"During this time I learned that you don't have to live in Israel but Israel teaches you how to live"
How Do You Jew with Joan Nathan conducted in December, 2017
Cookbook author and newspaper journalist
How did you come to do what you do?
After graduating from Michigan, one of my first jobs was at NBC, where I took a summer vacation to Israel. Mind you, I didn’t want to go. My father was a Zionist and I guess you can say that was my own form of rebellion. Well, I loved it. I stayed in Jerusalem for 2 ½ years, which were really my formative years. During this time I learned that you don't have to live in Israel but Israel teaches you how to live. The intensity of the political atmosphere reminds us of the preciousness of life and the importance of seizing the moment. I ended up working for the mayor of Jerusalem, where I met Ben Gurion and Golda Meir; and during that time I also wrote my first cookbook, The Flavor of Jerusalem.
King Solomon’s Table is just as much a history book as it is a cookbook, tell us more about what inspired that
When I visited India, I saw a sign in a synagogue that said “Jews have been in India since the time of King Solomon.” That initial discovery in India made me realize that Jews have circled the globe and that Jewish food dates back earlier than we had originally thought. That trip inspired me to explore, in a very academic way, what makes Jewish cooking unique.
How has your cooking evolved from your first book to the most recent one?
Each of my cookbooks is like a master Thesis and has reflected where I was in life. My first book reflected where I was in my late 20s, a period spent living in Israel, visiting people’s houses, and being fascinated by the people and the food. I didn’t know much about Judaism during that period, and I wasn’t mature enough to understand what Jewish food really meant at that point. King Solomon’s Table really is decades in the making and celebrates our history and our culture.
What is your favorite Jewish holiday or tradition?
Passover! We have 40 people of all ages at our house. And it’s hard to do, and everything on the table is mismatched, but every time, we do it. I make gefilte fish, and five different charoseths to show where Jews have been, and we do the same play after we read the Hagaddah, and that’s become our tradition. So you can put food on a table, but the traditions are what make the memories for children.
That’s probably why the traditional recipes are still around: people like the old because everything else keeps changing.
Favorite food that you associate with Judaism?
I love making challah. I like that It comes out differently every time. It also makes Friday night special, in an instant.
Is there a Jewish food you don’t enjoy cooking?
I’m not a huge fan of honey cake, I just don’t like the taste of honey.
Aside from culinary, how do you incorporate Judaism into your daily life?
Israel is a big component. Also, Shabbat dinner, whether at our house or others’ houses, is something we try and do every week. But I also read a lot of stuff that’s Jewish and although our home is not kosher, we do observe some kashrut rules (no pork, no shellfish).
After reading King Solomon’s Table, what would you like people to come away knowing about Jewish cooking?
First, that Iraq is the center of all Jewish food. Babylon and later Baghdad were, at one time, the center of the world: the rabbis were there, commerce was vibrant, and life was good. In 1930 there were 50,000 Jews in Baghdad, which by the late 1940s was close to 130,000.
The other is that Jewish food has always been the one global cuisine. We are founded on this notion of gathering of people, even King Solomon’s wives came from many different places. Jews at that time had been merchants, vintners, bakers, wandering the world, and were being expelled from places. As they moved from place to place, they had to regionalize their food and adapt while ensuring they were following the dietary laws. The history of Jewish food is almost like a history of the world's food. That’s what makes our cuisine so very rich.
What’s next for someone who’s always curious and never stops learning?
I’ll be working on a book of essential Joan Nathan recipes, a best of, which won’t be easy.
What’s your favorite Hanukkah dish you’d like to share with our readers?
These Green Chile Relleno Latkes were created on a Hanukkah night in the hills of Placitas in northern New Mexico at the home of Tom and Joanne Ashe, avid cooks who are always having family gatherings.
King Solomon's Table will make a great addition to your cookbook collection, or a wonderful gift to someone who has everything.