Making The Bed With The Cat In It

More Than Just Loaves and Fishes

Published: April 10, 2009

ARE you welcoming home a prodigal son and not quite sure what to prepare for dinner? Or perhaps you have an angry army to appease and believe making an elaborate feast might just do the trick. Well, the Rev. Dr. Rayner W. Hesse Jr. and Anthony F. Chiffolo have just the cookbook for you.

The two Hartsdale residents have written “Cooking With the Bible” (Greenwood Press), which is inspired by meals described in the Bible. It is newly released in paperback and filled with 200 recipes put together as 18 meals — 13 from the Old Testament and 5 from the New.

For the profligate young man returning after his travels (see Luke 15:11-32), there are veal kebabs and honey-baked goat with mint sauce. As for the feast — based on what Abigail cooked for King David and his troops, after her husband, Nabal, had insulted him (I Samuel 25:14-25) — the offerings might include sautéed lamb with walnuts and pomegranate juice, along with baked sheep’s milk cheese and fresh dates.

Dr. Hesse, the pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Rochelle, and Mr. Chiffolo, the editorial director of Praeger Publishers, a Connecticut publishing house, share an interest in religious studies as well as a passion for home cooking, which seemed to dovetail naturally into a Bible-based cookbook.

But making sense out of 1,000 years of cooking turned out to be no small task. While the Bible is filled with passages that depict meals and hospitality, there is only one recipe in all of its verses: for bread made by the priest Ezekiel, and you will not find the recipe in the cookbook.

“It’s made from dung,” Dr. Hesse said. “Ezekiel bread is something you never want to eat.”

But there are plenty of things in the cookbook you would want to eat. “Cooking With the Bible” reads for the most part like a Middle Eastern cookbook, with a lot of lamb dishes and many recipes that feature tomatoes and eggplant. For every oddball item — locust soup, anyone? — there are many appetizing dishes like rosemary pita bread, artichokes in lemon sauce and lamb with figs and red wine.

To recreate the meals described in biblical passages, the authors studied the texts, scoured books, searched the Internet and visited local Middle Eastern grocers to query them about spices and cooking methods. Then they played around a little. So when the Bible mentions that Abigail took raisin cakes to David’s troops, Dr. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo developed a recipe for raisin cake, and then suggest in the book that it be served with whipped cream or vanilla butter cream frosting. Did they really prepare butter cream frosting back then?

“It’s nice to have an historical cookbook, but if it’s not going to taste good, what’s the point?” Dr. Hesse said.

Nor is there a call to stay faithful to biblical cooking methods — you don’t have to dig an open pit in the backyard to prepare the meals. The recipes have been adapted to assume that the modern cook uses a stove, a blender — even a microwave.

The book also has essays describing the religious and cultural significance of the referenced biblical passages. The authors studied many versions of the Bible, and — as far as food goes — they are convinced that certain words got confused in translation. They say they believe that John the Baptist did not dine on “locusts and wild field honey,” as the King James version insists, but on carob and honey. This, they suggest, might explain why John the Baptist was such a wild man.

“If he was eating wild carob and honey, he was probably on a sugar high all the time,” Dr. Hesse said. “That makes much more sense.”

For that matter, it was unlikely that Eve tempted Adam with an apple, Mr. Chiffolo noted. There were no apples in the Middle East then, and the tempting fruit — metaphorically or not — was more likely an apricot.

The authors did not try to recreate the Last Supper. “We don’t know what was served other than bread and wine,” Dr. Hesse said. “And we thought it was just a little too sacred.”

Initially, the authors expected the book to be of interest to church and synagogue groups, but its popularity has extended to other audiences; “Cooking With the Bible” has been translated into German, and translation rights have been sold in Korean and Chinese. Last month, a Russian TV crew traveled to Hartsdale to film the authors cooking and then dined on a meal from the book.

Dr. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo are now back in the kitchen developing recipes for their next venture — a cookbook based on meals in the movies.

But since this is Easter, and Passover began last Wednesday evening, it seems appropriate to go straight to the biblical cookbook for inspiration. There is a complete Passover menu, including a recipe for haroset, a sweet paste made of fruit, wine and nuts, that recalls the mortar between bricks that the Egyptians forced the Israeli slaves to make. As for an Easter meal? The authors recommend Grilled Mackerel on a Stick, particularly appropriate if cooked on an open fire at a sunrise service. It’s from a Galilean Breakfast. (See John 21:1-14.)


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