Joan Nathan didn’t expect her book about how the Jewish diaspora influenced global cuisines – and how those cuisines and local ingredients affected Jewish cookery – to hit store shelves amid a surge of anti-Semitism, growing distrust of foreigners and stepped-up immigration enforcement.
Then again, she never imagined such provocations would end.
“It’s part of a cyclical pattern, a fear of the other,” says Nathan, the award-winning cookbook author of “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World,” which will be published on April 4.
“You’re not going to change the mind of somebody who doesn’t see you as a human being,” Nathan said. “All you can do is find like-minded people and try to not be that way about other people.”
And, perhaps, break bread with them. That is among the goals of this weekend’s two-day Jewish Food in the Global South symposium at UNC. Nathan is a keynote speaker at Sunday’s daylong event, which also features visiting and local experts discussing the topic of how traditional Jewish foodways have evolved over miles and millennia.
A Saturday cooking class at Southern Season featuring Nathan as an instructor is sold out. And for good reason. The longtime food columnist for Tablet Magazine won a James Beard Award for her 1994 cookbook, “Jewish Cooking in America,” and again in 2005 for “The New American Cooking.” Her PBS series, “Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan” was nominated for a James Beard for best national TV food show.
Stating her premise to “discover what makes Jewish food unique,” Nathan employs the table of mighty King Solomon, who built the First Temple in Jerusalem, as a metaphor to track the many places Jews have come to call home after fleeing by force or voluntarily uprooting in search of a better future. The impacts of kashrut, the strict dietary laws codified in the Torah, and the table-centered rituals that are at the core of many Jewish observances serve to connect these wanderers, regardless of where they landed.
Nathan’s 11th collection – with its historical overview and thoughtful anecdotes that precede most recipes – is a reminder of why good cookbooks are a thing to cherish. Its message about the vast contributions of immigrants to their adopted homelands is particularly relevant in light of federal authorities investigating bomb threats at Jewish community centers and schools, including one in Durham, and the glaring focus on Muslim immigrants.
Despite such unrest, the foods of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries continue to attract curious and committed diners across the United States.
Nathan points to the growing mainstream popularity of Israeli cuisine, evidenced by chef Michael Solomonov’s Philadelphia restaurant Zahav and the namesake cookbook that swept major culinary awards last year. It followed on the heels of best-selling cookbooks by Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-born chef with several critically acclaimed restaurants in London, not to mention Taste of Persia and other Middle Eastern titles that many home cooks received as holiday gifts.
“People who eat Israeli (and other Middle Eastern foods) do so because it is delicious,” Nathan says. For most consumers, she adds, “It’s not about making a political statement. It’s about discovering different food that they really like.”
Nathan recalls a recent visit to New Orleans with her daughter, where they ate at Shaya, a modern Israeli restaurant run by James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya, who also is speaking at Sunday’s symposium.
“Ten years ago, you would have seen only kosher people and Jewish people there,” Nathan says. “But the Zulu king from Mardis Gras was there. I talked with a lady from Louisiana whose husband didn’t join her because he thought it was vegetarian. He missed out.
“Clearly, none of them were Jewish,” she adds. “They just came for a good meal.”
Many of the recipes found in King Solomon’s Table include ingredients common to the Fertile Crescent, such as chickpeas (or garbanzo beans, but also ground flour), eggplant, pomegranates, preserved lemon and za’atar (a spice blend). A helpful pantry section details items that may not be familiar.
Just as Jews are diverse across the globe, traditional Jewish food has adapted to the native plants and proteins found where observant emigres settled. Nathan’s recipe for Syrian-Mexican Chicken with Apricot, Tamarind and Chipotle Sauce exemplifies such evolving, best-of-both-worlds cooking.
Examples of similar impact on Southern foodways abound. Take the square-cut fried doughnuts called beignets that beckon locals and visitors to Café Du Monde in New Orleans, which opened in 1862. While generally credited to Acadians who arrived around 1765 from Nova Scotia, French Alsatian Jews also were making these in their home kitchens. Imagine their delight when, recruited with ads promising paid passage or other incentives to join a needed workforce in the mid- to late 19th century, they found these familiar treats in their new backyard.
Nathan took some grief a few years ago when she wrote about a Southern chef who used local catfish to make gefilte fish, a Passover staple that commonly features whitefish but can be made with other catch. Catfish, however, due to its lack of easily removed scales, is not kosher.
“Everyone called (the chef) out on it, and me,” sighs Nathan. “But she did what Jews have done forever; she made do with what she had. It’s our journey that makes life, and food, interesting.”
Jewish Food in the Global South
“Jewish Food in the Global South: A Symposium,” hosted by the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, is organized by Marcie Cohen Ferris and Gabrielle Berlinger, colleagues at the UNC Department of American Studies.
Sessions will be 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday at FedEx Global Education Center, 301 Pittsboro St., Chapel Hill.
“Our goal is to spotlight the vibrant, evolving, reinvigorated and reinterpreted global voices at the Jewish table,” says Ferris, author of “The Edible South” and “Matzoh Ball Gumbo,” the latter of which is a look at Jewish food in the American South.
“This is something that we can taste and experience here and throughout this country of immigrants,” Ferris said.
In addition to Joan Nathan, other prominent speakers include Liz Alperin, author of “The Gefilte Manifesto”; Pati Jinich, host of the PBS series “My Mexican Table” and a specialist in Mexican-Jewish foodways; New York Times food writer Kim Severson; and Michael Twitty, culinary historian and author of the forthcoming “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South.”
Local participants include cookbook author and food journalist Kelly Alexander of Hillsborough; Matt Neal of Neal’s Deli in Carrboro; and April McGreger, owner of Farmer’s Daughter Brand Pickles and Preserves in Hillsborough.
Advance registration is required. Go to jewishstudies.unc.edu. The symposium is free to UNC students and $10 for the public. It includes lunch and an afternoon reception.
A companion film series, featuring screenings of “Streit’s Matzo” and “Deli-Man,” will be 4-7 p.m. Saturday at the Varsity Theatre, 123 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. Showings are free and no registration is required.