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Scripture by the plateful

A couple are using the Bible as inspiration for a cookbook. Some of their culinary creations are divine, but the manna, it turns out, isn't heavenly.

December 25, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Hartsdale, N.Y. — GOD, apparently, is no Emeril.

The Bible contains just one true recipe, for a bread of wheat, barley and lentils cooked over a fire made from burning human excrement. The ingredients were a direct revelation from the Almighty to the priest Ezekiel. The taste?

"Like moldy bean sprouts," says the Rev. Rayner W. Hesse Jr., an Episcopal priest. "You don't want to eat it. Never, ever. Let me emphasize that: Never."

OK, Ezekiel bread is out. But what about the stew that Jacob cooked in the Book of Genesis? It was a lentil stew, the Scriptures record, and it smelled so good that Jacob's brother, Esau, traded his inheritance for a bowl of it. Ancient scribes did not record Jacob's recipe. Hesse has always wished they had.

So four years ago, he set out to re-create Jacob's lentils -- and other famous biblical meals -- with the help of his partner, Anthony F. Chiffolo, the editorial director of a nonfiction publishing house. The couple's curiosity led them on a theological, historical and culinary quest that would expand their understanding of Scripture and introduce them to such novelties as curdled camel's milk and crispy lotus root.

Hesse, 51, and Chiffolo, 47, combed seminary libraries and pored over at least 60 translations of the Old and New Testaments to figure out who ate what -- and make an educated guess as to how the dishes were spiced. They have packaged their findings in an encyclopedic new book, "Cooking With the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts and Lore."

Essays explore the religious and cultural significance of 18 passages that revolve around meals, such as King David's wedding or the feast to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. Hesse and Chiffolo then present an imagined menu for each occasion. The recipes use modern kitchen equipment -- no need to fry the fish on hot stones -- but draw heavily on ingredients mentioned in the Bible or known to have been available in the ancient Middle East.

There are recipes for stewed ox meat, dried fig cake, barley-apricot salad and baked sardines with sesame sauce, as well as the proverbial manna from heaven.

Some believe that the ancient Hebrews used the term "manna" to describe dried algae -- or perhaps insect secretions -- that they baked into sticky pancakes. They lived on the stuff during their 40 years in desert exile, but didn't much like it. "Think of the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic!" they wailed, according to one translation of the Book of Numbers. "Here we are wasting away, stripped of everything; there is nothing but manna for us to look at!"

The modern interpretation of manna is made with matzo flour, coriander leaves and sesame oil -- and Hesse cheerfully admits it tastes like cardboard. He's almost glad of the stale taste, however, because it brings the biblical account so vividly alive. "You can see why they were complaining," he said.

*

HESSE was wrist-deep in a bowl of brown dough as he spoke, shaping the batter into cookies redolent of anise, a spice used since ancient Egyptian days. Chiffolo was sauteing onions on an electric griddle, the smell filling the couple's tiny kitchen with warmth. At the table, Peter Smith, a friend and parishioner, garnished a goat-cheese-and-honey pie with rings of fresh blackberries.

"We're doing 'Jesus Dines With the Pharisees,' " Hesse explained.

He and Chiffolo had invited several friends on this mid-December day to a banquet inspired by the Gospel of Luke. In the text, Jesus is about to dine with members of a branch of Judaism known as the Pharisees. His hosts chide him for skipping a ritual hand-washing; Jesus responds with anger. He says that the Pharisees put on a show of piety, even giving a tenth of their wealth to the temple, but they do not truly honor God. The Bible records Jesus' outburst this way: "Ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God."

The Gospel does not list the menu for the meal, so Hesse and Chiffolo came up with their own by riffing on the herbs that the Pharisees held so dear. They used mint and rue (or, rather, parsley, because rue -- which comes from an evergreen shrub -- can cause severe indigestion). They also created dishes using mint, garlic, pepper, anise and za'tar, a pungent mix of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac.

"We used every manner of herbs that they would have had at a 1st century meal," Hesse said.

*

THE dining-room table, decorated with antique coins and miniature oil lamps, groaned with food: minted veal with summer squash, tuna baked with pistachios and dill, cucumber salad with mustard dressing. There was a bowl of pickled herring, a loaf of fresh-baked onion bread, a platter of dried dates and fresh figs. The smell was sumptuous.

"You say 'We're cooking from the Bible' and you get a lot of 'Uhhhh ... ' They think you'll be making tarantulas and locusts," Hesse said. "This is not weird stuff. Well, it is weird. But it's very tasty."

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