Young and Hungry

A Y&H Interview with D.C. Cookbook Legend, Joan Nathan

joan nathanNext week, Joan Nathan, the D.C.-based cookbook author who's won just about every award there is, will release her first recipe collection in five years. Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous is different from Nathan's other tomes in that it draws on a very specific region rather than looking at the entire diaspora of Jewish cooking.

In this e-mail Q&A, I asked Nathan about her fascination with Jewish cooking in France and what drives her to keep writing cookbooks after 35 years. (To learn more about Nathan and her career, you can also attend one of her upcoming book events.)

Y&H: Your new cookbook, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous, takes a look at Jewish cooking in France. What struck me about the book, as you note in an early chapter, is that we tend to look at Jewish cooking from a macro point of view, as a collection of recipes and dishes from across the diaspora. But with this book, you're focused on Jewish cooking in one country. How does Jewish foods differ in France compared to other countries?

Joan Nathan: Good question. First of all the food is much more soigné as Julia Child would say. It has a French touch to it. But Jewish cooking there is also regionalized and affected by French geography. In addition, it is closer to its roots, be it Mediterranean, Romanian, Eastern European or Alsatian, not having any processed food in it as we have across the Atlantic Ocean. So, for example, a French Jewish cheesecake would have good farmers cheese, rather than the manufactured Philadelphia cream cheese and graham Cracker crust. It might have no crust as the recipe in my new book.

Y&H: You mention in the cookbook that many French Jews didn't even realize the origins of some of their foods. They merely viewed them as "French." How did you begin to unravel all the Jewish connections in what people thought of as French regional cooking? And how long did it take you?

JN: It took me about 4 years and maybe 40 years. I became aware of good food when I went to France in the 1960s. As I ate with French Jewish families through the years, I noticed different foods...couscous in some, stuffed veal in others, liver dumplings floating in soup in still others. I began to realize how regional French Jewish cooking is. Traditional food is brought out for holidays and the Sabbath. Slowly I began to unravel the food, reading novels, listening to oral histories, etc.

Y&H: In one chapter you make an assertion that struck me: You wrote that some Jews "brought the art of making foie gras to France." Can you relate more about the research you found?

JN: I read many books on foie gras in English, French, and had someone translate Italian for me. I also spoke with foie gras experts and the story became clearer. In the 16th century someone wrote about the Jews and foie gras but much earlier I was able to read Cato who wrote about foie gras in the Roman Empire. I also knew that Jews learned the art way back in Egypt. They brought it to Rome and continued it in France, not for the foie gras, but for the fat. Jews were always in the goose business and foie gras was a by product as were quills and feathers. For them the fat was essential for cooking.

Y&H: You write several times about Kashrut dietary laws and how they fit into France, a country known for its heavy butter and cream sauces. It made me wonder if, almost by necessity, Jews in France were among the first to create a sort of Mediterranean cuisine, with olive oil instead of butter and cream. What's your thought?

JN: Jews in France knew olive oil from ancient Israel. Olives were one of the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy. They were used to using it in cooking when they came to Rome and then what is now France and were able to continue using it. It was only when some Jews journeyed northward where olive oil was harder to procure that they started to use goose fat. They use butter and cream but in quiches and dairy soups.

Y&H: You note that Kosher wine is on the rise in France. Have some of the more famous chateaus started producing Kosher wines now and did you get to sample any during your many visits?

JN: Yes, regular vineyards do kosher runs, making sure to kasher all the equipment and the entire place. This is unlike America where an entire facility is kosher. There is only one totally kosher vineyard that I know of in France. And yes, I did sample kosher wine that was from normal vineyards.

Y&H: How much has North African cuisine and ingredients influenced Jewish cooking in France?

JN: North African cuisine and ingredients have influenced Jewish cooking greatly in France. First of all, many North Africans have married Ashkenazic Jews. I have never seen a family where the Ashkenazic cooking won out. North African food is influencing France generally — harissa, hummus, falafel are everywhere and not just on Jewish tables.

Y&H: Going off topic for a minute, what cuisines or trends would you say have influence Jewish cooking in America?

JN: Every trend has influenced Jewish cooking in America. It started with the first Eastern European immigrants who had Yiddish-English cookbooks for the new immigrants put out by Procter and Gamble's Crisco, Pillsbury, etc. Then Madison Avenue had ads for cranberry sauce that made its way into stuffed cabbage, Lipton's onion soup that made its way into brisket, etc. Now different food trends like sushi has appeared.

Y&H: You've been writing cookbooks since 1975, and it's clear that you still have the drive for it. This book is wide in scope and has a lot of research behind it. But it must be a drain, traveling from D.C. to France to conduct all the interviews and sleuthing out the recipes. Why do you continue doing it? What drives you?

JN: Another good question. I feel as if writing each book is a big research paper. The search is almost as important as anything else. I get such a high out of discovering something interesting and something new. I would hope that my readers will get the excitement that I have gotten.

Y&H: Jewish cooking has been the focus of most of your writings, but you've occasionally wandered into other areas, like American cooking. Is there a cuisine you would really like to write about?

JN: Right now I have no cuisine that I would like to write about. But I do love Mediterranean cuisine.

Y&H: If you could direct readers to only two recipes in your new book, which ones would you single out?

JN: 2 recipes! That is like trying to select a favorite child. If I had to choose two, I would say the salad juive [page 92-93], a cooked tomato salad, and perhaps the lemon curd tarte, a recipe I love [page 345].

  • George Wroblewski

    Great article. Regarding French Kosher wines. Yes, they are on the increase. The French are even producing Mevushal Chablis and Haut Medoc, unheard of only a couple of years ago.