write recipes, and she had a sense of humor. I also like Marcella Hazan. These are the first people who presented French and Italian food for all of us.

There’s one called “The Frog Commissary Cookbook,” put out by a caterer in Philadelphia in the 1980s. I like cooking with that one. Really good recipes. Then there’s a book I always go back to: “The Community Cookbook,’’ from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. It was written by the Jewish community during the war, while the men were away. Women were going to the older women and getting recipes, the recipes they brought from Russia.

What authors inspire your writing?

David McCullough. I love his books. You know he’s accurate, but he keeps the reader moving. The late Sheila Lukins of “The Silver Palate” — I loved her, but I also loved her gumption with recipes and trying new things. Claudia Roden’s books are unbelievable. She inspired me to spend those days getting lost in the library.

What’s the virtue of cookbooks, as opposed to recipe databases like Epicurious?

You can’t put smudges on the Internet. When people have me sign their books, they’re so proud of the smudges, because it shows they’ve really used them. It’s also a way of passing on what you love to your children. I can’t tell you how many people have brought my first cookbooks in to me and said, “I kept this when my mother died.” It’s easier to cook from a cookbook. And then you can bring it to bed with you to read.

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