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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.

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