On April 1, 2023, the entire site was rebranded as this cooking blog.
How it happened appears to be a mystery—there is no evidence that it was hacked
from outside—but hopefully the rest of the site is back to normal now.
LET’S HAVE A SEDER!
Welcome to another installment of In the Kitchen with Sister Irene Rose!
It’s the first day of April, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a case of spring fever! Around here, the sky is blue, the birds are singing, the daffodils and crocuses are peeping out (though I can’t tell which is which), and Sister Mary Margaret’s Ford is yellow with pollen dust. But the best part that Easter is just around the corner! Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, and I always have fun showing the little ones how to make little crosses out of their palm fronds. But Easter is the REAL DEAL, and I can’t wait.
Which brings me to the Last Supper. (Obviously. This is a cooking website!) Did you know that the Last Supper was not just any old dinner party, not Jesus and friends having a nice night out on the town? They were actually celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover, which involves a special meal called a Seder. Our Jewish friends still celebrate Passover today, and later this coming week they’ll be sitting around their tables filled with Seder goodies. Now, there are all kinds of websites out there with recipes for a modern-day Seder celebration, and you know me, I always want to make you guys something that’s a bit extra… extra special! So in today’s post I’m going to show you how to make something that might have been served at our Savior’s own Seder, over TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO.
As always, if you’re an impatient imp who wants to skip to the recipe, just scroll to the end. But first, I want to tell you a bit of history. In medieval times, a valiant Jewish man was going to be knighted by the king. But as he knelt to be dubbed Sir, he forgot the Latin phrase he was supposed to recite! He started to panic. Everybody was watching and waiting for him to speak. So he blurted out the first ancient quote that came to mind: “Ma nishtana ha layla ha zeh mi kol ha laylot,” which is recited at a Seder. The puzzled king looked around and asked, “Why is this knight different from all other knights?”
Ha! No, seriously, I do want to tell you a bit of history. And let me tell you, I didn’t know ANY of this for the longest time, so I’m betting it might be news to some of you, too. There’s nothing wrong with that. Growing up, I’m sure there must have been a kid or two who was Jewish, but I didn’t know it. Just like I couldn’t tell you which ones were Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist—what religion anyone happened to be wasn’t really something any of us talked about in school or on the playground. All I knew about Jewish history or traditions I got from the Golden Books Children’s Bible, and that stuff never really got covered. Or maybe it did—I mostly just looked at those wonderful illustrations. (And Father McGill sure never talked about it in any of his homilies I can recall, though I must admit I slept through more than a few. Sorry Father!) I don’t think I ever even HEARD the word “Seder” until World Faiths class my senior year in high school. My point is, don’t feel bad if this is all new to you. Instead, consider yourself one of today’s lucky ten thousand!
So here’s the story. We’ve all heard how, when Moses was freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the last big plague that God sent was an angel of death who killed the firstborn of every household in the land, except the angel “passed over” the houses of the Hebrews and thus their children were spared. That was the final plague that convinced Pharaoh to let the Jews free. (Though the story is that, even though God kept sending all those plagues, God is also the one who “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and actually prevented Pharaoh from agreeing to free them, which I admit still doesn’t make sense to me. That’s probably why this nun is in the kitchen, instead of teaching theology!)
We all know that story. But what I bet you DIDN’T know is that the Israelites didn’t start celebrating Passover to commemorate their exodus right away! Not on its anniversary the next year, or forty years later when they finished wandering in Sinai, not even in all the centuries through David and Solomon, Elijah, Jonah and the Whale, Isaiah, and on. Shortly before Nebuchadnezzar sent the Jews into captivity (remember Daniel in the Lions’ Den, or Shadrach Mesach and Abednego?) there was a king named Josiah who did order a celebration of the Passover, but it still didn’t turn into a regular thing. Possibly because everybody got kicked out of Israel for a while. Even after they got back to Israel, if you asked anybody in Jerusalem what a “Seder” was, they’d probably look at you funny. It would have been all Greek to them.
Which brings me to the Greeks. Remember the Hannukah song from school to the tune of “Dynamite?” You know the one: “The war went on, and on, and on… Until the mighty Greeks were gone!” Well that phrase “the mighty Greeks” always perplexed me, because Greece isn’t exactly known for being a world superpower. But Alexander the Great was sort of Greek, and his mighty army conquered everyone from Egypt to India, including the Israelites in Judea. After he died in 323 B.C., his empire got split between the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt until Antony and Cleopatra, and the Seleucids, who ruled the rest of it including Jerusalem. The Seleucids ruled the Jews for almost three hundred years! They wouldn’t get kicked out until the time of the Maccabees—only 60 years before Jesus was born! (I flip my latkes in the air sometimes, singing ay oh, spin the dreidel… Sorry, now it’s stuck in my head, too.)
Anyway, the whole time that the Greeks were in charge, the Jewish leaders had a real problem on their hands. The Greeks were a cosmopolitan society, bringing modern ideas and architecture and traditions from all over the world, and the Jewish leaders wanted the Jewish people to stick to their own traditions and nothing else. And forget about making even sacrificing a tiny chicken at an imperial temple—the Jewish leaders would have you killed! But try as they might, the young kids kept wanting to try new things, adopt the latest Greek fashions, speak Greek, think the latest Greek thoughts. The elders were afraid that if they were TOO inflexible, the regular people would just stop being Jewish and start being Greek. Maybe if they made their OWN versions of some Greek practices, they could satisfy people’s craving to stay “with it” and still keep them with Judaism.
Enter the Symposium. You might have heard of the Symposium as basically a drinking party, where Greek men lay around drinking wine and carousing with prostitutes. But really it was a highly cultured event. Yes, men did recline on couches and drink wine (“symposium” literally means “drinking together”—I told you this would be fun. Don’t you feel sorry for the imps who skipped to the end?) But the wine was just part of a larger “feast of reason and flow of soul” as Jeeves and Wooster would say (you all know I’m a Wodehouse fan!). Plutarch described the Symposium as “the passing of time over wine which, guided by gracious behavior, ends in friendship.”
In front of your couch you’d have plenty of snacks set out on a little coffee table, but you wouldn’t have your own bottle of wine. You couldn’t just get up and fill your cup whenever you wanted—but neither could you nurse the same cup all night with a little sip here and there. Everyone at the party had to drink the exact same amount. So there would be a prescribed number of cups of wine that would be drunk at intervals during the Symposium (and always diluted with water, since the ancient Greeks thought full-strength wine was extremely uncivilized. Though recalling that sickly pink watery stuff Father McGill used to use for Communion, I wonder how the Greeks could stand it. Sorry Father!). Three cups of wine was considered plenty, and four would have been where the party started getting fun, though five was considered excessive. Also, you didn’t have prostitutes cavorting with everyone. Instead there would be a respected woman or two engaging you in intellectual conversation, or performing refined music on a flute or harp—no, not like a Geisha, either. It was different. Greek men were… oh, just trust me on this one. You and the other guests might share original works of poetry, or have a contest to see who could make the best off-the-cuff speech, or engage in a philosophical debate on a chosen subject. (Not quite the party games I remember from college, but then again I didn’t exactly go to Harvard. Trust me on THIS one, too!) After all the prescribed cups of wine had been drunk, you’d cleared your tray of snacks, and all the speeches were over, there’d be a fun little dessert called the “epicomium.”
Just because the symposium was over didn’t mean you couldn’t continue the party, though. With the formal erudite stuff concluded, nothing stopped you all from hitting the tavernas, getting sloppy drunk, and carousing all over town. I told you this would be fun.
What does any of this have to do with the Seder? The Seder is one of the ways the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem figured out how to let their people (well, their men anyway) get to be modern and Greek while STILL being traditional and Jewish. With the Seder, they invented their own version of the Symposium!
That’s right. With the Seder you had four prescribed glasses of wine (just the right amount), you reclined on couches with trays of food, you had speeches and deep thoughts about your ancient ancestors being freed from slavery—you even had a version of the epicomium, the “afikomen”, where a piece of bread is hidden somewhere in the house and the kids get to go have a kind of Easter-egg hunt looking for it after the meal.
It was a great idea, and as you can see, the mighty Greeks may be gone, but the Seder is still a big tradition to this day!
Which brings us to the recipe. Nowadays, a typical Seder meal is served with Matzo, a kind of cracker, and everyone getts a platter or plate with six spaces, containing a lamb shank bone, an egg, horseradish, some salty veggies, something bitter like an endive leaf, and a kind of fruit salad called “charoset” that’s supposed to remind you of the mortar used by the ancient Hebrew slaves as they constructed buildings for Pharaoh. (Yes, I know modern historians are pretty certain they were never enslaved in Egypt and there was never any exodus or whatnot. But did anybody in 300 B.C. know that? As I tell my high school CCD students, nobody likes a smartypants.)
Now that charoset has actually been around for a very long time. In fact, it might even have been served at the Seder for Jesus’ Last Supper! I tell you what. How about I give you a recipe for that here! The impatient imps who scrolled to the bottom will never know, and they’ll totally miss out. Oh well. Patience IS a virtue!
Wait, first I’ll put another picture from the Children’s Bible to make them think we’re not talking about food yet.
Okay, so to make the kind of charoset they’d have served back in the ’30s (as in 30 A.D.), you’re going to want to get some fruits that would have been available in Roman Judea, like dried figs and dates and raisins, maybe some dried apricots or apples. You’ll also want some nuts like almonds and pistachios. Get out your mortar and pestle and toss your ingredients in, in whatever proportion you want. (You don’t like almonds? Leave them out! You’re the one who’s going to eat it, not me.) For flavor, add a pinch or two of cinnamon and sugar, I like to add a couple cloves and cardamom as well (these were available back then). Start pounding it with your pestle, adding wine as you go until you have a thick chunky paste. Taste it. Too bitter? You could add sugar, but a squeeze of lemon is even better. Taste it now. Pretty good, right? Guess what, Jesus may well have tasted something very much like it!
Okay, now for the recipe. It’s lamb! But not roast lamb.
Because roasted lamb wasn’t commonly served. Maybe as a sacrifice at the temple. But most of the time, if you were eating lamb, you were eating lamb stew. Possibly served over rice (yes, they’d had rice ever since the Persian Empire). And the spice trade was thriving, so there were plenty of ways to kick your stew up a notch. (BAM! Sorry, Emeril.) Here is a recipe for lamb stew that I guarantee will taste just as good now as it did back in Bible times:
LAST SUPPER LAMB STEW
(Serves 1 host plus 12 friends)
4 cups of lamb broth or stock. (Beef is fine if you can’t get lamb, but I did already show you how to make an excellent lamb broth when we made demi-glace.)
2 pounds of meat from leg of lamb or lamb shoulder. (You want the tough stuff with lots of connective tissue. Trust me.)
3 onions, roughly chopped.
4 cloves of garlic, chopped.
1 can of chickpeas, drained, rinsed, and peeled (the peels come right off if you boil them for a couple minutes in water with baking soda).
2 Tablespoons of cumin.
1 Tablespoon of cinnamon.
1 teaspoon of ground cloves.
1 teaspoon of nutmeg.
2 or 3 bay leaves.
2 Tablespoons of garum. (Worcestershire sauce is fine.)
2 Tablespoons of vinegar.
Half a bottle of wine. (The other half of the bottle is for the cook!)
Salt to taste at the end.
Put a dutch oven on your stove on medium heat, and brown your meat all over.
Leave the meat in there, and cover it with all the broth. Crank the heat to high.
When it comes up to a boil, turn the heat back down to a simmer, put the lid on, and let it simmer for half an hour.
Now is a good time to have a glass of wine. Feel free to reminisce about Egypt if you so desire.
Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, heat some olive oil on medium until it shimmers, then add the onions. Stir often until the onions are wilted and just starting to color.
Now add the garlic, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Mix them together until they get fragrant, then top them off with wine.
Feel free to have another glass yourself. God wants us to be happy.
Once the onions and spices and wine come to a boil, add it all to the meat in the dutch oven.
Now add the chickpeas, the bay leaves, the vinegar, and the Worcestershire sauce.
Raise the heat again. Bring the whole thing to a boil, then reduce the heat back to a simmer.
Simmer uncovered for at least an hour. You don’t want it too soupy. Once it’s at the consistency you like, put the lid back on and simmer for another hour.
Finally, pop it in the fridge overnight. Trust me, this step is key.
Would you look at that: there’s about a glass of wine left in the bottle. Go ahead. You’ve earned it.
Reheat on the stove on medium heat.
Serve over rice. Or, if you prefer it out of a bowl, I find that oyster crackers make an excellent unleavened garnish!
And that brings us to the end of another day of cooking In the Kitchen with me, Sister Irene Rose. Next time, we’re going to discover a fun new way to prepare that Easter ham that’ll have everybody coming back three days later for more! (Sorry, Father.)