Joan Nathan
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Joan Nathan

Meryle Evans / June 2005

Food Arts presents the June 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Joan Nathan, who vividly chronicles America's diverse culinary and cultural traditions, writing about the remarkable people—farmers, famous chefs, and everyday cooks--who produce and prepare our food.

In eight cookbooks, published over three decades, Nathan has focused on culinary ethnicity—from her own Jewish heritage to that of the recently arrived immigrants who have affected momentous changes in American eating habits over the past 30 years. "What I enjoy doing more than anything," Nathan explains, "is taking culture and history and food and melding them together."

Nathan's penchant for discoveries first surfaced in Israel in the early 1970s when, after graduating from the University of Michigan, she spent three years in Jerusalem as an aide to Teddy Kollek, the city's colorful mayor. Eating alongside the charismatic mayor at meetings with orthodox Jews, Christian clergymen, and Moslem leaders was the impetus for her first book, The Flavor of Jerusalem.

Returning to the States for a master's degree in public administration at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Nathan then signed on as director of public information for New York City Mayors Robert Wagner and John Lindsey, helping to create the lively annual Ninth Avenue Food Festival. But culinary curiosity trumped administrative responsibilities. Nathan, who "grew up not very Jewish" in Providence, Rhode Island, set out to learn all she could about the foods and traditions of her forebears.

Her meticulous research and a gift for coaxing people "to tell you things they might not ordinarily say" have resulted in several significant books, among them the seminal award winning Jewish Cooking in America, which portrays the Jewish experience in the United States from the arrival of Sephardic Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654 to today's mosaic of immigrants from as far afield as Mumbai (Bombay) and Uzbekistan. That book begat an acclaimed companion 26 episode PBS television series and a slew of accolades.

Since then, Nathan has expanded her horizons to explore the extraordinary American food revolution of the past three decades. Crisscrossing the country, she shared lunch with a family of Cambodian farmers in Massachusetts, attended Honolulu fish auctions, and interviewed hundreds of noted chefs and unsung cooks. The result of this five year quest to discover why we have become so open to new tastes is the subject of Nathan's latest book, The New American Cooking, due out this fall.

The book dovetails with an exciting ancillary assignment: guest curator for "Food Culture USA!," a major component of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, taking place in Washington, D.C., later this month. The monumental task of bringing together a conclave of farmers, purveyors, and chefs to interact with 200,000 visitors a day has been daunting but equally rewarding. "This," Nathan notes with infectious enthusiasm, "is the best time in history for American food."