Great Books: Jewish Food in America, by Joan Nathan

Dried salmon hanging on hooks
Dried salmon on display at London’s Jewish food festival, Gefiltefest. Photo mine, June 2015.

Sometimes, those TV books are really awesome. This is one of them.

Joan Nathan – balabusta extraordinaire and America’s top Jewish food public figure– wrote Jewish Cooking in America back in the early 1990’s. The thick book – filled with history and food – won so much attention that it then got turned into a wildly successful PBS series. (I strongly urge that you find a way to watch the series, because it is awesome.) Then the book got updated to serve as a companion to the show with somehow more recipes. 

Yes, it is a “TV book.” It is also packed to the brim with recipes, popular and unpopular. You have the “classics” of various culinary traditions – kneidlach from Eastern Europe, bourekas from the Sephardi world, Yemenite soups, and challah from many traditions. You also have the less popular things – the p’tcha, calf’s foot aspic, and hilbeh – that’s Yemenite fenugreek spread – and rhubarb soups. (I have had all three and they are all delicious.) And then there are the more labor intensive ones – directions to pickle your own herring (yes, yes, yes, yes, yes), and make fish gelatin molds (please no), and to make your own gefilte fish (yes). In short, it’s…a great compendium.

Admittedly this book sometimes falls a bit too far down the authenticity rabbit hole for my tastes – there is much stock placed in the “real recipe” and Jewish “traditions” here. That said, the book is very much a product of the 1990’s, which was perhaps the era of peak “authentic.” Yet Nathan also questions authenticity throughout the book – she notes where Jews have made substitutions for spices or flavors, or added their own twists, or adopted local cuisines. Georgian-Jewish Southern Fried Chicken might be the best recipe title I’ve ever read. And the book is filled with stories of real people from throughout American history – ordinary and extraordinary Jews who cooked, ate, and rejoiced.

A link to the book on Amazon is at the bottom of this post, and I strongly urge you to look at Nathan’s writing at Tablet (the only thing from Tablet I make sure to read) and The New York  TimesBut first, let me leave you with two choice quotes from material in the book. The first is her own writing; the second is the best historical food quote I’ve seen on Judaism.

“For second- and third-generation American Jews, what was once daily subsistence became a special occasion food. In Europe, knishes, like kugels and latkes, were a way of varying the daily monotony of potatoes for the poor. Here during the sweatshop era, knishes, a portable food like pasties … were eaten for lunch every day. Thereafter these foods disappeared as daily fare. Now they are in vogue again, having reappeared in miniature form as hors d’oeuvres at weddings and other ceremonial events, and as fast-food snacks.” (Nathan 2011:4)

The shade!

“‘You wrote to me some time agoe (sic) you was asked at my brother Asher’s to a fish dinner but you did not go. I desire you will never eat anything with him unless it be bread and butter nor noe where else where there is the last doubt of things not done after our strict Judiacall method.’ – A letter from Abigail Franks of Philadelphia to her son Naphtali in London, 1733.” (Franks 1733 in Nathan 2011:131)

Nathan, Joan. Jewish Cooking in America. New York, Knopf: 1994, 1998, 2011.

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