“I love coming to Baltimore,” said Jewish food maven Joan Nathan. “It’s such an interesting, ethnic city. My sister-in-law and I spent a wonderful day at the Jewish Museum [of Maryland]. They had an interesting exhibit with Iraqi documents on Judaism. I’m dying to see if they have any cookbooks.”
Nathan, 74, recently spoke at the Baltimore home of culinary instructor Faith Wolf to discuss her latest book, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World” (Knopf). The gathering, which drew approximately 60 people, was a fund-raising program of the Jewish National Fund Women for Israel group.
The event offered guests an opportunity to sample some of the recipes from Nathan’s book. Appetizers served included onion-and-poppy-seed flatbread; Israeli hummus with lemon and cumin; winter squash soup; caponata Sicilian eggplant; spinach and potato bourekas; sambousek; and Persian grape leaves.
Dinner featured Nathan’s recipes for Hungarian chicken paprikash with dumplings; crunchy saffron rice, seared cod with tomatoes, dried plums and pine nuts; and Moroccan beet and orange salad.
The creative spark for “King Solomon’s Table” came about as a result of a family trip to India, she said.
“We were in Kochi,” Nathan said. “We went to a synagogue and on the wall it said Jews had been in India since the time of King Solomon. And I thought, ‘Whoa! King Solomon sent his emissaries in search of spices, precious jewels like diamonds, regular stones and peacocks.’ … It started me on a journey to the ancient world.
“The first thing I did was call [George Washington University ancient history and archaeology professor] Eric Cline,” she said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to Baltimore? There’s going to be an archaeology meeting and you can learn what kind of foods there were at the time of King Solomon.’”
From Baltimore, Nathan said her research took her to London, Ethiopia and the spice roads of India.
“Whenever I’m doing books, I do go on a journey,” she said. “This one was more of a journey than any other. I handed in my book and said to my editor, ‘This was not the book I set out to write.’ … You know, the best books are those that have an organic root as you’re writing them.” More than a typical cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table” is essentially a culinary history book, packed with recipes and research that Nathan enjoys sharing with readers and the audiences to whom she speaks regularly.
At the JNF talk, Nathan seasoned her presentation with extra helpings of history, anecdotes about culinary finds in unexpected places, and traditions she uncovered in her travels.
She recalled the work of a French archaeologist that led her to “44 recipes written on tablets in [the] Acadian [language],” and tales of a 5,000-pound, now-extinct cow that could feed 6,000 people at feasts.
“I love these pieces of ephemera,” Nathan told listeners.
Nathan said many of the ingredients and recipes currently trending in American pop culture are actually thousands of years old. “That gluten-free flour we think we’re discovering? It’s very, very old,” she said of chickpea flour. “It’s something of the past, and for those of you who like to cook, it’s something of the future.”
Abraham, said Nathan, brought chickpeas to the Promised Land. Nathan’s book draws on ingredients that she said would have been familiar to him.
“They had the ‘seven sacred species’ from the Book of Deuteronomy — figs, dates, olives, grapes, barley, wheat, pomegranate,” she said. “They had lentils, fava beans from Egypt, goats, lamb, sheep and doves.”
So what’s next for Nathan? The author, who lives in Washington, D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard, said her first priority is enjoying her newborn first grandchild. But grandmother-hood won’t slow down Nathan, whose cookbooks have won the James Beard Award and sit on top-10 lists from National Public Radio, Food and Wine and Bon Appetit. Her next project is to curate and compile “The Essential Joan Nathan,” a book project conceived by her publisher.
Nathan left guests with one final thought.
“My mother just passed away at the age of 103,” she said. During their last visit together, Nathan said her mother pointed to a recipe in “King Solomon’s Table,” and told Nathan, “‘This is [your grandmother’s] recipe. My daughter’s going to remember my mother.'”
Her mother died the next day.
Cooking, Nathan said, enables one generation to pass on its traditions to the next.
Erica Rimlinger is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.