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Cover Story | FOOD TALK

Food Is Life

April 05, 1998|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

Joan Nathan collects recipes. She's also a collector of stories. She can't help it. Nathan asks a cook how to make, say, taiglach (fried dough dredged in honey), and the cook, in the middle of demonstrating how to make the bits of dough small like chickpeas, might tell her about begging for food in the Italian countryside, keeping a bare step ahead of the Nazis. Recipes tell a thousand tales.

Her 1994 book, "Jewish Cooking in America" (Knopf), has five tsimmes recipes, 11 versions of kugel and eight latkes. It also describes the North Dakota pioneers who had so little to eat in winter that they had to break tradition and eat bacon; the way Coca-Cola worked its way into Cleveland brisket and Kraft cream cheese into Al Jolson routines; and the New York candy chain founder who said customers walking into his shops should feel as if they were "floating or dancing, like in a big Hollywood musical."

In her latest book, "The Jewish Holiday Baker," she provides the recipes and life stories of a true baker's dozen of bakers. In her Passover chapter, there is biscotti from Edda Servi Machlin, the taiglach cook and one-time beggar who survived an Italian concentration camp near Siena and went on to write the two-volume "Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews"; macaroons and Prince Albert cake from Elisabeth Rosenfeld, who survived the Holocaust in Yugoslavia and, after the war and her husband's death, took her three children Mexico City, where she became a famous cooking teacher; and meringue baskets with lime cream and Passover chocolate cake from Ann Amernick, assistant White House pastry chef for Presidents Carter and Reagan, who tells of rabbis following chefs around the kitchen with blow torches, trying to make the White House kitchen kosher for then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

"Baking is a great way to transmit a culture," she writes in the introduction to her newest book. "Not only does baking fill the kitchen with wonderful aromas; it also provides that relaxed family time when, while working with your hands, you can comfortably ease into conversation, a challenge in most households today."

Nathan talked about her books, her recipes and the stories she collects when she was in Los Angeles recently scouting locations and filming a new PBS series based on "Jewish Cooking in America." The series airs this fall.

Question: You had to make some last-minute changes in the baking book when Paula Kissinger, Henry Kissinger's mother, decided after the book was in galley form that she didn't want her recipes to be published.

Answer: It's true. I'd spent about four hours interviewing her, so she knew what I was doing. I went over everything on the phone with her. She gave me the recipes. And then Kissinger Associates called me and said, "We can't believe this; she doesn't want to be in it. She said she never liked the fact that her son was so public and that she just didn't want to be public." This was after 45-minute phone calls with her correcting me on everything in the recipes.

Legally, I could have put her in the book, no question--and, of course, there was nothing libelous about her in the book. But I thought, you know what? It's her right not to be in the book. And then I thought: Why was I writing about her? Why was so curious about her? Was it because she's famous and would help the book?

Then I started thinking about my aunt Lisl, who had the same sort of story as Paula Kissinger, about growing up in Southern Germany. Paula Kissinger talked about the Holocaust and what it did to her and how it disrupted life and the role of a woman in the kitchen growing up. And I remember all these things in my aunt. I realized the person I really wanted to write about was my aunt, who died when she was 94. She had written extensively about her life, so I went through those things, I went through the Providence Journal, which had written about her, I spoke to her children, her grandchildren. So I think it turned out fine.

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Q: You're known as a recipe perfectionist.

A: Well, I do test them a lot of times. I really want my work to last. What I do is I watch somebody make a recipe, then I test it a first time, make changes and have an assistant test it a second time, sometimes more. For the baking book, we tested a lot of the recipes as many as 10 times. I mean, I'm writing for human beings, not bakers. But I also want to try to keep a certain amount of authenticity. The most important thing is to watch a person make a recipe and get the story.

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Q: What matters more to you: the story or the recipe?

A: I'm more interested in the stories behind the recipes. I guess I think of myself as an ethnographer. Of course, if there's a lousy recipe with a good story, I'm not going to put the recipe in the book. With the baking book, I was able to tell 13 stories and organize them to show different aspects of the Jewish experience.

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Q: I hear that you're not a fan of low-fat Jewish cooking.

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