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Cookbook author Joan Nathan looks at her own culinary history in 'My Life in Recipes'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Joan Nathan has spent her life exploring Jewish culture through recipes. Across a dozen cookbooks, she's documented how food traditions evolved as Jews wandered all over the world through the centuries. Now in her 80s, her new book is her most personal work yet, excavating her own culinary history.

JOAN NATHAN: I've been more nervous about this book than any book.

SHAPIRO: Really?

NATHAN: Yeah. Well, it's sort of going into my life, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

It's a combination memoir and cookbook called "My Life In Recipes." When I show up at her Washington, D.C., home, she's making a version of a dish that she's been eating more or less since birth. It's the first recipe in the book - chicken matzo ball soup.

NATHAN: Looks good. Looks like we might want to eat it.

SHAPIRO: Like every Jewish mother and grandmother I have ever met, she frets over whether the matzo balls will turn out the way she wants them to.

NATHAN: So my mother's, hers were al dente.

SHAPIRO: It's the big matzo ball debate - light, fluffy, hard, dense.

NATHAN: Right.

SHAPIRO: Every family does it their own way.

NATHAN: Right. Exactly. And my mother-in-law's were very light. And I - you know, she was straight from Poland. Don't you think about your parents or your grandparents when you're cooking, especially at holidays?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. Yeah.

As with every immigration story, these family recipes evolved as people relocated, fleeing wars or seeking a better life for their kids.

NATHAN: I'd added ginger nutmeg, which I knew was what my father's family would have used in Germany. Ginger nutmeg was a very common condiment combination in the 19th and 20th - early 20th century. So - and then I added fresh ginger.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

In a variation that's fitting for spring, she chops up piles of herbs for the soup, dill and parsley. Then a bowl of fresh peas goes clattering into the pot.

What kind of memories does it bring back for you to make matzo ball soup, to make chicken soup for a Jewish holiday?

NATHAN: It just - it feels comfortable. It's the smell is - you just know that smell - like my mother's brisket, I know; like challah, I know. I love those smells. It knows that you're at home. There are people that care.

SHAPIRO: As Joan Nathan has written books about Jewish traditions in Africa, Asia and the Americas, she has spent her life exploring in the kitchen, trying new dishes and recipes all year. But every spring for the Passover Seder, she likes to stick with a menu that follows her own family's traditions. The holiday starts next week on Monday night.

NATHAN: I think Passover tells us who we are, and it tells us, this is my family sharing with other families. I get chills every year at Passover because I realized that it started in ancient Israel. I mean, it's in the Bible.

SHAPIRO: While the pot slowly simmers on the stove, Joan shows me some of the artifacts that she's uncovered from her family, including handwritten recipe books in German. One from her great-grandmother dates back to 1927.

NATHAN: And you can see...

SHAPIRO: Purple ink. Gorgeous script.

NATHAN: Right. And...

SHAPIRO: And are these all recipes?

NATHAN: These are all recipes.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

NATHAN: Look at this. Here's a caramel pudding. Here's...

SHAPIRO: It looks like kuchen.

NATHAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: That's a dessert.

NATHAN: I mean, desserts were the big thing.

SHAPIRO: I've told you that Joan Nathan is a cookbook author, but she's actually much more than that. Over the course of her career, she's had a TV show, written regular columns for The New York Times and won major food awards. This book is full of anecdotes from her world travels and stories of her collaborations with other food luminaries, from Alice Waters to Jose Andres.

Can you tell us something that you learned from one of them that you carry with you?

NATHAN: Julia.

SHAPIRO: Do I even need to tell you she means Julia Child?

NATHAN: I had her 90th birthday in this - she was sitting right here.

SHAPIRO: On this couch.

NATHAN: On this couch. I had a party for her. She's somebody who just kept living. And she said to me, at 90, why should I quit if I'm doing what I like to do? And she made me realize a few things. Have people that are younger around you as you get older. You know, be positive. Don't talk about being uncomfortable or whatever. And also, to write thank-you notes to everybody.

SHAPIRO: This book is also a love story. Joan Nathan writes about her courtship and marriage of 45 years to her late husband, Allan Gerson. He died just before the pandemic. She told me writing this was almost a form of therapy.

NATHAN: I would just write. And I would include him in my life, you know? So it was a way of really making him part of my life. And I think it was really helpful to me. It really gave me strength. But it...

(SOUNDBITE OF TIMER RINGING)

SHAPIRO: That's the...

We get up to check on the soup, and I notice a bookshelf in the kitchen. It's her entire literary career, neatly lined up over the counter.

It's striking to look at the bookshelf of everything you have done over the years, from the "Jewish Holiday Cookbook," "The Flavor Of Jerusalem," "The New American Cookbook" (ph), "Foods Of Israel Today," "King Solomon's Table." It's really a history of Jewish cooking in America and around the world over decades, your career on this one bookshelf.

NATHAN: It's - I mean, I'm only realizing it now.

SHAPIRO: And how does it feel to realize it?

NATHAN: Well, I feel good about it. I mean, it's - I realize I've done something.

SHAPIRO: Is this boiling over?

NATHAN: It's OK. It won't boil over. Let's just put it down a little.

SHAPIRO: Your mother was named Pearl, and she was the longest-serving volunteer at the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design.

NATHAN: Right. And so they...

SHAPIRO: Lived to 103?

NATHAN: She did.

SHAPIRO: Tell me, what did she attribute her long life to?

NATHAN: Well, a drink every day at 5 o’clock - rye on the rocks in the winter, and gin and tonic in the summer, and a strong gin and tonic.

SHAPIRO: She was into seasonality before seasonality was fashionable.

NATHAN: But she also - you know, you learned so much from your mother and your father. But I really - 'cause she lived so long, I learned that you enjoy every, every moment of every day.

SHAPIRO: You know, typically, if somebody published their 12th cookbook at age 80, I would say, well, we should probably talk to them because this might be their last cookbook. Most people retire in their 60s. Your mother lived to be 103. So I want to ask, what are you going to do for the next 20 years?

NATHAN: (Laughter) I don't think I'm going to write another cookbook. I'll write articles.

SHAPIRO: You think this is going to be your last cookbook?

NATHAN: I think this is it.

SHAPIRO: Beautiful.

It's time for lunch.

NATHAN: I think they're all done.

SHAPIRO: Joan Nathan ladles the matzo ball soup into bowls...

NATHAN: I got to get the challah.

SHAPIRO: ...Pulls a fresh baked challah out of the oven and quickly tosses together a green salad with pickled onions and a vinaigrette.

NATHAN: Here, why don't - so each of you, you're supposed to say a blessing. But we're - should we say it?

SHAPIRO: Sure.

As we sit down to eat, of course, she worries aloud that maybe the matzo balls didn't turn out quite right.

This is so beautiful.

NATHAN: Well, I just think...

SHAPIRO: There you go.

NATHAN: ...They're going to be harder than usual, I'm sure of it.

SHAPIRO: And of course, they're perfect. Joan Nathan's new cookbook and memoir is called "My Life In Recipes: Food, Family, And Memories." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mia Venkat
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.