Joan Nathan says she’s always had a particular fascination with French Jews and their food.
For Nathan, author of Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, 2010), the love affair with French cuisine started as a teenager when she made her first trip to France in the 1950s.
Believing a girl’s education should include fluency in other languages, her father approached a cousin in France who opened his home, immersing Nathan in his culture.
“Because I have relatives and friends who are French, I’m always curious what they’re doing for holidays,” said Nathan, who relishes visiting people’s homes to see what they eat and how they celebrate.
Falling seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot is a minor holiday with major importance, as it commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
It is traditional to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, which this year falls on June 8, because of the purity of the Torah.
Nathan has vivid memories of the holiday in France from the past few decades.
Many French Jews attend synagogue in the morning and come home for a well-rounded meal at lunch — more like a dinner — as opposed to a typical American bagels-and-lox brunch.
While the French often incorporate dairy products into recipes, they don’t go overboard on Shavuot the way Americans do by eating a meal composed almost entirely of blintzes, kugels, and cream cheese. The French, however, do enjoy a good cheesecake.
“Food has never been static,” Nathan said. “Even old recipes are in a constant state of flux and refinement, subject to outside influences and improvements.”
Recent decades have seen intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in France. With cross-cultural menus becoming the norm, Sephardic food is overtaking traditional Ashkenazi cuisine.
Aware of this reality, a friend of Nathan’s pleaded with her, “Please find the old Ashkenazi recipes before they die out in France and it’s too late.”
“My whole life has been about guarding the legacy of Jewish food,” said Nathan, whose research in France found many traditional Jewish foods can be traced to other countries.
“I love French cooking,” said Nathan, marveling at its variety. “The recipes in my cookbook are easy, and I use as many of them as possible on Shavuot.”
The following recipes are by Nathan from Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.