Joan Nathan is the most prolific, and certainly the most energetic and best-traveled, writer about Jewish food in this country, authoritatively researching Jewish food as it was brought to America and exploring how it is cooked now all over the world. Her many books show how central and binding food can be to a culture, and illustrate the draw of food research, which combines anthropology, history, and a curious palate.
They're all helped with a good kitchen--and Nathan has a particularly wonderful one in Washington, most recently the locus of food-world fame because the climax of a party she gave for visiting cooks at the Inauguration was having her life saved by a Heimlich maneuver administered by Top Chef Tom Colicchio. (Her wry but urgent New York Times op-ed made everyone who read it, including me, vow to learn how to administer one, beyond looking at the diagrams.)
Every year just before the start of Passover, Nathan invites over a group of women friends to make gefilte fish together, in a kind of ritual that deliberately hearkens back to their mothers and grandmothers. I got to observe because one of the members is the beautiful and accomplished Pamela Reeves, wife of none other than our own Jeffrey Goldberg, who kindly got me invited and even came along to express his opinion of the long, smelly process and to turn the very sporting and hospitable Joan into Margaret Dumont, if Margaret Dumont with a sense of humor and fun.
It was easy to joke around, especially with the ebullient spirits matching the bobbing balls of fish, which covered Nathan's big stove in incredible profusion, and especially with Goldberg around. I asked the group what they called themselves; they didn't have a name, so Jeff and I came up with Joan and Her Fish Shticks.
But I found the lively scene unexpectedly moving, too. After explaining their differing recipes with the kind of competitive edge familiar to any cook certain her mother's way was the right way (as, of course, every mother's way was), one of the women said, "When we do this our mothers and grandmothers are here. We're cooking with them."
Tracking down the traditional freshwater, kosher fish for gefilte fish--whitefish, carp, and pike--is no easy or quick task, nor is grinding it (Nathan has the apparently all-knowing Charles of the Giant do it for her), judging just how much matzoh meal to use to bind it, seasoning, and simmering it. And we haven't even discussed the broth, which should be a proper aspic that only long advance simmering with gelatinous fish frames and heads can provide. It's tedious, long, and, as Goldberg mentioned every chance he got, smells terrible. (He theorized that small Bronx and Brooklyn apartments accounted for the rise of jarred gefilte fish--women didn't want to smell up their kitchens before Pesach.)
I'm not sure many of the women there would make homemade gefilte fish every year if they didn't have each other's company, let alone Nathan as ringleader. But it gives them a chance to come together with each other and their memories of their mothers and grandmothers guiding their hands. It showed me what I knew but seldom see so vividly: what sharing food really means. Even if Jeffrey still insists he likes gefilte fish in a jar.