“King Solomon’s Table” Delivers

by Rabbi Jacob Rupp March 28, 2018
 

 

king_solomons_table-coverMultiple James Beard Award winning “queen of American Jewish Cooking” chef and author Joan Nathan brings us a cookbook that is unlike any you’ve read before. Unlike the stale recipe-and-photo spreads that we have become used to, Nathan takes us literally around the world and through Jewish history to bring us culinary delights that span the entirety of the Jewish experience.

Aptly named “King Solomon’s Table” after the great king of Ancient Israel who sought to bridge the many cultures of the world in his day, Joan Nathan recounts her international travels to uncover the roots and history behind the food we know as “Jewish cuisine.” In her fascinating introduction, she points out how Jews have literally blended and evolved ancient cuisine from Babylon and Israel into the cultures and locales where they traveled, traded, and were exiled to over our multi-thousand year history.

What is so exciting is that this book isn’t just a history or geography lesson, but a story. We travel with Nathan, learn from the scholars and teachers she learned from, and taste the food. She tracks the food from its origins in the fertile cresent and India, to Europe, and as far as China.  She demonstrates how each stop on the map created changes and development in Jewish food that was unique to the cultures that cooked them.

We read about the history of empandas in Spain and Latin America, and the many variations of stuffed cabbage and corned beef that developed as the formerly Mediterranean cuisine of the Jews became adapted to the world of Ashkenaz (France and Germany).She even includes a discussion of the some of the moral issues surrounding food that the rabbinic authorities addressed, like the legal permissibility of force-feeding geese to produce foie gras while causing animals to suffer.

What we are left with, after our tour around the world and through history, is an incredibly diverse amount of food that can be considered “Jewish cuisine” both in terms of culture and history, and the necessary changes that had to be made to dishes in order for them to adhere to the laws of kashrut. To dispel a popular notion, “kosher” food doesn’t need to be blessed by a rabbi, but rather is prepared according to laws that were both oral and written, passed down through the generations.

The cookbook itself is stunning in its variety; on one page you’ll have the traditional North African/Mediterranean dish shakshuka, followed by the Ashkenazi pesach favorite matza brei. And not to be boxed into the ancient debate if the dish should be sweet or savory, she provides recipes for both, and goes as far as to suggest even adding such off-the-wall toppings as smoked salmon and avocado or a diced unpeeled apple.

What makes this book so challenging is the scope and variety of the food. It baffles the mind as you salivate over the beautiful full-page color photos of dishes across the world. This isn’t a typical cookbook in the same way a typical vacation doesn’t start you in Los Angeles, and leave you in New York by flying west and stopping at hundreds of cities along the way. But the book is refreshing in that sense; you’re not just getting ideas of what to put on your dinner or Shabbat table; you’re also learning history (like the history of the chicken!) and geography. In the end, the book is, in a very beautiful way, like the Jewish people – breathtaking, diverse, infinitely complex and full of surprises! Α

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