What did shepherds like to eat?

Books shed light on Holy Land food

December 17, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The Grinch gets the rap for stealing Christmas, but what about Charles Dickens?

A well-meaning heist, surely, but just the same. The manger and Bethlehem and anything to do with the region where the celebrated event actually occurred has long been overshadowed by A Christmas Carol's luscious steam of plum pudding, goose, candied fruit, chestnuts, mince pies, punch ...

You could go on this way for some time before you got to, say, tabbouleh or chickpeas.

Hanukkah is hardly different, absent Dickensian imperatives. Potato pancakes might have distant cousins somewhere near Jerusalem, where the Maccabees led the Jews in reclaiming the temple and famously lighted the oil lamp, but the fact is the latkes synonymous with this eight-day festival came from Eastern Europe. Had to - there were no potatoes in Jerusalem.

Traditions must travel well if they are to sustain and earn the name. Both of these holidays started their respective journeys into human experience from about the same place, but who would know that from the menu? A religious impulse seeks Christ in Christmas; an epicure might wonder what happened to the olives.

Shifting styles being what they are, it happens that much ancient foodstuff might strike the 2003 eye as trendy. Concern about cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins, fat and all of that recommends a two-word regimen: Eat biblical.

Your typical shepherd, fisherman or carpenter from around the year zero and earlier in the Middle East would have had some fish and meat but would have "subsisted chiefly on an assortment of fruits, vegetables and legumes - olives, onions, garlic, leeks, lentils, beans, cucumbers, melons, grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates and almonds," writes Kitty Morse in A Biblical Feast: Foods From the Holy Land (Ten Speed Press, 1998, $14.95).

In the recently published Feast From the Mideast: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes From the Land of the Bible (HarperCollins, 2003, $29.95), Faye Levy notes how very old things can seem new: "Like the Mediterranean diet, the Middle East manner of preparing food is perfect for our time and corresponds to contemporary nutritionists' guidelines for healthful dining."

Asked about Westernized holiday food traditions, Levy in an e-mail notes a parallel in Western art, in which Jesus invariably appears European. Sometimes he even has blue eyes, but he never looks Middle Eastern. Consider the most renowned supper in Western art history with its white tablecloth and nice china, as if this fateful meal had been taken at Marconi's.

Chances are the participants were sitting on the floor, perhaps on straw mats or rugs, and ate with their fingers and chunks of unleavened bread. If there was meat, it would probably not have been the main course at that supper, a Passover Seder.

The events celebrated at Hanukkah - a military victory of the Jews over Hellenist Syrians - took place in 165 B.C. The event celebrated at Christmas occurred sometime later.

The date of Christ's birth is hardly clear, but by most accounts it was not at the time at which the holiday is celebrated. The date Dec. 25 has less to do with a historical reference point and more to do with early Christian authorities adapting to popular nonreligious winter solstice celebrations.

Connecting with the culinary world surrounding these holidays draws one into the Bible, with its hundreds of references to food. Using the Old and New Testament as source material, along with her knowledge of Middle Eastern food, Morse compiled recipes to capture the ancient spirit: Millet With Saffron and Walnuts, Grilled Sardines With Fish Sauce, Barley Cakes, Dried Fruit, Cinnamon and Red Wine Compote.

Levy says Hanukkah has always been celebrated with foods fried in oil, as a commemoration of the temple lamp that seemed to have only enough oil for one day but burned for eight.

Her recipe for Garlic-Marinated Eggplant includes eggplant fried in olive oil. Her Chicken Pecan Bulgur Cakes With Cilantro Pesto calls for a ground chicken patty sauteed in olive oil.

The potato latke came from Russia, but absent the potato - which did not grow in the Middle East 2,000 years ago - there was probably a kind of fritter made with vegetables, eggs, flour and, of course, fried.

In Greece, Turkey and Egypt, Levy says Jews at Hanukkah might prepare a kind of jelly doughnut, a round puffy fried confection known variously as lokma, loukoumados, with sundry versions of the spelling. Whatever - so long as it's fried.

Beyond the oil, there's the Tangy Beet Salad, a Middle East holiday dish simply by virtue of the fact that beets are in season at that time of year. Of course, much of what is considered fitting holiday fare for Hanukkah or Christmas depends on where in the Middle East you're standing.

The Armenians who, like the Jews, could be standing almost anywhere in the Diaspora, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6 - the date of the observance before it was changed sometime after the fourth century - with an array of fragrant preparations.

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