Prolific Cookbook Author Joan Nathan Talks About ‘My Life In Recipes’

Through writing 12 cookbooks, author Joan Nathan has spent years exploring the evolution of Jewish food around the world. Now, her latest cookbook, My Life in Recipes, allows readers to explore the world of Joan Nathan herself. Nathan uses food as a lens through which to look at her family history. We experience Nathan’s childhood, marriage and family life, and career as a food writer all through detailed recipes for foods she discovered and experienced at the different stages of her life. Ahead of her visit to the Minnesota JCC Sabes Center Minneapolis on June 2, we spoke with Joan Nathan to learn all about her most personal cookbook yet.

Q: My Life in Recipes is part memoir, part cookbook. Can you tell me a little about the decision to create the book in this blended form?

It was my editor’s idea. I’ve been thinking [about] food all my life, it was just a natural way to do it. Usually, the placement of a book in a bookstore is either as a cookbook, or fiction or nonfiction and I didn’t know how it would work [as a memoir and cookbook].

Q: How did the experience differ from the past cookbooks you have written?

In past cookbooks I’ve always put headnotes around recipes. An article written a long time ago [mentioned] that my first cookbook, which came out in 1975, was the first cookbook to have headnotes. There is so much to say about recipes, not just how you cook it, but the evolution, that’s what I’m most interested in, the anthropological, historical, and sociological approach to food, and that’s why [I’ve always used headnotes.]

Q: How did you decide how to organize your book?

I gathered all the material of my life, so I had all the letters I had written to my parents when I was in college, when I traveled abroad, my mother saved everything for me. I had written diaries when I was very young, and I saved those. I went through all that stuff and realized it should be done from my life but also chronologically. I felt it was important to go before my life also and see where my parents were from. In order to understand your own life, you have to understand your parents and your grandparents and what food they gave you tells you a little bit about who you are.

Q: Do you have a personal favorite recipe from this memoir? If so, why is it your favorite?

I really like this cashew pesto that I learned in Israel on the last trip that my husband took, so it has a special significance for me. It’s really easy to make.

Q: What surprised you most during your time writing My Life in Recipes?

My place in recipe writing. In 1994 when I wrote Jewish Cooking in America it opened up Jewish food for everybody, it made it more mainstream. I always thought of Jewish food as a joke but when I wrote that book it changed the landscape of Jewish cooking in America, publishers were eager to have Jewish cookbook writers and then eventually Israelis show their cooking.

Q: You are known as a global authority on Jewish food and throughout your book we hear so much about your travels. Why do you think the overlap between travel and food is so important?

Being there makes all the difference in the world. I feel it’s so important to be in a place, to see what other kinds of food there are. There’s nothing like breaking bread with people, I always try to get invited to Jewish homes in places that I’m going.

Q: If you could only choose one thing, what is the one thing you would want people to know about My Life in Recipes?

Sitting down with people is the easiest way to make friends and to talk about ideas. If you can, catch some of those recipes from a generation before you. It gives [you] a richness in life that sort of tells you who you are.

When you’re Jewish, recipes throughout history have been gathered because rabbis had questions about them. There is hummus in the bible, pizzas in the bible, all these kinds of bread, and different cheesemaking. We may have modern versions of these recipes, sometimes the old versions aren’t so good, and that’s where people like me come in, I’ll change them, I’ll give them a face lift, but still leave the basic recipe.