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Jewish Foods: Dining in the Holy Land - 2000 Years Ago

by Daniel Rogov

Regardless of whether the cultural and religious lives of people are governed by the Hebrew, Islamic, Greek, Russian or Armenian Orthodox, Buddhist or Vietnamese calendars, many public events the world over are determined by the Gregorian Calendar. As is well known, in accordance with that calendar, the new year starts on January 1st, and is celebrated primarily on the night of December 31st. The celebrations for this year were special, for in addition to marking the end of a century, we celebrated the beginning of a new millennium. What is not so well known about the celebrations that mark the end of a year (or a millennium), is that this phenomenon has long been a sore point among the members of the clergy of nearly all the faiths, who all agree that the roots of New Year's Eve celebrations are distinctly pagan in nature.

As long ago as 500 BCE, Romans believed that loudness, lewdness and at least a modicum of drunkenness were necessary to celebrate the onset of the new year. It was thought that such behavior would confuse Pan and the other malicious gods, thus preventing them from interfering in the everyday lives of mortals for the year to come. Half a millennium later, the Goths adopted a similar belief, thinking that such behavior on the eve of the new year was a sure way to frighten away any evil demons that might be left over from the year that had passed.

January 1st has not always marked the onset of the year. Because the ancient Romans began their year in March (more for the convenience of the tax collectors than out of respect to the motion of the planets), such words as September, October, November and December, meaning the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th months, had a rational meaning. In fact, only since the reform of the calendar in the 16th century, has January 1st been accepted as New Year's Day.

Nor has the onset of the new year always implied celebrations, promises and hopes for the future. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the first day of the year has been considered by many to be the most appropriate day of the year for bribing local officials. Even today in some parts of the world, it is considered appropriate for wealthy citizens (or their servants), owners of small businesses and other local entrepreneurs to call on local officials to pay their respects and to share a cup of coffee or tea as a token of goodwill. In France, perhaps as an offshoot of this tradition, adults enjoy exchanging gifts on January 1st.

There are other names given to the last night of the year, the origins of which are unclear. Even though Europeans (and some Israelis and North Americans in recent years) have come to know the night of December 31st as 'Sylvester', this appelation is relatively new, having its roots in 18th century France. Whether the Sylvester in question is an otherwise obscure French saint, the Roman-Catholic pope who is said to have brought a dead bull back to life or the maiden name of the mother of Dom Perignon, the man who discovered the process of making sparkling Champagne, is not known.

Whatever, the third millennium has arrived and from the culinary point of view, it is interesting to look back and examine the dining habits of people in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. Before we begin our voyage, keep in mind that the people who lived in Jerusalem, Jericho and other places in the Holy Land two millennia ago dined quite well. In addition to having excellent markets filled with fresh vegetables, fruit, poultry, lamb and fish, the narrow streets of the ancient cities were lined with numerous stalls where vendors sold fried fish, pickled cucumbers and freshly grilled meats. Moreover, the roads from Jerusalem to Jericho and from Hebron to Jaffa were lined with stands where grilled lamb, pickled watermelon rind and cakes made from chickpeas were readily available. Whether for at-home dining or while travelling on the road, hungry men and women had no problem finding good things to eat. What may surprise us is that many of the dishes prepared then are marvelously appropriate even today, especially for celebrating the end of one millennium and the beginning of another.

The Best Known of All Meals

In addition to having been recorded in the New Testament by Saints Mark and Matthew, "The Last Supper," the last meal shared by Jesus and the twelve disciples, has also been immortalized by dozens of well known artists. The best known representation of that meal is probably the fresco painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1495 - 1498 on the wall of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

Da Vinci was not the only artist who tried to capture the mood and meaning of this meal. In addition to frescoes, paintings and etchings by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Salvadore Dali, the last public meal of Jesus has also been portrayed in hundreds of 5th and 6th century Byzantine mosaics, in a 13th century bas relief on the eastern transept of the Cathedral in Strasbourg, and in a 15th century bronze relief by Donatello, found in the church of San Giovanni in Siena.

Even though Jesus' last supper is one of the most frequently portrayed religious events in history, no one is absolutely sure what was eaten at that meal. Although it is impossible to know precisely what dishes were served, both the New Testament and historical records give us many clues. According to the New Testament (Matthew 26 and Mark 14), the meal was intended to celebrate Passover, and both accounts agree that two of Jesus' disciples had come to Jerusalem in order to find a home in which Jesus could enjoy the Seder. The year was probably 33 CE, and even then the holiday was a commemoration of the Hebrews' freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt nearly two thousand years before Jesus was born.

There is no reason to believe that the meal upon which Jesus dined would have been different than that enjoyed by other Jews at the onset of this first millennium. Thus, matzot (unleavened bread), a pitcher of wine, salted water and a small bowl of marror (bitter herbs) would have been on the table. Because in Jesus' time the holiday also marked the time of the early spring harvest, the table may have been decorated with fresh fruit, green almonds and walnuts as well as sprigs of freshly picked herbs such as thyme, rosemary and coriander.

As was the case in nearly all Jewish homes of that time, when Jesus and his disciples sat down, they would have found the table already set with all the foods of the meal. In addition to the serving plates that held the food and the goblets for the wine, little else would have been on the table. Napkins were not yet in use and the fork had not yet been invented. Each guest would have brought his own knife for cutting meat, but most of the eating would have been done by hand. Because this made for sticky fingers, servants were available to offer bowls of water in which the guests could occasionally clean their fingers.

Between the 1st and 3rd centuries, it was traditional in all homes to start with a simple vegetable soup. The contents of the second course, however, were determined largely by the economic status of the host. Because Jesus was an honored guest, the owner of the home in which this particular meal was served would have been sure to have prepared roast lamb, the most highly-valued of dishes. It was not traditional to serve a dessert course, but celebratory meals such as this came to an end after the guests ate the fresh fruit and nuts that had been put on the table for decorations.

  • Recipe for Roast Lamb

Apples and Excesses

The Romans who occupied the Holy Land at the onset of the first millennium were not quite as moderate or decorous in their personal behavior or dining habits as was the native population. It is well known, for example, that in 40 BCE, when Herod fled from Jerusalem to escape from Antigonus II (Mattathias) who had been made king by the Parthians, he went to the high hill of Masada. What is not so broadly known is that Herod made his safe home into one of the most luxurious palaces ever constructed in the Middle East.

After making the move from Jerusalem and installing his family in rough quarters on Masada, Herod visited Rome. Upon his return, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, "he built there a fortress as a refuge, suspecting a twofold danger: peril on the one hand from the Jews lest they should depose him and restore their former dynasty to power; and the even more serious threat posed by Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt." Between 37 and 31 BCE, Herod transformed the rock of Masada into a mighty fortress. What Josephus fails to mention is that Herod also transformed it into a palace where pleasures of every sort might be freely pursued.

It must be understood that the pleasures of wealthy Romans involved three things: food, wine and sexual promiscuity. Thus, following precedents established by Lucullus and Alexander the Great, both of whom were well known gastronomes, Masada became renowned for its ten-hour banquets - orgiastic feasts - where a party might begin with hors d'oeuvres of chickens, ducks, geese, hares, pigeons, turtledoves, partridges and young goats. This was followed traditionally with entertainment provided by naked girl dancers, and then by a second course of pigs stuffed with thrushes, ducks, warblers, pea puree, oysters and scallops, all consumed to the accompaniment of troupes of acrobats tumbling among swords, breathing fire from their mouths and acting out obscene parodies. Later courses included roast boars and oxen and then, when the eating tapered off, the drinking began in earnest and the dancing girls did far more than dance. "Apples and fornication," wrote one of Herod's guests, "were the most popular of last courses."

Based on traditions adopted from the Greeks, such feasts were traditionally divided into two parts: the first, in which one primarily ate; and the second, the symposium, in which one primarily drank, talked or otherwise amused oneself. Modern-day professors and students will be pleased to know that the original symposium (from the Greek for "drinking party") began in earnest at the end of the eating. When this habit was first adopted, Xenophon wrote that "drink, discussion, games and fornication were equal parts of the well-conducted symposium." Atheneus speculated that the best symposia would be identified as those where most of the guests "fell into a sexually-induced drunken sleep before the evening had ended."

The main meal at Masada took place, as it did in Rome, during the mid- or late-afternoon, the guests reclining on couches placed about the table. These couches had an incline at one end so that the heads of the diners rose above the level of the board or table. Diners rested on their left arms and reached for food with the right. Couches were generally grouped about three sides of the table, leaving the fourth side open for service and entertainers, and the place of honor was the right-hand couch opposite the empty side of the table.

One may have noted that to this point there has been no mention of the presence of women at the dining table. This is because Roman men had determined that feasting was an activity too important to be shared with women. When they finally decided to allow women to join them, it was not so much out of a sense of fairness but because they thought that female companionship would be good for the digestion.

As Roman decadence soared, tastes became more jaded and the symposia deteriorated into little more than orgies. Despite this, some of the dishes enjoyed by the Romans were actually quite delicate and have maintained their popularity to this day. The following recipe is a sample of a popular Roman dish known to have been served at Masada.

  • Recipe for Chickens Braised in Cider

More Cultured Roman Influences

At the onset of the first millennium, the poor folk of the cities and the peasants in the countryside dined pretty similarly to all Mediterranean peoples of that time - their diet heavily made up of bread, rice, barley, lentils, chickpeas, eggplant, artichokes, onions, garlic, olive oil, yoghurt and, when they could afford it, the meat of lambs and goats. The middle-classes and the rich, however, often tried to emulate the dining habits of the Romans, and one of the heroes of the land was the Roman epicurean named Apicius.

Actually there were three great Roman epicureans with that name and, despite popular folklore, all were more famous for their gluttony than their good taste or culinary achievements. The first Apicius lived during the reign of Sulla, the second under Augustus and Tiberius and the third under Trajan. The Apicius that attained the greatest fame was the second, Gavius Apicius, who spent enormous sums on dining and entertaining and who invented many new dishes. It is possible that it was also this Apicius who founded the "school for good fare" referred to by the dramatist-philosopher Seneca.

In addition to being a well-known public figure, Apicius was also inordinately fond of high living. Possibly because his penchant for entertaining lavishly dominated his life, he built up a mountain of debts. When he found himself left with an annual income of only 250,000 sesterces (about $200,000 today), he felt he could no longer live in the style to which he had become accustomed and committed suicide by poisoning himself.

It was also this Apicius who wrote De re Culinaria, the oldest cookbook still in existence. Most culinary experts today agree that Roman cooking, whether in Rome or in the Holy Land, was sumptous and magnificent, but fundamentally barbarious. Because they relied heavily on vinegar (to hide the smell of spoiled meat), and heavy, greasy sauces, very few of the dishes so beloved by Apicius' compatriots would be considered tasty today. Despite this failing, many modern chefs have named inventions after Apicius, not so much to honor his gastronomic knowledge as his extravagant lifestyle.

  • Recipe for Potage Apicius
  • Recipe for Kidneys Apicius

And Now - Israel Going into the Third Millennium

Although the culinary influences of ancient Rome and Greece no longer play a major role in the daily dining habits of most of the residents of Israel, it is not at all difficult to plan a meal that will be ideal for celebrating the onset of the new millennium. Following are three recipes for such a meal, one each from a Jewish, Muslim and Christian source, all completely modern, all delicious and all highly valued wherever one finds oneself in Israel. The recipes are designed to serve 4 - 6.

  • Recipe for Asparagus with Egg and Lemon Sauce
  • Lamb Stew with Dill
  • Halvah Parfait

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry and Rogov's Ramblings. Reprinted with permission.

Daniel Rogov is the restaurant and wine critic for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz. He is also the senior writer for Wine and Gourmet Magazine and contributes culinary and wine articles to newspapers in Europe and the United States.