A Cook's Tour When Joan Nathan hit the road to film her PBS show, 'Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America,' she didn't realize how many good cooks she would find.

September 09, 1998|By KAROL V. MENZIE | KAROL V. MENZIE,SUN STAFF

She's done "Good Morning America," she's done "Regis and Kathie Lee." She's done an hourlong documentary. And now she's done 26 episodes of her own show for Maryland Public Television. But Joan Nathan, journalist, scholar, cookbook author and TV star, can't get over the people she met and worked with in creating her show, "Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America."

Her goal was to show how America has affected Jewish cooking, and how Jewish cooks have affected American cuisine. Her interest coincides with a national trend toward cookbooks that focus closely on a particular region or type of cuisine, and a number of recent books have focused on aspects of Jewish cuisine.

Although Nathan's show is based loosely on her 1994 cookbook, "Jewish Cooking in America," which features Jewish recipes and culture, the show ended up being mostly about people.

"The most surprising thing to me," she said, "was how good these natural cooks are" before the camera. "Like Dora Solganik - she just took it over."

Solganik, a Cleveland grandmother, who turned out to be not just a woman with a great way with gefilte fish but also a natural performer - real and funny.

"They were calling her Mel Brooks' older gefilte fish but also a natural performer - real and funny.

"They were calling her Mel Brooks' older sister," Nathan said, referring to the crew from Frappe Productions and MPT who filmed Solganik at Nathan's home in the Washington suburbs. "She was complaining about the high price of gefilte fish - she was very funny."

Or take Fred Loeb, retired baker, whose house outside the District has become a regular stop for Nathan and her three children, as each child turns 13 and faces the Jewish rite of passage, the bar or bat mitzvah. Loeb's house is where they learn to make challah, the bread associated with special meals.

Nathan discovered Loeb the way she discovered most of her unlikely TV personalities - through her wide connections, familial and professional ("She's amazingly well-connected," said the show's executive producer and director, Charles Pinsky). Her cousin was a fan of Loeb's DeLuxe Bakery, and persuaded Nathan to visit.

Now, on a hot summer afternoon, Loeb, Nathan, her son David Gerson (it's his bar mitzvah this time), three of his friends, her daughter Merissa Gerson, an aide who's handling Nathan's personal appearances, a woman from Bloomingdale's (where Loeb represents a line of cookware and bakeware), a photographer and another visitor are all crowded into Loeb's basement watching the boys struggle with braiding the six-stranded challah loaves.

"Left, left," Loeb says, pointing to the appropriate strands, sounding like a drill sergeant. But if the loaves are a little lopsided, he quietly shows them how to pat and nip to make them better.

The seeds of the show were planted a few years ago at a lunch with Nathan and John Potthast of Maryland Public Television. The two had worked together on her documentary, "Passover: )) Tradition of Freedom," and Nathan had some ideas for new projects.

"Some of them were pretty good ideas," Potthast said, "but I just looked at her and said, 'Joan, what you should be doing is a TV series about your book. It's your subject, you should just do it.' "

Nathan, who's the author of three other cookbooks and co-author of another, and who writes frequently for publications such as the New York Times and FoodArts magazine, grew up being interested in "people and food," she said. When she was still a child in Rhode Island, her father encouraged her to learn languages and to travel.

After college she went to Israel and worked for the then-mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, learning in the process about Jews, Muslims and Christians. She went to Boston, studied at Harvard, worked in New York. These days she is widely regarded as an authority in the field of Jewish cooking and culture.

Marcy Goldman, a professional baker, free-lance writer and recent cookbook author (see accompanying story), called her "the Jewish Julia Child."

"She's the doyenne and the voice of Jewish cooking in America," Goldman said. "People see her as a great source, a documenter of Jewish recipes and a researcher of culture."

Pinsky said, "Joan's whole adult life has been to look at the way Jewish food and culture come together."

That prepared her for her role as host of the TV show - because television isn't about recipes, or even about customs, he said. "The whole series came down to finding wonderful people who could prepare the food."

Nathan admits she was nervous about carrying a show. "I wouldn't look at the tapes for months, I was so scared." But Potthast had plenty of advice. "John told me the biggest problem with most interviewers is they're thinking about their FTC next question. He told me, 'You have to learn to listen.' "

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