Theme stories frustrate me. The stories that are written annually are particularly annoying. Like around the start of school, or Christmas time. Typically reporters avoid them, and I don't think they're very popular with readers. But I guess they are necessary and some people enjoy them. If it's Christmas time, you simply have to do something, right? I often find that this usually leads to canned stories with little creativity or insight, but a big exception to that this year is Stephanie Simon's 1,600-word piece from Dec. 25 in the Los Angeles Times on the foods of the Bible. Sure, it does not relate directly to Christmas, but it is in the piece and much more:
The Bible contains just one true recipe, for a bread of wheat, barley and lentils cooked over a fire made from burning human excrement. The ingredients were a direct revelation from the Almighty to the priest Ezekiel. The taste?
"Like moldy bean sprouts," says the Rev. Rayner W. Hesse Jr., an Episcopal priest. "You don't want to eat it. Never, ever. Let me emphasize that: Never."
OK, Ezekiel bread is out. But what about the stew that Jacob cooked in the Book of Genesis? It was a lentil stew, the Scriptures record, and it smelled so good that Jacob's brother, Esau, traded his inheritance for a bowl of it. Ancient scribes did not record Jacob's recipe. Hesse has always wished they had.
So four years ago, he set out to re-create Jacob's lentils -- and other famous biblical meals -- with the help of his partner, Anthony F. Chiffolo, the editorial director of a nonfiction publishing house. The couple's curiosity led them on a theological, historical and culinary quest that would expand their understanding of Scripture and introduce them to such novelties as curdled camel's milk and crispy lotus root.
Simon documents the work of Hesse and Chiffolo and presents how they came up the encyclopedia-like Cooking With the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts and Lore, which I bet many of you wished you had purchased as a gift this Christmas.
You'll note that I did not like Simon's last piece, "Manliness is next to godliness," for failing to include voices other than those that fit the thesis. This article also omits voices outside the authors' dinner guests, but as a combination book review-food column, other voices were less necessary, I think.
But the story is more about mixing ingredients together to come up with something tasty and reminds a person of Middle Eastern food. It's about the importance of eating with others and the significance placed on that in the Bible. Simon seems to be asking how often your meals are eaten solitarily:
As he read through the Bible looking for mentions of food, Hesse realized that hospitality -- specifically, generosity with meals -- was considered a sign of righteousness across the ages, starting with the freshly slaughtered calf that Abraham and Sarah served three visiting angels in the Book of Genesis.
Food is so central to biblical relationships that when Christ reveals himself after the Resurrection, his disciples recognize him only in the context of a meal. At one point, Jesus walks beside them for hours, but they do not know him until he sits down to break bread. In another account, Jesus hails the disciples by the Sea of Galilee; again they do not recognize him -- until he catches a bounty of fish for breakfast.
"I don't think I ever understood until I did this research how central the meal is to Christianity, and how that tradition goes all the way back to Abraham," Hesse said.
It's been awhile since I've seen such clear biblical principles in a major daily newspaper. Kudos to the LAT editors for sending Simon to New York to get this story -- and to her for helping us all understand a little bit more about why Christmas is special.