Joan Nathan, the “doyenne of Jewish cuisine,” is at it again. The James Beard Award-winning author and regular Tablet contributor has just published a new cookbook—her 11th: King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.
Thumbing through the book’s recipes and bright, color-drenched photographs feels like a dizzying, exhilarating ride through the myriad kitchens and countries that collectively tell the story of global Jewish cuisine. Inside, Nathan travels from ancient Babylon to the present day, introducing readers to the sweet-and-sour stuffed grape leaves made by a Persian woman living in Los Angeles, the spicy chocolate rugelach baked by a Mexican-Jewish chef with Ashkenazi roots, and a fragrant carrot salad cooked on an Israeli moshav by Jews originally hailing from India. Even more so than in any of her previous works, Nathan also delves into the recipes’ histories, seeking, as she writes in the introduction, “to discover what makes Jewish cooking unique.”
What she finds along the way is that Jewish cuisine is, and has always been, a two-way street of influence. “As a wandering people, Jews have influenced many different local cuisines as they carried their foods to new lands via Jewish trade routes, while fleeing prejudice in search of safer lands, or while migrating in search of new opportunities,” she writes. Meanwhile, Jews have been equally affected by the places they traveled and settled, incorporating local ingredients and dishes into their culinary repertoires while making substitutions as necessary to ensure the dishes followed the laws of kashrut and the customs of the Sabbath and holidays.
Nathan first tapped into the global nature of Jewish cuisine while living in Israel in the 1970s. “It was and is a country of immigrants, really, and so are we in America,” she told me. She was years ahead of her time in terms of recognizing the power and meaning behind Jewish food. Along with Claudia Roden, the late Gil Marks, and a few others, she pioneered the field of modern Jewish food scholarship. While many Americans were distancing themselves from their culinary heritage, she dug deeper, certain there was a world worth exploring and sharing.
After so many years and so many books (not to mention the countless articles on Jewish cooking she’s published for The New York Times and Tablet, among other places), one might think Nathan would run out of subjects. But that idea is antithetical to her very nature. “When I was working on my France book, I realized just how deeply you could go into the story of Jewish food there,” she told me. “That is true of so many places if you are willing to dig.”
And Nathan has always been willing to dig. A tireless traveler and culinary anthropologist, she has a knack for finding her way into the kitchens of chefs and home cooks alike, ready with a notebook and an endless series of questions. “Joan is an unstoppable force,” writes her close friend Alice Waters (herself a culinary icon) in the book’s foreword.
Nathan’s work is also propelled by the people she meets and the stories they have to share. “People are always coming up to me with a family recipe that means so much to them and they want to uncover the history of,” she said. And with that tidbit, off she goes. No single family’s kitchen can tell the complete story of Jewish food, but Nathan knows that each family’s lived experience—the tears they shed, the joys they celebrate, and the bread they break together—completes another piece of the puzzle.
During the six years she worked on King Solomon’s Table, Nathan traveled extensively, including trips to India and Greece, Italy and Canada. “I went to these places for the recipes and the people,” she said. In one case, she traveled to Cuba on just two days’ notice. “I had a wild weekend,” she said. While there, she also discovered a sweet-and-sour cabbage dish made by a woman whose family of Turkish descent settled in Cuba in the 1920s. In El Salvador, a place with an isolated Jewish community that she describes as having “a kind of culinary lag with regard to holiday foods,” she uncovered Schokoladenwurst, an old-fashioned chocolate “sausage” made with coffee and marzipan that traces its roots back to Germany.
“You have to have a bit of imagination when writing about food and history,” Nathan told me. “You follow the clues that remain from what otherwise might be a completely lost community, and then help connect the dots.”
A few of the recipes in King Solomon’s Table are only very tangentially Jewish. Take the chilaquiles that iconic Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold makes at home for his family. On the one hand, the jumble of eggs and fried tortillas cooked in salsa has no real connection to Jewish tradition. But for Gold, someone who relates to his heritage primarily through his stomach, they offer a gateway of connection. “We call it Mexican matzo brei,” he is quoted as saying in King Solomon’s Table. By including the recipe, Nathan asserts just how expansive and ever-evolving Jewish cuisine can be. Unlike most other cuisines, the Jewish food canon is not bound by geographical borders. What makes a food “Jewish,” her book argues, is the meaning that Jewish people give to it by cooking, serving, and loving it.
In the end, what makes King Solomon’s Table truly great is the same thing that has made all of Joan Nathan’s previous cookbooks great: Nathan herself. Her zest for exploration and passion for bringing people together through their stories is unrivaled. “More than anything,” she said, “I love the challenge of uncovering what lies beneath.”
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