The Food Column: A look at the food and feasts of Jesus

The Bible is rife with food-and-drink imagery, from the Garden of Eden's fruit in Genesis all the way to the heavenly banquet table in Revelation.

But perhaps nowhere in Scripture is food as central as during the life of Jesus: Feeding the 5,000. Changing the water to wine. Cursing the unproductive fig tree. Telling parables about leaven in the loaf, workers in the vineyards and a banquet for outcasts. Harvesting grain on the Sabbath with the disciples. And, perhaps most important, equating his own body with bread and his blood with wine during his final meal with his disciples before his death.

People often assume the Last Supper was a Passover meal because the Gospels of Matthew and Luke speak of the disciples seeking a place where they could eat the Passover with Jesus. But as Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh note in their new book, "The Food and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First-Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes," the Gospel of John states that Jesus' crucifixion took place on the day of preparation for Passover, so it's likely that the Last Supper was a "pre-Passover" meal. Christians historically have marked Maundy Thursday -- this year it's today -- as the anniversary of the Last Supper.

But regardless of whether it was a Passover meal, the Lord's Supper remains the most important meal in the Christian tradition. Sometimes it's even considered a Christian reformulation of Passover, with Jesus himself representing the lamb that was slain.

Mr. Neel and Mr. Pugh's book dissects the food of Jesus' time: what people ate on a day-to-day basis, what they ate for religious feasts such as Passover, how social and economic conditions influenced diet, and why any of this still matters. And, as the subtitle suggests, the authors have developed recipes so you could theoretically serve a first-century meal at home, perhaps even on the floor as it might have been served then, with the multigenerational family sitting on cushions around the food.

Many of the recipes feel repetitive -- lots of grain-and-cucumber salads, plus pickled and dried fruits. But the repetitiveness is a sign of the times: Many products we moderns would associate with a Mediterranean diet, such as tomatoes and rice, hadn't yet made their way to the Middle East. And of course, refrigeration was far in the future, so drying and pickling were pretty much the only ways to enjoy fruits and vegetables out of season.

The most common produce in Jesus' day included lettuces, cucumbers, garlic and leeks; common fruits were apricots, figs, melons, and, of course, olives, which were important for their oil, as well. Unless a family was wealthy, large cuts of meat tended to be reserved for important meals. Meats of the day included goat, lamb, small fowl such as pigeon, and for those close to the water, fish. There also were a variety of nuts, herbs and spices to choose from, and people did make cheese and yogurt. So their diet, assuming they weren't extremely poor, was nutritionally sound and more varied than we might realize.

But many people were, in fact, extremely poor. As Mr. Neel and Mr. Pugh note, many social systems had broken by the time of Jesus, which explains why great crowds were free to follow Jesus around rather than work the fields. And it also explains why Jesus' parables sometimes focused on day laborers: Many families had lost their land and were forced to hire themselves out to harvest in other people's fields in order to feed their families.

The one food that everybody ate was bread. It was made every day and eaten at every meal. Wealthier families made bread from wheat flours. Poorer families tended to use ground legumes along with grains (see recipe for one representative bread type). But everybody ate bread of some sort. As Mr. Neel and Mr. Pugh wrote, "During times of famine, long after all the meat and vegetables were depleted, the people still were making and eating bread. When the bread was gone, everything was gone."

That's why it was so significant when Jesus called himself "the bread of life." He presented himself as the people's fundamental source of spiritual nourishment, every bit as important as their primary -- and sometimes only -- source of physical nourishment.

And that, Mr. Neel said in a phone interview, is precisely why what people ate then still matters now. An Episcopal priest, Mr. Neel started a catering company serving first-century food for church groups and other gatherings while he was researching this book. And he found that his studies of the mundane topic of food helped him to understand Jesus' spiritual teachings: his parables about food and farming, the social and economic climate of the times, the stresses people faced as they sought answers in Jesus.

"As I researched for the book, it helped to make Jesus' teachings a lot more meaningful to me," he said.

And what better time of the year for meaningful teaching than Easter time? Perhaps this year our family is due for an Easter meal of bread and cucumber salad, served on the floor.

Ina Garten is coming

"Barefoot Contessa" and best-selling cookbook Author Ina Garten is bringing "The Hamptons in The Heights," a June 1 fundraiser for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden that will take place at Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley Heights. Tickets are $250 each, or $500 with a VIP reception that also includes a private audience with Ms. Garten. For information, contact Kitty Vagley at 412-444-4464 or


International Small Plates and Bites: Learn to make Japanese eggplant and soy onion wontons, poached egg-arugula salad, coriander-spiced beef satay and more. 7 p.m. Wednesday at Rania's in Mount Lebanon. $60.

Open-hearth cooking: Learn to build a fire and then make bread, meat dishes and desserts over it -- and end the day by sharing the meal. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 13 at Depreciation Lands Museum, Allison Park. $40. Registration required: 412-486-0563 or

Charity events

Cookbook drive: Through April 30, drop off your old cookbooks at In the Kitchen in the Strip District. A sale of the donated cookbooks on May 12 will benefit a local charity, and leftover books will be donated to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Cookies for autism: From Tuesday, April 2, through April 6, Western Pennsylvania Panera locations are donating all proceeds from the sale of their Puzzle Piece Shortbread Cookies to Pittsburgh's chapter of Autism Speaks. The cookies are unique to this area and are sold only at this time of the year for National Autism Awareness Month. To preorder cookies, go to


March Milkshake Madness: Come up with an ingredient list and a creative name for a milkshake flavor and submit it, the Facebook page for the Regent Square eatery. A panel of judges will pick the best shake, which Square Cafe will sell throughout May to benefit a charity of the winner's choice. The winner will be announced next week, so hurry up and get your entries in.

Mediterranean grain bread

PG tested

We took the authors' recommendation and used Bob's Red Mill's 10-Grain Hot Cereal for the "whole-grain mix" listed in the ingredients. Any grain mix may be used as long as it is made primarily of wheat and barley and is ground rather fine.

-- Rebecca Sodergren

  • 1 tablespoon yeast

  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (about 110 degrees)

  • 6 cups unbleached flour

  • 1 cup whole-grain mix

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 2 tablespoons butter (soft or melted)

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey

  • 1 cup milk

Place yeast and warm water in the bowl of your mixer. Wait until yeast begins to activate, about 15 minutes. It will change color and begin to bubble. Add the flour and grain mixture. Then add remaining ingredients.

Mix with dough hook for 5 minutes, starting on the slowest speed and then increasing to medium-slow.

Let dough rest 15 minutes and then mix for another 5 minutes. Dough should be slightly sticky and springy to the touch. Add flour 1 tablespoon at a time if dough is too sticky or water if it is too dry.

Punch dough down and knead by turning the machine on low for 1 minute. Let dough rise until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour at 80 degrees or 11/2 hours at 65 degrees.

After rising, turn out dough onto floured surface, punch down with fingers and knead for about 1 minute.

Form dough into 4 loaves about 6 to 8 inches in diameter and 11/2 inches thick in the center. Lightly spray baking sheets with cooking oil and place loaves on sheets. Cover with floured towel and let rise for 1 hour. After 40 minutes, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake bread on a rack in center of oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove bread and let cool on a rack for at least 2 hours. Makes 4 small loaves.

-- "The Food and Feasts of Jesus" by Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, $39.95)

Rebecca Sodergren:


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