My copy of Joan Nathan’s landmark book, Jewish Cooking in America (Knopf, 1994) is filled with scribbled notes to myself, food stains, sticky notes and torn bits of paper marking favorite recipes. In other words, it looks like a well-loved and well-used cookbook. Several of Nathan’s other books in my collection aren’t far behind in their “loved” appearance.
Now I am excited to have a new Joan Nathan cookbook, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World (Knopf, 2017) with clean pages full of new stories and recipes to welcome to my kitchen. Already, just from reading an advance copy for this article, the transformation has begun, with penciled notes and paper scraps marking pages of recipes I must try as soon as possible.
The Huevos Haminados con Spinaci (Long-Cooked Hard-Boiled Eggs with Spinach) will be perfect at my Passover seder where plain huevos haminados have always appeared. Pletzel (Onion and Poppy Seed Flatbread) gives me something to look forward to after matzah. And there is so much more, over 170 recipes in book number 12 for this James Beard Award-winning author. Some recipes will seem familiar while many others expand our horizons of Jewish food.
Nathan gives the term “wandering Jew” new meaning as she has gone in pursuit of Jewish food in all corners of the world for over 40 years. A cultural historian and food anthropologist, she is a meticulous researcher, delving into archives, libraries and university collections. But it is the combining of all the research and knowledge with personal and family stories that makes Nathan’s books shine, and this one in particular.
Wherever Jews have found a home for however long, Nathan has searched out and recorded history, culture, food traditions, techniques and, above all, those personal stories and recipes. Her explorations take us from a tiny village in India where Jewish traders from the Middle East might well have visited during the days of King Solomon to the contemporary Roman home of a woman descended from Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition in 1492. We go along like a friend of Nathan’s to an organic market in Athens, Greece, and a modern Biblical garden in the Judean Hills of Jerusalem, a Jewish community center in Recife, Brazil, and all across North America from Toronto to California with many stops in between.
The book begins with Nathan’s extended introduction that includes a brief history of Jewish food from the days of King Solomon, a ruler with a voracious appetite for women, wealth and food. On we go from Babylon to Biblical Israel to Europe through the Middle Ages to the rise of Ashkenazic food and into modern times. It is fascinating and enlightening reading as is the next section, “Pantry.” This first chapter is full of helpful information about spices and other pantry items, including recipes for must-have basics like a baharat spice blend, za’atar, harissa and preserved lemons. I felt a thrilling sense of connection when I realized how many spices and ingredients that we use today have been found in kitchens since ancient times.
Every so often, Nathan offers a page or two focused on the in-depth story of a single food. For example, she traces the journey of the bagel from ancient Egypt to Krakow to New York’s Lower East Side, the rescue of Polish blueberry buns (shtritzlach) by a few Holocaust survivors, and the use and development of sugar, honey and other sweeteners to highlight just a few of these in-depth essays.
All of the information, stories and recipes would be enough. Dayenu. But this is also Nathan’s most visually attractive book so far. Vibrant full-page photographs make you want to head straight to the kitchen while colored pages dividing chapters and highlighting the in-depth essays evoke the colorful palette of the Middle East.
To put it most succinctly, King Solomon’s Table is destined to be another classic cookbook found in kitchens for years to come. I look forward to the day my copy of the book doesn’t look new anymore, but shows all the signs of use and love worthy of the memories it has helped create with food shared at my table.