Bib­li­cal por­tions

Ever won­dered what our an­ces­tors ate in an­cient times? Alex Kas­riel finds out

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES 29 -

THIS WEEK, Giles Coren and Sue Perkins spent a week eat­ing only wartime food in a new se­ries of The Su­per­siz­ers Go… on BBC2. They will also be sam­pling a Restora­tion, Re­gency, Vic­to­rian and a 1970s diet dur­ing this se­ries. The pair say they were unim­pressed by most of the food they were served dur­ing this se­ries; but how would they have got on eat­ing the food of our an­ces­tors, by go­ing on a bib­li­cal diet?

If you as­so­ci­ate Bi­ble times with sump­tu­ous ban­quet­ing ta­bles groan­ing with lamb, goat and vast bunches of grapes, then think again. Ac­cord­ing to one ex­pert, the Is­raelites mostly sur­vived on ce­re­als, legumes and dairy.

In his forth­com­ing book, What Did The An­cient Is­raelites Eat? Diet In Bib­li­cal Times, Nathan MacDon­ald de­scribes a poor and not very healthy diet.

“The diet of the an­cient Is­raelites would have been far nar­rower than our own,” says the lec­turer in Old Tes­ta­ment at St Andrew’s Univer­sity. “The main item on the menu would have been ce­re­als, ei­ther as bread or por­ridge. Es­ti­mates are that breads con­trib­uted be­tween 50 to 75 per cent of over­all calo­ries: far in ex­cess of mod­ern di­ets. The Is­raelites would prob­a­bly have con­sumed legumes, olive oil, maybe some figs, and dairy prod­ucts — not fresh, but as ghee (clar­i­fied but­ter) or cheese. Other fruits may have been eaten in sea­son. Veg­eta­bles may have been eaten, but they were not thought of very highly. This lack of variety led to ill health, es­pe­cially for women dur­ing preg­nancy as they suf­fered from a lack of iron.

“There is pos­si­ble ev­i­dence of iron­d­e­fi­ciency ane­mia. The rea­sons for this are prob­a­bly that flat bread is high in phy­tates and th­ese in­hibit iron ab­sorp- tion. The di­etary means of in­creas­ing iron were ei­ther not well thought of (veg­eta­bles) or rarely eaten (meat).

Diet was re­lated to class and gen­der, so only rich males would have feasted on meat in the form of stews and then only on spe­cial oc­ca­sions. In­stead, an­i­mals were used for trade and for their an­cil­lary prod­ucts.

“Meat was al­most cer­tainly the di­etary item that in­di­cated a shift from ev­ery­day meals to a feast,” says Dr MacDon­ald. “For one thing, meat was in­cred­i­bly valu­able. At the time of the Per­sian Em­pire, a sheep was equiv­a­lent to three months’ wheat. When meat was eaten, it was prob­a­bly as a stew. There are even some an­cient recipes from an­cient Baby­lo­nia for var­i­ous royal stews (c. 1700 BCE).

“One of the in­ter­est­ing finds in the last 30 years of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal work is the amount of fish dis­cov­ered in an­cient Is­raelite sites. Fish used to be thought of as some­thing the Is­raelites would rarely have eaten. Is­rael never con­trolled the coast and there are few nat­u­ral harbours. But re­cent ev­i­dence is that fish was traded from as far away as the Nile or the Red Sea, al­though it can’t have come cheap” — or par­tic­u­larly fresh, for that mat­ter.

Dr MacDon­ald says Abra­ham would have got more dairy in his diet than his de­scen­dants, as he is pre­sented in Ge­n­e­sis as a semi-no­madic pas­toral­ist. And he ex­plains that while women baked bread (in cone-shaped ovens) and cooked por­ridge over pot­tery ves­sels over fire, it was prob­a­bly the men who cooked the meat — the bar­be­cue was ob­vi­ously al­ways a male pre­serve.

There were no ready meals in those days. In­deed, for the women, pre­par­ing a meal was hard labour. Ma­gen Broshi of the Is­rael Mu­seum has es­ti­mated that a wife with a fam­ily of five or six would have needed to spend three hours a day in the la­bo­ri­ous work of milling flour. Fast food it was not.

Stew and soups like this one made from lentils and other legumes were a sta­ple of the Is­raelite diet

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.