Secrets of the Ultimate Jewish Mother

Joan Nathan, the author of Jewish Cooking in America, talks about kasha varnishkes, how she’ll be celebrating the holidays this year, and Wolf Blitzer’s wife’s brisket.

09.15.09 11:43 PM ET

With the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—and Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—quickly approaching, Jews around the world are beginning to ask themselves fundamental questions: “What does it mean to be Jewish?” “How does the Torah apply today?” “How do we reconcile God and Modernity?” And most important, “What’s for dinner, and when are we eating?” For the answer to this question we turn to one woman who puts all other Jewish mothers to shame: Joan Nathan.

“Make sure that you’ve got enough that’s of your traditions and enough that’s seasonal. That’s what I love about Judaism: It’s family-oriented, it’s food-oriented, and it’s also seasonal.”

In 1994, Joan Nathan’s cookbook Jewish Cooking in America won both the James Beard Award and the IACP/Julia Child Cookbook of the Year Award, and she has since become the unofficial steward of Jewish American cooking and cuisine. Her later books—including Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook, The Jewish Holiday Baker, and The Jewish Holiday Kitchen—as well as her award-winning PBS series on Jewish cooking and her regular articles in The New York Times, have solidified her status as the modern maven of Jewish-American cuisine.

What are you doing for the holidays this year?

I’m making either a chicken with apples, which is an old French recipe for Rosh Hashanah, or I’m going to make chicken fricassee with meatballs with tomatoes and green peppers. And I’ll make kasha varnishkes for Friday night and chicken soup with matzo balls and a plum kuchen, which is like a tart. Saturday we’re doing a huge lunch for Rosh Hashanah—30 or 40 people. I’m going to make brisket and farfel, which is just a little noodle, and then I’m going to make ratatouille. I always make ratatouille at the harvest time. For dessert, I’m going to do poppy-seed cake, honey cake, and apple cake—all from my cookbooks or articles. And of course a huge challah.

Do you usually stick to the traditional foods?

I stick to tradition as much as possible. I like having tradition because kids like the familiarity, and even though my kids are older, they come home not for different food or my experimentations, but for a little bit of comfort, for what they grew up with.

What’s the best Rosh Hashanah dinner you’ve been to?

My own dinners! I once had Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Israeli ambassador’s, but I don’t remember what I had. I’ve been to a Yemenite dinner, which was pretty terrific. It was Erev Yom Kippur [the night before Yom Kippur] and that was an amazing dinner. We had Yemenite stew with all kinds of hot sauces and flat bread, and we sat on the floor. It was pretty interesting, in Jerusalem. But I do like doing it myself. When I was a kid I loved my mother’s Rosh Hashanah.

I think we all love our mother’s Rosh Hashanah dinner the best.

Even though I make really good brisket, I still remember my mother’s brisket. And farfel. And she made plum kuchen, too, so it’s not so different from my own Rosh Hashanah dinner.

Why is brisket the classic Jewish holiday meat?

First of all, it’s a kosher cut. Plus, it goes a long way and can feed a lot of people, it’s a special occasion meat, and you braise it, so it’s very easy to make.

There are so many ways to cook brisket: with Coca-Cola, with Lipton’s onion soup mix, with ketchup, with beer. How do you prepare brisket?

What I’m going to do, because my kids love it, is Wolf Blitzer’s wife’s recipe. They’re friends of ours, and my son is going to say that he wants her recipe. Or I’ll make one that’s got apricots and pears and different kinds of dried fruit, so it’s sort of a sweeter one. But I personally don’t like them that sweet.

How do Jewish cultures around the world celebrate high holidays with different food traditions? Do Jews everywhere eat brisket and matzo ball soup?

It depends on your background. Matzo ball soup is definitely American, but also Eastern European and Germanic and French. Of course, in those other places they don’t call them the same thing, and their matzo balls are a little smaller and shaped differently. And sometimes the chicken soup has beef in it. The Sephardic Jews never eat that, and if they have brisket they would never have a sweet brisket; it’d be much more tart. And then there are the symbolic fruits: Apples and honey are Eastern European, pomegranate is something Yemenite Jews would have, Iraqi Jews would have dates. And the plum kuchen, which is a new food for the fall, would be something from France and southern Germany.

How do you celebrate Yom Kippur? Do you prepare a traditional break fast?

I always go to a friend’s. I cook all the time and this is the one time for me to think about other things besides food. I love to break the fast with herring and with the very American bagel, lox, and cream cheese.

The meal to break the Yom Kippur fast is traditionally dairy, rather than meat. Why?

People want to eat it quickly, and with a dairy meal you can have everything ready to go in your refrigerator. And it’s lighter. But Sephardic Jews don’t necessarily do a dairy meal. They end the Yom Kippur fast with a soup, very often a Moroccan soup with a lot of different beans. It’s really a Muslim soup that’s used to break the fast of Ramadan, so you’d have beans, which are a lot of protein, at night.

Are there other foods that cross over between religious food traditions?

There are a lot. The Jews, no matter where they lived, adapted to the culture of their neighbors. They would see what the local people were eating and they’d adapt the local food to the Jewish dietary laws. This soup is one definite adaptation, because it’s Moroccan. Probably the Tunisians do it as well.

What’s your advice for people making dinner for the holiday this year?

Just really try new things. But make sure that you’ve got enough that’s of your traditions and enough that’s seasonal. That’s what I love about Judaism: It’s family-oriented, it’s food-oriented, and it’s also seasonal. This is the beginning of the harvest season, and I always like to think in terms of what it was like in ancient Israel. Go to your local farmer’s market and make things that are of the season. And I think it’s really important to not get carry-out, but to cook.

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Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at She lives in New York City.