Cooking With the Bible

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If you've ever wondered, What would Jesus eat?—or Moses or Esau, for that matter—then the cookbook-cum-hermeneutical text Cooking with the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts, and Lore will enlighten you, or at least offer an informed guess.

Written by Rayner W. Hesse, Jr., an Episcopal priest, and Anthony F. Chiffolo, a book publisher with a master's degree in the classics of Western civilization, the 2006 book and Web site offer 18 menus with recipes based on stories in both the Old and New Testaments.

Although descriptions of meals and various foods appear throughout the Bible, the scriptures tend to be long on life lessons and short on explicit cooking instructions. So Hesse and Chiffolo devised recipes using ingredients common to the Middle East thousands of years ago, including lamb, lentils, dates and honey, adapted for modern food preparation techniques. As the authors explain, "In biblical times, most foods would have been parboiled in cauldrons or cooked in clay pots over an open fire, fried on hot stones or hard earth with coals set on top, or baked in makeshift ovens. But we have not provided construction plans for an open-pit barbecue! Rather, we have developed recipes that can be prepared in most any home kitchen."

Some of the recipes do require a little more legwork than, say, Rachael Ray's Ten-Minute Meals, but might appeal to the cook with a yen for authenticity or symbolism. For instance, Friendship Cake, inspired by the bond between Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth, takes 10 days to prepare, though most of that time is spent allowing a yeast mixture to sit and do its thing. And the menu for "A Meal in the Wilderness" includes locust soup, because the story of John the Baptist, as related in the Gospel of Matthew, describes his wilderness diet of locusts and wild honey. Should you prefer the other possible interpretation, that he was eating a carob, the fruit of the locust tree, the authors also provide recipes for Salome's Honey-Carob Brownies and Elizabeth's Carob Cake.

Since there are two big biblical holidays this week—Passover and Easter—and because my household encompasses both traditions, a few days ago I decided to sample recipes from several different menus in the book. I started with Fresh Mallow with Pomegranate Vinaigrette, substituting spinach for common mallow, which I'm pretty sure my local Price Chopper doesn't carry (though perhaps I could have foraged for it). This salad came from the menu "The Prodigal Son Returns," based on the parable spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, in which a father orders a lavish feast prepared upon the return of his errant son.

From "By the Numbers," a menu based on the Book of Numbers and its description of the Israelites' life in the desert after Moses led them out of Egypt, I made Oven-Baked Perch with Tahini. The fish dish, which was quite tasty, represents the kind of food the Israelites missed from their time in Egypt, despite their otherwise miserable experience there.

Finally, I made Rice of Beersheeba, from "All for a Father's Blessing," inspired by the story of brothers Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger brother, brings their father, Isaac, a delicious meal to fool him into giving his blessing to Jacob rather than Esau.

The fascinating part of the book, I think, is that it shows what an important role preparing and sharing food played in these stories that have persisted through the ages. Food could signify respect, love, longing or faith, in much the same way it continues to in the present day.

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