{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/international-collections.php' }

Inquiring Minds: Researching Jewish Cuisine at the Library of Congress

(The following is a repost of an interview conducted by Wendi Maloney, Office of Communications. This interview originally appeared on the Library of Congress Blog.)

Award-winning cookbook author Joan Nathan. Photo by Gabriela Herman.

Joan Nathan is the author of 11 cookbooks, including “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World,” published in April. Her previous cookbook, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” was named one of the 10 best cookbooks of 2010 by National Public Radio and Food and Wine and Bon Appétit magazines. Earlier honors include two James Beard Awards, bestowed for the best cookbook of a given year, for “The New American Cooking” (2005) and “Jewish Cooking in America” (1994). Nathan is a regular contributor to the New York Times and Tablet Magazine.

Nathan will appear at the Library of Congress at noon on May 15 as part of the Library’s celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month. She will speak about “King Solomon’s Table,” sharing stories about her interviews with people from around the world and her research, including her extensive use of Library of Congress collections.

Here she answers a few questions about Jewish cooking and her research at the Library.

What makes food Jewish?

Jewish food is unlike other cuisines like Italian or French food that derives from the land. Jewish food is Jewish if the cook follows the dietary laws or has the dietary laws in the back of her mind. There are two other qualities that determine Jewish food. One is the obsession with food because of the dietary laws. Jews have always been searching for religiously acceptable food from around the world. The third characteristic of Jewish food is the expulsions and relocations of Jews throughout history that made them adapt new local foods to the dietary laws.

When and why did you start researching Jewish food?

When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, I started seeing the universality of Jewish food. Until then, I was sure that all Jews ate the matzo ball soup, roast chicken and sweet challah that my family had for Friday night. I learned about Moroccan Jewish salads, Kurdish Jewish kubbeh, Aramian soup and so many other exotic and delicious foods.

When did you start using the Library of Congress collections for your research?

I started using the collections for articles for the Washington Post in 1977 and for my second cookbook, the Jewish Holiday Kitchen, which came out in 1979. It was then that I met Myron Weinstein and later Peggy Pearlstein of the Hebraic Section, who steered me to the collection and both helped me greatly in my early research.

What collections have you used?

I have used so many! In the early days, I would spend days reading original documents from the Hebraic collection as well as the European collection of cookbooks, looking for old recipes and memoires that revealed the food eaten by Jews throughout history. As the years went by, I would often get photocopies copies sent to my home.

Which languages do you research in?

Of course, I use English, but I am pretty fluent in French and can read Italian, Hebrew and German.

What are the most interesting finds you have encountered in our collections?

The most interesting have been early recipes in the European collections. Recipes like macaroons repeated themselves, and you repeatedly see recipes for sauce Portugaise that was a tomato sauce, most usually with a Jewish provenance.

What has your experience been like generally researching at the Library?

I love this library, especially the grand reading room and the stacks. There were many years that, on my birthday, I would spend hours in the stacks. This year, on my birthday, I went to the Hebraic Section to listen to Ann Brener, a reference specialist in the section, give a marvelous talk about Rachel Blustein, Israeli poetess and pioneer. All the Library staff have been amazingly helpful to me with manuscripts that could answer my various questions throughout the years.

What dishes might American audiences be surprised to learn are Jewish?

Young Americans today would be surprised to learn that bagels are Jewish as are baked goods like rugelach and babka.

Gathered Around the Seder Table: Images from the Passover Haggadah

(The following is a cross-post by Sharon Horowitz, reference librarian in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division. It originally appeared on the Library of Congress blog.) Exodus 23:15 tells us that Passover should be celebrated in the spring. The rabbis understood this to mean it was their job to maintain the […]

Her Magazine, Her Voice: Foremothers of Women’s Journals in Africa and the Middle East

(The following is a joint post by Angel Batiste, Ann Brener, Anchi Hoh, and Fawzi Tadros in the African and Middle Eastern Division.) The history of women in Africa and the Middle East has often been told as addenda to incessant wars, political turmoil, and social injustice. If women’s voices could be heard, what story […]

Love Songs from the Middle East: A Valentine’s Day Celebrated with Poems from the Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish Collections

Poetry was the theme of a special program, “Love Songs from the Middle East: A Valentine’s Day Extravaganza with Poems from the Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish,” held in the African and Middle Eastern Division Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Through dramatic readings, the division’s very own area specialists journeyed with their audience […]

Princess Tanya Comes to Washington: A Chanukah Story for the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.) This Chanukah, it will be exactly one hundred years since a Jewish artist in revolution-torn Moscow presented his young stepdaughter, Tanya, with a wonderful Chanukah gift: a hand-lettered Russian fairytale in which the little girl herself […]

The Rivers Sing to the Emperor: A Hebrew Poem of Victory for Joseph II

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.) The occasion was apparently too good to miss. After a 3-week siege that ended on October 8, 1789, the armies of Joseph II, Emperor of Habsburg Austria, wrested the stronghold of Belgrade from Ottoman hands and […]

An Ingathering of the Exiles, Digital Style: Previous Blogs from the Hebraic Section

The Hebraic Section is delighted to take part in the recently-launched “4 Corners of the World,” a blog that focuses on the Library of Congress’ international collections. Thanks to this wonderful web-initiative we will now be able to bring treasures from the Hebraic Section to the attention of the wider public and, indeed, have already […]

Amid the Alien Corn: Scrolls of Ruth at the Library of Congress

(The Following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.) The Scroll of Ruth is one of the five biblical scrolls, and with its pastoral beauty and idyllic-like quality is surely one of the most popular books in the Hebrew Bible. The story, which unfolds in the fields of […]