A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land

A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land

by Kitty Morse

For many religions throughout history, spring has been a time for celebration: In the Middle East, Christians celebrate Easter alongside Jews who celebrate Passover. One sometimes wonders what dishes and foods were eaten in biblical times – how were they prepared? Can we still enjoy these recipes today?

Kitty Morse answers these questions and more in her book, A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land, which takes us on an historical culinary tour of the Bible and brings its food alive for today’s palate. Born in Morocco of a French mother and British father, Morse straddled her family’s cultural differences along with Morocco’s Arab and Berber heritage, giving her a unique view of biblical cuisine.

This was the original “Mediterranean Diet.” Grains, an abundance of olives and olive oil, a minimal use of animal meats, and fruits and vegetables continue to the present as one of the healthiest eating styles today.

In many ways I think we have forgotten that foraging, killing animals for food, and cooking were (and can still be) a communal experience; meals, however simple or complex, we’re always for sharing. Morse’s book reminds us of this important societal need, as well as the distinction that wealth and social stature also had a lot to do with who consumed what.

It is valuable, but not necessary, to read the first and second chapters of the book, From the Holy Land to Today’s Table, and Foods of the King James Bible, to play with the recipes; the chapters do, however, offer a wonderful historical context to foods we take for granted. Who knew that the humble cucumber (cucumis sativus) had been eaten as a simple meal with a splash of vinegar (hardly the gourmet Champagne or balsamic varieties) and crust of bread? Or that Eve’s infamous apple was probably an apricot? Apples weren’t indigenous to the Holy Land and became cultivated well after Christ’s death. Even Leonardo da Vinci’s picture of the Last Supper was painted wrong: Jesus and his disciples most probably sat on cushions or divans to eat their meal.

The chapter Simple Dishes has recipes we can use as appetizers or mix with the chapter Main Meals. Skipping right to the recipes we find fresh, easy, and tasty combinations – these are recipes that would be right at home in many present-day food publications. In Fresh Fava Beans with Olive Oil and Garlic, green onions, red wine vinegar, and toasted cumin seeds round out the flavor components for this side dish. In another dish, cucumbers are given an interesting twist by braising them with leeks and dill. Squash is combined with garlic, mint, capers, and olive oil. These are dishes to be prepared and served at room temperature, making them easy for al fresco dining; each dish is distilled down to a few simple ingredients that lend a perfect balance and flavor.

The Main Meals chapter is the heart of the book, with a Pomegranate Honey-Glazed Grilled Fish, Cumin-Rubbed Roasted Lamb, and a delicious Chicken, Leek, and Garbanzo Bean Stew. This is the chapter that illustrates the haves (who ate Lamb and Lentil Stew or Barley, Beef, and Onion Pottage) and the have-nots (who ate Barley Gruel with Honey, Dates, and Raisins or Jacob’s Pottage of Lentils, Barley, Mustard Greens, and Mint). Slow cooking and savoring are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, and they are well illustrated in this chapter.

Breads and Desserts and Basics and Beverages finish the book with various griddle breads, fruit compotes, and cakes as well as different honeys and beverages. These days we take bread for granted, but for people of the Old and New Testaments, bread, whether leavened or unleavened, bound one man to another. Though cakes, honeys, and beverages were the least exciting recipes in the book, they are historically relevant.

It is Morse’s wish that “…you will use the recipes in this book as the ancient Hebrews and early Christians would have — by gathering around the communal dish to celebrate a religious or secular event or to entertain honored guests. For it is the sharing of food with friends and loved ones that was, and still is one of life’s foremost pleasures.”

As the spring season quickly approaches, these biblical foods offer a look at the past as we gather with friends to celebrate traditional feasts, and as we welcome the arrival of warm weather and plenty.

Review by Judith Bishop

Judith Bishop is a cookbook reviewer for both The Gilded Fork and In Good Taste in Portland, OR, as well as a culinary writer. She has cooked professionally in restaurants and catering, and her passion for food now keeps the larder full and her family happy.