I would like you to come to dinner on Friday night, to celebrate the coming of the Sabbath. Since you already know what the house and furniture look like, and what everyone will be wearing, I am sure you will feel right at home. We are going to be a relatively large party – the modest house will simply have to stretch to accommodate so many people! You will be joining Hillel, Penina, little Simeon who is now considering himself a big boy, his young sister Ruth, and happily, brother Shebna from Babylonia is visiting! It’s the second year after he bought the house for Hillel and Penina and he is here on business. In addition, Penina invited a friend, Rachel, who is a young widow, and her daughter, Hannah; Penina secretly wants to introduce Rachel to their good friend, Menahem. Hillel has hinted gently that the likelihood of a match is very low, since Menahem is still leaning toward the Essenes’ life of celibacy, but Penina hopes that Rachel’s charm and beauty will overcome such silliness. Rachel is indeed lovely but is not getting in younger and she must marry if she is to have more children, and Menahem is just the right age and is so kind and good. Any day he is not a husband and father is a wasted day, Penina feels. And yes, you are right. Penina is expecting again… but she feels as strong as ever, and she can handle the necessary shopping and preparations with ease, particularly since Rachel is helping her. It is a lovely autumn day, so plenty of food is available for an especially good meal.
The two ladies must shop for almost every scrap of the fresh ingredients. Storing food for long periods in the hot climate of Judea is impossible, other than wine, oil, vinegar, spices, dried fruit and grain. People in Jerusalem shop in the well stocked open market, which we have already visited when Hillel just came to Jerusalem. Up North, in the magnificently fertile Galilee, everyone raises his or her own food and lacks for nothing, but in the drier South, urbanites like Penina are used to daily shopping.
Before going to the market, the ladies check the larder. Penina has plenty of olive oil, honey, vinegar, and barley on hand. Dry onions, garlic, figs and apricots are strung on cords that hang from the low ceiling. Little clay containers hold spices. The ever present salt is there, produced by evaporating sea water from the Mediterranean or from deposits by the Dead Sea. The cumin powder and the seeds of sesame and coriander are widely available, but Rachel is impressed by some expensive spices – cinnamon, saffron, pepper, and ginger – just sent to Penina by her sister-in-law in Babylonia. If they need capers, coriander, dill, chicory, hyssop, marjoram, mint, mustard greens, or thyme, they would buy them as fresh herbs and add them to either the salad or the cooked soup or stew.
Normally Hillel’s and Penina’s habits are modest, so meat is almost never eaten. But this is a festive meal, so in addition to the usual bread, cooked grains, or legumes such as lentils and beans, Penina decides to get some meat and prepare a proper stew with it, mixed with lentils, leeks, onions, and squash, and seasoned to taste with herbs and spices. She tells Rachel that they must get fresh vegetables for a salad; perhaps dandelion greens, cucumbers, and also radishes, if any are left from the summer crop. She considers buying some rice, which has been introduced to Judea not too long ago and is regularly eaten by the Romans, but somehow it does not seem to fit the menu. She decides to stick to cooked barley and freshly baked bread to accompany the stew and salad.
For dessert, Penina will probably serve goat cheese and fruit. Fresh melon is still available, and so are certain grapes, those that were not used for wine. She might also serve dried dates, since fresh ones are gone by late summer. The fresh figs from the first crop are also gone, but dried figs from the second crop of last year, or fig cakes, are very sweet and much loved by everyone. The second crop from this year is still drying. Rachel wonders what they will be drinking – is Penina going to serve water, goat milk, or wine? Definitely wine, Penina says, with goat milk just for Simeon, Hannah, and Ruth, of course. Simeon is old enough to have a few drops of wine in water, but he dislikes it, so goat milk it is, or she might try to find the thin yogurt called leben, and sweeten it for the children with thick fruit syrup.
When the ladies are done shopping, they go home. The house, as always, is neat and clean, so they can start the preparations right away. The bread needs to baked, and since Penina wants to make elegant little round loaves, not the usual flatbread, they must quickly mix and knead yeast, flour and water and set the dough aside to rise. They will bake the bread in a modern, Roman-style clay oven, directly on the glowing embers, and the ladies will take great care to watch that it does not burn. These new ovens are so much more practical than the old baking stands used before the Romans came to Judea… While the bread is rising, they cut up the meat and vegetables and put them in clay cooking pots. The pot are suspended above the fire from a tripod and quickly start to bubble and give off a wonderful aroma.
I hope you don’t mind the fact that you will not be served in the Roman style, lolling on a couches, leaning on your left arm and eating with your right hand. Only the rich have taken to this habit in Judea, and Hillel’s house cannot even fit the number of couches that would accommodate the whole party. The food will be nicely arranged on a clean mat on the floor, with everyone sitting companionably around it. The host will ladle the stew and salad into small bowls and hand them to you, while vinegar and oil will be communal, with everyone dipping their bread in the big bowls.
So do come in, please. You are the guest of honor, so you will be seated on Hillel’s right side. Everyone is there already, sipping wine and waiting for you, since they realize that time travel might make you a few minutes late, it’s really so hard to judge exact timing, the machines are just not as reliable as they should be, and the Jerusalem Timeport is so busy these days… you explain all that while Penina pours a glass of wine for you and the children smile shyly and thank you for the presents you brought them; they are amazingly polite by comparison to children of your own time. You sit down, and Hillel says the pre-meal benediction. A very short one, since Hillel knows the children are hungry and he is too kind to make them wait.
This is one of the most delicious meals you have ever eaten. Every ingredient is fresh, clean, and has no chemicals in it. It is prepared in a slow, healthy process; it does not have the aftertaste of fast foods. The wine is surprisingly light and dry, and the water, which you asked for because the delicious stew is spicy, is ice cold
because it was stored in an earthenware pot that keeps it chilly even on the hottest day. The bread, slowly baked on the embers, is so good you could easily understand why some meals in those days consisted of nothing but bread and onion. The company, of course, is the best part. You get to hear the latest gossip about the visit of some Roman officials, everyone complains about the rising cost of living, and no one likes the doings of the High Priest and his wife, who dresses like a young Roman lady, can you believe it? She was seen with her hair in seven braids… You ask Hillel about the health of Shemaya and Avtalion, and he manages to tell you a little about his latest studies, which are truly amazing. You take a few notes for the book you are writing back home about the Oral Law. Shebna tells you about the expansion of his business, he is importing from Persia now. Little Ruth falls asleep with her pink cheek nestled on a round loaf of bread, and Penina, laughing, carries her to bed. You notice that Menahem and Rachel are deep in a serious conversation but you can’t hear what they are talking about. You hope Penina is right and something might come out of this introduction… And soon it’s time to go. The last Time Machine is due at midnight. But you promise to come back soon. Simeon complains that he did not get to hear much about the world in your time
so you simply must return and tell him more stories!