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Arts & Culture You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Watch This Cooking Show

June 6, 2002
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One of the last things Joan Nathan wants to do in her cooking show is teach people how to cook.

Instead, she uses her PBS series, “Jewish Cooking in America,” as a springboard to teach Jews and non- Jews alike about Jewish history, tradition and culture.

“Cooking is a means to an end to us,” says Nathan, the well-known author who has written a cookbook by the same name.

“I didn’t want to just feature technique. I’m really much more interested in telling cultural stories,” Nathan told JTA recently while sitting in the dining room of the Manhattan apartment where one of the episodes was being taped.

As she talked, kreplach were simmering one room over in a kitchen with a green and grey, hand-crafted mosaic floor, a sub-zero refrigerator and a view of Central Park.

Unlike most cooking shows, which are taped on a studio set, each episode of “Jewish Cooking in America” is filmed in the guest chef’s kitchen, which means that Nathan and her production crew have traveled to some half-dozen cities to produce the series.

While this makes the show more expensive to produce, filming in the chef’s personal kitchen is important, she says, because the series is more about the cooks themselves than the recipes they demonstrate.

“Jewish Cooking in America” is produced by Maryland Public Television. The first 13 episodes of the show debuted on public television four years ago, with the second series airing this spring.

While the first season concentrated on the Jewish holidays, the second looks at how various ethnic groups have influenced, and been influenced by, Jewish cooking.

The episode being taped in the Upper West Side apartment, for example, shows how Jewish kreplach and Italian capelletti both descended from the Chinese wonton when, as early as the eighth century, silk merchants brought the stuffed dumpling to Europe.

Nathan points out that a lot of food we think of as Jewish is really regional.

“Jewish food, in many instances, is geographical, but determined by the dietary laws,” Nathan says. “My family is German Jewish, so they had a lot of linzer torte, and this quetsche kuchen, a blue plum tart, all Alsatians make that, but also Jewish people because they were part of the culture.”

But Jews influenced regional food as well. Everyone in Alsace now makes carpe a la juive, or Jewish carp, she says.

But the major emphasis of the second series is the stories the cooks tell about their lives while they’re demonstrating recipes.

Thus the episode on making chicken paprikash and spaetzle — a German dumpling — focuses on the life story of Holocaust survivor Eva Young.

“What’s so great about a cooking show like this is that people can tell you stories.” Nathan said. “It’s real oral history.”

In the course of cooking the spaetzle, Young described how she survived the concentration camps by selling a diamond her father had hidden for her in a false tooth. She also recounted her experience of saving another prisoner’s life and then being reunited with him more than 50 years later, and how her life had progressed since the end of the war.

Later in the episode, approximately a dozen Holocaust survivors ate the spaetzle together and talked about what it was like to be hungry in the camps.

“To be able to get that” on television “is amazing,” Nathan says.”I felt, doing this show, that everything in my life as a food writer meant nothing until that moment.”

The series has been picked up by most public television stations.

“By far the majority of viewers are not Jewish,” says Charles Pinsky, the show’s executive producer.

For example, it’s very popular in the Bible Belt, he says.

“I knew that Jews would love the show,” Nathan says, “but the others I wasn’t sure about.”

Lois Mellott, a 69-year-old Protestant homemaker from Pigeon Cove, Pa., a small farming community, says she doesn’t usually watch cooking shows, but watches this one because of “the history, the people” and “the stories.”

As far as she knows, there are no Jews living in Pigeon Cove, and before watching the series, she knew almost nothing about Jewish culture.

“I like learning about the holidays and the traditions,” she said.

She remembers the Eva Young Holocaust episode in particular.

“I liked their stories,” Mellott says. “How most of them had lost families and had come to anther country and established friendships. I think it’s interesting that they hold on to their roots and still do the things that are traditional to their families.”

Adama Konteh, a Muslim African-American high school student who lives in Hyattsville, Md., watched the show for the first time because she knew Nathan’s son. But she continued to watch the series because she found it “different.”

“A lot of other cooking shows are a lot more like ‘Look at me, I’m cooking,’ ” Konteh says.

But with “Jewish Cooking in America, I never really know what Joan Nathan is going to do on her show,” she says. “I liked that there are certain episodes that discuss Jewish customs.”

While Nathan has a wide range of admirers, she says her most ardent fans are still Jews.

“The majority” of the viewers “are not Jewish,” she says. “But the Jewish people tape it and keep it.”

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