Tracing Olive Oil History Through Ancient Cuisines

In her new book, Joan Nathan documents the global migration of olive oil and Jewish food since the biblical era.

Nov. 30, 2017
By Andrea Adleman

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Considered the pre­em­i­nent Jewish food his­to­rian, author Joan Nathan has incor­po­rated more than 40 years of study into her most recent book, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.

We went through the time in the 1950s and 60s of processed foods, includ­ing oils. Now we’ve returned to appre­ci­ate the ways olive oil is good for our food and our health.- Joan Nathan

Nathan begins her crit­i­cally acclaimed book with an overview of Jewish food his­tory, intro­duc­ing read­ers to King Solomon, whose exis­tence is sub­ject to debate. Solomon is con­sid­ered to have led Israel for four decades begin­ning in 970 B.C.E.

As Nathan writes, Solomon’s legacy offers an image of a ruler pre­sid­ing over a diver­sity of cul­tures, an abun­dance of food, and reach­ing beyond his bor­ders to feed his king­dom.”

Solomon exported wheat and olive oil, Nathan writes here in her 11th book. In an ear­lier book, Nathan writes that olive oil was accepted as a form of pay­ment for taxes in Solomon’s era.

Noting its his­toric use for cook­ing, light, and heat, Nathan said, I’ve always been inter­ested in olives and olive oil because they are bridges between the past and present. They are inte­gral to the ancient food we’re now mak­ing in mod­ern ways.”


Nathan cites the chick­pea pan­cake as an exam­ple. Placing the recipe in its his­tor­i­cal con­text, Nathan notes that Mesopotamians used chick­pea flour since at least 2500 B.C.E. and that migrants brought it to south­ern Europe cen­turies later.

Originating in Nice, Nathan’s socca are chick­pea pan­cakes with fen­nel, onion, and rose­mary. The veg­eta­bles are sautéed in olive oil. Naturally vegan and gluten-free, the chick­pea pan­cake assumes var­i­ous names in the many coun­tries that serve it today.

In her recipe for what she col­lo­qui­ally terms egg­plant bits,” the award-win­ning author embeds a metaphor. The recipe itself is Jewish-style egg­plant with Italian and Georgian influ­ences. To Nathan, the wan­der­ing egg­plant” rep­re­sents her nomadic pro­fes­sion.

I feel as if egg­plant has been the leit­mo­tif of my culi­nary career,” Nathan writes. Throughout my life of eat­ing in homes and restau­rants around the world and writ­ing about eth­nic foods, egg­plant has always been there, call­ing me to order it from the menu, beg­ging me to request the recipe from the cook.”
Where there’s egg­plant, there’s olive oil. The pair­ing is so nat­ural it’s almost hard to imag­ine an egg­plant dish with­out olive oil,” said Nathan, a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times and Tablet mag­a­zine.

Nathan has been study­ing the link between olive oil and Hanukkah for at least 20 years, argu­ing in 1996 that Hanukkah is as much a cel­e­bra­tion of the olive as it is of the mir­a­cle of the oil that lasted eight days.”

Nathan’s choco­late and olive oil mousse is neu­tral under Jewish dietary laws, mak­ing it a ver­sa­tile dessert for Hanukkah and other hol­i­day meals.


Her scourtins are dairy bis­cuits rooted in his­tory. A scourtin, an ancient press to mash cured olives, is also the name of a very old bis­cuit, now served as an appe­tizer with drinks, a spe­cialty of Nyons, in the south of France, a town that had a Jewish pop­u­la­tion from at least the 13th cen­tury and where many Jews flee­ing south dur­ing World War II took refuge,” writes Nathan.

The recipe is short­bread cook­ies with olive oil, chopped black olives, and fen­nel.

The purity of olive oil brings us back full cir­cle to its pop­u­lar­ity through the mil­len­nia,” said Nathan. We know it’s one of the ear­li­est oils, next to coconut and sesame. We went through the time in the 1950s and 60s of processed foods, includ­ing oils. Now we’ve returned to appre­ci­ate the ways olive oil is good for our food and our health.”


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