Tonight's sundown is the sixth night of Chanukah. To celebrate this occasion, we check in with Joan Nathan, award-winning author of ten cookbooks about Jewish cuisine, the latest being Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf). It's part cookbook, part investigative culinary journey, part anthropological unearthing of hidden Jewish traditions.
Nathan, who is fluent in French, spent five years worming her way into people's homes and getting them to share their personal stories and 200 long-held recipes. In the first of a two-part interview, Nathan multi-tasks, talking to us on speakerphone in her car as she drives around Providence, Rhode Island, holding forth on all manner of subjects from how to make coq au vin and keep kosher to where to buy your holiday brisket to what gentiles in France think of matzo.
Squid Ink: Describe the moment a light bulb went off in your head and you thought, "Jewish cooking in France!"
Joan Nathan: The Jewish French angle, it happened probably when I was going back to France -- I speak French and go to France a lot -- and people suddenly opened up about their Jewishness. That's when I realized it would be a real detective story. Once I had the idea, I went to Sonny Mehta, the head of Knopf, and to his credit he totally understood.
SI: France is not the most accepting place on earth. What techniques did you develop to get people to admit to you that they were Jewish?
JN: I have Jewdar. People open up to me. I could tell you so many stories of people whose parents never told them they were Jewish and wanted to protect them. On July 12, 1942, Jews in Paris who were obviously Jewish were rounded up and taken almost immediately to Auschwitz. A lot of people I interviewed were either the sons or daughters of these people. One of them, she and her little brother were rounded up as well and their Christian maid pleaded with the police -- this was the French police, not the Gestapo -- and she was the one who raised them. What's happening is a lot of these people are about to die and they want to tell their children and share the old recipes. Also I have a very good Catholic friend, she's from California, and her name is Connie Borde and she lived in Paris for I don't know how many years and I stayed at their house and she knows EVERYBODY. She knows exactly who is Jewish and who isn't.
SI: But yours was a two-part process: You had to not only figure out who was Jewish, but convince them to take you into their kitchens and actually show you how a recipe is prepared. How did that work?
JN: At first they didn't understand: "She wants to come to my home?" But because I would go with people who were Jewish, they trusted me. For me, that was so much fun: To sort of personalize history. I read all these history of food books - I don't want to say the names because I'm going to dis them all - but they were so boring. Then I thought, "Wait a minute: I wonder what would happen if I went to a town like Cavaillon?" That was one of the four towns that Jews were allowed to live in when they were kicked out of the rest of France in the 18th century. I'd read about Cavaillon, one of the carrières or the ghettos. It was in Cavaillon that I learned the gentiles loved matzo as much as Jews did.
SI: The French are matzo fans? Really?
JN: The matzo was always baked in the synagogue bakery, a 14th century stone bakery in the basement of the synagogue. So they'd make a certain amount of matzo for the Jewish community and an equal amount for the gentile bakeries in Cavaillon to distribute to their non-Jewish customers. In those days, you'd order your matzo and say, "I want ten francs worth..."
SI: They'd say, "I want ten francs worth of matzo, s'il vous plaît"?
JN: They call it pain azyme. The reason I know this is that my husband used to work at the United Nations in New York and we'd go there for lunch. They always had matzo there, all year around. The non-Jewish French loved it!
SI: The French are known for their very distinctive character traits, as are Jews. In a Gallic synagogue-goer which side wins out?
JN: If you ask a French Jew, "Where did you come from?" they'll say, "France." As an American, I thought, "What??? France?? You must come from someplace else." But there are Jews who have lived in France for 2,000 years. But let me answer your question: First of all, they have really good manners. They are thin. They have that je ne sais qua - which always makes me feel like a bull in a china shop. I was speaking at Georgetown University a few weeks ago and a French Jewish professor introduced me and I was watching her and I thought, "This woman is SO French!" She has that charm that only a French woman can have! The way she walks, the way she dresses, she's thin! She was just beautiful.
SI: In Jewish-French cooking there are a couple of hurdles. One is that kosher law forbids combining meat and dairy. That means a cream based sauce on your meat is out of the question.
JN: Sometimes they used almond milk when they wanted a cream sauce.
SI: Another hurdle is no lardon. What's a Jewish replacement for those flavorful pink cubes of bacon or pork?
JN: You can make a perfectly good coq au vin without lardon. But sometimes instead of lardon, people use a little bit of smoked goose breast or sometimes they used pickelfleisch, which is a bit like corned beef but much more garlicky. That's really good.
SI: Do they celebrate Chanukah differently in France?
JN: If you're at somebody's house, it might not even be a whole dinner. It might just be an afternoon. In America, it's always brisket. You don't have brisket in France.
SI: According to your book that's because French butchers aren't familiar with that exact cut of meat. What's a substitute?
JN: It could be chicken. But I think it's because Chanukah is considered a minor holiday for children it isn't necessarily considered a big deal. A lot of French Jews never have latkes -- unless their parents were from Russia or Poland or even Alsace. You might have pot-au-feu...
SI: A beef and vegetable stew...What else?
JN: Sometimes people have fondue bourguignonne. [odd ding ding ding sound in background] Oh, SHUSH!
SI: What was that noise?
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JN: [laughs] I don't even know where I'm going. I wake up and think, "Where am I?" I'm in Providence. I'm meeting my two brothers for lunch. I'm going to park. [more dinging noises and key rattling.] There! Now you have my complete attention.
SI: In that case, what's your secret to a good brisket? I am crossing my fingers that it does not involve dried onion soup mix.
JN: Get my New American Cooking. In it there's a very easy brisket recipe. I think the real secret is long and slow. You want brisket to melt in your mouth so you need to braise it. A lot of recipes don't call for braising. In other words, it's covered with liquid or almost covered. I cook it the night before. It's important to use a cut where there's a lot of fat in it. I go to Costco and get the whole cut. They're really good briskets. Don't cut off the fat: cook it the night before then refrigerate it and cut off the fat.
Check back tomorrow for part two, where Joan Nathan reveals why kosher wine is so much better in France, how come she didn't gain weight while researching the book and why her name is strangely familiar to fans of Top Chef.