It began with the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke.
This is what Father Douglas Neel’s Bible study group was reading back in 2006 in Dallas, Texas.
Jesus, while walking through Jerusalem, saw the tax collector Levi, a notorious sinner in the land, and called to him, “Follow me.” Leaving everything, Levi followed, and as a way of rejoicing, Levi prepared at his home a feast for Jesus and his tax-collecting sinning friends.
“Do any of you have any idea what a first century feast would have been like?” Father Neel asked the group.
They all shook their heads. No, they had no clue.
Neel thought it would be fun for both the group and him to do a little research into this matter. At the time, he did not know that this pursuit of first century feasts would be a main part of his life for the next six years.
At the next Bible study, Neel brought a couple roasted legs of lamb, hummus and unleavened bread ,and explained to the group what would generally happen during a Jewish feast in the time of Jesus.
“It was a lot of fun,” Neel said. It was so much fun, and so fascinating, that Neel did not just prepare one feast, but he started preparing them on a regular basis.
Neel started a catering company, Manna Catering. While he’d do your typical wedding reception, he specialized in first century feasts, and he was typically booked. Neel would prepare feasts for groups of people, anywhere from 10 to 120 individuals. Three days prior to the feast, Neel would begin the prep work.
But the catering company wasn’t all.
Neel’s wife, Sally, and his close friend Joel Pugh suggested Neel think of writing a book on the matter, on the feasts and foods that Jesus would have been partaking in.
The idea for a book was born.
Before his catering company took off, or the foundation for his book was formed, there was some information he needed.
“First,” Neel said, “I needed a reliable list of what ingredients would have been available to cook with.”
For this, he hit the libraries. The Perkins School of Theology at the Southern Methodist University allowed him use of their library to accomplish his research. A couple of times a week, he’d set up camp in cozy little corner of the stacks and dig into the meat of the research.
A few books on archaeology gave Neel the basics for what a first century pantry would have looked like.
“During a dig, they’d hit the kitchen,” Neel said, and by the types of pottery found therein, one could decipher how the people of that time were cooking, and what they were cooking. There wasn’t a lot of meat — it was served only during certain feasts — but there were herbs and many vegetarian courses.
“They had 50 to 60 types of bread they would eat,” Neel said. Bread, as well as cheese, was a staple of the Jewish first century diet, thus the two were staples of the feasts Neel would prepare.
Yet, rare is the person who can create an historical meal consisting of delicate cheese and home-baked bread perfect on the first try. Thus, in order to get the meals just right, Neel (now at St. Patrick’s Epsicopal Church in Pagosa) said that quite a bit of experimentation was involved. Neel would bring home four legs of lamb from the supermarket and, for that week, each night try a different way to cook the lamb. He’d buy a case of quail, and every night his family would test out a different recipe.
His son was just beginning high school.
“One night, he looked at me and said, ‘I’m tired of the food that Jesus ate, can we have a pizza?’” That night, they did get a pizza, and thereafter Neel tried to intersperse contemporary food into the family’s predominantly first century diet.
With the ingredients researched and listed, with meals and recipes he could recreate, there was yet one integral more part of the feast — the entertainment.
Now, Neel explained, there were differences between the Roman and the Jewish feasts of the First century. The Greeks and Romans would recline throughout the entire meal and afterwards, during the entertainment time, which would normally include philosophical discussion. During the Jewish feasts, however, one would only recline after the meal, when discussion would focus on the Torah and interpretation of the law. During the meal, though, Neel said the Jewish people would sit.
“This,” he said, “tells me that they were more serious about food.”
So, while catering these feasts, the same stipulations would be applied. Reclining (if the group was small enough), eating with hands, eating slowly, savoring the taste of food and after the meal, having a nice long discussion.
”After the meal, I’d teach,” Neel said. He’d teach about the times of Jesus, concentrating on how the food and eating habits give a good glimpse of the culture.
“I feel that there’s a very strong connection between food and culture.” What, how and the way people eat tells a lot about culture, Neel said.
Take for instance the past 50 to 60 years in the United States, the rise of fast food. “The shift to fast food is a shift to a fast culture,” Neel said, referring to people not taking the time to even taste their food — the importance not being the taste or the substance, but the speed with which it can be acquired and subsequently ingested. In the life of Jesus, from what Neel can tell, food and feasting was a very important consideration.
As Neel continued to preach, to serve and to cater, he researched and wrote. The book, “The Food and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes,” was completed and submitted to the publisher last July.
The book chapters includes separate feasts, from wedding feasts to beach picnics. The first part of the chapter tells the history of the feast, then Neel goes into detail about the actual food served at the feasts and its significance. The final part is recipes, from homemade cheese to lentil soup and unleavened bread.
This May, the book will be available at bookstores and online. If anyone is interested in reserving a copy of the book, it is available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.