Your Source for NPR News & Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KTEP is currently undergoing maintenance at transmitter site. We are operating on low FM power.

After years of documenting Jewish food traditions, Joan Nathan focuses on her family's

After decades creating and publishing recipes, cookbook author Joan Nathan has released what she said is likely her final book, a cookbook and memoir called "My Life in Recipes."
Michael Zamora
/
NPR
After decades creating and publishing recipes, cookbook author Joan Nathan has released what she said is likely her final book, a cookbook and memoir called "My Life in Recipes."

Joan Nathan has spent her life exploring in the kitchen, trying new dishes and recipes all year. But every spring, for the Passover Seder, she sticks with a menu that follows her own family's traditions. The holiday starts tonight.

"I think Passover tells us who we are, and it tells us, this is my family sharing with other families. I get chills every year at Passover, because I realized that it started in ancient Israel. I mean, it's in the Bible!"

Joan Nathan chops up fresh herbs for her soup and rolls matzo balls in her kitchen in Washington, D.C.
Michael Zamora / NPR
/
NPR
Joan Nathan chops up fresh herbs for her soup and rolls matzo balls in her kitchen in Washington, D.C.

Nathan has written a dozen cookbooks, documenting how food traditions evolved as Jews wandered all over the world through the centuries. Now in her 80s, her new book is her most personal work yet, excavating her own culinary history in a combination memoir and cookbook called My Life in Recipes.

"I've been more nervous about this book than any book... It's sort of going into my life, you know?"

Cookbook author Joan Nathan looks through old family recipe books.
Michael Zamora / NPR
/
NPR
Cookbook author Joan Nathan looks through old family recipe books.

Nathan spoke with All Things Considered in her Washington, D.C. kitchen on a late March day, while she prepped a version of a dish she's been eating since childhood: chicken matzo ball soup. And, like many Jewish mothers and grandmothers before her, that afternoon, she fretted over whether the matzo balls would turn out the way she wanted them to. Every family has their own recipe, whether they're light, fluffy, hard, dense.

"So my mother's, hers were al dente," Nathan said. "And my mother-in-law's were very light. You know, she was straight from Poland."

As with every immigration story, these family recipes evolved as people relocated, fleeing wars or seeking a better life for their kids. One example is a special combination Nathan adds to her own matzo balls.

Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in her kitchen.
Michael Zamora / NPR
/
NPR
Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in her kitchen.

"I'd added ginger [and] nutmeg, which I knew was what my father's family would have used in Germany," she explained. "Ginger nutmeg was a very common condiment combination in the 19th and early 20th century."

For Nathan, cooking matzo ball soup for Passover, or any Jewish holiday, just feels comfortable – like home.

"It's the smell," she said. "You just know that smell. Like my mother's brisket, I know; like challah, I know. I love those smells. It knows that you're at home, that there are people that care."

Nathan pulls two loaves of challah out of the oven at her home in Washington, D.C.
Michael Zamora / NPR
/
NPR
Nathan pulls two loaves of challah out of the oven at her home in Washington, D.C.

While the soup simmers, Joan walks over to the living room where boxes of letters and books are laid out. They're some of the artifacts that she's uncovered from her family, including handwritten recipe books in German. One from her great-grandmother dates back to 1927, written in purple ink full of recipes for desserts like kuchen and caramel pudding. Nathan's new book is full of her letters, diary entries and parts of these family artifacts.

Nathan looks through old family recipe books including one that dates back to 1927.
Michael Zamora / NPR
/
NPR
Nathan looks through old family recipe books including one that dates back to 1927.

This book is also a love story. Joan Nathan writes about her courtship and marriage of 45 years to her late husband, Allan Gerson. He died just before the pandemic. She says writing this book felt almost like a form of therapy.

"It was my savior. I would just write. And I would include him in my life, you know? So it was a way of really making him part of my life. And I think it was really helpful to me. It really gave me strength."

A photo of her family hangs in the living rooms as cookbook author Joan Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in the kitchen of her home in Washington, D.C.
Michael Zamora / NPR
/
NPR
A photo of her family hangs in the living rooms as cookbook author Joan Nathan prepares matzo ball soup in the kitchen of her home in Washington, D.C.

My Life in Recipes also includes anecdotes from Nathan's prolific career, her world travels and stories of her collaborations with food luminaries that include Julia Child.

"Julia – I had her 90th birthday in this - she was sitting right here on this couch. I had a party for her. She's somebody who just kept living," Nathan remembered.

"And she said to me, at 90, why should I quit if I'm doing what I like to do? And she made me realize a few things: Have people that are younger around you as you get older, be positive, don't talk about being uncomfortable or whatever. And also, to write thank-you notes to everybody."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Related Stories