Joan Nathan, the queen of Jewish American and Israeli cookbooks, takes to the old continent in her new book, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. Nathan returns to the country where she spent several years of her youth and wends her way through cities and small villages, tasting treasured family recipes and collecting stories hitherto untold. Nathan talks with Moment’s Eileen Lavine about the little-known culinary world of French Jews.
Did Jews influence French cooking?
Through their travels, Jewish explorers, merchants and peddlers brought salted and dried fish, grains and spices to France. During the Inquisition, many Jews fled Spain to Bayonne in southwestern France, bringing with them coffee beans and a tradition for making chocolate. At first, chocolate was a liquid remedy for ailments, but it soon became a luxury food, and Jews were its prime producers and exporters. Jews also helped develop the process for making foie gras—force-feeding geese because they wanted the extra goose fat for their cooking, a process they may have learned in ancient Egypt and taken with them to Cana’an.
Is French Jewish cuisine different from other Jewish food?
France is the richest agricultural country in Europe and French cooking goes back thousands of years. Certainly by the 18th century, France was known for its outstanding cuisine. Jews have always adapted their cooking to the geography of their countries, and even today French Jews are faithful to the traditions of their region, as well as to their Jewish heritage. There are over 200 recipes of their dishes in the book.
What were some of the most interesting stories you came across?
I heard World War II stories that some people had never even told their children, about hiding out, escaping the Germans and fleeing from place to place. One of my cousins drove me to see the house where he had been hidden as a child. I interviewed a chef in Dijon named Dennis Ginsburg. When I asked him if he was Jewish, he said “yes and no.” He explained that he had not known he was Jewish until his father was on his deathbed and gave him pictures of tombstones with Juive [Jew]. For a long time in France, everything was hidden, but today, Jews of the World War II era are more open about what happened to them.
What surprised you in your research?
I was surprised by the richness and pervasiveness of Jewish culture and history in France. I had thought of my relatives as more French than Jewish, but I learned that even through expulsions and persecutions, Jews have lived in France continuously for centuries. You find so many towns all over France that still have a Jewish presence, even a synagogue and mikveh. You run across streets or entire parts of towns named for Jews, like Rue des Juifs, Ancienne Rue Hebraique or Quartier des Juifs. I saw mezuzahs in stone and in cemeteries all around. It is more dramatic to find these because many people don’t realize they are there. Some of these towns are being repopulated today by Jews from North Africa. About 250,000 Jews migrated from North Africa after World War II to France, mostly to Marseilles, which has the second-largest Jewish population after Paris.
Has North African Jewish cooking influenced French food?
Big time. With intermarriage between Ashkenazi and North African Jews, there is a growing adventurous spirit in eating. Sephardic Jews hold onto their holiday recipes, which are the last recipes to change within a new culture, so in mixed marriages, the Sephardic food wins.
Why call your book Quiches, Kugels and Couscous?
These three dishes represent the main strains of Jewish cooking in France: Quiche is a French tart, kugel is Alsatian and German and couscous is a grain popular in North Africa.