Cooking as Oral History

Many Jewish grandmothers have reputations as fabulous but frustratingly enigmatic cooks. With time-honored recipes relying on intuition and a pinch of this and a dash of that, family culinary traditions tend to get lost as one generation yields to the next.

Many Jewish grandmothers have reputations as fabulous but frustratingly enigmatic cooks. With time-honored recipes for such dishes as cholent and brisket relying on intuition and a pinch of this and a dash of that, family culinary traditions tend to get lost - or not nearly as tasty - as one generation yields to the next.

Which is why, perhaps, the appeal of Jewish food expert Joan Nathan, author of numerous cookbooks, including "The Foods of Israel Today" (Knopf, 2001) and "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" (Schocken, 1979), has endured. "People find recipes they think maybe their parents had," said the 59-year-old mother of three, adding, "Although I don't like to think of myself as a grandmother just yet."

This month marks the start of the second season of Nathan's PBS cooking show, which borrows its title and theme from her best-selling book "Jewish Cooking in America" (Knopf, 1994). In the new season's 13 episodes, Nathan travels across the country visiting the kitchens of chefs, celebrities and stand-out Jewish cooks, discovering recipes for everything from "Jewish Choucroute" to whitefish salad and learning about Jewish cultures from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

But Nathan's appeal extends beyond the Jewish community. Recently, for example, Nathan was getting into a car near her home in Washington, DC, when "a woman came running up to me, from Jordan, saying, `I know who you are, you're on television, I love your show. I have your book on Israeli cooking,'" Nathan recalled. "She said, `You know, your people are just like us.' It really shocked me."

A show about Jewish food, Nathan said, "breaks down barriers. Greeks, blacks, Asians, they all come up to me and say, `It's not so different.'"

Emeril Lagasse may teach us how to perfect garlic mashed potatoes, and Martha Stewart may demand that we make a dinner party for 20 without breaking a sweat, but "Jewish Cooking in America," "is more interested in the people than the food," Nathan said. "The food, to me, is a mechanism for people to tell their life stories."

Indeed, while the first 26 episodes of the show, which premiered in 1998, focused more on holidays and traditions, with the second season, "we're more comfortable with it," Nathan said. "The episodes are more sort of personal essays."

For example, this season's first episode, "A Vermont Yankee in King David's Court," features the life stories - and challah recipes - of June Salander, a 94-year-old who was born in Poland but has lived in Vermont for two-thirds of her life. "It's all about life," said Nathan. "She tells you what making challah really means, what giving away challah really means. She talks about what it's like growing up in a town where there were very few Jews, and what Judaism means to her. It's very beautiful."

"I'm not interested in jazzy new food," said Nathan, who, married to writer and lawyer Alan Gerson, enjoys making slow-cooking dishes such as soups, brisket and breads. "I'm interested in good food, but I'm most interested in what's the link to our past."

Food wasn't always Nathan's passion, however. Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, her family had a professional cook until money became tight and her mother took over the kitchen. Nathan learned some recipes from her mother and her aunt, but, like most students and young professionals, she said, "I learned cooking just by being on my own."

After earning a bachelor's and then a master's degree in French literature from the University of Michigan, Nathan worked a series of jobs in New York, including stints at the Mission of Madagascar to the United Nations and in the NBC newsroom sorting mail. She moved to Jerusalem in 1970, taking a job as a foreign press officer for Teddy Kollek, then the mayor of Jerusalem.

"Teddy loved to eat," Nathan recalled. "He would go to eat - well, anywhere he went, whether they were Arabs or whether they were too religious for him, he would eat their food, and a whole new relationship would form. It was a tense time then, in the early `70s, but when people talked about food, all those barriers broke down. I noticed it over and over again."

Prompted by her experiences there, Nathan wrote "The Flavor of Jerusalem" (Little, Brown and Co., 1975), a book about the cuisine of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem. "I did it as a lark," Nathan said. "It worked. It sold 25,000 copies. That's really what started me."

Back in the United States, working toward a second master's degree, this time in public administration at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government from which she graduated in 1976, Nathan said she realized that she "didn't know anything about Jewish food." While researching her second book, the "Jewish Holiday Kitchen" - which remains in print today - "I interviewed old ladies, all over the country, who were fabulous cooks," she said. "I watched them carefully. I have these wonderful, wonderful recipes of people who are no longer here. I'm glad I got them."

Numerous cookbooks, awards, magazine articles and television appearances later, in 1998 Maryland Public Television approached Nathan and told her that "it was time for Jewish cooking on American television," Nathan recalled. "Writing is so solitary. This one [the show] is loads of people working together. I welcome it and enjoy it."

"I think cooking - it sounds crazy - is people," Nathan said. "I'm making it for people, and these are the recipes. A recipe, in a way, is a story of a person's life. That's why I like to do the traditional - I relate to it."

By arrangement with the Forward