Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh, The Food and Feasts and Jesus: Inside the World of First-Century Fare (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)
My wife and I had very different reactions to this book: she loved it, I hated it. In many ways our reactions are symptoms of basic existential differences over how we view the world. I read the historical and theological chapters and found them wanting. She read the recipes and wanted to cook them. The Food and Feasts of Jesus (2012) describes agriculture, cooking and eating in first century Palestine and uses it to explain some of Jesus’ parables and customs in more detail. One of the authors runs a catering company in Texas where he cooks ancient Jewish feasts for church and community events, and the book includes recipes for many of the dishes that Jesus would have eaten.
The recipes were what my wife liked. They are slow, labor-intensive, and not always very filling. There are two recipes for yogurt and seven recipes for bread. There is even a recipe explaining how to make raisins. I see very little difference between home-made and store-bought yogurt except in how long it takes to make it. My philosophy when it comes to cooking is that if it something takes longer than 20 minutes to prepare it probably isn’t worth my time. My wife sees a world of difference: these recipes are tasty, healthy, and are made almost entirely from scratch – no additives, conservatives, or artificial ingredients. Some, like the lentil and chickpea soup (pictured) or the bulgur and lamb wrapped in grape leaves, probably even taste good. But there is a lot that is missing – especially lots of red meat and chocolate. The authors explain, “first century meals were quite similar to the modern Mediterranean Diet, but without pasta, corn and tomatoes. It was rich with whole grains, legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables when they were in season, dried and pickled during the rest of the year. Herbs, spices, and sauces were available to give added flavor to whatever was in the pot. Fish and poultry were eaten once a week. Meats were eaten very sparingly.” The longer I look at that list the more the glutton in me notices what havoc this would wreck on my diet and on my free time.
The book argues that recreating first century meals can be a valuable spiritual experience. I am not persuaded. Certainly having everyone eat out of the same bowl using their fingers fosters a deeper sense of community, but the authors are willing to compromise on this if it makes your guests a bit squeamish. They are actually willing to compromise on quite a few things, such as using “a heavy-duty kitchen mixer (KitchenAid) with a dough hook” to cook the bread. An antiquarian obsession with “authenticity” sits uneasily with theological ideas in this book and I find the underlying assumption that you will feel closer to Jesus if you ate what he ate unconvincing. Sometimes knowing more about first century customs does give new life to old stories. Neel and Pugh point out that bread replaced napkins, for example, and that people threw it on the ground for the dogs to eat after they had wiped their faces and the table with it. They conclude: “When the Canaanite woman said to Jesus that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table, she was talking about some pretty substantial crumbs (Matthew 15:27). … ‘There is enough bread on the table that you throw entire pieces on the floor after wiping your hands,’ she was saying. ‘Surely you have enough left over from the bounty of your ministry to your own people to help my sick daughter?'”
There are some great histories of food on the market, but this is not one of them. The book is very clearly aimed at lay readers, is sparsely footnoted, and never steps outside of the Biblical canon when explaining the significance of certain foods. It also makes some very dubious assumptions, such as that the practice of gleaning leftovers from the fields of the rich described in the book of Ruth (the book is set in the 11th century BCE) continued unchanged in Jesus’ day. The authors describe this as “a primitive method of social welfare.” The highly romanticized world that they reconstruct is one in which the society looks after the poor and everyone eats a variety of lovingly cooked foods each day. They mention disease, famine, poverty and conflict in passing but these things do not feature heavily in their narrative. This is a book written by and for affluent twenty-first century Americans interested in exploring the quaint dietary practices of another society, but if you want something that will deepen how you read scripture or relate to God then it is not for you.