In the Kitchen with Joan Nathan, the Grande Dame of Jewish Cooking

A couple of years before my grandma Bev died, in 2016, I asked her to show me how she made her challah, one specialty in an impressive culinary repertoire. She padded over to a cabinet in her kitchen and retrieved, to my great surprise, not a handwritten recipe but a yellowed clipping from a newspaper. At the time, I felt vaguely robbed of something, but in the years that followed I released my grip on the romance of the family recipe. I didn’t make a copy of the clipping, or take particular note of any of my grandma’s techniques. (Except one: when it came time to proof the dough, she tucked the mixing bowl into her bed and switched on the electric blanket.) What she passed on to me was intangible but arguably more important: a love of cooking and eating and hosting, especially in celebration of Jewish holidays. For everything else, I have Joan Nathan.

You could make the case that Nathan is a household name, as long as you’re referring to a Jewish American household. If a Jewish home cook doesn’t own a copy of “The Jewish Holiday Kitchen” (1979) or “Jewish Cooking in America” (1994), she has at least encountered Nathan’s dozens of recipes in the Times, and perhaps attempted her latkes or brisket. Nathan has often been referred to as the Jewish Julia Child; as it happens, she knew Child, quite well. Both women, along with Madhur Jaffrey, worked with the late, legendary cookbook editor Judith Jones (also known for rescuing Anne Frank’s diary from the reject pile at Doubleday). In 2002, Nathan, a longtime fixture of the social scene in Washington, D.C., hosted a ninetieth-birthday party for Child, the night before the Smithsonian opened an exhibit showcasing the contents of Child’s iconic kitchen. It’s a story included in Nathan’s newest cookbook, “My Life in Recipes,” which doubles as a detailed memoir. The party’s menu included fresh corn with pesto butter, which was a hit with the guest of honor. “Julia loved the dish,” Nathan writes. “She slathered the pesto on her corn and ate it with gusto.”

The cover of “My Life in Recipes” features a photo of a large, homemade-looking challah—braided but slightly misshapen, and splitting at the seams—on a well-worn wooden cutting board, and Nathan’s fingers, poised to tear off the end of the loaf. “My kids said, ‘Mom, this isn’t a beautiful challah!’ ” she told me one Thursday morning a few weeks ago, in her kitchen in D.C. Nathan, who is eighty-one, with sturdy, angular features and a coif of dark curls, was more concerned with her hands. “So old!” she said. But her editor had reassured her, insisting, “Those are weathered hands, that have made a lot of challah.” That morning, Nathan had prepared the dough for still more, a dome with a tacky surface now rising in a large bowl. Working carefully, she made two loaves, one a traditional six-strand plait, and the other in the style of pull-apart monkey bread, with round balls nestled together in a cake pan.

The importance of preserving culinary tradition was impressed on Nathan from an early age. In her home office, she keeps a treasured heirloom: an astonishingly detailed miniature kitchen—with a once functional electric stove—that her aunt Trudel packed in a shipping container when the family fled Germany for the U.S., in the nineteen-thirties, along with several leather-bound collections of recipes. One of these recipes—sweet-and-sour salmon, made with lemon, ginger, and brown sugar—is included in an early chapter of the new book, which starts with Nathan’s childhood, inserting core memories (such as the time, at age thirteen, she met Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe at a friend’s house in Larchmont, New York) among instructions for a savory noodle kugel like the one her mother made and a dessert of strawberries and cream beloved by Albert Einstein, whose family knew hers in Germany.

In 1969, after a Peace Corps volunteer she sat next to on a plane told her that Israel was the most fascinating place he’d ever visited, Nathan, then twenty-six, took a trip to Jerusalem that would determine the course of her life. She was so entranced—in no small part by the breadth of the cuisine, from Moroccan stuffed vegetables to Kurdish Aramaean soup—that she moved there, taking a job as a foreign press attaché for Jerusalem’s then mayor, Teddy Kollek, leading V.I.P.s such as David Ben-Gurion and Barbra Streisand on tours of the city. Nathan and a colleague had an idea to invite foreign journalists into private homes for cooking lessons; this inspired a book, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” which collected recipes from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cooks into a vivid, good-humored picture of the city’s diversity. (Golda Meir’s matzo balls were, by Nathan’s own admission, “very hard and inflexible, like her foreign policy,” but she included the recipe anyway.)

It’s a job, and a project, that it’s easy to imagine her undertaking, fuelled by her ferocious curiosity and almost aggressive charm. Nathan is a major-league gabber, the savviest of yentas: more than once, during the day I spent with her, she reached for her phone to cold-call whomever we were discussing, whether it was her son, David, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, or Glenn Roberts, the founder of the heirloom-grains company Anson Mills, who has enlisted Nathan’s help in developing recipes using ancient cover crops as part of a climate-recovery initiative. “Ask him if he’s heard back from Podesta,” she instructed me as she bustled around the kitchen, leaving Roberts on speakerphone.

Nathan met the man who would become her husband, Allan Gerson, in 1970, at the Western Wall. It was his career, as a lawyer for the Justice Department, that led them to D.C., where they raised three children, and where Nathan became a dinner-party doyenne, inviting Beltway power players for Shabbos on Friday nights. Alice Waters, recounting a series of charity events they planned together, was gobsmacked by her Rolodex. “She knew all the organizations. She knew all the people in Washington. She knew everybody who came to the farmers’ market! ” she said, laughing.

If Nathan had stumbled into her career in food, she became more than sure-footed over the decades, travelling widely to gather and develop recipes for newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks. She has catalogued the Jewish culinary diaspora and often explored beyond it: one of my favorites of her recipes is for a dish of collard greens in oyster sauce, which she learned from a Chinese American chef in the Mississippi Delta. In the nineties, she made “Jewish Cooking in America” into a show of the same name on PBS, sponsored by Hebrew National and Lender’s Bagels. One episode featured Mandy Patinkin and his mother making vegetarian “chopped liver” out of peas, walnuts, and egg whites; another, called “What Is Kosher?,” guest-starred her friend Julia. “She’s the blueprint,” Jake Cohen, a thirty-year-old Jewish American cookbook author, told me. “You couldn’t get Seinfeld to say the word ‘Jewish,’ and she was dragging Julia Child through a supermarket looking for kosher food!”

The monkey-bread challah Nathan was making was a recipe that she originally developed for “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen,” published in 1987; she was testing it now for an updated edition. She put both loaves in the top unit of her double wall oven and set about preparing lunch, hunting for cashews to make a tapenade with garlic and honey, a recipe that is particularly meaningful to her: it had been served at a lunch in Israel celebrating Gerson’s last birthday before he died, in 2019.

As we ate, she gestured out the window to the lawn, where, she explained, she sets up long tables for her annual Passover Seder. Her favorite part of the occasion, she told me, is a play put on by her children. “Let’s see—there’s God, there’s Moses,” she said, recounting the cast. (One year, she recalled, a confused guest had requested the part of Jesus.) Her menu, included in a chapter of the new book called “My Holiday Is Passover,” has come to reflect her adventures. She makes a Curaçaoan haroseth (the fruit-and-nut paste integral to the Seder plate) and a Sephardic dish called huevos haminados: eggs simmered overnight in a mixture of onion skins, tea leaves, coffee grounds, and cinnamon sticks, served with wilted spinach.

Last year, for my family’s Seder, I prepared, without intending to, all Joan Nathan recipes: a gefilte-fish terrine; baked salmon with pomegranate sauce, which she learned from an Iraqi Jewish artist; brisket. I especially love Nathan’s matzo balls, which she makes with fresh ginger, fresh herbs, and nutmeg, and which are pleasingly dense. Many recipes include tricks for making them light as air (seltzer water, baking soda), but Nathan and I both prefer al-dente sinkers to fluffy floaters—a texture that bites back a bit, like gnocchi. At the end of our Seder, my father looked at me appraisingly and said with pleasure, “You’ve become a real balabusta,” Yiddish for “talented homemaker,” a designation I hadn’t quite realized I’d been craving.

As Nathan and I finished our lunch, and she cut into a wheel of goat cheese for dessert, it suddenly occurred to me: the challah! “Oh, my God!” she said, jumping up from the table and darting to the oven; we had lingered much longer than its baking time. One crisis—burned loaves—had been averted by another: the oven didn’t seem to be producing nearly enough heat. Maybe it would be great, we joked, slow-roasted. Nathan moved the bread to the bottom oven, which appeared to have hoarded all the warmth; within a few minutes, the top of each loaf had sped past the intended shade of golden brown to a deep, burnished bronze, just shy of scorched. “I’m so embarrassed,” she said. And yet, when it came time for me to leave, there were two challahs, redolent of nigella and anise. They weren’t beautiful, but they were delicious, torn into hunks and eaten alone, sliced for French toast the next morning, and blitzed into bread crumbs to coat pounded chicken thighs, for schnitzel—Nathan has a recipe, of course. ♦

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