Most cookbooks are all about recipes.
But Joan Nathan’s cookbooks (she’s written 10 of them), are all about the stories.
Her newest, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” (Knopf, $40) is poignantly that kind of book.
Its stories naturally reflect experiences in her own life — as a teenager visiting French relatives in Annecy in the Haute-Savoie and then spending her junior year abroad at the Sorbonne; as a young American Jew working as the foreign press attaché for Jerusalem’s storied Mayor Teddy Kollek; as the culinary historian she has become, passing along Jewish recipes to her family, her friends and her readers.
But what illuminate each of her books, and this one in particular, are the well-reported and researched stories of other peoples’ lives, told through the food they cook.
Jewish history in France is complicated and deep. From the Roman period on, France has been alternately a welcoming home to Jews and a seat of anti-Semitism and persecution. Today, in many French cities there are Jewish communities, and for this book Nathan tracked down most. The stories she found range from family tales dating back centuries to more contemporary events told by butchers, chefs, rabbis, newer immigrants to France and even a baroness.
Initially, Nathan wasn’t sure she could unearth enough for a book. “Eighty-three thousand Jews were taken away [during WW II],” She says. “Only 6,000 returned.”
But she started with a good base of contacts — the relatives she’d known since she visited in Annecy in the 1950s and their friends. She also had her own friends and contacts from the diplomatic circles she had access to in Washington, D.C., where she lives, as well as French Jewish friends in America.
Eventually she gathered enough leads to take the first of several 10-day trips to France to look for material.
When Jewish food was hidden
When Nathan visited France as a teenager, it hadn’t occurred to her to question the provenance of the food she was served. It was simply French. Besides, back then, Jews were unlikely to identify the origins of their recipes. “It was too soon after [WW II],” she says. “People didn’t want to talk about Jewish food. I realized it was hidden.”
Even now, she sometimes finds people reluctant to talk about Jewish origins of recipes. Her family connections often legitimized her in the eyes of people who, she says, might otherwise not have spoken with her. Those contacts and their friends and contacts as well as her gift for connecting with people she barely knew, proved bountiful.
Without them she might not have found the pear and blue plum kugel she learned of through a chef in Chicago; or the Alsatian choucroute with sausage, duck and corned beef cooked on Fridays but served on the Sabbath that she learned of though a doctor in Strasbourg; or the Provençale lasagna passed along by a Jewish policeman in the southwestern part of France.
Research — some archival, some contemporary — tracking down stories substantiating these recipes was important too. The commentaries of Rashi, for example, a medieval French rabbi whose writings on the Hebrew Bible and on the Talmud provided early information about Jewish dietary law. A reference by the popular British author Peter Mayles to “ladder bread” led her to an early 14th-century reference to fougasse, an old bread baked in the shape of a ladder.
Classic French, with a kosher adaptation
Although the recipes Nathan collected represent the diasporic experiences of the Jewish people and therefore different culinary traditions, she discovered basic commonalities. They are all decidedly French, she says — how could they not be — and usually served in a polished, respectful manner she finds characteristic of French cooking. “There’s a concern for presentation — that elan — that’s French.”
And each one has been adjusted to make do nicely without the butter and pork products common to much traditional French cooking, so that they can be cooked in kosher homes. For example, a French recipe that traditionally calls for lardons (usually made from pork fat and therefore not kosher), has been reconstructed with beef fat. Inversely, a Russian recipe that originally called for kasha (buckwheat groats) was reworked in France using bulgar. And French recipes that would have used cream or butter in a sauce for meat were creatively reconfigured with soy milk.
Nathan credits these reconstructions to what she sees as an ability of Jews historically to adjust new surroundings when they had to, and to reconfigure the traditional dishes of their homelands in a new setting. “Jews are adapters,” she says.
Assembling this book has been a long process — almost four years, and now Nathan is ready to sit back for a bit. “I’d love to take a vacation,” she says. After a 34-city book tour, maybe she will.
Tarte au Citron (Lemon Tart)
Joan Nathan says: “When I was a student in Paris, I became hooked on intensely tart yet sweet French lemon
tarts, and sampled them at every pastry shop I could find. I still love them, especially when they are
To make the crust, cut the butter into small pieces, and toss into a food processor fitted with a steel blade, along with the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse until the texture is like very coarse meal. Pour in the milk or water a tablespoon at a time, pulsing until the dough comes together in a ball. Be careful not to add too much liquid, or the dough will be impossible to roll out. Shape the dough into a disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes
Roll out the piecrust, and line an ungreased 9- inch tart pan with it. Prick it all over with a fork, and bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. (This can be done ahead of time.
‘To make the filling, pour 2 cups water into a heavy medium- sized saucepan. Add 1 cup of the sugar, and bring to a boil. Slice one of the lemons into thin circles, drop them into the boiling sugared water, lower the heat, and simmer for about 30 minutes, uncovered. Drain, and discard the liquid.
Grate the zest of the remaining 3 lemons to get 2 tablespoons of zest, then juice the lemons to get about ¾ cup juice. Whip the eggs and remaining sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer at medium speed. Gradually add the lemon juice and zest.
Pour the filling ingredients into a medium saucepan, add the butter or margarine, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, being careful not to boil, until the lemon thickens into a curdlike custard, about 5 minutes.
Spoon the filling into the prebaked crust. Lay the lemon slices all over, and refrigerate until firm.
Judith Weinraubhas won two James Beard Foundation journalism awards. She worked for 25 years as a reporter and editor at the Washington Post, where she wrote about food and politics as well as arts and culture. Weinraub has also been a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow. Last year she conducted an oral history project for New York University’s Fales Library, recording the memories of people who have changed the way Americans think about food.
Photos, from top:
Joan Nathan. Credit: Linda Spillers
“Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” Credit: Knopf Publishing.