01 June 2010

Partridge to Pistachios: Food in Old Testament Times

Partridge to Pistachios: Food in Old Testament Times
By Timothy S. Wilkinson
                Our modern preoccupation with food would have been foreign to all but the wealthiest people of ancient Palestine. As it is for subsistence farmers and pastoral people today, food was a means of sustenance, not pleasure. This is one of the reasons harvest times were so exciting: they were the only times of the year when food and drink flowed freely.
                The Israelites ate two meals each day—a light breakfast during a pause in the morning’s labor, and a heavier dinner at home after the air had cooled in the evening. Breakfast foods were simple and quick: bread from the day before, fruits, and perhaps milk or cheese. During harvest season workers would simply eat the raw grain by the handfuls or parch it over a small fire. Families would expect to eat the same meal everyday for weeks or even months—until the next crop was harvested.
                The evening meal, though, allowed the housewife and her daughters to exercise their culinary talents--within the limits of their budget, of course. Bread (leavened and unleavened) was the staple, made from freshly milled barley (for the poor), millet, or wheat, and baked into thin, flat loaves in charcoal-fired ovens. Hebrews did not use utensils at the table; they used pieces of bread to scoop food from the communal pot. The bread might be smeared with a little fresh butter, made by placing cream in a skin bag and shaking and squeezing it.
                The common people at meat only rarely. Animals were valuable sources of milk and wool, and their flesh was hard to preserve; they were slaughtered only for special occasions. (The Philistines had an alternative solution to the preservation problem—they would cut off one or two of the animal’s legs and bind the wounds, keeping them alive until they were ready to eat the rest). When the occasion did call for it, though, there were a variety of meats available: veal, beef, mutton, goat, partridge, quail, geese, pigeons, fish, and lamb. The wealthy may also have had access to deer, gazelle, roebucks, and other birds. The Torah forbade the eating of fat, so the meat (already lean by our standards) would have been carefully trimmed and then boiled (in water or milk) or roasted with onions, garlic, or herbs.
                Water was drunk when available, but this was not often. Most water that the common people had access to was not fit for drinking. Women had to laboriously draw clean water from deep wells, and it was often tepid and full of silt. Milk was the drink of choice, whether from camels, sheep, goats, or (les commonly) cows. The Bible only rarely uses the Hebrew word for fresh milk. The common practice was to put milk into a goat-skin bottle, where it thickened slightly and went sour; to the Israelite palette, nothing was better for quenching thirst. Milk was also used to make cheese (probably in the form of curds) and yoghurt.
                In the spring, greens like lettuce, endive, horseradish, parsley and watercress appeared on tables as salads, perhaps blended with mint or chopped cucumbers and onions. Housewives flavored bean or lentil stews with leeks and garlic. Most meals featured raisins or dates (often pressed into cakes like pemmican) and whatever fruits were in season: grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives, apples, and others.
                Dessert was also reserved for special occasions, and fruit was sweet enough to be a treat to the ancient palette. But locust beans (carob pods) could be stewed and prepared as sweetmeats, or confections made from honey, dates, almonds, pistachios, and gum Arabic. Wine chilled with snow from Mount Hermon or expensive, imported melons might have finished off the meal.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.