SPOT & The Jewish Food Maven: Our Interview with Joan Nathan

    SPOT Bagel spoke with Joan Nathan, author of ten cookbooks—including the award-winning Jewish Cooking in America—and host of the acclaimed PBS series called Jewish Cooking in America. In short, Nathan is the internationally recognized expert on Jewish food culture. Alice Waters calls Nathan "a writer, historian, anthropologist, and extraordinary cook, but above all she is a tireless custodian of a wonderfully rich culture."

    SPOT Bagel: How did you and your family eat bagels growing up?
    Joan Nathan: I first tasted bagels when I lived in Larchmont, NY. When I was very little, my mother would bring back bagels whenever we’d go to the Bronx. We also got bagels from Berman’s Deli in New Rochelle. They were thinner, smaller bagels than today’s bagels…more like the original bagels, I suppose. It was a treat that we’d have for Sunday breakfast. It wasn’t an everyday thing.

    SPOT Bagel: What’s the craziest way you’ve ever eaten a bagel?
    Joan Nathan: I’m a purist so I haven’t had anything really crazy. I’ve had French toast bagels in Plymouth, MA. In Los Angeles, at Nate 'n Al's, I had bagels where you first scoop out the inner dough, then toast the outside; they’re crunchy and quite good.

    SPOT Bagel: How do you feel about the lore of great bagels using only New York water?
    Joan Nathan: It’s probably malarkey… a really old legend that probably emanated from Jewish jokes. It’s like the soda water thing for matzo balls. [Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook explains, “it's a myth that soda water lightens matzo balls.”] I think people are probably looking for the kind of bagels they grew up with, when bagels were put through a cold fermentation process.

    SPOT Bagel: SPOT uses a cold fermentation/aging step. Do you think it makes an impact?
    Joan Nathan: I think it probably does. I think that creates the chewiness and that’s probably why I liked them. In NY, they would twist them and refrigerate them during the week and bake them on the weekend. New York bakeries didn’t have freezers in the ‘40s.

    SPOT Bagel: Why do you think people have such a strong opinion about bagels compared to other foods like muffins?
    Joan Nathan: I think it’s the history of opinions about everything in the Jewish community. Historically, bagels have always been the butt of lots of jokes. Bagels are something you can chew on, and they're not sweet, … they’re a snack food, so they’re a little funny…you can put them on a string or do whatever you want with them.

    SPOT Bagel: Have bagels in America changed over time?
    Joan Nathan: Today, many people like steamed bagels. I remember there was a bagel testing in Washington and steamed bagels won, which shocked me. Steamed bagels are just awful.

    SPOT Bagel:  How do you like your bagels?
    Joan Nathan: Smallish and chewy. I like them toasted and with butter and a little salt. And smoked salmon, too. I like poppy seed the best.

    SPOT Bagel: Why have bagels, versus other Jewish foods, become so popular in the US?
    Joan Nathan: Bagels, by their very nature, are a cultural crossover food. Most people don’t even know the bagel originated as a Jewish thing… it has become American. Why? Because everybody’s frustrated in their lives, especially in the world we live, but you can bite into a bagel and feel you are impacting something! 

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