Great Barrington — On Thursday, July 20th, Hevreh in the Berkshires will kick-off the inaugural Jewish Festival of Books, poised to become one of the Berkshires’ signature summer cultural events. Over the course of four days — from Thursday, July 20th through Sunday, July 23rd — community members will have the opportunity to meet, engage with and learn from an amazing array of authors representing a diverse spectrum of literary genres and subject matter which, at their core, share something profoundly Jewish.
Part of the weekend festivities will include A Talk and Nosh, moderated by Seth Rogovoy, featuring American cookbook author Joan Nathan. The James Beard Award-winning author and authority — hailed as the doyenne of Jewish cooking — will share her newest work, King Solomon’s Table (Knopf 2017), an around-the-world collection of recipes from the global Jewish diaspora — an essential book of cooking and culture. Nathan’s most recent book is a global culinary expedition that nods to King Solomon’s reported love of cultural discovery.
The stops on Nathan’s new Jewish food tour include Yemen, Italy, India, France, Mexico, and El Salvador to name a few. The result is a gorgeously illustrated culinary exploration that is filled with fascinating historical details, personal histories, and fantastic recipes that showcase the diversity of Jewish cuisine. It is the most ambitious and satisfying book of Joan Nathan’s stellar, four decades-long career.
Anyone who has encountered Nathan or her work knows her passion resides at the intersection of food, history and culture — as to how she arrived in this space? “I started when I was very young,” she explains, working with the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. Nathan immediately noticed that, as a politician, he was able to break down a lot of barriers through food. “It made sense to me,” she admits, “and one thing led to another”– or, more specifically, it led to her first cookbook, The Flavor of Jerusalem (1975) which sold 25, 000 copies.
Her current book, touted as her most ambitious work yet, is King Solomon’s Table. “I tackle the world, really,” says Nathan of the nearly 170 recipes that span the millennia — from classics to contemporary riffs on traditional dishes. “I started this book by taking a trip to India with my family,” Nathan explains. In a synagogue there, she encountered evidence that Jews had been in India since the time of King Solomon (who lived from 970-931 BCE). “From there I started on an adventure learning the history of the food and the history of the Jews — through Babylonian documents, on cuneiform tablets — that date to 1750 BCE.”
Nathan recalls, “I got a sense of what people were eating in the ancient world.” They already had sesame seeds from China, for instance, sesame seed oil (which was the first seed oil), and chickpeas — which means “they had some sort of hummus [long since considered] food of the poor, forever.” Nathan gushes, “I learned so much,” adding, “King Solomon was really one of the first foodies — he liked food, he wanted different spices brought to his temple in Jerusalem. And he had 700 wives, so clearly he had a lot of appetite.”
Nathan is quick to point out that Jews have always adapted food wherever they have lived–as evidenced most recognizably by Matzah, unleavened bread that came about during the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt. Today, matzah stands as an integral part of the Passover festival and supports Nathan’s findings that, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” when it comes to food and cooking. Even recent trends like chickpea flour and nigella seeds– particularly in the gluten free diet–have roots that are thousands of years old.
After listening intently to the details of her story, I have a few questions of my own for Joan Nathan. Despite being a seasoned cook and baker, I ask them with just a hint of trepidation. And then she divulges the two pantry staples she can’t live without: “Preserved lemon, I absolutely can’t live without it — it’s the easiest thing to do, and I always have it in the refrigerator. And chickpeas because I make hummus all the time. The minute I come home from the supermarket I soak [dry chickpeas] and put them in baggies, two cups at a time, perfect for falafel or hummus.”
Then, with no experience in a Jewish kitchen, I ask for Joan Nathan’s recommendation for an entry-level dish: Her first answer is hummus, which I already make. But not with dried chickpeas. She then directs me to the staple she deems, “iconic to Jewish food — challah, [which is] a little sweeter than regular bread,” and which Nathan always treats like it is a dessert. “It’s really easy to make and everyone loves it,” she adds. “I make it every Friday night, and you can use it for French toast and all sorts of other delicious things. It’s like a Jewish brioche.” She then makes a quick plug for matzoh balls, simply because, “all kids like matzoh balls [and they are] really easy to make.” And brisket, of course, noting “the secret to a good brisket is to braise it and cover it, slow and long.”
The wealth of knowledge Joan Nathan brings to the table — both literally and figuratively — is astonishing. As to the role she sees food, particularly ethnic food, playing in American culture today? “Food and people go together, and I’ve always found that food can break down cultural barriers. Food goes above culture; this relationship shows that the more we taste each others’ food the more likely it is that the cultural divides will be diminished.”
Thursday, July 20, 5:30 p.m.
Jennifer Armstrong, Seinfeldia, How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything
Friday, July 21, 11 a.m.
Joan Nathan, At King Solomon’s Table
Friday, July 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Shabbat Services with Lloyd Handwerker, author of Famous Nathan
Saturday, July 22 at 10 a.m.
Shabbat Services with Rabbi Marc Katz, author of The Heart of Loneliness
Sunday, July 23, 10 a.m.
Elizabeth Poliner, As Close to Us as Breathing
Saturday, July 22 at 4 p.m.
Shabbat Family Storytime with author Roni Schotter