Joan Nathan. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Nationally known food writer Joan Nathan, shown here at the Farmers' Market, believes strongly in the virtues and pleasures of fresh, local produce. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Joan Nathan - for love of food

By Elizabeth Germain - July 20, 2006

Joan Nathan is an award-winning cookbook author, effervescent speaker, and summer resident. Her latest cookbook, "The New American Cooking" (Knopf 2005), received both the prestigious James Beard Award for Food of the Americas and the International Association of Culinary Professionals award for American Cooking.

I had the good fortune recently to speak with Joan about her book at her home in Chilmark. While we talked, I ate just-baked multigrain oatmeal bread smeared with Joan's homemade chickpea hummus. Preserved lemons provided a bright burst of flavor in the hummus and the hearty bread was crusty with great texture and taste. Joan loves to cook and says, "There's lots you can do to make mealtimes quick and easy. I let my life determine my bread," as she shared how that day she had kayaked for hours, spoke at the Chilmark Library in the early evening, and made bread - all in stride, as her schedule dictated. It was the best bread I've eaten on the Island, and you can make it too.

Joan is an internationally recognized expert on food and culture. She writes for The New York Times and was guest curator for "Food Culture USA!" at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2005. She is host of the acclaimed PBS series "Jewish Cooking in America" and perhaps is best known for her eight cookbooks on Jewish food.

The New American Cooking by Joan Nathan

For her recent book, Joan's quest was "to discover how and why the transformation in American food came about and to seek out the people, both known and unknown, who were responsible for the new openness in our tastes." Her mission led to an incredible journey to 46 of our 50 states. For five years she crisscrossed the country to meet with farmers, chefs, purveyors, and home cooks. Her summers were spent on the Vineyard - researching, writing, and developing recipes. The result is a magnificent book filled with memorable stories, 280 delectable recipes, and a wealth of amazing information and insight into all of the good in American food and cooking today. Joan says, "I learned something from every person I interviewed," and we readers have the good fortune to benefit from her efforts. Her book is a breath of fresh air among all the gloom in the news about agribusiness, the standard American diet, and fast food.

Cooking on a "magical island"

Felicia Kaplan introduced Joan to the Vineyard nearly 30 years ago and Joan fell in love with this "magical Island." She's been spending summers here ever since and says lots of the pictures in The New American Cooking could be from anyplace in America but they were taken on the Vineyard. The book also includes many Vineyard stories and recipes.

Joan Nathan. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Joan Nathan, an enthusiastic cook and prolific food writer, chooses the leafiest chard at the Morning Glory Farm booth during a Saturday Farmers' Market in West Tisbury.

Discover fishmonger Kris Larsen's secret for perfectly cooked Shellfish Stew with clams, mussels, and shrimp; learn how farm-raised oysters began to fulfill our cravings and how they are grown. You'll find recipes for Ms. Nathan's new favorite grilled cheese sandwich with eggplant and tomatoes from the Galley in Menemsha and one for Primo's (Lombardi's) popular pizza from the days when he was proprietor at the Chilmark Store. Keith Korn's signature dish, lobster salad with avocado and preserved lemon, still prepared by chef Job Yacubian at Bittersweet Restaurant, is included with a heartfelt tribute. At Humphreys Bakery, Ms. Nathan tasted cocodas, a Brazilian coconut cookie with chocolate chips for the American palate, and "went right home, figured out the recipe, and made them for my family, who loved them."

When asked the criteria for recipes in the book, Joan gave two, "what do we eat now? And, what did I taste all around the country." Her goals in dissecting the recipes for the home cook were to make them easier and make the recipes local. Joan praises all the wonderful raw ingredients found on the Island. "The Vineyard has become more sustainable in the past 30 years. There are more farms, more varieties of vegetables, more locally raised meats, milk, and handmade cheeses. There's the Whippoorwill CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and the Farmers' Market has much more to offer than it did at the beginning."

Joan believes people here and around the country are thinking more and more about where their food is from, how it's grown and why it's so important to eat what's local. She loves meeting all the people on the Vineyard who are part of the Slow Food movement because they live the life. Her passion for cooking is contagious. "Whenever you can, cook! It's the process of cooking that's so important. You can commune with family and friends and be together."

The Martha's Vineyard Slow Food Convivium is delighted to host Joan as their keynote speaker at its second annual summer potluck. So come commune over home-cooked, local food on Thursday, July 27. Hear Joan's stories about the significant influences on the new American cuisine and how many ingredients common today came into our market in the last three decades. You may learn how sugar snap peas became the greatest new vegetable in 50 years, how a soup became a symbol of liberation and freedom, or how a southern California surfer and New York Jew devised a business for selling dosas.

Joan's unique awareness of food in America today is profoundly inspiring and the evening promises to be a delicious and stimulating gathering. "The Vineyard is a microcosm of what's going on around the country and food in America has never been as exciting as it is today," says Joan.

My favorite multigrain oatmeal bread

From "The New American Cooking" By Joan Nathan

The oatmeal bread that I have been making for years is a descendant of the "health" bread popularized in the 19th century. Today, health breads are more in demand than ever. Just look at supermarket shelves: multigrain, seven-grain, low-carb - all "healthy" packaged breads.

The late Edna Rostow, an avid cook, taught me to make her signature bread, which she always set out on a wooden board for her family. Through the years, making the bread for my own family, I have simplified the recipe. Sometimes I add leftover cooked cereal, flaxseeds, wheat berries (soaked first in water), or any whole grains that I happen to have in my kitchen.

Yield 2 Loaves
2 tablespoons (2 packets)
active dry yeast
3 cups lukewarm water
1/3-1/2 cup honey
2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup toasted wheat germ
1 cup bran, oat, or soy flakes
2 cups whole-wheat flour
4 cups (approximately) all-purpose flour

1. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water in a large bowl. Stir until well mixed.

2. Stir in the honey, then add the oatmeal, salt, wheat germ, and bran, oat, or soy flakes. Mix well. Stir in the whole-wheat flour and 3 ? cups of the all-purpose flour to form a smooth dough. (This can also be done in a standing mixer.) Turn out of the bowl and knead until a firm, slightly sticky dough is formed, adding more all-purpose flour if needed.

3. Put the dough in a greased bowl and cover. Let it rise for at least 1 hour or until it is doubled in volume.

4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease two 9-by-5-inch or equivalent baking pans. If you have a baking stone, insert it in the oven.

5. Punch down the dough and divide it in half. Form 2 loaves and place them in the prepared bread pans. Let rise another half hour.

6. Bake for 40 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Turn out of the pans and let cool on a rack. This bread is great for sandwiches.

Slow Food and Martha's Vineyard

The Slow Food movement was founded in Italy in 1986 by Carlo Petrini in response to a McDonalds opening in Rome. He recognized that fast food, agribusiness, and the corporate food industry was destroying thousands of foods and flavors. Concerned that we could be reaching a point of no return he rallied to show we do have choices over fast food and supermarket homogenization. Today, worldwide membership in the Slow Food Movement is over 90,000 in over 100 countries. The non-profit educational organization is dedicated to supporting and celebrating food traditions. Their mission is to create a robust, active movement that protects taste, culture, and the environment as universal social values. They are committed to link pleasure and food with awareness and responsibility. Activities seek to educate about taste, link producers to consumers, and defend biodiversity.

The Slow Food Martha's Vineyard Convivium (name for local chapters) formed a year ago and is committed to celebrate, preserve, and help expand local food production. The group creates their own community food events and partners with other organizations. Through monthly meetings, special events, and community projects, Slow Food MV promotes the growing, cooking and eating of locally grown and traditional foods, both at home, among friends, and by local restaurants. They advocate the preservation and growth of small farms and local fisheries. The convivium has quickly developed a reputation for sumptuous potlucks that overflow with local ingredients. The second annual summer potluck will be held on July 27 at 6:30 pm at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. Join in, and bon appetit!

Slow Food potluck supper, Thursday, July 27, 6:30 pm, Agricultural Hall, Panhandle Road, West Tisbury. Bring a dish made from Island ingredients and the recipe. Book signing. $5 suggested donation.

For more information, call 508-645-9466 of 508-693-3260 or visit esgermain@aol.com, suzabell6@hotmail.com, www.slowfoodmv@groups.yahoo.com.

Elizabeth Germain is a year-round resident of Chilmark, whose articles appear in Cook's Illustrated Magazine, Body & Soul, and Natural Health Magazine. She provides personal chef services and cooking classes.