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Cooking and Writing to Fight Injustices

On Sept. 11, Joan Nathan, celebrity chef and author of Jewish Cooking in America, takes on illiteracy

Ethnic identity and pride do require regular feeding. As a good wife and mother, Nathan hosted dinner for her family and friends every Friday night. "I had it no matter what. And kids, Jewish or not Jewish, they all knew the prayers."

They also knew this: "They would get a really good meal."

These days, Nathan has turned that reputation into a fundraising tool. With Alice Waters, the famous pioneer of the locavore movement, she hosts an annual charity dinner, which has become a must for D.C. foodies — even at $500 a seat. She attracts the pro bono services of chefs from around the world. With the other donated goods and manpower, she turns the $3,000 out-of-pocket costs into a $135,000 gift to two capital-area community centers.

"The money goes straight to the bottom line," she says proudly.

Hunger next door
And still, she apologizes for maybe not doing enough, even while fussing over a soufflé as a hurricane heads toward her. Lest any of her contemporaries fall into the same mind-set, Nathan has a solution.

"People have this notion that you have to do something for the poor. That is how you have to help. But, very often, there are people right next door. Especially in these times, they really need a bit of loving tenderness."

So Nathan says she often brings elderly neighbors something from her stove. "Sure the homeless need it, but there are other people who need it."

That is a very good use of Nathan's experience and expertise. Here, she suggests, is an even better use of yours: "Teach young people. You are older; you can teach the recipes."

It is as simple as that, she says. Ingredients encode memories; spoonfuls and pinches whisper stories that pass from generation to generation. McDonald's secret sauce contains no such mysteries.

Nathan, whose philanthropic efforts have touched thousands, seems particularly pleased with this legacy: "My son lives in New York. He is 25.  He is a very good cook."

Jack Curry, a former editor at USA Today, is a freelance writer and editor and serves on the editorial board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, specializing in corporate philanthropy and the media.

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