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Cooking and Writing to Fight Injustices

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

The bread-and-water people — you know the type — were stocking up on Martha's Vineyard. Other hurricane watchers were clearing their outdoor drains.

Joan Nathan was making a soufflé Rothschild, tomato Provençal and lamb.

"I am putting the peaches in," the world-famous, best-selling culinary expert reported, as Earl rumbled up the Eastern seaboard toward her Martha's Vineyard kitchen last week.

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"I have to do this fundraiser,” she says. “It's for the Community Services here. They do everything," including education and health and human services.

So, Earl be damned. The supper must go on.

Celebrity chef
And go on with what Nathan calls the "honest food, not cheffy chef" cuisine that she champions on TV, in print and on the speaking circuit. Her book Jewish Cooking in America established her as the new voice of ethnic eats in 1994, winning the James Beard Award. PBS viewers grew more familiar with her during a successful series based on the book.

Many best-sellers followed, and on Sept. 11, Nathan's special blend of writing and culinary talent will be displayed at the Bookmarks 2010 Festival of Books in Winston-Salem, N.C. The peripatetic kugel connoisseur is participating in the nonprofit's admission-free celebration of reading, storytelling and literacy advocacy.

Two-term national poet laureate Billy Collins and celebrated Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford are among the other well-known literary figures participating in Bookmark's seventh yearly celebration on the day designated as the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance.

Breaking bread
For Nathan, the Sept. 11 scheduling evokes memories of the days following the terrorist attacks. And not surprisingly, her memories involve coming together at a table to eat.

"There was a Peace Dinner in Washington, where I live," she says. "An Iraqi asked me to attend. It was really very powerful. We talked about the meaning of 'bread,' the word literally. In Arabic and Hebrew, the words are very close to the meaning of the word 'life.' "

Recognition of food's unifying potential extends further back than the Peace Dinner for the 67-year-old mother of three. Much earlier in her career, Nathan accepted a position in Israel with Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem.

"Teddy was trying to make Jerusalem work — Arabs, Jews, Christians," she recalls. "And I would always go eat with him. When people sat down to dinner with him, these bonds would form. I realized food can break down a lot of barriers.

"And that," she says, "made me want to be a food writer."

Real food
Food can unite. But it has to be real food. "There are a lot of kids today who grow up with sushi as comfort food!" she asserts. "Food is what says, 'This is me. Not you. This is my family. Not your family.' It is important to keep that alive."

Next: Breaking down barriers with food.>>

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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