My Life in Recipes: Food, Fam­i­ly, and Memories

  • Review
By – April 8, 2024

Food, fam­i­ly, and mem­o­ries are at the heart of Joan Nathan’s warm and wide-rang­ing mem­oir, writ­ten short­ly after the death of her hus­band. Nathan’s mem­o­ries begin with the chick­en soup and al dente mat­zo balls served in her child­hood home every Fri­day night and con­tin­ue with meals in Moroc­co, Viet­nam, Israel, Ethiopia, and the many oth­er places her trav­els have tak­en her, shap­ing her life and career.

All four of Nathan’s grand­par­ents were born in East­ern Europe, in dif­fer­ent areas, and came to the Unit­ed States under dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances at dif­fer­ent times. But what­ev­er the dif­fer­ences in their back­grounds, they con­tin­ued to gath­er their fam­i­ly around the table for hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions, shar­ing their var­i­ous tra­di­tions. For the Sab­bath, they served many of the dish­es that the gen­er­a­tions before them had served. Nathan’s father, who came to the Unit­ed States from Ger­many around 1929, favored Ger­man dish­es like sauer­brat­en and sweet and sour carp. Her mother’s fam­i­ly had immi­grat­ed ear­li­er and were Amer­i­can”; her moth­er often cooked from The Set­tle­ment Cook­book and updat­ed tra­di­tion­al dish­es a bit, much as Nathan has done with her own recipes.

Nathan grew up in com­fort­able homes in Larch­mont, New York, and Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island. Her first trip abroad was to France the sum­mer she was sev­en­teen. She returned for a junior year abroad in col­lege — a for­ma­tive time, and her first real intro­duc­tion to French cul­ture and cui­sine. Even in Paris, Shab­bat din­ner with a French fam­i­ly was much the same as it was at home, under­scor­ing for Nathan the won­der of the Jew­ish religion.

After col­lege, Nathan set­tled for a few years in New York. She cooked the recipes fea­tured in The New York Times, wrote for a food mag­a­zine, explored eth­nic restau­rants, and met peo­ple who have remained friends over the years. But at twen­ty-six, in pur­suit of an inter­est­ing life, she took a brief trip to Israel and was cap­ti­vat­ed. She returned some months lat­er to study Hebrew. A reporter for Haaretz steered her to Jerusalem may­or Ted­dy Kollek’s office for a job, and she was hired as the for­eign press attaché, escort­ing dis­tin­guished guests around the city.

Two events in Jerusalem changed Nathan’s life: she briefly met Allan Ger­son, the man she would lat­er mar­ry after recon­nect­ing with him at home, and, as a let­ter to her par­ents put it, she decid­ed to write a future best­seller.” She and Judy Stacey Gold­man, a col­league, invit­ed mem­bers of the for­eign press to cook­ing lessons in the kitchens of women from the many com­mu­ni­ties in Jerusalem. By watch­ing them, Nathan learned to cook, and she still learns recipes with their own­ers stand­ing beside her. She and Gold­man wrote down the women’s sto­ries along with their recipes, set­ting the for­mat for Nathan’s cookbooks.

Nathan met Allan Ger­son again in 1972, and they began dat­ing right away. She was com­fort­able with him; he was unafraid of strong women, and through­out their long and hap­py mar­riage, he sup­port­ed her career at the same time that he pur­sued his own active and chal­leng­ing career. After their mar­riage, Gerson’s work brought them to Boston, where Nathan’s career as a food writer took shape under the tute­lage of The Boston Globes food crit­ic. When Gerson’s career moved them to Wash­ing­ton, which became their per­ma­nent home, the Globe’s food crit­ic sent a let­ter to The Wash­ing­ton Posts food coed­i­tors, who agreed that Nathan could pub­lish arti­cles when­ev­er a good sub­ject came to her — a flex­i­ble arrange­ment that allowed her to work at home while rais­ing three children.

Nathan’s and Gerson’s careers intro­duced them to a host of inter­est­ing and promi­nent peo­ple, and their gift for fam­i­ly and friend­ship brought many of them into their lives, often at table over good food. Among the many meals she recalls was the Ger­son fam­i­ly seder, a solemn event con­duct­ed in flu­ent Yid­dish and Hebrew. It was a con­trast to her family’s more mod­ern seders — led in hes­i­tant Eng­lish by her Ger­man-born father, with dry kosher Caber­net instead of Man­is­che­witz — as well as her own elab­o­rate­ly planned seders with many guests, led by Ger­son. Shab­bat din­ners, often with friends, were a spe­cial event in their family’s week. On trips, Nathan and Ger­son often had casu­al lunch­es with lead­ing chefs, food writ­ers, home cooks, and gov­ern­ment fig­ures, great­ly enrich­ing Nathan’s life and career. These chance meet­ings opened doors for her both pro­fes­sion­al­ly and intellectually.

The book is orga­nized around Nathan’s mem­o­ries, brief chap­ters accom­pa­nied by more than a hun­dred recipes. Brief excerpts from let­ters to her par­ents and her diaries offer a glimpse into Nathan’s per­son­al life, which has been marked by the sad­ness of los­ing twins at their birth and the unex­pect­ed and dev­as­tat­ing death of her husband.

Israel has nev­er left Nathan; there she learned much about her­self as a Jew and the role food plays in our lives and our his­to­ry. It has spurred her to research and pre­serve tra­di­tion­al foods, par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish foods, that define us and our cul­tures, in order to pass them on to the next gen­er­a­tion. This book shines with love — love for fam­i­ly, for tra­di­tion, and for the meals that bring us together.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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