Pair mines the Good Book for recipes, inspirational gems

How would you like to sit down to a nice bowl of locust soup?

Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette photos
Cookbook co-author Rayner Hesse Jr.'s imaginative take on the "fish breakfast," which Jesus served to his disciples along the seashore in the Gospel of John, is called Mackerel on a Stick.
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Or fruit paste with powdered brick?

If you had lived in biblical times, you might not have turned up your nose.

These foods are among the 200 recipes -- most of which are a lot more appetizing -- in "Cooking with the Bible" (Greenwood Press, $75). The cookbook/reference book was written by Rayner Hesse Jr., an Episcopal priest in White Plains, N.Y., and Anthony Chiffolo, a Greenwood Publishing Group editorial director.

They've recreated the menus for 18 Bible passages so people can try them at home.

Now you, too, can cook the stew for which Esau sold his birthright. Or "kill the fatted calf," as they did when the prodigal son showed up at home again.

And you can read about what you're doing. Accompanying essays explain each passage and impart intriguing facts about the food. (Those locusts? John the Baptist, Rev. Hesse writes in one essay, might not really have eaten them, as it says in Matthew 3. He might have been consuming carob fruit from the locust tree.)

If you're going to try these foods at home, you need not cook in clay pots over an open fire in your backyard or -- shudder -- slaughter that fatted calf yourself. Rev. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo have updated biblical cooking methods. These recipes use regular stoves and ovens, convection ovens, microwave ovens, bread machines and even fondue pots.

The authors have updated the ingredients somewhat, too. Rev. Hesse says they tried to stick to the biblical texts, but it wasn't always possible.

When choosing Bible passages, Rev. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo looked for specificity. Thus, they used passages such as the one in which Abigail cooked up a big feast to appease King David after her husband, Nabal, insulted him. I Samuel 25 says she loaded up 200 loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep, a bushel of grain, a hundred raisin cakes and 200 fig cakes and toted it all out on some donkeys to meet David and win peace.

But even with all these details, the Bible doesn't really say what Abigail cooked. What kind of bread? What was in those raisin and fig cakes besides raisins and figs?

Click photo for larger image.Raisin Cake from Abigail's feast to appease King David in I Samuel.
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So Rev. Hesse, the recipe developer, had to make an educated guess. And it was definitely "educated" -- he pored through books, journal articles and the Internet, and he even peppered the nearby Middle Eastern grocer with questions. Rev. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo researched the food side by side, but for different reasons. Mr. Chiffolo was developing the latter half of the book, a comprehensive discussion of the ingredients. We're talking historical background, uses, nutritional value -- everything you ever wanted to know about sunfish, sesame seeds, camel's milk and every other ingredient mentioned in the recipes.

But they still had to use some guesswork and intuition -- and a little humor.

For instance, our modern idea of baked desserts hadn't yet been invented in biblical times, but Rev. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo wanted to include some. So they had a little fun. What should be the dessert for the meal where Abraham entertained angels unawares in Genesis 18? Angel food cake, of course.

And they decided not to be literalists. In some recipes, they used such modern Mediterranean staples as rice, eggplant and tomatoes, even though they're not in the Bible.

For the Passover passage, they didn't limit themselves to the roast goat and unleavened bread of Exodus 12. They also borrowed from Jewish groups that at times had no meat and thus used root vegetables for Seders.

That fruit paste with powdered brick? It's in the Passover menu, too, and represents the mortar between the bricks the Israelite slaves were forced to make in Egypt.

Rev. Hesse notes it's not easy to find powdered brick to put in that dish.

"We had to powder our own," he says jovially. "With a hammer."

This attention to Jewish custom has won Rev. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo speaking invitations at synagogues as well as churches. Most of the Bible passages used in the book come from the Hebrew Scriptures, which Jews and Christians have in common. Two Jewish feast meals are featured -- Passover and Purim, from the book of Esther.

That said, Rev. Hesse notes there's been plenty of response from the evangelical Christian audience they targeted. The cookbook is popular for church programs, which Rev. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo anticipated when their own church, St. John's Episcopal in New Rochelle, N.Y., held potlucks where everyone tested Rev. Hesse and Mr. Chiffolo's recipes.

What they didn't expect were all the other audiences they would attract -- newspapers, radio and TV stations, kitchen stores with demonstration areas, a restaurant that sold out a biblical meal night. The book is even being translated into Korean, German and possibly Japanese. The 386-page tome isn't cheap, but Barnes & Noble is publishing an abridged paperback edition omitting the second half (on ingredients) but adding color photographs instead of the hardback's black-and-white ones.

Haroset a la Greque
Click photo for larger image.Karen Carr
Rayner W. Hesse Jr., left, and Anthony F. Chiffolo are authors of "Cooking with the Bible."
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Rev. Hesse says he and Mr. Chiffolo never expected the large size and diversity of their audience. When the two recently attended the American Academy of Religion conference, even Muslims approached them with favorable responses to the book, noting they also have in their tradition the account of Abraham entertaining angels unawares.

For Mr. Chiffolo, the book is all about sharing traditions.

In biblical times, he notes, hospitality was central to people's survival -- travelers were forced to rely on strangers' hospitality. Providing hospitality was considered a mark of obedience to God.

"If we can recapture how important it is to sit down and break bread with others, it gets the conversation going and builds a community, and we find out we have a lot more in common than we thought."

"Cooking with the Bible" can be purchased at or through online booksellers such as



This dish, served at Passover, is said to represent the mortar between the bricks the Israelite slaves were forced to make in Egypt. Note the inclusion of powdered brick to enhance the symbolism.

  • 1 apple, finely chopped
  • 1 cup dates, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup almonds, ground
  • 3/4 cups walnuts, ground
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • A bit of lemon peel, grated
  • 1 cup fresh black currants, chopped (or 1 cup currant jam)
  • A pinch of powdered red brick
  • Sweet red wine

Combine first eight ingredients. Add wine until it is like a paste. Cover, but do not refrigerate. Serve as a side dish to the main meal.

Serves 8-12.

-- "Cooking with the Bible," by Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner Hesse Jr.



Perhaps this recipe mimics the 100 raisin cakes Abigail baked to try to appease King David in I Samuel 25.

For the buttercream

  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 cup powdered sugar (sifted)
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

Stir together all ingredients, adding more cream a teaspoon at a time, if needed, to achieve desired consistency.

For the cake

  • 1 1/2 cups raisins
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups oatmeal
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • Whipped cream or vanilla buttercream frosting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 10-inch tube pan or 10-inch square pan.

In a large pot, boil the raisins in enough water to cover them, about 2 cups. Add the sugar and vinegar and stir. Set aside and let cool for 10 to 12 minutes. To the same pot, add the butter, eggs, vanilla and all the remaining dry ingredients. Mix well, then pour batter into pan.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until tester comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla buttercream frosting.

Serves 8-12.

-- "Cooking with the Bible"

Rebecca Sodergren is an Oakwood freelance writer.


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