Looking for Roots of Jewish Cooking in France

When eaters think of French cookery, they're generally more likely to focus on choucroute than kugel.

But Jewish food historian Joan Nathan is working to restore France's reputation as the birthplace of Ashkenazi cuisine with her new cookbook Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.

"I think it's an amazing book," says Nathan, who's scheduled to address the JCC Book Fair next week. "I had no idea how rich the story was."

Few food historians have gone looking for the roots of Jewish cooking in France, an oversight partly attributable to 20th century events. More than 80,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps under the Vichy regime, a genocide that didn't endear the nation to Jews who already considered France an anti-Semitic state.

"American Jews are sort of anti-France," Nathan says.

Still, French Jews were so connected to their Gallic identities that 250,000 Jews who survived stayed in France -- "that didn't happen in Germany, that didn't happen in Poland," Nathan emphasizes -- rather than join the pluralistic mix of Jews in the Americas or Palestine. Since French Jews didn't emigrate, they weren't positioned to share their recipes for bouillabaisse without shellfish and cassoulet without pork.

Even in France, Nathan says, "People weren't talking about their Jewishness. It wasn't like in New York."

Nathan, who's been visiting France since she was young, set out to discover what Jews there had been eating for 2,000 years. She found the first kugels -- "I have a wonderful plum and peach kugel recipe in the book," she says -- sponge cakes and tomato salads imported by the newest wave of Jewish immigrants from North Africa.

According to Nathan, Sephardic Jews from Tunisia, Morocco and other North African nations are intermarrying with France's Ashkenazi Jews. And, as she puts it, "the Sephardic are winning." In culinary terms, that means the Jewish dishes that Escoffier would recognize as French are rapidly disappearing.

"A lot of Ashkenazi Jews said 'please, please write this book,'" Nathan says. "Nobody has thought about it."

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