Ancient Judea—From Eden to Kosher Laws

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 04

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Practices regarding food were deeply integral to the lives of the ancient Hebrews. In episode 4 we’ll explore prescriptions regarding food in Biblical Genesis, and consider that the Fall of Adam and Eve itself was an act of eating. Then we’ll learn about Hebrew eating rituals and meaning of sacrifice, and note the Hebrews’ complex food prohibitions, rooted in what was considered clean and unclean.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Passover Seder

A table set for Passover Seder

Passover, or Pesach, is the most ritualized meal in the Jewish faith. Readings from the book of Exodus dominate, along with Talmudic commentary, but certain foods are also part of the liturgy. Matzo, or unleavened bread, is absolutely essential and replaces risen bread entirely for the entire seven or eight-day festival. The Seder is the traditional meal, during which four glasses of wine are consumed; people eat reclining, dip bitter herbs in salt water, and eat only unleavened bread.

These peculiarities are recorded in the “Four Questions,” which are sung or read by the youngest member of the family. The exact order of the Seder is prescribed in the Haggadah, a small book used through the service. Apart from foods that are eaten merely traditionally, such as matzo ball soup or gefilte fish, a Seder plate contains these ritually prescribed foods, each of which commemorates the story of being freed from bondage in Egypt. The maror are bitter herbs, such as horseradish; charoset is a thick paste of fruits and nuts to recall the mortar used by slaves; karpas is another vegetable, usually parsley dipped into salt water to commemorate tears; z’roa is a roasted lamb bone commemorating ritual sacrifice in the Temple; and beitzah is a roasted egg, a symbol of mourning. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Passover dinner, this may help to make sense of the ritual. Otherwise, try making your own gefilte fish. The stuff that is sold in jars is pretty vile, so it’s worth making it yourself.

• Gefilte Fish

Gefilte fish

Use freshwater white fish, such as pike or carp—but any white fish will do. Remove the fillets, and save the bones and heads. Discard innards and gills if the fish hasn’t been cleaned. Put the bones and head into a pot, cover with water, and add chopped carrot, celery, onion, fresh dill and parsley, and a little salt. Simmer gently for 30 minutes and strain, pressing on solids. Return strained liquid to the pot. This is your poaching liquid, or court bouillon.

Next, pound or process the fillets into a fine paste. Add a little salt and matzo meal as a binder and an egg. With two spoons, form large torpedo shapes, or quenelles, and drop gently into the simmering poaching liquid. Repeat until all of the fish is used, removing the fish quenelles after about five to seven minutes, when they should be light, fluffy, and cooked through. Next, return all of your quenelles to the cooled poaching liquid, and put them into the refrigerator for at least several hours, until they are completely cold. Serve cold with freshly grated horseradish on the side and a sprig of dill. Aficionados will also want some of the jelled poaching liquid; if you’ve used enough bones, it will have congealed.

Suggested Reading:

Cooper, Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food.

Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.

Greenspoon, Food and Judaism.

Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture.

Simoons, Eat Not This Flesh: Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present .

Images courtesy of:

• Ancient hebrew sacrifice: By Illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop’s “Treasures of the Bible,” 1894 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Garden of Eden: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Eve eating the forbidden fruit: By Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617) (Musée des Beaux – Arts de Strasbourg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Cain and Abel: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Noah’s sacrifice: James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Drunkenness of Noah: By Simone Brentana [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Esau going hunting: By illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Seder plate: Shutterstock
• Moses and Manna: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Cloven hooves: Shutterstock
• Yom Kippur: Maurycy Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

• Latkes: Shutterstock 
• Table set for passover: Gilabrand at en.wikipedia GFDL , via Wikimedia Commons
• Gefilte fish: Shutterstock