The Food and Feasts of Jesus
A smorgasbord of First Century food
“The Holy Trinity of Food.” That’s what The Rev. Douglas Neel and co-author Joel Pugh offer readers of “The Food Feasts of Jesus.”
Neel, 58, an Episcopal priest in Pagosa Springs, presented his recently published book along with a meal smorgasbord from the First Century, A.D., on Sat., Aug. 25, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Cortez. The event made $1,132 for the church’s food ministry, Grace’s Kitchen.
The Holy Trinity of Food is a theme Neel came up with to describe the three essential ingredients of meals during the time of Christ.
In order, these are: bread, wine and olives.
Bread would have been made by someone in the household every day of the week, Neel said, noting that households at that time consisted of three to four generations and at least 15 people.
Bread would be made in an outside domed bread oven in the morning. Bread that had been set aside from the previous day for its yeast content would be mixed with water and olive oil to start the process all over again.
Jesus used bread references often in his sermons, including one popular reference to Himself as “the bread of life” (John 6:35). Neel noted that the themes Jesus used often included bread, wedding feasts and agriculture in general.
“In the First Century, if you did not have bread, you had nothing,” Neel said. Bread was likely the only thing eaten in two of the day’s three meals.
Bread was very utilitarian at that time. For example, people used it to wipe their hands and then threw it on the floor.
The second food staple was wine, a stronger, more flavorful product than normally produced today.
A popular wine in Palestine at the time of Jesus was Shiraz, Neel said, explaining that the seeds came from grapes grown in Shiraz, Iran.
Water at that time could contain bacteria, so people would add wine to make it safe to drink, since alcohol kills bacteria. The end product would be 50 to 60 percent water.
Wine made in the Mediterranean Sea area during that time was exceptionally strong flavor-wise, and had a little bit more alcohol content than today. It was consumed during at least two meals of the day: lunch and dinner.
People would use their bare feet to stomp the grapes in hollowed-out rocks, Neel said.
Wine was considered to be a very healthy drink.
The third part of the Holy Trinity of Food is olives.
Almost all of the olives grown in the Holy Land were used to make olive oil.
The oil was used in cooking, flavoring, medicine, makeup and as a lighting fuel.
It was considered absolutely essential to life, Neel said.
People would rub it on their hands, face and neck as a skin protectant and conditioner.
A tarp would be placed under an olive tree for harvesting, and someone would shake the branches and then whack the tree. The dark ripe olives were preferable, but green ones would also fall. The latter were bitter and had to be placed in ash, salt or saltwater to draw out the moisture and a bitter chemical, Neel explained.
While doing research for his book, which took five and a half years to write, Neel ordered 20 pounds of green olives from California. “We bashed or cut them, and soaked them for 14 days in brine (saltwater),” he said, joking his wife Sally didn’t always appreciate her kitchen sink being full of olives during that time.
The Neels then stored the olives in a mixture of saltwater and various seasonings, including lemon, thyme, rosemary and garlic. Seeing what they tasted like was fun, Neel said.
During the First Century, olives were pressed up to four times, with the first press usually saved for special occasions. The final batch was often placed around olive trees as fertilizer.
Neel noted that olive oil was also used for anointing, which he defined as setting something aside for special use. It would also be mixed with different things and applied to the skin as part of the healing process.
People of the era rarely ate meat. “It was probably eaten once a week at the Sabbath (Friday night) feast,” Neel said. The meat that was likely consumed the most was tilapia from the Sea of Galilee, along with various kinds of poultry, such as pigeon, quail and doves.
Animals, i.e. goats, sheep and cattle, were so valuable they were rarely eaten, possibly only four times a year during major feast days such as Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukkot). On these occasions the “red” meat eaten was most likely lamb.
A cow was so valuable, it was priced the same as the “bride price,” i.e. what one would pay for a wife, Neel said.
People of that era got a lot of their protein from legumes such as beans and chick peas.
In addition to the Holy Trinity of Food, other items that were a large part of the diet included cheese, yogurt, vinegar and herbs and spices.
Hundreds of varieties of cheese were made. Farmers made something like today’s Feta because it could be stored in saltwater. The Romans were fond of making a cheese something like cheddar. The cheese-making was “quite sophisticated,” Neel said, noting the Romans would put barrels of “cheddar” close to the fire. The end result was “smoked cheddar.”
Milk would often be stored in the stomachs of dead animals. The curds would then separate from the milk.
Neel, who has lived in Pagosa Springs for four years, did much of his research for the book at a library on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
The book focuses on various feasts and includes: A farmer’s feast in the field, Sabbath feast, banquet, spring and fall harvest feasts, thanksgiving Todah (sacrificial) feast, and a “picnic on the beach,” which refers to Jesus’ grilling fish as recorded in the last chapter of John’s gospel. A chapter titled, “First Century Pantry,” is also included.
This is Neel’s first book. He notes that Pugh, the co-author, has a financial background and included information on the taxation of food. “He’s a very good amateur baker and cook,” Neel said.
The Food Feasts of Jesus can be purchased from $30 to $39 online and in bookstores.