The first time I ever spoke to Joan Nathan, it was by telephone, and I wrote out for myself what I wanted to say to her: “Hello, Ms. Nathan, this is Rob Eshman with The Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, and I want to speak with you about your new cookbook. I think you should know that ‘Jewish Holiday Kitchen’ is my Bible.”
I don’t normally do that — I don’t usually write my phone introductions down like a telemarketer’s script. But after Joan’s publicist agreed to the interview, I got nervous. For years I’d pored over her cookbooks. When people said I made good matzah balls, latkes, cholent or challah, they were crediting Joan. My grandmother and mom made some of these dishes, and theirs were delicious, but I didn’t know the recipes. Joan did. She researched them, she tested them, she drew out the stories behind them, and she wrote the best ones down. I used them over and over. I didn’t feed my family and friends. Joan Nathan did.
Again, you have to understand: In our home, my wife, the rabbi, has shelves of holy books, volumes of Jewish texts, a Talmud set handed down to her from her father. I have seven shelves of cookbooks. If you ask me where I keep my Richard Olney, or my Marcella Hazan, or my Nathan, I will find it for you. Then one day, about 10 years ago, I found myself talking with her.
Joan Nathan, bigger than life before I called her, turned out to be warm, and friendly, and interested, and then, eventually, part of my life.
She was due out to Los Angeles on a book tour. I picked her up at the Bel Age Hotel and took her to Uzbekistan, a now-defunct restaurant on Sunset and La Brea that was owned by Jews.
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“Manti!” Joan exclaimed when her eyes ran over the menu.
Manti are dumplings. Joan quickly explained how manti and kreplach share peasant roots; they’re the wontons of the steppes. The waiter asked if we wanted vodka. It was lunchtime, on a Wednesday.
“This food really needs vodka,” Joan said. That was a great lunch.
We’ve eaten many more meals together. Joan lives in Washington, D.C., where her husband, Allan Gerson, specializes in international law (he is the one who sued Libya over the Lockerbie bombing — and won). But her work for The New York Times food section, as well as her own books, have often brought her West, and when she’s come I’ve always spent more time than I ever let on figuring out the best places to take her: a tour through Elat Market in Pico-Robertson, City Spa’s cafe for its Russian/Persian food and Koreatown.
Once we drove an hour north to the Herzog kosher winery in Oxnard, where we ate at Tierra Sur, one of the world’s best kosher restaurants. Chef Todd Aarons (who now blogs at jewishjournal.com) saw Joan and came to our table.
“My wife always makes our challah,” he told Joan. “I just realized it’s your recipe.”
His eyes grew soft. For a second I thought he was tearing up. “Every Shabbas she makes your challah.”
Joan, who can be very unsentimental about her work, nodded understandingly.
“That’s a great recipe,” she said.
In October, Knopf published Joan’s 10th cookbook, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” Don’t let the somewhat kitschy title fool you: This is a serious, deeply researched, but accessible work. Like all of Joan’s books, it is as much anthropology, history and journalism as it is cookbook. The more accurate, though maybe less Food Network-friendly, title would have been “French Jewish Cuisine.”
I threw a book party for Joan over Chanukah. For a woman who had given me so much, it was so the least I could do. A hard-and-fast dinner party rule is never cook anything new. But I resolved to make only recipes from the new book, things I’d never made before: Choucroute garnie with homemade sauerkraut; a fennel salad with celery, cucumber, lemon and pomegranate; Tunisian winter squash with coriander and harissa; North African brik with tuna and cilantro, and an Alsatian Chanukah fruit bread called Hutzel Wecken.
Joan came early, and we cooked together. She told me how she’d traveled through France to find Jewish recipes but along the way discovered how much French cuisine owes to centuries of Jewish migration and innovation — how it was the Jews who brought chocolate and many other New World foods to France, as well as foie gras.
The house filled up with family and friends. Joan’s invite list kept bringing surprises through the door. When Joan introduced me to Anne Willan, whose cookbooks I also revere, I think I blurted out, “You’re here?” The food writer Jonathan Gold and his wife, editor Laurie Ochoa, came in — Jonathan Gold eating my food. If the pomegranate vodka I’d made hadn’t by then taken effect, I would have been a mass of nerves — I would have had to write down what I’d always wanted to say to Jonathan.
But the fireplace was crackling, the food came out fine, we went through a lot of pomegranate vodka — and a lot of wine. They say one secret to happiness is the ability to show gratitude. It must be true, because that night I was very, very happy.