LAT: Manna not from heaven

manna from heavenTheme stories frustrate me. The stories that are written annually are particularly annoying. Like around the start of school, or Christmas time. Typically reporters avoid them, and I don’t think they’re very popular with readers. But I guess they are necessary and some people enjoy them. If it’s Christmas time, you simply have to do something, right?

I often find that this usually leads to canned stories with little creativity or insight, but a big exception to that this year is Stephanie Simon’s 1,600-word piece from Dec. 25 in the Los Angeles Times on the foods of the Bible. Sure, it does not relate directly to Christmas, but it is in the piece and much more:

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.

Simon documents the work of Hesse and Chiffolo and presents how they came up the encyclopedia-like Cooking With the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts and Lore, which I bet many of you wished you had purchased as a gift this Christmas.

You’ll note that I did not like Simon’s last piece, “Manliness is next to godliness,” for failing to include voices other than those that fit the thesis. This article also omits voices outside the authors’ dinner guests, but as a combination book review-food column, other voices were less necessary, I think.

But the story is more about mixing ingredients together to come up with something tasty and reminds a person of Middle Eastern food. It’s about the importance of eating with others and the significance placed on that in the Bible. Simon seems to be asking how often your meals are eaten solitarily:

As he read through the Bible looking for mentions of food, Hesse realized that hospitality — specifically, generosity with meals — was considered a sign of righteousness across the ages, starting with the freshly slaughtered calf that Abraham and Sarah served three visiting angels in the Book of Genesis.

Food is so central to biblical relationships that when Christ reveals himself after the Resurrection, his disciples recognize him only in the context of a meal. At one point, Jesus walks beside them for hours, but they do not know him until he sits down to break bread. In another account, Jesus hails the disciples by the Sea of Galilee; again they do not recognize him — until he catches a bounty of fish for breakfast.

“I don’t think I ever understood until I did this research how central the meal is to Christianity, and how that tradition goes all the way back to Abraham,” Hesse said.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen such clear biblical principles in a major daily newspaper. Kudos to the LAT editors for sending Simon to New York to get this story — and to her for helping us all understand a little bit more about why Christmas is special.

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  • Dennis Colby

    This was a great article. Thanks for drawing our attention to it. Although I can imagine Catholics and Orthodox Christians wincing a little to read a priest who celebrates the Eucharist saying he had never understood that the concept of the meal was central to Christianity.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Boston Herald did an excellent huge front page Christmas story about a teen-age altar server at a Catholic Church (and who says he wants to become a priest) and how he, and his whole family, were celebrating Christmas. The boy had come to the attention of the Herald weeks before when a statue was stolen from in front of a Franciscan friary. The boy had given his modest “life’s savings” to the Franciscans as a donation to help replace the statue. The Herald did a story on that and then, later, went back and wrote the excellent follow-up Christmas story bringing in the faith life of the family.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    So, Ezekial bread is baked over sh!t and tastes like sh!t. Who would have figured?

    Certainly is a unique story. And certainly highlights the ignorance of some biblical scholars. Paul’s letters have references to the fellowship meals and the eucharist meal. The fellowship offering was a sacrifice shared by all OT believers, akin to the modern Lutheran potluck (and you haven’t LIVED until you’ve experienced a true Lutheran potluck, right Mollie?).

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  • Maureen

    There’s a difference between knowing something is important in your head, and knowing it in your bones — or in your hands and mouth. Of course I knew clay pots were made by potters by hand; but until I saw a thumbprint on a thousand-year-old pot in the archeology department, and compared it against my own, it didn’t mean all that much.

    Historical re-creation is an incredibly useful and powerful way to turn head knowledge into something a little more visceral, and this book is just one demonstration of that. I’m sure your local Civil War and medieval groups would be glad to show you more.