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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

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.

Find a 9/11 National Day of Service volunteer opportunity. >>

"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.>>

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