By Oded Schwartz
From the moment Eve was seduced to bite the apple; food played a vital role in the symbolic language of the Bible. Reading the Bible through a chef's eye uncovers a fascinating array of food references, recorded meals and detailed accounts of a changing way of life.
Food metaphors were used in the Prophet's vocabulary as food and cooking terms are globally understood especially at the market place - their favorite preaching ground. When the Prophet Ezekiel prophesies the fate of sinful Jerusalem he drives his message home by describing the methods of making a soup (Ezekiel 25:3 6). His knowledge of soup making is surprisingly accurate.
Food metaphors were also used when the Biblical author wanted to emphasize the importanance of the story. The primogeniture fight between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:29-34) was won with a red, red lentil stew.
Accounts of important feasts are vivid records of a way of life. The first meal to be mentioned in the Bible is the feast Abraham gave the Angels (Genesis 18:1-8). The verses describe, almost in minute detail, the ritual of welcome preformed by a wealthy and important Nomadic figurehead. And the meal was sumptuous, fresh, round bread, baked by Sara and a tender young veal served with milk and butter, slaughtered by Abraham and cooked by his manservant; in many communities meat is not cooked by the women.
Judging from the daily supply list (Kings 1, 2-3) of the court of King Solomon, the kitchen played a very important role in the running of the Palace. The list includes 1200kg of fine wheat (semolina), 2400kg ordinary flour, ten 'Healthy' - fatted beef, probably calves, twenty beef, which were grazed in an enclosed meadow and a 100 sheep. In addition there was game - several kinds of venison and fatted geese or swans (the text is not clear). Even if some allowance is made for quantity interpretation, consideration for the small size of ancient animal breeds and biblical bragging, the list is indeed impressive. Estimating that even an ancient lamb could provide around 15 large portions, the lamb alone would serve 1500 people. It is curious that fruit and vegetables are not mentioned. This might indicate that vegetables were considered common - poor mans food, an attitude reinforced in Proverbs, which associates poverty food with a "meal of herbs" (Proverbs 15; 17).
The best description of courtly entertainment is given in the book of Samuel (Samuel 2, 17:28-9), where three chieftains meet together to honour King David and his court. The meal was sumptuous and was served with great elegance. There were beds and soft sofas to recline on and good clay tableware to eat off. The menu included breads, both wheaten and barley, other goods made of flour, roasted green wheat - probably made into a gruel, fresh and roasted young Ful (brown beans) and fresh and roasted young lentils. There was also honey and butter. Two different meats were served, lamb - probably roasted, and boiled beef.
Food and sex are associated closely in biblical literature. Song of Songs, which traditionally deals with the love of men (King Solomon) to his creator, also reads clearly as a passionate love affair between a man and a woman. In highly erotic language the book records not only the sexually related symbolism of food, but also food that was eaten either before (aphrodisiac) or after (restorative) the sexual act by the Jewish ruling classes (Song of Songs 5: 1-2).
Food gets entangled together with sex in one of the most notorious scandals of biblical times - the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon, both Royal members of the House of David. To get Tamar, Amnon, misguided by the advice of a friend, pretended to be ill, and asks his father to send Tamar and nurse him to make LEVIVOT. When she does he rapes her, an action which leads to one of the bitterest Civil Wars of biblical time and the killing Abshalom, Tamar's brother. The use of the word leviva is interesting - usually translated into cake the Hebrew meaning is curious and double aged. The root of the word is similar to the root of the word heart (lev) - L'elabev to form the cakes - also means to gladden the heart.
Sadly, recipes are not included in the Bible; here and there, there are instructions for preparation of sacrifice at the temple (Exodus 11: 9, Leviticus 14:21 and elsewhere). Especially interesting is a mention of Tufin - turnover (Leviticus 6:14). The closest one comes to a recipe is in the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarfatah ( Kings 1, 17:10-14) where a recipe for simple bread -flour, oil and probably water, is given.
Translating these biblical passages into practical recipes is notoriously difficult. Much has changed in the last 5000 years. As the result of constant selective breading our fruit and vegetables are much sweeter and milder in flavour. Many flavours, especially in the bitter and sour range, which were preferred and liked in the past, are fast disappearing from our global palate. The following is a small collection of recipes that do not attempt to replicate ancient recipes but rather a personal interpretation by a contemporary chef inspired by Biblical writing.
Basic Bulgur Gruel
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About the Author
Oded who is the author of seven books is best known for his hugely
popular cookery and food-related writing. Oded's first book
'In Search of Plenty - a history of Jewish food' (1992) was short-listed
for the British Andre' Simon award and won a special mention in the
international "Lenghe Ceretto Prize" for food and wine culture. He
now lives in Cape Town and contributes occasionally to Al'Hashulchan
(a leading Israeli food & dining magazine). He is still researching and
writing about the history and culture of Israeli & Jewish food.