Navigate to News section

An Inspiration in the Kitchen

Pearl Nathan, the mother of Tablet food columnist Joan Nathan, dies at 103

Jonathan Zalman
February 22, 2017
The Nathan family.
The Nathan family.
The Nathan family.
The Nathan family.

Pearl Nathan, the mother of Tablet’s long-time food columnist Joan Nathan, who has published numerous cookbooks and recipes for The New York Times, has died at the age of 103. Pearl’s granddaughter, Merissa Nathan Gerson, is also a regular contributor to Tablet. In all, she had six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Pearl Nathan volunteered for 70 years at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, whose museum includes a café named after her. According to an obituary in The Providence Journal, Pearl

was born in 1913 in New York City to parents who operated Kops, a dress and hat store on Madison Avenue at 55th Street. She graduated from Barnard College in 1934 and married chemical engineer Ernest Nathan in 1937.

Alan Nathan, 76, of Barrington, the oldest of their three children, said Monday from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he is skiing with his children and grandchildren, that his parents met in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where hotels would arrange “the 1930s version of online dating.”

In a Tablet recipe for her family’s sweet-potato tsimmes with pineapple and marshmallows, to be served at Sukkot or Thanksgiving, Joan Nathan wrote that it was her mother who served as the recipe’s inspiration.

She is a first-generation American who grew up eating this sweet potato dish at every holiday—Jewish and secular. Her inclusion of this tsimmes at non-religious festivals is similar to what I’ve seen happening around the country for ages—new immigrants and people who have been here for generations integrating ethnic and regional character into their Thanksgiving meals… These dishes tell you who you are.

And in a recipe for butter cookies, Joan writes about how her mother enabled, “in her own Jewish way,” her fascination with Christmas while recalling the holiday parties her parents put on, including the only recipe her father knew.

[M]y parents always had a party with eggnog served in a big glass punch bowl, as well as my father’s champagne punch—the one recipe he brought from Germany before the Second World War, and the only recipe he ever prepared himself. My parents invited Jews and gentiles—including our teachers and policemen…

As my 99-year-old mother Pearl still remembers, at those parties she generally served roast turkey with cranberries. And she also served her signature casserole containing sauerkraut, tiny hot dogs, tomatoes, and brown sugar. We adored, and still adore, that simple, sweet and sour, one-pot dish. (To this day, my mother claims that putting it together is not cooking. Tongue in cheek, she has always teased that she signed a prenuptial agreement with my father never to cook.) Later, when we moved to Providence, R.I., we also celebrated Christmas … in a way. With the city’s larger Jewish population, my mother switched her party entrée to glazed corned beef once the Thoughts for Buffets cookbook came out in 1958, produced by Chicago housewives as a fundraiser for their local JCC.

The entire Tablet family sends our condolences.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.