Book Review: The Food And Feasts Of Jesus

The Food And Feasts Of Jesus: Inside The World Of First-Century Fare, With Menus And Recipes, by Douglas E. Neel and Joe A. Pugh

In many ways, it is a shame that although the authors show themselves to have deeply studied the food of first century Israel, that they show little understanding of the rationale for God’s law, nor show themselves obedient to the food laws that governed Jesus’ eating and that of genuine Christianity. Over and over again the authors talk about the aversion of the Jews, even fairly acculturated Jews, to eating pork, and speculate whether the Jews of Galilee avoided catfish, shellfish, and other unclean things. These moments in the book, and there are many of them, demonstrate the authors’ essential cluelessness about the larger importance of obedience to God’s laws. The authors keep speculating on reasons why the laws could be disregarded, or asking why God commanded such things, at times coming close to the mark, but the fact that the authors kept persisting in bringing up foods that would not have been eaten by Jesus Christ or early Christians (thankfully, none of which end up in the book’s fantastic recipes [1]) suggest that the authors really have no idea why the food laws remain important for believers, whether on health or cleanliness grounds or anything else.

In terms of the contents and structure of this book, the authors divide the book into several sections based on different occasions and meals, and provide menus and recipes for those occasions. The book is divided into twelve chapters, beginning with reasons why we should eat the food of Jesus and His followers to better understand the Gospels, exploring the bounty of the first century kitchen, enjoying one’s daily bread, examining the farmer, food, and social responsibility, enjoying the Sabbath feast, participating in a Jewish banquet, being a guest at a wedding feast, celebrating the Passover Seder (with a supplement that includes a sample Haggadah), sampling sample Feast of Tabernacles dishes, eating a Thanksgiving feast, and enjoying a picnic on the beach, al fresco. The book closes with an explanation of what was learned by the reader in the book and why we should join in the feast, along with suggestions for further reading and endnotes and indices.

There is a lot that can be said positively for this book. For one, it provides an insightful perspective on the Jewish customs, as it appears that the authors are familiar with biblical law and customs through the example of contemporary Judaism as well as the Talmud, and therefore makes a worthwhile examination of how Judaism comes across to contemporary Hellenistic Christians who wish to come close to biblical customs without repentance of their Hellenism. Likewise, the authors do a good job at blending a look at the food of the rich with the food of the poor, while making sure that everything provided in the menu is something that someone could eat in good conscience and in obedience with biblical food laws. The authors not only manage to include some excellent food dishes to try that seem like they would fit in with the eating of the first century without being entirely foreign to our own palette, with fewer meats than our diet has, a lot of whole grains, and plenty of chickpeas (otherwise known as garbanzo beans), but also manage to provide the sort of commentary that demonstrates what made the ordinary Jewish population so restive in a growing age of landlessness and exploitation and rising inequality. The book is therefore food for the body as well as the mind, if not necessarily for the spirit.

[1] The book has some pretty fantastic recipes, some of which I think would be worth trying out in themed dinners relating to the 1st century. My sample of side dishes, salads, and the like, that I found most interesting are included below:

Lentil and Chickpea Soup

“We anticipate that you will enjoy this soup. It is easy to make, especially if you use canned chickpeas. It is good as part of a first-century meal and it is just as good as twenty-first century comfort food. Lentils are legumes and are easy to prepare because they do not require prior soaking and cook quickly. Dried lentils are found in most markets and grocery stores. You can use any stock, including vegetable stock.

1/4 cup olive oil 4 cups water
1 onion, chopped 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 garlic cloves, finely minced 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 cups cooked chickpeas, or 1 1/2 (15 oz) cans, rinsed 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard seed
1 cup dried green lentils, rinsed 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
4 cups chicken stock 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1 bay leaf

To cook dried chickpeas: cover 1 cup of chickpeas with water and soak overnight. Drain the chickpeas and place in a 4-quart pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Add a bay leaf and parsley stems for additional flavor. Simmer for 1 hour and drain.

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sautè. When translucent, add the garlic and sautè for 30 seconds or until translucent. Then add the chickpeas, lentils, stock, and water. Bring to a boil and then return to a simmer. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to simmer for several hours. Remove the bay leaf. Adjust seasonings and serve.

To make the soup thicker or give it the texture of soup that has been reheated several times: take two coups of the soup, making sure to include some chickpeas and lentils, and place in a blender. Cover and puree, then return to the rest of the soup. Alternatively, use a hand blender and blend for several seconds (49-50).”


Asparagus with Lemon and Thyme

“1 1/2 pounds asparagus 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon salt 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 teaspoon pepper, or to taste
1 lemon, juiced, and zest from same lemon

Prepare the asparagus by breaking off the fibrous bottom section. The asparagus will typically break at the correct spot when bent. Save the bottom section for asparagus soup or for some other purpose.

Add 3 inches of water and the tablespoon of salt to a pot large enough to hold the asparagus spears. Bring to a boil. Add water and ice to another pot or large mixing bowl. Blanch the asparagus by placing half in the boiling water. Remove the asparagus after 20-30 seconds and place it in the ice water so that it stops cooking. Remove the asparagus from the ice water and dry. Repeat for the other half.

Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch or 14-inch skillet or sautè pan. The pan should be hot. Add the asparagus to the pan and sautè until tender. Then add the lemon juice, zest, thyme, salt, and pepper. Serves 8 (109).”


Hard-Boiled Eggs and Fish Sauce

“Everyone knows how to boil an egg. So why include a recipe? Just in case ,we have found that this one adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook works very well. The fish sauce is typical from the period and is a tasty dip. It would work well as a marinade or dip for fish, beef, or pork [Note: unless you obey biblical food laws.] You may add your favorite spice, even a touch of honey, or use straight fish sauce if you like the fish sauce.


Fish Sauce Dip:
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons soft red wine, such as a syrah or merlot

Place the eggs in a pot and cover with cold water. Do not crowd the eggs. Heat to a boil, remove from teh burner, and cover the pot. Allow to stand for 22-23 minutes. Remove the eggs and place in ice water so they do not continue to cook.

Mix the fish sauce and the red wine and use as a dip for eggs, vegetables, or bread at the feast (113).”


Bitter Herbs and Salt Water Dip

2 cups water
2 tablespoons salt
Spring lettuce mix

Place the water and salt in a saucepan and heat until the salt dissolves. Cool to room temperature. Use as a dip for the lettuce, boiled eggs, and the unleavened bread at a Passover Seder.


Vinegar Dip

Can you get any simpler, or more authentic? Vinegar was a popular first-century dip. Add a teaspoon of honey to balance the bitterness of the vinegar or use a different herb if you’d like.

1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon thyme

Mix and use as a dip for vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, or bread (156).”


Roasted Grains

“This is an extremely ancient way to eat grains. They are addicting. Use a cast-iron or heavy skillet or sautè pan that will hold all the grains on one level to roast. After cooking, you can coat with a small amount of olive oil and salt, though we like them just like this.

1/2 cup wheat berries or pearled barley, or any amount you choose

Heat the skillet and add the grain. Stir often as they brown. They are done when they turn a deep color of brown and pop like popcorn. Remove from the heat, pour in a bowl, and allow to cool to room temperature (189).”


Lentil and Parsley Salad

This salad was always a great hit with Doug’s catering customers, whether for a first-century feast or a salad luncheon

1 1/2 cup lentils 6 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

2 small lemons, juiced 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 garlic cloves, finely minced 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander 1/2 cup olive oil

Place lentils in a 3-quart pot. Cover with water 1 inch above the lentils. Bring water to a boil and the nlower heat to a simmer. Allow lentils to simmer until they are tender but not mushy (approximately 30 minutes). Drain and cool.

To make the dressing: place all the ingredients except the oil in a small bowl. Pour the oil into the bowl while whisking with a wire whisk. Or place all the ingredients in a Mason jar. Put the top on the jar and shake vigorously.

Put the cooled lentils in a salad bowl. Add the chopped parsley and onions. Add some of the dressing and toss. Adjust the seasoning. Serves 8.

As an alternative, add 1/2 cup of bulgur to the salad before dressing. There should be left over dressing for another salad (207-208).”


Roasted Chickpeas

“This calls for cooked chickpeas. To cook, use the method found in the Lentil and chickpea Soup recipe in chapter 3 [see above].

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas or 1 (15 oz) can, drained, rinsed, and dried
Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Place chickpeas on a jelly roll pan or baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so they do not stick to the pan. When done, they should be somewhat crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. cool on a kitchen towel. Keep covered until served. Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer (223).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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