If Joan Nathan seems distracted, she has plenty of reasons to be. Her mother, the grand dame of Providence, R.I., passed away in February at age 103 while Nathan was visiting. Her son, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, is deep into the planning stages of a wedding. Nathan sat shiva one week — mourning and remembering her mother with friends and family — and planned an engagement dinner the next week at her home in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Washington.
Nathan also has a baby on the way, this one many years in the making: Her 11th cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table” is a tour de force of Jewish cooking from around the globe. Ahead of the book’s drop April 4, she’s juggling a lot: interviews, publisher meetings, publicity strategies, wedding plans, dinner preparations, phone calls, emails and a thousand other things, large and small. It can be tricky to stay on topic with Nathan before another task or another thought pops into her head and — bam! — you’re suddenly watching your original conversation float into the ether.
Her penchant for distraction may have something to do with the emotional roller coaster she’s been riding, or it may have everything to do with the art and soul of Joan Nathan. At age 74, Nathan has accumulated a lifetime of stories and recipes, from cooks across the Jewish diaspora, and her curiosity remains insatiable. When you talk to her and she suddenly takes you down a rabbit hole, it’s not because she has grown bored with the previous subject. It’s just the opposite: She’s become so engaged with the topic that she’s tapped into a tangential memory that she just can’t wait to share with you.
Her style is engrossing and, inevitably, laugh-inducing in social settings. It can be hell on journalists trying to establish basic biographical details and timelines. But the only way to deal with it is to give in. Give her plenty of time to roam, and soon new worlds will open.
“When I lived in Israel, I saw not a clash but a coming together of civilizations. You know, for me, Jewish food was my mother’s matzoh ball soup. Then I went there and I saw stuffed vegetables and all kinds of salads that were different, and this was in the early ’70s. . . . I remember hummus. When I came back nobody was eating hummus. I realized then that food was culture, and it was not restaurant culture. It was ethnic culture.”
Her new cookbook — a rich tome that bounces from country to country, recipe to recipe, drawing connections all along the way — perfectly mirrors Nathan’s personality.
How do you begin to unravel a life story as complex as Nathan’s? She’s the daughter of an immigrant father who understood what the rising tide of nationalism would mean for Jews in Germany, so he and his family fled in the 1920s. She’s the daughter of an American mother who understood the importance of life’s daily rituals, like a walk or a stiff drink. Her mother was one of the biggest influences in her life, even in her death.
“The past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot, like, that you really are alone, no matter who you’re married to. When you ache, or whatever it is, you’re alone. My mother knew how to be alone. I know a ton of people, but I kind of like to be alone, too, a lot.”
Nathan has undergraduate and master’s degrees in French literature. She’s worked for the mayors of Jerusalem and New York City. Her husband, Allan Gerson, is a distinguished lawyer. She’s the mother of three adult children. She has published some of the most influential volumes in Jewish cooking, often working at Knopf with Judith Jones, the legendary editor behind countless cookbooks. Nathan has hosted a PBS series based on her book, “Jewish Cooking in America.” She has won multiple James Beard Awards. She has been inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage. She’s fluent in French and English. She speaks German (“somewhat”), Italian (“somewhat”) and Hebrew (“better than my German and Italian”).
“I was writing ‘Jewish Cooking in America’ . . . and I was working with Judith Jones! I got this phone call from her after I handed in the manuscript, and she said: ‘You’re going to have to come to New York. I don’t know what you’re doing.’ By the time I got off the phone with her, I realized what I had done, what was wrong and that I could fix it.”
Nathan is a friend to ambassadors, scholars, home cooks, celebrity chefs and writers. She has written regular columns for The Washington Post and the New York Times. She’s spoken to almost every important figure in 20th-century gastronomy and beyond, whether food writer M.F.K. Fisher or French chef Jean-Louis Palladin or Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born British chef. She’s close friends with Alice Waters, the chef and matriarch of the locavore movement. She remembers names and details of interactions as if they occurred yesterday, even when they occurred more than 60 years ago, when she was a sixth-grader in Larchmont, N.Y.
“George Braziller, the [book] publisher, was friendly with Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, So he invited all of us, this gang, to walk over to his house to [meet] Marilyn Monroe. None of the boys would wash their hands for a week, and she gave us all cards that said, ‘Love and kisses, Marilyn Monroe.’ ”
Nathan still has that card. It’s now framed underneath a pensive black-and-white photo of Monroe, which hangs at the base of the stairs in Nathan’s home. Nathan brags that she’s the only one from her childhood neighborhood to still have the card. She mentions that she had an autograph collection when she was young. But what’s left unsaid is that, at heart, Nathan has always been an archivist and historian. She just switched from autographs to stories of Jewish cooks and their recipes.
“She is, before anything, a storyteller and a cultural anthropologist who has chosen food as her medium to share the stories of the Jewish diaspora,” emails Leah Koenig, the cookbook author who lists Nathan as one of her writing gods. “Her books have added the texture of lived experience to my understanding of Jewish culinary traditions.”
The people who know her best all have Joan Nathan stories. They tend to illustrate a similar point: that underneath her genial, hopscotch personality lies a fearless and curious soul.
Before his life became consumed by the madness of Pizzagate, restaurateur James Alefantis, the man behind Comet Ping Pong and Buck’s Fishing and Camping, took a trip to Cuba last year with the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art. He invited Nathan to join him, even though they would have different aims. Alefantis had art business to attend to. Nathan was there to visit “like all the Jews in Havana,” Alefantis jokes. “We met all these young Jewish Cubans.”
But they also met Paolo Titolo, husband of Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban president Raúl Castro and director of the country’s National Center for Sex Education. Titolo is an Italian photographer known for shooting members of Cuba’s transgender communities. Titolo took Nathan and Alefantis to a shantytown where they stopped at a shack with a corrugated metal roof, home to a local drag queen who makes dresses for young girls to wear to their quinceañera celebrations. Titolo told the Americans they would have to be discreet at the home.
Nathan “of course, goes right over and opens the refrigerator because she’s like, ‘You can always tell where they’re from if you look in their refrigerator,’ ” Alefantis remembers. “It was perfectly clean, this refrigerator. There were just like eggs and vegetables. It turned out they had a big garden for themselves right there, and they were growing all their vegetables.”
“For some reason, the Cubans sell lots of cabbage. Cabbage, you think of it as Eastern European, but then it occurred to me: Russia! . . . I don’t even know if I thought then about Russia bringing it to Cuba. You just keep thinking about these things.”
Waters first met Nathan in 1987, when they both went on a gastronomic tour of the Soviet Union. The tour was coordinated, they later learned, by a Lithuanian nationalist who regularly sent the esteemed group of American chefs and food writers to cooking schools while the organizer apparently stirred up trouble elsewhere. Nathan wasn’t daunted by the turn of events. As she always does before a major trip, she had researched the area and had a list of people to meet. She split from the group to conduct her interviews. By herself.
“Joan was off doing her research of — what was the group called? — the Refuseniks,” Waters says about the Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union. “Joan was in her element. Just determined to find whatever she needed and wanted. . . . She’s just completely brave in that way.”
“Before the Internet, I wrote letters to the editors of all the Jewish press and a lot of the secular press around the country, asking for good stories and good recipes. . . . When the Internet came along, I thought I’d cheat. To me cheating was using the Internet to get your stories. There’s something about the Internet that I’ve never liked.”
Nathan says she thinks food writers tackle only the cookbooks that they’re ready for. If that’s true, she has been gradually preparing herself, over the course of her career, for the publication of “King Solomon’s Table.” Her first book, co-authored with Judy Stacey Goldman, focused on “The Flavor of Jerusalem.” Later volumes would include not only “Jewish Cooking in America,” but also “The Jewish Holiday Kitchen,” “The Foods of Israel Today” and her exploration of Jewish cooking in France, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous.”
In Nathan’s telling, Solomon was a king with a large appetite for life. He had 700 wives and 300 mistresses, who would have brought the foods from their native lands throughout what is now the Middle East. What’s more, Nathan notes, the 12 tribes of Israel tithed the king and his family with jewels, new foods and spices, introducing even more variety to the area.
“Our mythology of Solomon and his reign overflows with a table full of foods from the then-known world,” Nathan writes in the introduction.
“This weekend, I saw a biblical scholar who said, ‘I don’t believe that King Solomon existed.’ There are some who do and there are some who don’t. I want to be in the ones that do because I like his story, and he’s good metaphor. But the thing is, is anyone ever going to know?”
In the cookbook, Nathan serves as a modern emissary, gathering recipes and stories from all around of the globe to bestow upon the king, who presumably is everyone paging through “King Solomon’s Table.” Nathan has tracked down more than 170 recipes for the book: Fried artichokes, Jewish-style, from a chef in Rome; a vegetarian tagine from Morocco; a “slightly” sweet and sour cabbage dish from Cuba; a vegetable-and-matzoh roll similar to a dried loaf that Arabs used to enrich stews ; a slow-cooked brisket with roots in American butchery .
In her open kitchen with lots of natural light, Nathan is teaching a newbie how to braid a sweet, multi-seeded challah while also prepping an entree called Bene Israel Fish Curry With Fresh Ginger, Tamarind and Cilantro , a dish she learned while visiting Kochi in southwest India. If Nathan is meticulous in her research of a dish — averse to drawing conclusions that she can’t verify — the author is much looser in the kitchen. Everything about Nathan is relaxed: The curls of her short brown hair. The gray artist smock that hangs unbuttoned over a black shirt and pants. Even her attitude, which rolls with any problem that arises, including a mini-food processor that has refused to work.
“It’s not beautiful,” Nathan says of her braiding technique. “I’m doing it quickly. But you know what? It doesn’t matter.”
“Jewish food is not rooted in the soil from where it came, but it’s rooted in the [dietary] laws of kashrut. In the holidays, in the food-centered meals that gave people comfort throughout the years. So that’s one distinguishing characteristic of it that holds on wherever Jews went. And then there are two other characteristics as far as I’m concerned. One is that Jews have always been merchants since the get-go, so they were always interested in the new. . . . The third was that Jews have been kicked out, therefore they had to transplant themselves, so their food had to be regionalized whenever they went.”
Waters relates a story from a few years ago when the friends co-hosted a dinner party at Nathan’s home, part of the annual Sips and Suppers fundraiser that the pair co-founded with chef José Andrés. Waters warned Nathan that she was going to take her house apart, and the chef promptly decided to change lightbulbs, remove furniture, banish objects from the mantelpiece, all to make the house feel more like her restaurant, Chez Panisse.
“I’m sure at first that [Nathan] just almost died that I would move everything,” Waters says. “And then she just started to get into it, and she said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go next door, and I’m going to borrow fancy dishes from the next-door neighbor because I know you’ll like these.’ She must have made 20 trips to the next-door neighbor’s, carrying over all of her Limoges china and plates.
“She just totally got into it,” Waters adds. “I think that she went down to the store and bought the lights herself.”
Joan Nathan, like the people and the food she writes about, knows how to adapt with style.