The Calm Before the Feast: Rosh Hashanah with Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan knows Jewish food.  Author of culinary tomes like Jewish Cooking in America, Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, and The Jewish Holiday Baker, she sets the standard for elegant, timeless Jewish cooking (and not just shmaltzy Ashkenazi fare either – she is currently researching for a new book on Jewish cuisine in France).

Ms. Nathan recently delved head first into the “new Jewish food movement.”  In an article she wrote for the New York Times called, “Of Church and Steak: Farming for the Soul,” she explored the work organizations, farmers, and companies are doing across the country that ties together food, faith, and farming.  (Hazon - and this very blog - enjoyed healthy shoutouts in the article.)

The Jew & The Carrot sat down with Ms. Nathan the week before Rosh Hashanah - just before the start of the “high season” of high holiday cooking frenzy.  She shared her take on traditional Jewish cooking, new conversations about food and Jewish community, and her most important tip for hosting a successful Rosh Hashanah meal.

LK: Your recent New York Times article, “Of Church and Steak,” showed how many organizations and individuals connect faith, food, and farming.  What was the most interesting discovery you made about Jewish food while working on that article?

JN: I think the most surprising thing to me was finding out about Orthodox Jews’ interest in sustainability.  I expected it more from other populations in the Jewish community, but I discovered many Orthodox people are interested too.  I also heard a lot about the idea of Jewish stewardship, which I hadn’t heard before.  I’m not sure [it’s a mainstream conversation in the Jewish community], but it’s there.

LK: In a more general sense, how have you seen the larger conversation around food and Jewish tradition change since you first started writing about it?

JN: There are a lot more vegetarians, and that makes it easier to be kosher.  There are also just more kosher products, which has changed the way people cook all over the world.  The Jewish community is reflective of the greater community – these days you can get almost anything kosher, from good mascarpone, to kosher wine and cheese.

LK: How does this translate for you personally?  Has your approach to Jewish cooking evolved over time?

macaroons.jpgJN: I never use processed food – well, sometimes of course, but I try not to.  I try to make my own bread and use everything fresh.  Where other chefs might use shortcuts like frozen foods, I don’t do that.

LK: Wow – I want to eat at your house!  On the flipside, however, what is the best Rosh Hashanah meal that you ever had that you didn’t prepare yourself?

JN: Oh, I prepare them all the time!  We did have a very good meal at the Israeli Ambassadors place.  It was interesting to me that they had apple and honey but then also had dates to start the meal.

That was a good meal because I didn’t have to prepare it, but for the Jewish holidays, people tend to come to me.  This year I’m going to be doing Rosh Hashanah on Martha’s Vineyard – I’m hosting with a chef friend of mine, Loretta Keller [of Bizou in San Francisco].  She’s fabulous.

LK: Walk me through your routine in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah – how do you prepare for such a wonderful, but potentially daunting task?

JN: My first advice for everybody is lists, lists, lists!  And figure out your timing.  I think the hardest part of entertaining for any holiday is getting the ingredients – but on the other hand, it is so much fun to shop.  I go to a lot of ethnic stores, like an Iranian store for pomegranates, which I like to have on the table.  It’s going to be harder this year on the Vineyard – I actually don’t know what I’m going to do!

I’m not that religious, but I don’t like to cook on Rosh Hashanah so I make everything ahead.  I don’t even serve a lettuce salad that has to be dressed right before the meal.  I always make my gefilte fish the day before – I use a recipe from Jewish Cooking in America.

LK: I read that your daughter is a vegetarian.  How do you plan holiday meals around your family’s food needs?

JN: I always make sure to have enough food around for vegetarians – I try to make a few dishes with tofu, although my daughter says I’m not very good with it!  I try to have hardboiled eggs around because she needs to have protein.  It can be very difficult for vegetarians to get enough protein – humans are meant to be omnivores, and if you take meat out you can end up eating a lot of garbage.

LK: Does your daughter bring her own food to holidays?

JN: On no!  She’s a really good cook, but she let’s me cook for her.

LK: I think I would too.  Do you have recipes that your family begs you to make every year?

JN: I almost always have brisket, but this year I’m going to make a different meat dish that is popular in France.  I always make Sephardic salad and I always make gefilte fish.  I never make honey cake because I don’t like them.  This year I’m going to make an apple tart from a recipe of a French relative of mine. [pause] I always think that in a way, my house is people’s chance to get back to their roots.

LK: What do you mean?

JN: Well, you make traditional recipes and you serve them, and people connect that way.  They connect to each other and to their past.  The holidays are a perfect time for that.  When we sit at my house at Rosh Hashanah, we can actually slow down, and that’s really terrific.  I think that more than recipes, today, we need to make connections.

Buy Joan Nathan’s book, “Jewish Cooking in America,” or many others on  Get there by clicking book icon on the bottom left corner of Hazon’s “Books we love” list on the left bar of this page.  Happy reading – and cooking!

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9 Responses to “The Calm Before the Feast: Rosh Hashanah with Joan Nathan”

  1. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    I had the privilege of hosting Joan on Sweet Whisper Farms when she came to speak to one of the groups staying with us. Her knowledge of food history is encyclopedic and she has a sense of humor to match. It was also my treat to make breakfast for her (as in “go to the coop and get a couple of eggs, go to the garden and snip some herbs for the omelet!”) – she remains on the cutting edge of the Jewish Food discussion! – I like the “date” thing for Rosh Hashana – very biblical -I’m a maple syrup kinda guy though!

  2. steve Says:

    It’s unfortunate that Ms. Nathan parrots the meat and dairy industry protein myth. It’s actually very easy to obtain all your protein needs from a balanced diet. And it’s not just tofu or other soybean products–there’s plenty of protein in legumes, grains, vegetables and fruits.

  3. David Cherelin Says:

    I realize that her comment on vegetarian diets was kind of a throw out line, and was not the point of the article, but it bothers me how these myths persist.

    Humans are indeed omnivores, but do much better on a plant based diet. Protein is the least concern of a vegetarian. As long as you are eating a good variety, and getting enough calories you are getting enough protein and all the amino acids you need.

    There is no doubt a number of vegetarians that are junk food vegetarians. This is the nature of our society. Since kids don’t learn how to like and prepare vegetables and legumes, when they cut out meat they fill those calories with junk. Though become vegan can force the issue as it cuts out a lot of the junk. There are so many mock meats nowadays even a veggie trying to eat the foods they were used to, can do just fine (though I would highly recommend getting away from the typical Western diet, even in veggie form it’s not the healthiest).

    Which actually leads me to the fact that it is funny for someone pushing traditional Jewish fair to be talking about nutrition (coming from an Ashkenazi background in any case).

    It’s clear that a Western diet is far more dangerous to ones health than a vegetarian one, and it is far more difficult to get all the vitamins and minerals one needs without getting too many calories when you include meat as a regular part of the diet. Though humans are omnivores, they were never intended to eat meat on any kind of a regular bases.

  4. Leah Koenig Says:

    Steve, David – thanks for your comments. I think Ms. Nathan was coming at her words out of love and concern as a parent – and also as a chef who approaches meat eating with a certain respect that many people in our society don’t have. So although (as a vegetarian for 8 years) I don’t agree that vegetarianism necessarily leads to an unhealthy diet, I don’t think she meant anything malicious.

    Shmuel – I would have loved to have been at that breakfast!

  5. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    hey – as they say we live in interesting times:)

  6. lagatta Says:

    I’m really looking forward to her Cuisine juive en France! Please keep us posted.

  7. steve Says:

    Never thought Ms. Nathan was being malicious, just uninformed. There are plenty of non-Western diets that are extremely healthy and not meat-based.

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