Nathan Takes a Bite Out of Boring Fare
“The New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $35).
A tempeh Reuben sandwich and guacamole made with mayonnaise may sound like sacrilege to food purists, but not to food journalist Joan Nathan. The author of 10 cookbooks, including the award-winning “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf, 1994), Nathan’s latest is “The New American Cooking,” which offers recipes for the way Americans eat today.
“I never think of food as something that’s stationary,” Nathan said on a recent book tour stop in Los Angeles. “Things change, neighborhoods change, food changes, we get new ingredients, people get ideas. And when you come to a country you adapt what you knew to that country.”
Nathan makes no judgments on those adaptations, what matters to her is how it tastes. Her openness is expressed through the variety of the 280 recipes she includes in the book, which contains many cross-cultural meldings. She offers up four dishes for public consumption, some new and some old, at a special dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center this week. The diverse menu will include Roasted Squash Soup With Coconut Milk; Georgian Spinach Salad With Pomegranates; Horseradish-Crusted Bass With Borscht Broth, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Ragout of Wild Mushrooms With Shallots and Thyme; and a Chocolate Torte for dessert. For fans of Nathan, what is perhaps most striking about her newest book is that the word “Jewish” does not appear in the title.
Nathan was raised in Providence, R.I., and after getting her master’s degree in French literature from Harvard, she went to work as foreign press officer to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The experience inspired her to write her first cookbook, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” and today she is mostly known for her Jewish recipes, with eight of her previous collections focusing on Jewish or Israeli cuisine.
Although this new, broader American focus might seem like a departure for her, Nathan sees it more as a logical extension of her previous work, specifically “An American Folklife Cookbook” (Schocken, 1984) (her only other non-Jewish title) and “Jewish Cooking in America.”
“The Jewish cookbook was one ethnic group, but within that one ethnic group there is so much diversification,” she said. “Look at the Persian Jews here and the Sephardic Jews and the Israeli Jews. There are all kinds within the Jewish population, and it probably made me more aware of other people around America. And I’m American, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the whole country.”
What she was looking for in particular, she said, were the changes American cooking has undergone in the last 40 years.
She found her answers through the recipes of a range of professional and home kitchens across America, from food stands and restaurants to heirloom family favorites.
The dishes are coupled with stories about their origins, so that what emerges is a sort of travel book and cookbook in one, a text that is as much about who Americans are, as it is about what they eat.
Nathan sees America today as a country changed by technological advances like the Cuisinart, the growth of organics and sustainable agriculture, the integration of ethnic foods and ingredients into the somewhat bland American palate of her 1950s youth, and the rise of the celebrity chef.
But Nathan is aware that not everything in today’s American cuisine is positive.
“I’m not sort of Polyanna-ish,” she said. “I know that supermarkets all over the country have all processed food and apples that look like each other and terrible tomatoes. But I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at what people are doing to make changes. I’m looking at farmers markets, at individuals, and I think these small individuals will get bigger.”
Many of the small individuals Nathan mentions in her book are Jewish, including two trailblazing Southern California women. Along with a recipe for Pomegranate, Mango, and Papaya Fruit Salad with Lime, she includes the story of Lynda Resnick, creator of the pomegranate and pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful. Alongside a recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Red Pepper, Nathan pays tribute to Frieda Caplan, creator of the company Frieda’s Finest, who first brought kiwis and sugar snap peas to the American public.
And her new American cooking is also still influenced by Jewish recipes, like challah and matzah balls and dishes like the Cuban Jewish casserole Plantains with Picadillo.
Nathan said the number of Jewish contributions in her book has little to do with her own roots. She said Jews play a huge role in the food industry.
But it’s not only that.
“There are a lot of good home-cooked recipes in a lot of Jewish families, especially ethnic ones,” Nathan said, “like that Plantains Picadillo, and the date and nut cake with orange. That’s delicious.”
Joan Nathan hosts “Dinner With Joan Nathan: Jewish Cooking in America,” on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. $65-$85 (ticket sales end Dec. 12). Book signing follows. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 468-3399.