Author pho­to by Hope Leigh

Recent­ly I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with Joan Nathan, the promi­nent writer on Jew­ish cook­ing, about her newest book, My Life in Recipes: Food, Fam­i­ly, and Mem­o­ries, a warm col­lec­tion of her per­son­al and fam­i­ly life built around more than one hun­dred recipes.

Maron Wax­man: When did the idea for the book start tak­ing shape?

Joan Nathan: I thought King Solomon’s Table would be my last book, but my edi­tor came to Wash­ing­ton for a vis­it. She looked around the house and the kitchen and saw every­thing I had saved over the years — let­ters, pho­tographs, jour­nals — and thought all that would make a book. So it was her idea.

MW: Food, Fam­i­ly, and Mem­o­ries, the sub­ti­tle of the book, said a great deal to me. How did the for­mal title come about?

JN: The title was the editor’s. But Recipes” was in my work­ing titles. Recipes” had to be in the title because recipes are what I do. The edi­tor came up with the final title.

MW: Did you cook with your mother?

JN: I cooked a lit­tle with my moth­er. When I was grow­ing up, we had a pro­fes­sion­al cook until my father’s busi­ness had a down­turn, but once my moth­er start­ed cook­ing, she loved it. I loved the recipes she made—Zwetschgenkuchen, a Ger­man plum pie, and rugelach. I cooked with my moth­er when I was old­er, not when I was young. I have mem­o­ries of her mak­ing Zwetschgenkuchen, work­ing the dough.

MW: The Fla­vor of Jerusalem was your first book, which you wrote with Judy Stacey Gold­man. It start­ed with the idea of invit­ing mem­bers of the for­eign press and their wives into the homes of var­i­ous cooks so they could get to know the peo­ple. How did you con­vince these women to have peo­ple come into their kitchens to watch them cook?

JN: We knew some of the women, and they trust­ed us. Remem­ber, I was in Israel for three years and knew a lot of the cooks, so it was eas­i­er to per­suade them to host the for­eign press. Also I worked in the mayor’s office.

This start­ed as a lark. We had no idea we would write a book. We wrote down all the recipes by hand and wrote down their sto­ries with the recipes, then had the cooks review what we wrote. This is still my prac­tice. The sto­ries became the head­notes in the book.

When I start­ed writ­ing, I wrote by hand, then start­ed using a type­writer. I’m a fast typ­ist, so I could get every­thing down quick­ly. Then I moved to the com­put­er, but I’ve nev­er done any recording.

It took a long time to get the book pub­lished. Pub­lish­ers didn’t think it was kosher enough. They had a nar­row view of what Jew­ish cook­ing was.

MW: What con­nec­tions do you see in the var­i­ous Jew­ish food traditions?

JN: The con­nec­tion between the dif­fer­ent Jew­ish tra­di­tions is of course the laws of kashrut, Sab­bath, and hol­i­days. In addi­tion the con­cept of look­ing for the new and adapt­ing to local tra­di­tions as Jews wandered.

MW: Where do you think your taste for adven­ture comes from, espe­cial­ly adven­ture when it comes to all kinds of food? Was there ever a food or dish you didn’t want to sample?

JN: I think I was born with a sense of adven­ture. I do remem­ber one time in Jor­dan when I was served a dessert I love, knafeh. This one was made with mut­ton fat, and I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it, not with mut­ton fat. I just nib­bled at it and pre­tend­ed to eat it.

MW: You were among the writ­ers who prac­ti­cal­ly invent­ed the career of food writ­ing. With so much empha­sis on video now, will the pro­fes­sion change?

JN: Writ­ten recipes will always be impor­tant. The sto­ry approach con­nects peo­ple to cul­ture and his­to­ry and teach­es them about this. Some­one wrote an arti­cle in a small aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal say­ing my book was the first time there were head­notes in a cook­book. Long head­notes are nec­es­sary to explain the sto­ry and con­text of a recipe.

Writ­ten recipes will always be impor­tant. The sto­ry approach con­nects peo­ple to cul­ture and his­to­ry and teach­es them about this.

MW: Do younger peo­ple need videos to under­stand how to cook because they haven’t been brought up in cook­ing kitchens?

JN: Much of younger people’s lives are online, and it’s not a prob­lem. Cook­ing shows on TV encour­age them, and they can learn to cook from them. Young peo­ple have long lives ahead of them, and who knows how they’ll use this infor­ma­tion. But online cook­ing does make it hard­er to find sources for fam­i­ly recipes.

MW: Do your chil­dren cook from the fam­i­ly recipes?

JN: My chil­dren do keep some recipes going. My daugh­ter has no meat in the house, but she calls me with ques­tions for latkes and dish­es like that. And they do bake challah

I’m updat­ing my Children’s Jew­ish Hol­i­day Cook­book now. It’s com­ing out this fall, now titled A Sweet Year. I cook with my six-year-old twin grand­daugh­ters, and I love it.

MW: You have a real gift for fam­i­ly and friends, and I enjoyed meet­ing so many of them in the book. Do you and your guests linger at the table after the food is cleared and just con­tin­ue the evening?

JN: I think I have an open­ness for much in life, and much in life is just luck. I have no idea of where my love of being a food writer came from. It just hap­pened. I think my skill lay in tak­ing advan­tage of oppor­tu­ni­ties. You nev­er know what’s going to come up. My hus­band and I both had inter­est­ing jobs, and so we knew inter­est­ing peo­ple. My hus­band intro­duced many inter­est­ing peo­ple from pol­i­tics, and I had to test recipes, so that was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring peo­ple to din­ner. Friend­ships were nour­ished at the table, and yes, after din­ner we did stay at the table.

I still have Shab­bat din­ners every week with a few peo­ple. I like it as a way of calm­ing down and just being, of tak­ing a pause in the week.

MW: At twen­ty-six you write that you want­ed to have an inter­est­ing life. It sounds to me that you’ve accom­plished that.

JN: At twen­ty-six my moth­er want­ed me to get mar­ried. Who knows at twen­ty-six what’s going to hap­pen? At that point I went to Israel, and it has shaped my life. I went back reg­u­lar­ly and go every few years, some­times more, some­times less.

MW: Through­out the book and in all your work, you stress the impor­tance of food tra­di­tions, espe­cial­ly Jew­ish food tra­di­tions, in your own fam­i­ly and in so many oth­er cul­tures — French, Israeli, Moroc­can, Mid­dle East­ern, Amer­i­can — expand­ing the scope of Jew­ish food tra­di­tions and cul­tures, and I want to thank you for this.

JN: I appre­ci­ate that. In a recent edi­tion of the For­ward, an arti­cle list­ed 125 Amer­i­can Jews who had done some­thing for Jew­ish cul­ture, and I was among them. That seems right to me. Jew­ish Cook­ing in Amer­i­ca made Jew­ish food eas­i­er for non-Jews who want­ed to con­vert. It’s non­threat­en­ing and helps non-Jews estab­lish Jew­ish households.

Through­out my life, most­ly I did what I did because I liked it.

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.