Not one of the eight women in my book club knew all the others when we began to meet. Yet we have become a sisterhood, part of a growing national phenomenon – thanks, Oprah! – sharing ideas as we break bread together, nourishing our souls as well as our bodies.
In the nine years we have been meeting, we have grown intimate, as only women do, revealing ourselves to each other as we share both food and food for thought. As is our custom, to enhance the mood, our meal always parallels the book we are reading. And on more than one occasion, I have to admit, we have selected the book because of the cuisine!
As I look back on the menus and wonderful reads we have enjoyed – Chicken Étouffée for “Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” Penne Arrabiatta for “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Chapli Kebobs for “The Kite Runner” – one of our most memorable pairings has got to be the biblical feast we enjoyed for Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” (Picador USA), the fictionalized account of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah.
The setting within the red tent, and the relationship between the women who gather there, was even more compelling to me than its engrossing plot of love, murder and revenge. Like Dinah, I had four mothers. My mom’s three sisters were all second mothers to me, “each of them scolding, teaching and cherishing something different about me, giving me different gifts,” and the envelope of love that Dinah experiences, although 3500 years separate us, feels, oh, so familiar to me.
“The Red Tent” mirrors, like no other book we discussed, our group itself, a classic example of life imitating art. And like any assemblage of women out of earshot of men, from the quilting bee to the college dorm, we are a red tent.
To recreate an authentic biblical meal I consulted Kitty Morse, whose cookbook “A Biblical Feast” (Ten Speed Press) meets the challenge of creating tasty dishes for the modern, sophisticated palate using only the eighty or so ingredients mentioned in the Bible, what Morse calls “the original Mediterranean diet.”
“I wanted to make the recipes as authentic as possible,” said the Southern California author. “Coming from Morocco, I am very familiar with these ingredients – saffron, cumin, lentils, figs – and use them all the time. In fact, it is still the kind of cuisine eaten today in a Berber or Arab home.”
For our appetizer Morse suggested Toasted Ground Almond and Sesame Dip. Like Jacob and his tribe, we first dipped bread into olive oil and then the nut mixture. The nigella seeds (black cumin) added a distinct, peppery flavor. I found them in a Middle Eastern market, where I also grabbed pomegranate molasses. This cranberry sparkled elixir became a second dip for our bread, which combined with the almond and sesame dip, struck me as kind of a primordial PB&J.
“More than any other food, it was bread that sustained God’s chosen people,” Morse told me. “For the ancient Hebrews, bread was quite literally the staff of life.” I resisted the temptation to use my bread machine and reached out in kinship to the women of the Red Tent as I kneaded and pounded.
I fashioned an impromptu salad from the list in Morse’s cookbook: arugula, thinly sliced onion, olives, and cucumbers. “The cucumber was a prized food in biblical times,” noted Morse. “It was cool and crisp and didn’t have to be cooked.” No tomatoes or peppers in this salad, as these were New World delicacies.
The dressing was olive oil, of course, and wine vinegar. I was surprised to learn that the Fertile Crescent, so rich with citrus today, bore no lemons in biblical times.
Selecting Jacob’s Pottage was a no-brainer. Morse claims the hearty lentil stew may be similar to the one for which Esau relinquished his birthright to Jacob.
“There are 9,000 varieties of lentils catalogued today,” she noted. Because wheat was expensive, lentils were ground into meal (called pulse meal) and used to make bread.
I resisted the temptation to add shredded lamb meat to the stew. While meat was used in Temple offerings and eaten by the elite, Morse tells us it was a rare treat for the general population.
Although the concept of dessert is a more recent innovation, our ancient forebears had no lack of a sweet tooth. “Refined sugars were unknown in biblical times,” said Morse, “but if one were lucky enough to find a beehive, there was honey.” Grapes, figs and pomegranates were also reduced to a syrupy consistency to form “fruit honeys.”
We ended our repast with Dried Fruit, Cinnamon and Red Wine Compote, an aromatic mélange of apricots, dates, figs and raisins. Another surprise. “Many biblical botanists believe that the unnamed fruit Eve offered to Adam was most likely an apricot,” revealed Morse. “Apples would not find their way to the Holy Land until much later.”
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.