I had an email from a reader, asking a question:
I am interested in old, very old, Hebrew (Jewish) meals. I teach a fifth-grade religious class and we are discussing what we call the “Holy Family”, i.e. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and what their lives were like. I have a regular lesson plan, but it only teaches the religious aspects of their lives. I want to take my students one-step further. I want to give them a look-see into what life was really like, the daily activities and meals. I want my student to experience the “history” as well as the religious teachings of our faith. To do this I am attempting to construct a day in the life of the “Holy Family”, from wakening up at dawn, having breakfast, Joseph living for work, Mary going to the market, fetching water, sewing, weaving, cleaning, preparing supper, and the supper meal itself and the singing, pray, and the sharing of stories of faith.
My question is what kind of meals did they eat and what did they typical eat for breakfast, dinner, and supper? Do you have recipes for those meals?
Now, this has very little to do with the subject of this blog, but it just so happens that I taught a family education class some years ago at my Jewish community called "The History of the Jewish People through Food" and I have some idea of how to answer this question!
First, let's rule out all the things that they did not eat. In Hellenistic period Palestine,
There was no corn (maize)
There were no potatoes
There were no avocados
There was no chocolate
There were no tomatoes
There were no chili or bell peppers
All of these foods came from the Americas, so no one in the Middle East or Europe ate them. If you have ever been to the modern State of Israel, you know that Israelis now cultivate several of the items on that list, especially tomatoes and avocados.
Some other things this family didn't eat:
They didn't eat pork
They didn't eat shellfish
They didn't eat animals that had been hunted
We know that because we know they kept some form of Jewish dietary law (kashrut). We don't know whether their kashrut looked exactly like the kashrut of Jews today, but they didn't eat these unclean foods.
Now, I learned a lot about what they might have eaten from an article by Shimon Dar, "Food and Archeology in Romano-Byzantine Palestine" from Food in Antiquity, Wilkins, Harvey and Dobson, eds. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995.) Dar took as his starting point a section of the Mishnah (Ketubot 5:8-9, if you want to look it up) that details what a husband who travels far from home owes his wife in terms of maintenance. Dar translated and quoted the selection, and then figured out that the rabbis thought the bare minimum that a woman would eat was a little over 3,000 calories a day. The Tanaim thought that a typical diet would have in it, at least as a bare minimum:
- Wheat (for bread)
- Legumes (for example, chickpeas and lentils)
- Olive oil
- Dried figs
Think of this as being kind of like a poverty level diet. Typically, Dar thinks that most people in this period in Palestine got more than 50% of their daily calories from bread. They used wheat and barley as their main grains. They probably also ate porridges, but bread was their main food.
Bread took up a lot of time for people in this period, especially for women. If they lived in a city, they either bought their bread from a baker, or bought pre-ground flour. The majority of people, who lived in rural villages, ground their own grain on grinding stones right before they baked. Or at least, that's what the Talmud tells us. Rural women had to rise three hours before sunrise to grind flour for their families. Urban people could get the flour ground, but not everyone could afford the flour they liked. Really poor people ate bread made entirely of barley flour.
When they did make bread, they used a sourdough to leaven it. There was no commercial yeast, obviously, because commercial yeast wasn't invented until the 19th century. Probably every family kept some dough from the previous batch overnight, and shared the old dough with their extended family when they started new households.
I do not know whether these families had their own small family ovens or whether they used communal ovens. Certainly in other periods it was typical to use a communal oven, which is one reason why urban people were dependent on commercial bakers for their bread.
Anyway, that tells you a lot about what Mary was doing every day. She might not have ground her own flour, because she might have lived in too urban a place to need to do that, but baking bread took up a lot of her days.
Dr. Dar also tells us that, in spite of what we have before us in the Talmud, people ate a lot more meat in this period in Palestine than we used to think. They mainly ate lamb, mutton and goat meat. They would sometimes eat beef, but not very often at all. Jewish farmers raised pigs for their non-Jewish neighbors, Dar says. (I find this quite shocking!) They also ate poultry, including chickens, geese and ducks, though apparently they ate a lot of pigeons because archeological evidence has been found for pigeon breeding in caves.
They used sheep and goat's milk to make butter and various kinds of cheese. Dr. Dar doesn't go into a lot of detail about this. We have more linguistic than archeological evidence for this, so we just have to guess that they ate the same kinds of dairy products that are traditional in that area of the world--hard cheeses and salty soft cheeses. John Cooper asserts in his book Eat and Be Satisfied that dairy products were not an important part of the diet of Jews in the Talmudic periodd.
Some other things about the food Jesus might have grown up eating: they probably ate a lot of vegetables, but as these tend to be listed as just "herbs" or "vegetables", we don't know which ones they liked or in what combinations. Dar points out that vegetables aren't preserved in archeological sites the way that some other foods are. Meat leaves bones, olive oil and wine leave clay jugs, but vegetables don't leave much of a trace. We know that they ate lettuce, spinach, beets, kale, radishes, turnips, carrots, artichokes, black cala, leek, onion, garlic, cucumber, watermelon and squash. They also gathered wild herbs, maybe in a salad like this one. (I love that recipe, but keep in mind they probably used garum rather than salt, and maybe vinegar instead of lemon.)
They probably used a lot of herbs, dried and fresh, to flavor their food, things like mint, cilantro, parsley, marjoram and oregano. I don't know whether lemons were in common use at this time. There is a famous article by Erich Isaac from 1959 that suggests that Jews were responsible for the cultivation of citrus fruit in the Greco-Roman world. (This was because of the use of the citron in the rituals associated with Sukkot.) I don't know how early that began and whether it meant that people in Palestine used lemons the way they do in the State of Israel for cooking today. John Cooper, in Eat and Be Satisfied, says that they definitely knew about citrus fruit, but he only cites evidence of Jewish people eating citrons in this period. They probably used grape wine vinegar and verjuice (the sour juice of green grapes) for cooking.
One weird thing they used for flavoring was garum, a sauce made of fermented fish. I don't know how you would approximate this if you were trying to cook a meal as they did. Maybe you would use Worcestershire sauce, which has a base of fermented anchovies. Or you could use Asian fish sauce, anchovy paste or soy sauce. (They didn't have soy beans, but my guess is that the flavor is somewhat similar—a salty, fermented sauce.)
Fruit was a very important part of their diet. First of all, they drank wine. It was not a long fermentation because they didn't have appropriate vessels for that, so it was probably relatively sweet, and they cut it with water. They ate a lot of dried figs and dates, because they were portable, and they made date honey (really a kind of syrup) and wine from the dates. Other fruit trees archeologists have found were pomegranates, peaches, apples, and pears. They also ate nuts, including walnuts, almonds, carob and pistachios.
Even though sugar was first refined in the Middle East, I'm pretty sure they didn’t have refined sugar by this period. They did make sweetened desserts with honey or date syrup. They definitely had lots of kinds of cakes and goodies, though probably they didn't eat them all the time.
Since this is a blog about Sabbath meals, I want to pay attention to that aspect of their diet. Since the early Middle Ages, Jewish people have been making a special dish called a hamin that is cooked overnight on the Sabbath. Most Jews who live in the US who came here from Eastern Europe call this dish cholent. Apparently, according to John Cooper in Eat and Be Satisfied, Jews in the Hellenistic period did not eat hamin or cholent. Their practice was to completely cook a dish and then to pack it in straw or other insulating material to keep it warm. They did have the practice shared by Jewish people through the ages of eating the nicest food on Shabbat--higher quality bread, meat, sweets, that kind of thing.
I do not know to what extent their celebration of Shabbat and holidays resembles that of Jews today. We have very well-developed liturgies and liturgical songs and customs that I'm pretty sure differ from theirs.
If I were going to try to make a typical meal from this period with a class of fifth-graders, I would probably try to make some version of homemade flatbread and a lentil stew with salad and non-alcoholic wine or grape juice mixed with water, and dates. If you can't bake the bread you can always buy it, but the best thing would be to make it with a sourdough starter. Try getting Ed Wood's book out of the library, he has a chapter on Arab bread. I would also provide some za'atar and olive oil for the children to dip their bread. Most people also wrapped their bread around onions or leeks, but that's kind of strong!
Good luck and I hope this is interesting for the rest of my poor neglected readers...