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Cooking With the Bible — Introduction

Posted by foryourfaith on April 29, 2012

 

In biblical times, an invitation to dine, whether with family and friends or with complete strangers, was taken most seriously. The Middle East code of ethics held strongly to a belief that good hospitality was the command of The Divine, and the offer to partake of a meal was sacred. In deference to and respect for God, the Jews of the biblical era began all meals with a ritual washing of hands (demonstrating an understanding of the connection to the sacrifices offered to God at the Temple) and with the asking of God’s blessing over the food and drink that was about to be consumed. Strangers at a meal were a mitzvah (Hebrew for “blessing”), as acknowledged by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who imparts (13:2), “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Often, as at the Passover meal, an extra place was set at a table and a portion set aside in anticipation of the arrival of one or more for dinner.

The biblical landscape is peppered with meal stories that often describe a menu and, in a few instances, instructions on how the food is to be eaten. Oddly, despite a frequent penchant for detail, scriptural redactors provided no recipes for their repasts. This lack of information encouraged some food for thought on our part, namely, if one were to prepare the meals mentioned in the Bible, using materials and techniques available today, how might this be accomplished.

The ingredients of these varied menus could best be described as what one might expect, given the era and the location of the meal they comprise (which is to say that they are hardly exotic; yet they are, at lose examination, certainly not foreign to any contemporary dining experience nor to our present-day mania for healthy eating. Most families described in the stories of the biblical era were undoubtedly vegetarian (as the Israelites, whether in nomadic mode or more settled, were the keepers of an agrarian lifestyle), so we have taken a large variety of vegetables in our menus. Whether they can specifically mentioned in the biblical passage or not, in full knowledge that a typical Middle Eastern meal included all types of vegetarian fare, especially beans, cucumbers, garlic, herbs, leeks, lentils, olives, onions, and grains with their byproducts (such as flour). We have also included menus with rice, eggplant, and tomatoes, all three of which, while not biblical, are common in the pantries of modern Middle Eastern kitchens.

Of equal importance in the diet of biblical diners were fruits (dried, fresh, or in liquid form) and nuts, especially grapes, apricots, pomegranates, melons, dates, figs, almonds, and pistachios. Many of the recipes include this shopping list, but keeping in what can be found in most markets of the Middle East, we have included a few other specimens that will spice up a meal.

Because Israel was known as “the land flowing with milk and honey,” we were generous in using milk and milk products (cheese, yogurt, curds, butter) and in substituting honey for granulated sugar (sugar cane was known, yet not processed in the ancient world) wherever we thought it made sense and would add to the flavor of the dish.

Many of the menus include fish. Though rarely mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, research determined that fish was a goodly part of the Middle Eastern diet and that it was actively traded, as evidenced by the mention of the selling of fish outside of Jerusalem in the books of Nehemiah (13:16) and Zephraniah (1:10). In the Christian New Testament, a few of the disciples of Jesus were fishermen, and Jesus himself prepares them a fish meal in the gospel of John (21:9ff). Because some of the biblical meals take place in Egypt, and given evidence that the Israelites were actively bartering with seafaring peoples from other lands, we have written recipes for fish that were known to be available at market, either from the Nile, the River Jordan, the Sea of a Galilee, or the Mediterranean itself.

It is a well-known fact that all kinds of “meat” were prepared and eaten in biblical times, everything from venison to goat, from lamb to oxen and kine (cows), and from quail an duck to pigeons, sparrows, doves, and geese. Most of these meats were reserved for religious or festive occasions (such as the arrival of a guest or a wedding celebration; yet, as always, the rich and royal feasted much better and more often on these domesticated or hunted animals. Chicken was not unknown (having made its way, some say, from or through Persia), so we have included it as well, in full knowledge that the peoples of the Bible must have learned some new recipes from their captors and those who ruled over them in Egypt, after the fall of what remained of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel in the 6th century BCE, and under Roman occupation.

As Jewish law forbids adherents to eat animals that were considered “unclean,” we have refrained from recipes that use “forbidden foods,” such as pork, rabbit, birds of prey, and fish without scales (such as shellfish, catfish, and eels). We have included yogurt made from camel’s milk (kefir), yet no recipes using the flesh of the camel (also forbidden), although Bedouins and other nomads now (and then) have used it as a form of sustenance.

It is customary to serve bread and red wine (or some liquid product of the fruit of the vine) with every meal. The cook, or whoever is planning the menu, should feel free to include bread and wine in the meal as being representative of the era and authentic to the experience of Middle Eastern gastronomy.

A major difference between scripturally based meals and the more Western dining experience is in the order of the meal and in what constitutes “dessert.” Most likely, bread and win were first on the menu of most biblical meals, as they were blessed when the meal began. At typical meal continued with something pickled in brine or vinegar, because it was thought that such stimulated the appetite. What one might consider “appetizers,” such as cheese, raw vegetables, soups, and salads, were usually served next along with the main meat or vegetable course. Dessert, which often consisted of dried or fresh fruits, puddings, or “dainties” (delicacies that were sweet), came last (if indeed it were part of the meal at all). The concept of sweet baked goods as a dessert, e.g., cakes or cookies, is a fairly new occurrence at Middle Eastern meals.

In an attempt to bridge the old with the new, we have provided recipes for more modern delectables, often with ingredients that play to the theme – e.g., Angel Food Cake for the story of the angels visit to Abraham and Sarah; Abigail Fritters for the story of Abigail’s encounter with King David; and Governor’s Cake in the Nehemiah’s gubernatorial reign. We know, and we are confident that the reader is also aware, that these recipes are not biblical; still we thought, and we hope the audience you are cooking for will appreciate too, that a few such recipes might add a bit of levity to the presentation of the meal (“presentation is everything”), while serving to highlight a central theme of each story.

Though most biblical fare was parboiled in cauldrons or cooked in clay pots hanging over an open fire, fried on hot stones or hard earth with coals set on top of the food, or sometimes baked in makeshift ovens, the truth is that there is not a whole lot of archaeological or written evidence about how food was cooked in biblical times. Fish and meats were often hung out raw, then smoked or buried until used, or else they were preserved by sun drying, often in salt. No further cooking was required in these instances. Utensils were used to aid in cooking, but not for eating. Biblical diners ate with their fingers, often using bread to scoop or sop up what was not easily handled. The meals we have put together presume the use of knife, fork, spoon, and other utensils, yet this does not preclude using one’s hands, especially if good bread is available and tasty juices are left on the plate. To make cooking easier, and assuming that most cooks do not have industrial kitchens at the beck and call, we have varied the food-preparation methods in our recipes to include use of an oven, a charcoal or gas grill (or outdoor fire), electric frying pan, pots on the stove, microwave, refrigerator, toaster oven, blender, hand mixer, bread machine, food processor, and even a fondue pot! We have also taken into account that some foods might be easier to locate in frozen form, and many of our recipes call for dried herbs and spices at times when fresh varieties might not be readily available.

You should know that no fancy kitchens were used to test these recipes. All the meals can be created in a home kitchen without any special equipment. Hopefully, you will come to an understanding of the Middle Eastern way of cooking, a gastronomical exercise that has its own unique preparation and taste and presentation, rich in tradition but adaptable to its surroundings and joyous in its expression of the earthly bounty and its culinary inheritance. In the Middle East, eating is not only for daily sustenance – it is a way of life!

 

(Cooking with the Bible:  Biblical Food, Feasts, and Lore, by Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse, Jr., Greenwood press, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT  06881, 2006; pp. xiii – xvii)

 


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