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Christmas in Bethlehem
What was served at the Last Supper? Many would answer with another question - Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder? There is disagreement among the gospels, and among scholars -- but we can consider what we eat today in the Land of Israel, and look back at the sources to get a tasty idea of what was on the menu, regardless of the exact date.
The Seven Species in Deut 8:8 listed as evidence of a "good land" are everyday foods here in Israel -- Wheat, barley, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, and dates -- with olives taking pride of place, showing up everywhere. Olives are an Israeli snack food, and every "Israeli Salad" of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers is dressed with just lemon juice and olive oil.
Would the Seven Species have been served at the Last Supper? Pomegranates are a fall fruit and so wouldn't be in season. Fresh grapes ripen later in the year, in the summer although it is said that Peter served both red and white grapes. Grapes in the form of wine was available year round. Dried figs and dates are possiblities, the dates could have also been made into sweet syrup, called "silan" in Hebrew . Surely olives could have graced the table.
As for wheat and barley, it would depend if there was grain left over from last years crop. If there were leftovers, then it could be eaten -- like today, bread was a staple in biblical times and barley was poor mans food, used in porridge and cakes. If it was from the new spring crop, it would be saved for an offering later in the Spring for Ha-Habikurim, the Festival of the First Fruits, also known as Pentecost or Shavout.
In addition to the Seven Species, Vetch - an ancient grain legume crop of the Mediterranean region similar to broad beans , along with barley, peas and lentils would appear among the first crops of the season.
What else might complete the menu of the Last Supper? According to Luke, Jesus asked Peter to fish the deep waters of the lake although he had been fishing the whole night without catching anything. This time, however, he caught so much tilapia the boats were overloaded. Tilapia, known as Peter's fish, is available in fish markets all over the Holy Land.
Spring lamb with mint sauce? Very unlikely to be served at the Last Supper, as meat was a rich man's food. Goat? Beef? Chicken? Probably not. Either too expensive or else saved for an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem. If meat was served there would have been no milk or dairy products served, as observant Jews do not eat meat and dairy products together at the same meal. But since meat was probably not served, goat's milk and still very popular "labne" yogurt, perhaps drizzled with honey or date syrup would have made for a delicious dessert.
Wild greens are free for the taking. Wild asparagus, Cape Sorrel - a bitter green that kids like to munch on, chickweed, and any number of spinach-like sprout up in springtime in fields all over Israel. Likewise spices such as oregano, thyme, bay leaves, sumac and hyssop - a main ingredient in the very popular spice blend called "zatar" - can be found growing wild. Forraging today has a special appeal to "foodies", but anyone on a budget - regardless of the era they live in - appreciates the bounty that nature provides gratis.
Whatever was served at the Last Supper, it was not what we expect of a meal today. The meals of yesterday and yesteryear was smaller in portion size and more modest in variety, preparation and presentation.
The movie "Super Size Me" highlights how portion size has increased dramatically in Western diets in recent years. The great paintings of the Last Supper show that this is not a new phenomena. Research published in a medical journal, the International Journal of Obesity, shows that the size of the main dish grew 69 percent; the size of the plate, 66 percent, and the bread, 23 percent, in paintings of the Last Supper between the years 1000 and 2000.
Our larger appetites, and the availability and exposure to foods & cuisines from all over the world allow gourmets and everyday eaters to enjoy an incredible variety of food today. But looking at our own traditions - whether it is based on geography or faith - leads back to a diet that is fulfilling for both body and soul. Many of us cherish the experience of using old family recipes, and know how special it is to prepare, eat and pass on to our children the stories and foods of our parents and grandparents. Multiply this experience by 2000 years, consider the role food has in our understanding of scripture, and we have opportunities to think about this basic need need and everyday desire in new and meaningful ways.
Should you be interested in studying more about the last supper or learning with a scholarly rabbi while you are traveling in Israel, Travelujah will organize a special evening seder program for your group while you are on tour here. Through our partnership with the Center of Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation, we can put together a day long, half day long or evening program for you as part of your Holy Land tour.
Martha Kruger is a writer and marketing specialist for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She has been involved with Jewish Christian relations for years and formerly worked for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.