Scripture by the plateful

Times Staff Writer

GOD, apparently, is no Emeril.

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.

Hesse, 51, and Chiffolo, 47, combed seminary libraries and pored over at least 60 translations of the Old and New Testaments to figure out who ate what -- and make an educated guess as to how the dishes were spiced. They have packaged their findings in an encyclopedic new book, "Cooking With the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts and Lore."

Essays explore the religious and cultural significance of 18 passages that revolve around meals, such as King David's wedding or the feast to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. Hesse and Chiffolo then present an imagined menu for each occasion. The recipes use modern kitchen equipment -- no need to fry the fish on hot stones -- but draw heavily on ingredients mentioned in the Bible or known to have been available in the ancient Middle East.

There are recipes for stewed ox meat, dried fig cake, barley-apricot salad and baked sardines with sesame sauce, as well as the proverbial manna from heaven.

Some believe that the ancient Hebrews used the term "manna" to describe dried algae -- or perhaps insect secretions -- that they baked into sticky pancakes. They lived on the stuff during their 40 years in desert exile, but didn't much like it. "Think of the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic!" they wailed, according to one translation of the Book of Numbers. "Here we are wasting away, stripped of everything; there is nothing but manna for us to look at!"

The modern interpretation of manna is made with matzo flour, coriander leaves and sesame oil -- and Hesse cheerfully admits it tastes like cardboard. He's almost glad of the stale taste, however, because it brings the biblical account so vividly alive. "You can see why they were complaining," he said.

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HESSE was wrist-deep in a bowl of brown dough as he spoke, shaping the batter into cookies redolent of anise, a spice used since ancient Egyptian days. Chiffolo was sauteing onions on an electric griddle, the smell filling the couple's tiny kitchen with warmth. At the table, Peter Smith, a friend and parishioner, garnished a goat-cheese-and-honey pie with rings of fresh blackberries.

"We're doing 'Jesus Dines With the Pharisees,' " Hesse explained.

He and Chiffolo had invited several friends on this mid-December day to a banquet inspired by the Gospel of Luke. In the text, Jesus is about to dine with members of a branch of Judaism known as the Pharisees. His hosts chide him for skipping a ritual hand-washing; Jesus responds with anger. He says that the Pharisees put on a show of piety, even giving a tenth of their wealth to the temple, but they do not truly honor God. The Bible records Jesus' outburst this way: "Ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God."

The Gospel does not list the menu for the meal, so Hesse and Chiffolo came up with their own by riffing on the herbs that the Pharisees held so dear. They used mint and rue (or, rather, parsley, because rue -- which comes from an evergreen shrub -- can cause severe indigestion). They also created dishes using mint, garlic, pepper, anise and za'tar, a pungent mix of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac.

"We used every manner of herbs that they would have had at a 1st century meal," Hesse said.

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THE dining-room table, decorated with antique coins and miniature oil lamps, groaned with food: minted veal with summer squash, tuna baked with pistachios and dill, cucumber salad with mustard dressing. There was a bowl of pickled herring, a loaf of fresh-baked onion bread, a platter of dried dates and fresh figs. The smell was sumptuous.

"You say 'We're cooking from the Bible' and you get a lot of 'Uhhhh ... ' They think you'll be making tarantulas and locusts," Hesse said. "This is not weird stuff. Well, it is weird. But it's very tasty."

Carol Vergara, a neighbor in this suburb an hour north of New York, took a wary bite of the goat-cheese-and-honey pie. It was delicately sweet, amazingly fluffy -- and addictive. "Yummy," she said happily, digging in.

"I don't know what I thought a biblical meal would be," said Vergara, 53. "Loaves and fishes? What else do you associate with the Bible? Milk and honey?"

Chiffolo offered her lemon balm from a sparkling pitcher. Made by crushing the herb into water, the drink looks like urine, smells like floor wax and leaves an oily residue on the lips.

"Hmmmmm," Vergara said, sniffing it. "I can still have wine, right?"

Another guest, Tammy O'Bradovich, 59, settled into the sofa with a full plate and a sense of anticipation. She'd been helping Hesse taste-test his recipes for the last year -- "cost me 5 pounds," she grumbled -- and said the unusual flavors often made her feel as though she was wandering through antiquity.

"Except when he served that fish that he told me was made with Bloody Mary mix," O'Bradovich said with a laugh. "That was not very biblical."

In fact, Bloody Mary mix does have a heady blend of biblical spices, including pepper and garlic. Tomatoes were probably not known to the people of the Scripture. But Hesse and Chiffolo don't mind putting such anachronisms into their dishes from time to time to update the flavors. They also include desserts for every menu, though baked goods were rarely part of biblical cuisine.

The anise cookies for the Pharisees banquet were a particular hit with guests. Inhaling the strong licorice scent, Vergara exclaimed: "They taste like Christmas!"

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NEITHER Hesse nor Chiffolo has formal culinary training, but both have spent years experimenting in the kitchen.

Hesse took charge of meals for his college fraternity house (his specialty: cornflake-crusted chicken, which his frat brothers invariably doused in ketchup). Chiffolo taught himself to bake bread while in the Navy; he was assigned to a small yacht at the time, and none of his fellow sailors could make much that was edible. To develop the cookbook, the couple spent hours online, studying Middle Eastern recipes -- and then hours more at the stove, experimenting with variations.

They did not write a menu for the most well-known of biblical meals, the Last Supper. "A little too sacred to touch," Hesse said. They did include recipes for two traditional Jewish celebrations -- a Passover Seder, complete with matzo ball soup, and a Purim banquet. "It gives us a greater understanding of our shared humanity," Hesse said. "This is a cookbook that we hope can build bridges."

Their teenage daughter, Lisa Chiffolo, tested some of their menus, but as her taste runs more to Frosted Flakes, the couple also enlisted Hesse's Bible study class at St. John's Episcopal Church in nearby New Rochelle. Each month, Hesse would guide his students through a scriptural passage dealing with food -- then hand out recipes and plan a potluck.

For John the Baptist's austere meals in the wilderness, described in the Bible as "locusts and wild field honey," Hesse dug up instructions for locust soup. (Adapted from a book titled "Unmentionable Cuisine," the recipe begins: "Trim the small forelegs

But he spared the class that taste test. Convinced from his research that John the Baptist most likely dined not on insects, but on the sweet carob fruit of locust trees, Hesse and his parishioners made a carob cake instead. It turned out so rich, they concluded that the prophet must have been floating on a wicked sugar high.

"No wonder he was a wild man," said Joanne Bartoli, 72. "That stuff will do it to you."

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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.

"Some of these stories I've preached 100 times. Now I'm able to bring them to life."

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Divine dining

Here are a couple of simple recipes from the "Jesus Dines With the Pharisees" banquet in "Cooking With the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts and Lore" by Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse Jr. The book is available online or from Greenwood Press.

Jerusalem cheese and honey pie

* 1 pound creamy sheep's or goat's milk cheese, room temperature

* 1/4 cup honey, slightly warm

* 6 tablespoons sugar

* 3 eggs, lightly beaten

* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

* Ground cinnamon, divided

* 1 (9-inch) pie crust, frozen or fresh

* Powdered sugar

* Fresh seasonal berries

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the cheese with the honey and mix well.

3. Add the sugar, eggs and vanilla and toss in a bit of cinnamon.

4. Bake in the pie crust for 30 to 35 minutes. Best served warm.

5. Just before serving, sprinkle with a touch of cinnamon mixed with powdered sugar. Top with fresh berries.

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Cucumbers and onions with rue and mustard dressing

* 6 large cucumbers

* 3 large sweet onions

* 2 teaspoons ground mustard

* 1/4 teaspoon cumin

* 1/2 teaspoon fresh parsley (the original recipe calls for rue, but that herb can cause severe indigestion and can be dangerous to some people, including pregnant and lactating women)

* 1/4 cup pine nuts

* 2 teaspoons honey

* 1/2 cup cider vinegar

* 3 garlic cloves

1. Peel the cucumbers and slice them into long strips. Place them in a steel bowl.

2. Finely chop the onions and add them to the cucumbers.

3. In a food processor, grind the mustard, cumin, rue (or parsley) and pine nuts.

4. Place the herb mixture in a mixing cup and add the honey and vinegar.

5. Peel and press the garlic cloves, adding them into the mixture in the cup.

6. Pour the mixture over the cucumbers and onions; cover. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Serve cold.

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Source: "Cooking With the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts and Lore" by Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse Jr.

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