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Jane Enkin

 
Jane Enkin : Tarbut 2017-Review of Talk by Joan Nathan, Author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World

by Jane Enkin Dec 5, 2017

 

Joan Nathan is a beloved American cookbook author and educator. She came to speak at  the Rady JCC's Tarbut Festival k about her 11th book, King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World. “People love this book,” Nathan glowed, “I'm very happy about it.” The recipes have crystal-clear instructions, many accompanied by lovely photos and many introduced with charming personal stories. Tantalizing reading!

 

It's important to preserve and communicate family recipes and regional recipes for the next generation, Nathan emphasizes. I share the feeling – my mother says she feels her own mother at her elbow as she cooks for Passover. But for this book, Nathan dug much deeper than the memories of parents and grandparents. She examined the origins of Jewish food traditions, and found recipes that hold these ancient traditions in Jewish kitchens today.

 

About 6 years ago, Nathan was with her family in Cochin India, in Jewtown. The tradition is that Jews have been there since the time of King Solomon. In the Bible, King Solomon is described in search of spices, jewels and peacocks. Nathan was so intrigued – what brought Solomon or his emissaries as far as India?-- she began to study foods from the time of King Solomon, and even earlier.

 

She found, for example, that gruels made of legumes have an extraordinarily long history, from Mesopotamia onward. Jacob gave Esau a lentil stew. Humus, made of chickpeas and sesame from China, was likely the food Boaz gave his workers.

 

By the point that Nathan looked at the time of King Solomon, Jewish food was already a composite of many sources. King Solomon's many wives came from all parts of the Old World, and Nathan imagined each of them with her own stove, cooking dishes fragrant with spices. Merchants and traders sought foods from afar to pay as tithes to the king. When the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they picked up many foods that have remained important in Jewish cuisine, such as beets, certain fish recipes, and slow-cooked dishes of meat, grains and beans for Shabbat.

 

Nathan gave us more tidbits of her research, from the discovery in the Cairo geniza of medieval shopping lists, all the way to 21st century American adaptations of traditional foods. She also suggested some overarching principles to help understand Jewish cuisine:

What did Jews bring to cuisine?

The dietary laws, Shabbat laws, and holiday customs

Comfort foods

Passionate interest -- “Jews are obsessed with food!”

Food as business – for example, Jewish merchants on the Spice Route communicated recipes from Spain to Ukraine, from Russia to Rome

What did Jews pick up about cuisine?

They were always adapting to new places.

Nathan included in the book a recipe for Yucca Latkes served to her in El Salvador. “Yucca is easier to get than potatoes,” her host explained, “and better!”

 

Key to the great pleasure of hearing Nathan speak and reading her book is the delight she takes in meeting people and sharing stories. As she traced the Jewish journey, she gave us glimpses of her own voyage of discovery. She collected recipes world-wide and tested them, cooking them for Shabbat dinners and tweaking the dishes. “You have to trust your own taste,” she explained.

 

Nathan took time to talk about Canadian Jewish specialties, and to ask for recommendations of places to eat in Winnipeg. Because Jewish communities in Canada are small and networks are tight, recipes remained very local. I was so happy to hear about the blueberry buns I love so well, “the iconic Jewish baked goods of Toronto.” One woman, Annie Kaplansky, brought the recipe from her tiny Polish town, and found that the summer blueberries of Ontario reminded her of the fruit in Poland. The recipe has remained a Toronto specialty, and perhaps I'll try out Nathan's recreation from her book.

 

Because the recipes, stories and traditions of Poland, Roumania and other countries with Jewish populations were so localized, in the mass migration and especially in the destruction of the Holocaust, “whole cultures were lost,” Nathan reflected. It was a sad moment in her talk, which was otherwise filled with her enthusiasm and sense of fun. But it helped her emphasize the importance of her historical explorations.

 

Perhaps eating well is the best revenge, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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