Millennia of Meals in Holy Land

Jerusalem exhibit shows how little has changed through the years, asks: What did Jesus eat?

AFTER Pontius Pilate washed his hands, what did he sit down to eat?

The answer can be found in a fascinating exhibit at the Tower of David Museum, set in the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, that looks at Jerusalem's history from an unusual angle: food.

In a long, vaulted, flagstone hall built by the Crusaders, museum director Adi Semel has "tried to understand this city through its vernacular, rather than in more abstract ways." And the result, "Eating in Jerusalem," has been an unexpectedly striking success, both with Jerusalemites and visitors.

Researching the exhibit and setting it up has also proved encouraging from a political standpoint, says Mr. Semel. "The common denominators of culinary habits in Jerusalem, and the dividing lines between eating habits are not the political ones" that split the city between Arab and Jew, he points out. "The divisions between rich and poor are far more obvious."

At the same time, adds Nirit Roessler, who researched the show, "it was very exciting that beyond all the political and cultural differences, people cooperated in a splendid way when it came down to food. We needed the help of many people who need not have given it, and they were very happy to help."

If food binds enemies today, it also acts as a link with the past. The exhibit clearly illustrates how little has changed in people's fundamental eating habits here over thousands of years, despite Jerusalem's tumultuous history. `Pottage' of legumes

The "mess of pottage" that Jacob prepared for Esau, for example - a stew of lentils, beans, peas, or other legumes - can be found in only slightly different form on any street corner of Jerusalem today, where vendors deep-fry falafel (croquettes of ground chickpeas and other vegetables and herbs). And the biblical herb hyssop, known in Arabic as zaahta, that grows wild on the hills around the city, is given away free in a twist of paper with each loaf of bread you buy from a Palestinian baker.

The exhibit works at two levels. As you enter the Crusader hall (it may have been a dungeon, but Semel prefers to think of as a dining room), a long refectory table stretches away from you.

You pull up a chair, sit down, and munch on a piece of sesame-seed bread spread with goat cheese (made on the premises) and zaahta. A revolving display of photographs, etchings, and drawings moves before you, unfolding a panorama of Jerusalem's culinary present and past.

Here is the staff of the Russian consulate at a turn-of-the-century picnic on the Mount of Olives; a 19th-century Indian date seller; the cowled patriarch of the Armenian church at Sunday lunch earlier this year; a Jewish soup kitchen in the 1920s; turbaned Arab pashas in the 1860s picking at a brass platter of rice; an overflowing vegetable stall at today's Mahane Yehuda market.

Along the center of the table are piled the raw materials common to Jerusalem cooking for millennia: dried lemons, goat cheese, dates and raisins, pickled okra, pomegranates, walnuts, flat rounds of pita bread, garlic, chilies, and capers.

Set against one wall is a recreated Jerusalem larder from the 1940s, with its jars full of pickled and preserved vegetables: string beans, cherries, artichoke hearts, peppers, and carrots. The preserved foods speak of the way all Jerusalemites have laid in food against bad times.

"Jerusalem has often been threatened or cut off by siege, or war, or weather," says director Semel, "and we have concentrated on the very Jerusalemite art of preserving."

While all these items show the eating habits of the last hundred years or so, the exhibit reaches much further back in time by recreating meals from particular epochs, and displaying photographs of the results.

The most famous of these meals is also the most uncertain: the Last Supper. Historians are at odds over whether Jesus ate the meal with his disciples on the eve of Passover, or the night before.

"Culinarily speaking, that changes the whole picture," explains Ms. Roessler. If it was a Passover Seder, it would have been a feast of sacrificial lamb, wine, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. If it took place 24 hours earlier, though, it would have been a peasant's daily meal of porridge made from grains, perhaps a few olives, and water. Debate dodged

Unwilling to get involved in the historians' dispute, the curator chose simply to display Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting of the event. She had no such qualms about other, less controversial meals, although researchers sometimes found it almost as hard to document the food that would have been eaten.

For the earliest tableau, food that King Solomon might have eaten around the 10th century BC, evidence of the local cuisine is too scarce. Instead, exhibit organizers contented themselves with a still life of the sorts of animals, fowl, and vegetables indigenous to the area.

For the Herodian meal of stuffed quail, however, typical of the first century AD, Roessler could draw on clues from Roman cookery, which wealthy Jews of the time adapted with the guidance of kosher laws. She also searched out details from the Torah and the Talmud.

For the later reconstructions, she had recourse to court records that specified all the professions practiced in the city (including special court cooks), and to pilgrims' diaries that recorded, among other things, the market of "malquisinat" (bad cooking), where cheap, medieval fast-food could be found.

Roessler does not especially recommend the soup-kitchen gruel, either, but the poor of the city must have been grateful for it in the 16th century, when Roxalene, the wife of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, endowed the facility and helpfully left the recipe for posterity by specifying in her bequest the quantities of ingredients to be bought each week.

Tastier food is on display in the photograph of a Crusader feast (including a meat pie; see adjoining recipe). Coming from Europe, where food was pretty dull and poor at the time, the Crusaders "went crazy over the spices and fruits and sweets" they found in Jerusalem, says Roessler, discovering cane sugar, for example, along with such exotics as bananas and oranges.

Their culinary discoveries slowly filtered back to Europe, where new herbs and spices found their place in medieval cuisine. "You can see how recipes from the rich Arab courts of Baghdad in the ninth century relate to 14th-century French cuisine," says Roessler, "especially in the heavily spiced food that showed off wealth."

And Pontius Pilate? Well, chances are he sat down to a "gustasius" or two - appetizers such as radishes, olives, pickled cucumbers, or salted meat.

Exactly what you get when you sit down at the average Jerusalem restaurant today.

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