When Joan Nathan wrote her most recent cookbook, King Solomon's Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking From Around the World, she traveled to El Salvador for research. One evening, she spent Shabbat dinner with a local family. A few minutes after she sat down, she looked at the table and noticed a peculiar plate of latkes.
The shallow-fried pancakes, a popular item in Jewish cuisine, are typically made from potatoes. But in El Salvador, Nathan learned that the recipe called for yuca, a starchy root popular in South America. Instead of sour cream, each golden-brown cake was served with a thick scoop of cilantro cream. There was kugel too. But here, it was infused with a sweet guava.
"Jews have emigrated all around the world," Nathan says. "And with that, they've adopted different herbs and spices into their own recipes. That's what makes Jewish food so exciting today. You can find it in places you'd never expect."
Based in Washington, D.C., Nathan, a member of the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America, is the author of 11 award-winning cookbooks specializing in Jewish food, culture, and tradition. She has also hosted and made appearances on numerous TV programs, from PBS' Jewish Cooking in America to Today and Good Morning America. And she actively hosts charitable Sunday-night suppers in an effort to fight hunger.
Nathan's work is linked by a central theme: Judaism. She has dedicated her life to examining Jewish food through a historical perspective. Take, for instance, Syrian meatballs or French chopped liver, she says. They share a deeper connection than one might imagine.
"Jews are obsessed with food," she says. "They're always looking for food that complies with the religion's dietary laws. And those dietary laws are what holds them together. Finding different ways to make food is what makes Jews true innovators in the food industry."
At the 17th-annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Nathan will host two events — a Shabbat dinner and a daytime roundtable — with some of Miami's best-known Jewish chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs.
"These events are definitely going to be fun," she says. "Judaism itself is very table-centered, and it's an amazing time in history for these foods. You might not like Israeli politics, but you probably like Israeli food."
Nathan will lead the festival's first Shabbat dinner Friday, February 23. Months before the event, she handpicked the participating chefs, including Crumb on Parchment's Michelle Bernstein, Zak the Baker's Zak Stern, Dizengoff and Federal Donuts' Michael Solomonov, and cookbook author Adeena Sussman. Nathan asked each of them to create something that reflects their relationship with Jewish culture and cuisine.
At Artisan Beach House at the Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour, the culinary talents will serve modernized Jewish plates, from an Iranian vegetarian concoction to a heavily spiced roast brisket.
"They're each making foods to reflect their backgrounds," Nathan says. "Then I'll introduce every dish and talk about its historic perspective."
She'll lead a similar discussion Sunday, February 25 at the Jewish Museum of Florida in South Beach. Bernstein, Sussman, and Stern will be joined by Israeli chef and restaurateur Alon Shaya. During the talk, Jewish-American deli food will be supplied by Hank & Harry's, a modern Miami Beach delicatessen.
"Each of them has a very different story when it comes to their backgrounds with Jewish food and how it affected them," Nathan says. "One was born to Bulgarian parents in Israel. Another grew up on the streets. I'm of German-Jewish descent, and someone else is Orthodox. We're going to take all of that and put it into perspective."
She plans to make both events as interactive as possible, giving attendees the opportunity to ask questions and exchange views.
"In the back of your head, you always know those kosher laws are there," she says. "The prayers, the songs, the laws, that's what ties us all together, no matter where we come from or what our backgrounds are."
Shabbat Dinner, curated by Joan Nathan. 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, February 23, at Artisan Beach House in the Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour, 10295 Collins Ave., Bal Harbour. Tickets are sold out. Dinner is not kosher.
History of Jewish-American Cuisine, hosted by Joan Nathan. 10 to 11:30 a.m. Sunday, February 25, at Jewish Museum of Florida, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $50 via sobewff.org/jacpanel.