I’m useless in the kitchen, and most cookbooks intimidate me. But I do love a good story, and that’s how I became a fan and a friend of the food writer Joan Nathan. Nathan’s classics – including The Jewish Holiday Kitchen , The Foods of Israel Today , and An American Folklife Cookbook , sat on my shelf for years before I realized that she writes about people and what they eat, an approach that has more in common with sociology or anthropology. Her personal history weaves its way subtly into the tale, too. Paging through Nathan’s books, beginning with The Flavor of Jerusalem , written in 1975 when she lived in Jerusalem and worked for then-mayor Teddy Kollek, readers can track her travels, learn about her family, and discover her passions.
Those passions include all things French, especially the language and the food. Nathan claims her father sent her to France as a teenager in the 1950s because he felt young women should have fluency in foreign languages. While living there, just over a decade after the end of World War Two, and again for a junior year abroad at the Sorbonne, she connected with relatives and friends and noted a reticence about discussing their Jewish experience. She felt uncomfortable pushing. Unanswered questions about French-Jewish culture, consciousness and cuisine never left her, although she returned to the country many times for work and pleasure.
Forty years and 10 cookbooks later, Nathan found a way in – through food. In Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous , she writes of her hunger for a deep understanding of the history of French Jews and their food. She serves up a feast, for mind and stomach. This includes a historical review of the first expulsion of Jews from France in 1394, the role of the earliest Portugese-Jewish merchants in the country, the blossoming of French-Jewish life under the Napoleonic Code, the tragedy of World War Two, and the current-day integration of North African Jewry in Marseille and Paris. It’s an easy and informative read, told in Nathan’s friendly, direct voice.
Oh, but it’s recipes you wanted? That’s the bulk of the book, of course, and always interwoven with stories of the people she cooks with. She generously credits these teachers -- ordinary people with extraordinary backgrounds -- sketching their lives and contributions on nearly every page. These mini-features bring the text to life and allow readers to feel that they’re sharing in Nathan’s excitement and discovery, as in the two-page spread titled "A Cultural Evening with the Jews of Saint-Remy-de-Provence," which introduces an Algerian-born Jewish family and the brik they prepare for the Sabbath meal. ( Brik is a North African turnover filled with tuna, hard-boiled egg, and cilantro.)
Despite my fear of failure, I did make one recipe, the Pain Petri , Moroccan anise-flavored challah with sesame seeds. In fact, Joan Nathan and I prepared it together, in her kitchen in Washington, DC on a Friday morning shortly before the book’s publication. She patiently listened to me insist that I couldn’t cook, then picked this recipe specifically because it is easy and fast. After kneading, the dough is twisted into a spiral, rather than a braid, and the anise gives the finished product a heavenly whisper of the Mediterranean. Days later, long after the challah had been devoured, I looked up the recipe and learned the story of Fez-born Georgette Hamier, who bakes it, and everything else, for the Grand Rabbi of Bordeaux. Nathan’s loving and respectful portrait made me feel like I had two gentle mentors overseeing my efforts.