While I, like most Jews, count four matriarchs, I maintain another set that I invoke on a far more regular basis and who have played an integral role in the formation of my Jewish and my culinary identities. Their names are: Rina, Ahuva, Ethel and Joan.
Rina is my maternal grandmother, Ahuva is my late paternal grandmother, Ethel is my mother and Joan is, well, Joan Nathan, of course.
Many sites—and this one is no exception—are full of stories about people who learned to cook or to love food at their grandmothers’ or mothers’ counters or tables or knees, so I don’t need to tell you about how mine influenced my love of food. But growing up with Joan’s cookbooks and then interning for her for two years, I learned about all the other grandmothers (and grandfathers) whose recipes, backgrounds and traditions compose this rich cuisine we call Jewish food. In Joan’s kitchen (literally—I would go there every Thursday and sometimes other days, too), I learned how to preserve lemons (and use them—they’re divine with roast chicken), write recipes in a user-friendly format and throw together a palate- and eye-pleasing lunch or Shabbat dinner for last-minute guests.
It’s impossible to talk about Jewish cooking without mentioning Joan Nathan, who is often, in fact, referred to as the doyenne of Jewish American food (doyenne, to me, is a fancy word for matriarch) and was recently named Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI).
Named for the esteemed French chef, restaurateur and writer Auguste Escoffier, LDEI is an “invitational organization of women leaders in the food, beverage, hospitality and related industries who use their talents and influence for community outreach and through grants, mentoring, scholarship and educational programs, to help support women to succeed in these industries.” There are approximately 2,100 Dames in the world, mostly in the US, though there are also chapters in Canada, the UK and, most recently, Mexico, and 136 in DC. In addition to Joan, JFE®’s own Paula Shoyer, Sheilah Kaufman, Bonnie Benwick, Cathy Barrow, Susan Barocas, Aviva Goldfarb, Vered Guttman, Pati Jinich and Ellen Kassoff Gray are all Dames, too.
On alternating years, LDEI honors one woman, naming her Grande Dame in recognition of extraordinary and unusual contributions to the fields of food, wine, beverage, hospitality or nutrition. Joan joins Grande Dames Alice Waters, Marcella Hazan and Julia Child, among others.
Joan’s accomplishments are, indeed, exceptional and far too many to list here (the nomination form submitted on her behalf by the DC Dames is six pages long!): ten cookbooks (with another one on the way), a James Beard award, induction into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage,” an award-winning television show, columns in The New York Times and Tablet and, since 2009, hosting Sips and Suppers for charity along with Alice Waters and José Andrés, to name just a few.
The honor, Joan shares, is not just personal, but also “an honor for Jewish food. I’m not sure people took Jewish food seriously in the past.”
Indeed, when no one was writing about Jewish food because it was “grandma food,” Joan was, because grandma food is just plain good (see previous comment about how most of us learned to cook and appreciate food from our grandmas).
For years, decades, Joan has been chasing not after the chef who is plating olive-oil-foam-adorned Chilean sea bass, but after the grandmother who still makes the almond macaroons her own mother used to make in Jewish Baghdad, the young Israelis in New York who are keeping their families’ Moroccan couscous and harissa traditions alive and the families that are bringing back—and elevating—shtetl classics, like cholent, kishke and kasha varnishkes. And that’s just a teeny, tiny taste of the personal stories and recipes Joan has captured in her over 40 years in this field.
Her eleventh book, King Solomon’s Table: The Roots and Routes of Jewish Cooking—“My kids call it ‘Jewish food from weird places,’” she says—is scheduled to come out next fall and may, with its focus on “roots” and “routes,” be the most “Joan-like” book yet, as anyone who has spent any amount of time trying to keep up with her inexhaustible curiosity and exploration knows.
Last week, the DC LDEI chapter honored Joan in a small local ceremony. Ann Stratte, the president of the DC chapter and second vice president of the international board, shared, “We’re thrilled to honor her. As a chapter we’re so proud. In our organization, it just doesn’t get any more prestigious than this,” adding that it is nice to see “a gem in your own backyard” be honored. Nathalie Dupree, Grande Dame of 2011, will present the official award to Joan on October 31 at the Grande Dame Banquet, a cornerstone of the annual three-day LDEI conference, held this year in Charleston, SC (and next year in DC!).
Call her doyenne, matriarch or Grande Dame, let’s raise a glass and toast the inimitable Joan Nathan, without whom this Jewish food community might not be here.
We asked some members of the JFE® community to share reflections on Joan Nathan. Here is what they had to say:
“Joan connected the food dots for me as she has for so many other people. What does that mean? Cooking since I was a small child, I worked with Joan for a few years starting in 1993, helping with books and stories and serving as associate producer of the first series of episodes of Jewish Cooking in America. As I soaked up Joan’s knowledge of diverse foods, cultures and, of course, Jewish food, I came to see food as she does—as a great connector to personal, family and community memories, to Jewish history and the diversity Jewish life as well as to each other.
When we were starting the Advisory Council for the Jewish Food Experience®, the first person I asked to be on in the group was Joan. I could not imagine this project without her involvement! Joan’s influence on Jewish food and cooks as well as on the understanding and appreciation of Jewish food cannot be over-estimated. She truly is the grande dame of Jewish food!”
– Susan Barocas, filmmaker and founding director, Jewish Food Experience®
“Here’s why Joan is such a true inspiration for me. With all the research she has done, with all the knowledge she already has, Joan will still get so excited with any new discovery. I love seeing her when that happens. She starts opening books, searching the web, emailing people who may know more, and it doesn’t matter if we’re in the middle of dinner or anything else. Our knowledge on Jewish cooking with its many traditions and rich history is so much wider thanks to Joan’s curiosity.”
– Vered Guttman, food columnist, Haaretz.com, and caterer, Cardamom & Mint
“Joan is such a smart, generous, strong, outgoing and talented person—a wonderful mother, wife and to me, of course, an incredible friend. She has been a role model, an intuitive advisor and, to women near and far, someone who has paved the way.”
– Pati Jinich, TV host and author, Pati’s Mexican Table
“When I wrote my first cookbook, The Kosher Baker, I knew that I absolutely had to have Joan Nathan write an endorsement for the book, which she graciously did. I felt that it was critical to have her stamp of approval both for me and as a tribute to her, because of her enormous contribution to Jewish culinary history with her cookbooks, her writing and her spirit. I know that I have the career I have because she paved the way for me. Bravo, Joan, and keep it up!”
– Paula Shoyer, pastry chef and author, The Kosher Baker, The Holiday Kosher Baker and The New Passover Menu
“As a leader of the Jewish food world, Joan has a unique ability to unite the story, the culture and the cuisine all together. She inspires her audiences whether they are close to her, reading from one of her books or just met her in person—by connecting her experiences as special ingredients to her recipes and work. I love when Joan and I chat about recipes that she is working on, and I am personally inspired by her focus and the attention she gives to every small detail—all so that anyone who follows her lead will be successful and happy with her recipes. I always hope that she has a story to share with me as well along the way. I am so grateful that our paths have crossed as a result of my being a chef in Washington, DC.”
– Alex Levin, executive pastry chef, Osteria Morini DC
Top photo: Joan Nathan being awarded a James Beard award.