At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that he was about to be betrayed by one of those present. Shocked, they asked him who the person was. “It is one of the 12 who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.” He’s talking about Judas, of course. The shock value of his statement hinges on an unlikely plot device: a small dish of “dip,” which drives home the point that Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest companions.
But what was this mysterious dish? Other than much-publicized bread and wine, which have gone on to be celebrated as part of the Eucharist in Christian churches around the world, this condiment was the last thing that Jesus chose to eat. So what did it taste like?
The most probable answer is that it was garum, an ancient kind of fish sauce that was used throughout the Roman Empire by rich and poor alike. This past week a collaboration between anthropologist Yitzchak Jaffe of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and chef Kelila Jaffe (no relation) of NYU’s Nutritional Science department brought together an international team of chefs and scholars together to recreate garum and a host of other ancient dishes.
Food and food habits are a key marker of identity. It defines where, how, and what you eat, which, in turn, determines when and with whom you can socialize. Just think how distinctive and central the habits of vegans and those who eat gluten-free are to selecting restaurants and cooking dinner. On a national level, food defines where we are from: Southerners eat ham at Christmas; the Spanish eat dinner in the late evening; and the British have a meal at 4pm. It’s even more distinctive in religious contexts. Muslims are not permitted eat during the day during Ramadan, some Jews keep kosher, and Catholics are supposed to eat fish on Fridays in Lent.
At the same time, historically speaking, when we come into contact with other groups it is often the other group’s food that slips unannounced into our cultural repertoire. Classicist Gregory Woolf wrote in his seminal study of Roman Gaul (France) that in the Roman empire food and wine spread more quickly than other cultural markers like language and clothing. In other words, we are willing to eat novel food before we start dressing differently and becoming bilingual.
For some of those involved at the recent NYU event, it wasn’t at all clear that the recipes would actually work. Nick Vogt of Indiana University thought it possible that his Han-dynasty era recipe was the invention of an author who had likely never stepped foot in a kitchen. His partner, chef Wai Hon Chu, helped him recreate a “bake” of suckling pig that they described as pretty delicious. The recipe, they told The Daily Beast, required some supplementation, but demonstrated that the elite author had gone to the trouble to talk to chefs about how to cook this dish.
In some cases the scientific process of cooking actually helped the scholars involved understand the history better. The team working on Babylonian recipes encountered some that were only a few sentences long. A situation like this poses all kinds of methodological questions for the chefs: can we be sure that we know what the listed ingredients actually are? How do we know how these ingredients were actually prepared? And should food be seasoned if seasoning is not listed in the recipe? In these situations, Harvard senior preceptor and chemist Pia Sörensen told me, the science can help us understand how an ingredient was used in ancient cooking. Knowledge about how the human taste buds react to sour and sweet tastes can help the investigators ascertain if they are on the right track. One recipe for stew called for the use of soapwort, but trial runs in the kitchen revealed that it was just too bitter to be incorporated into the dish as it was. In the end they made the surprising discovery that soapwort is a potent emulsifier and used it to blend the dish more effectively. It’s a revelation that might actually have applicability in kitchens today.