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Take time during Lent to learn about biblical foods

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March 4, 2011

By Fran Klatte

When Sunday readings or Scripture study mention bitter herbs or Seder meals, have you ever wondered what those herbs were or what those meals entailed in Jesus’ time? Cooks have long experimented in the preparation of food to make meals appetizing and enjoyable — and to make them meaningful experiences for those gathered around the table.


Sacred Heart Radio host Rita Heikenfeld

Rita Heikenfeld prepares for her spot on Sacred Heart Radio.

(CT photo/Colleen Kelley)

Rita Heikenfeld, a local chef, syndicated columnist and author shares her expertise on the topic of biblical foods each Thursday morning on Sacred Heart Radio’s (AM 740) Son Rise Morning Show, hosted by veteran newscaster Brian Patrick.


Heikenfeld, one of nine children, grew up in Madison Place and attended the former St. Margaret of Cortona School and Marian High School. Her love of cooking is rooted in the meals prepared by her mother, Mary, who was of Lebanese descent.


“We ate what was a typical Mediterranean diet,” Heikenfeld explained. “Mom made big, healthy meals. That was her way of showing love.”


Her mother had a small garden in which she grew herbs for her family. “I got my love of herbs from her,” said Heikenfeld. “When she would use basil, she would tell stories of how her ancestors used it and how it was used in the Bible. That really influenced my interest in herbs because of the connection to my own history.”


Heikenfeld began cooking in earnest after her own children were grown. Before each weekly radio segment she chooses an herb or food from the Bible and researches relevant Scriptural quotes. On the air she discusses how the particular herb or food was use in biblical times, its use today and its health benefits. She also shares a recipe with listeners.


“My mission isn’t just to get people interested in good food but in foods of the Bible,” Heikenfeld said. “There are so many mentions of food in the Bible that when you read a particular passage, it really is a way to augment your faith.”


Many herbs and foods enjoyed today can be traced back to the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments contain numerous accounts of what people ate and how food was prepared. For the Jewish people, the main meal, especially the Passover Seder, was an important part of family life and was deeply ingrained in the culture.


The Passover Seder recounts the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Since that time, Jews all over the world have partaken of the symbolic foods and rituals of the Seder. The meal contains six specific items:

• Maror and chazeret: Two types of bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in ancient Egypt. For maror, many people use freshly grated horseradish or whole horseradish root. Chazeret is typically romaine lettuce, whose roots are bitter-tasting.
• Charoset: A sweet, brown, pebbly paste of fruits and nuts, representing the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt.
• Karpas: A vegetable other than bitter herbs, usually parsley but sometimes something such as celery or cooked potato which is dipped into salt water at the beginning of the Seder meal.
• Zeroa: A roasted lamb bone, symbolizing the korban Pesach (Pesach sacrifice), which was a lamb offered in the temple in Jerusalem and was then roasted and eaten as part of the Seder meal.
• Beitzah: A roasted egg, symbolizing the korban chagigah (festival sacrifice) that was offered in the temple and then eaten as part of the Seder meal.


In biblical times fishing was a huge industry on the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, so fish was a diet staple. Because salt was the only means to preserve fish, fresh fish was common. Jesus’ first followers were fishermen, and Luke’s Gospel mentions that Jesus ate fish.


Heikenfeld notes that fresh fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, proteins, potassium, vitamins and minerals with multiple health benefits. Garnish it with dill or parsley (dill is mentioned as a tithing herb in the Bible; parsley was a common herb in of the time). 


Grapes were also plentiful in the Holy Land and are another rich source of vitamins and nutrients. They were eaten fresh or dried as raisins, just as they are today. Most grapes were made into wine or juice. One of the most famous biblical wine references is at the wedding feast at Cana, when the supply of wine was running low and Jesus changed water into wine (John 2:1-11). Wine was also an integral part of the Passover meal, and at the Last Supper Jesus turned bread and wine into His body and blood (Matthew 26:26-29). Wine was also mixed with myrrh and used as an early form of anesthetic on the battlefield for surgical operations and during childbirth.


Coriander is of the carrot or parsley family and grew wild throughout Egypt, Palestine and surrounding areas. It has been called the “healer from heaven,” because when the Israelites saw the manna falling from the sky, they thought it resembled coriander seed. The grayish-white coriander seeds were used as a spice or flavoring for meats, soups, pastries, curries and wine. Coriander was widely used during ancient times as a cure for stomach ailments. It has a pleasant taste and a warm fragrance like citrus and sage. Today scientists look at coriander as a possible anti-inflammatory for arthritis and some research has demonstrated that it reduces blood sugar levels.


The Bible is filled with references to barley, one of the earliest known grains to be cultivated. Bible scholars say that barley was a staple food and consumed in great quantities. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish mentions this grain. Some scholars claim that the original Seder has its origin as an ancient barley harvest festival. As early as 5000 B.C., barley was cultivated in Egypt as a cereal. As a cereal, barley can thrive in a multitude of climates and is sown in the Arctic Circle. Today it is often used in soups and stews and as a starch.


Figs are mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible; figs were one of the seven spices that grew in abundance. Sweet and satisfying, figs are a good source of nutrition.
Primarily used for medicinal purposes, mint was among the “bitter herbs” of Exodus 12:8 and Numbers 9:11. Several varieties of mint grew wild in the Holy Land. Ancient physicians advised adding mint to milk to prevent spoilage and as a digestive aid. Some even hung mint in sick rooms, believing it could speed recovery.


“Our lives may be different today in the way we prepare food because of modern conveniences, but the reason is the same — we’re trying to nurture families,” Heikenfeld said. “Using a food that has its roots in the Bible brings life to what you’re cooking, makes for interesting table talk and gives meaning to the meal. Anytime you sit down at the table, it’s not just about the food, but who shares it with you.”


Biblical herbs and food have withstood the tests of time, she added, and remain relevant today, showing up on tables at the best restaurants. They also provide many options for healthy eating and, when people grow their own herbs, whether in a garden or pot, offer a way to care for the environment.


Heikenfeld, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Batavia, has devoted a portion of her own garden to growing herbs and flowers from the Bible and particularly enjoys sharing the gardening experience with her grandchildren.


“As I see those tiny hands picking marigolds and roses, it’s a little religion lesson,” she said. “It makes them good stewards of the earth.”


In addition to her radio segment, which airs at 7:20 a.m., Heikenfeld writes a syndicated weekly column for Community Press Newspapers, serves as Macy’s regional culinary professional and gives cooking classes and presentations to community groups, including Catholic schools and parishes, on topics such as “Eating from the Garden of Eden” and “Super foods and herbs from the Bible.”


She also teaches season classes at her parish with Deacon James Hennessey, “The deacon and the cook,” proceeds from which benefit the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.


For more information, visit Heikenfeld’s website at www.abouteating.com, or contact her at [email protected] with “Rita’s kitchen” in the subject line.  Several of Heikenfeld’s recipes may also be found online by clicking RECIPES.

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