Lech – Lecha: Feast and Famine
Avram and Sarai are immediately tested upon their arrival in Canaan. Immediately upon Hashem promising them and their descendants the land, there’s a severe famine. How are we to understand this gift? An abundance in food supply is dependent upon land management. Apparently the Canaanites were not deeply invested in developing infrastructure that would enable them to withstand dry years. Avram and Sari would be, but the time isn’t right. So down they go to the breadbasket of the middle-east – Egypt. Having moved across the Euphrates, they have not had enough time to develop a food reserve, against a poor year’s rain.
And so they are welcomed into the household of the Pharoah himself – Avram and Sarai and Lot are clearly not casual visitors, and their obvious status was immediately recognized. Why Egypt? Why go down to a land known for licentious behavior? They are spreading information that the family that left Ur Kasdim to settle in Haran is not just some prominent wealthy family. They are, and will be the moral leaders of the region. This sojourn can be understood as a diplomatic mission.
The Nile’s yearly inundation facilitated irrigation. The Egyptian Middle Kingdom was more established, granaries are full, and taxation in the form of tithes of food stuffs is well-established by this period. The irrigation made possible along the Nile created an economy and agricultural infrastructure far less dependent on rainfall than that existing in Canaan. (And if you’re wondering why the Nile does not still have the seasonal cycles of flooding, the reason is that the Aswan dam was built to prevent it.)
So what was on the table in Egypt? Then as now, the Egyptians ate grains – barley, emmer wheat, millet among others. They had a well-established beer industry, which was related to their bread production. They had a wealth of vegetables – lettuces, spinach, peppers, beans, melons, almonds, walnuts, figs, dates and even coconut palms existed at this time. The middle and upper classes had access to meat – goats and sheep, primarily. They also bred ducks and geese, not only for meat, but also for eggs. Cattle and Oxen provided a milk industry. Cattle were often used as sacrificial animals, and it is probably that only priesthood and royalty ate beef on a regular basis. Fish, of course was abundant.
Here are some recipes that which Avram and Sarai might have eaten in Egypt, and in fact are still very much enjoyed there today.
This is most often eaten with pita bread today as a breakfast food, served warm. It is often accompanied by hard-boiled eggs, a few olives and a bit of labneh a sour fermented soft cheese to spread on the pita.
- 2 cups dried small fava beans
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 Tbs cumin, or more to taste
- 1 hot pepper, seeded and deveined (optional)
- Olive oil
- Fresh lemon juice (no more than 1/4 cup.
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- Soak the fava beans in water to cover overnight. After they have soaked, drain the beans.
- Fry the onion in 2 Tbs olive oil, add cumin, salt, pepper, and a chopped hot pepper, if you like. Add enough water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to very low, cover and simmer about 2 to 3 hours.
- Remove from heat when soft enough to mash with a fork. Mash the mixture, but do not puree it. A immersion wand works well.
- Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice. Sprinkle some chopped parsley,. Serve with hard-boiled eggs and pitot.
Middle Eastern Barley Bread
This flat bread is quite close to breads produced by the working class of ancient Egypt,and is still eaten today.
- 1 Tbs dry active yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1/3 cup plain low-fat yoghurt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 cup barley flour (grind barley in a electric coffee mill to create flour)
- 1 cup whole wheat flour or rye flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Olive oil
- Dissolve yeast in warm water.
- Stir yoghurt until smooth. Mix in baking soda.
- Combine flours and salt, and add to yoghurt. Add yeast.
- Knead by hand until smooth and elastic. Let rise until double – about an hour.
- Divide into 8 portions. Roll in small balls, and allow to rest for 20 minutes.
- Roll out the balls into 8″ circles.
- Heat a pan with a light coating of olive oil.
- Fry on each side for about a minute.
Egyptian Fig Candy
The ingredients for this sweet would have been easily available for most people in ancient Egypt. Royalty might have had honey from bees, but date honey was readily available.
- 1 cup almonds, finely chopped
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- 100 grams dried figs
- 1 cup desiccated coconut
- 1/2 cup honey or date syrup
- Chop walnuts roughly. Place in blender.
- Chop figs and put in the blender as well. Add a small amount of water and pulse until a sticky mass forms.
- Place the fig mixture in a bowl, and add coconut. Knead into a ball.
- Form small balls, about the size of a small marble.
- Dip the balls in honey, and roll in the chopped almonds.