Aug 142015


Today is the birthday of BOTH Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714) and his son Carle Vernet (1758). Both were well respected French painters. Such coincidences intrigue me. In my own family, my sister’s son was born on my birthday, and my son was born on her daughter’s birthday. Can create a bond.

Claude-Joseph Vernet was born in Avignon. At fourteen years of age he aided his father, Antoine Vernet (1689–1753), a skilled decorative painter, in the most important parts of his work. The panels of sedan chairs, however, could not satisfy his ambition, and Cluade set out for Rome to study there. The sight of the sea at Marseilles and his voyage thence to Civitavecchia (Papal States’ main port on the Tyrrhenian Sea) made a deep impression on him, and immediately after his arrival he entered the studio of a marine painter, Bernardino Fergioni.

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Slowly Vernet attracted notice in the artistic milieu of Rome. With a certain conventionality in design, proper to his day, he allied the results of constant observation of natural effects of atmosphere, which he rendered with unusual skill. Perhaps no painter of landscapes or seascapes has ever made the human figure so completely a part of the scene depicted or so important a factor in his design. In this respect he was heavily influenced by Giovanni Paolo Panini, whom he probably met and worked with in Rome. The overall effect of his style is wholly decorative. “Others may know better,” he said, “how to paint the sky, the earth, the ocean; no one knows better than I how to paint a picture”. His style remained relatively static throughout his life. His works’ attentiveness to atmospheric effects is combined with a sense of harmony that is reminiscent of Claude Lorrain.

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For twenty years Vernet lived in Rome, producing views of seaports, storms, calms, moonlights, becoming especially popular with English aristocrats, many of whom were on the Grand Tour. In 1745 he married an Englishwoman whom he met in the city. In 1753 he was recalled to Paris: there, by royal command, he executed the series of the seaports of France (now in the Louvre and the Musée national de la Marine) by which he is best known. In 1757, he painted a series of four paintings titled “Four Times of the Day” depicting morning, noon, evening and night.

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On his return from Rome he became a member of the academy, but he had previously contributed to the exhibitions of 1746 and following years, and he continued to exhibit, with rare exceptions, down to the date of his death. He died in his lodgings in the Louvre on the 3rd of December 1789.


Carle Vernet (Antoine Charles Horace Vernet), Claude’s youngest son, was born in Bordeaux in 1758. Carle was a pupil of his father and of Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié. He won the Prix de Rome in 1779 and 1782, a French scholarship for arts students, initially for painters and sculptors, that was established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France. Winners were given a bursary that let them stay in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the state. But after winning the prize a second time, his father had to recall him back from Rome to France to prevent him from entering a monastery. This is one of many enigmas in Carle’s life because there are so many details missing.


In 1789 he was provisionally entered into the French Royal Academy, of which his father was a member, and commissioned to produce a painting for his full admission. It seems that his Triumph of Aemilius Paulus was his work for the commission, although the details are obscure. The painting is both traditional and innovative. The classical scene is typical of the age, but the depiction of the horses is not. Carle was an avid horseman and so was intimately familiar with the anatomy of the horse. In consequence this and subsequent depictions is much more natural than those of previous artists. Later, when he worked as a lithographer, his hunting-pieces and races were very popular.

Carle’s sister was executed by guillotine during the Revolution. There are no details available, but we do know that after this event Carle gave up painting.

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He began to produce again under the French Directory (1795–1799), but his style had changed radically. He started painting campaigns and battles in minute detail to glorify Napoleon. His paintings of Napoleon’s Italian campaign won acclaim as did the “Battle of Marengo” for which Napoleon awarded him the Légion d’Honneur.


When the monarchy was restored he excelled in hunting scenes and depictions of horses.

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Carle said of himself, “I am like the Grand Dauphin; a king’s son, a king’s father, never the king.” Certainly this rings true. His father and his son, Horace, received more acclaim than he, justifiably so in my humble opinion. His technique seems amateurish when compared with his father’s and his choice of subject matter is unappealing (at least to me). I care neither for the “Corsican tyrant” nor the “sport of kings.”

At 78 Carle still loved to ride and race horses. Days before he died he was reportedly seen riding as if he were “a sprightly young man.”


Claude was born in Avignon and Carle in Bordeaux. The regions are quite different historically and culturally, with different cuisines, so I won’t be able to give one dish that combines both. Instead I’ll give you one dish from each region unified in that their chief ingredient is lamb.


Daube d’Agneau à l’Avignonnaise


6 lamb shanks
10 z small mushrooms, halved
1 large bulb fennel, quartered and sliced
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz can Italian plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh parsley
1 cup red wine
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil


Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat in a heavy skillet and brown the shanks on all sides one or two at a time. Transfer them when browned with tongs to a lidded Dutch oven.

Sauté the mushrooms until browned. Add them to the lamb shanks.

Lower the heat to medium and add to the skillet, the fennel, leek, and garlic. Sauté until softened adding a little olive oil if necessary. Add to the shanks.

Add the tomatoes, herbs, and wine. Cover tightly and simmer slowly for about 2 hours or until the meat is falling off the bone, literally. Cool uncovered, then chill overnight.

In the morning discard the solidified layer of fat on top.

To serve, very gently reheat the lamb and vegetables. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with a little extra chopped fresh parsley. Serve one shank per person with boiled new potatoes and crusty bread.


Gigot D’agneau à Bordeaux


1 whole bone-in leg of lamb
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and cut into thin slivers
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, plus more as needed
ground black pepper
2 tbsp rendered goose or duck fat
2 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup red wine vinegar
2 tbsp finely chopped shallots
1 cup water
¾ cup light stock


Make small slits all over the leg with the point of a sharp knife and insert the slivers of garlic. Slather all over with goose or duck fat. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Remove the leg from the refrigerator 2 to 3 hours before roasting so that it can come to room temperature.

Heat the oven to 500°F and arrange a rack in the middle.

Combine the vinegar and shallots in a small, nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until reduced to ⅓ cup. Strain, reserving the shallots and vinegar separately.

Place the lamb on a rack in a large roasting pan and roast until browned all over.

Reduce the temperature to 350°F and add the reduced wine plus water to the roasting pan. Baste every 15 minutes or so. Roast until the internal temperature reaches 135°F to 140°F, about 1 hour. Remove the lamb to a carving board and let rest for 10 minutes covered with a tent of foil. This last step is essential.

Add the stock and reserved shallots to the drippings in the roasting pan and bring to a boil across two burners over high heat, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Season as needed with salt and pepper. Slice the lamb and serve with the shallot sauce.



Jul 312015


Today is the birthday (1901) of Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet, French painter and sculptor best known for founding the art movement Art Brut, and for the collection of works—Collection de l’art brut—that this movement spawned. Dubuffet enjoyed a prolific art career, both in France and in the United States.

Dubuffet was born in Le Havre to a family of wholesale wine merchants. He moved to Paris in 1918 to study painting at the Académie Julian, becoming close friends with the artists Juan Gris, André Masson, and Fernand Léger. Six months later, upon finding academic training to be distasteful, he left the Académie to study independently. During this time, Dubuffet developed many other interests, including music, poetry, and the study of ancient and modern languages. Dubuffet also traveled to Italy and Brazil, and upon returning to Le Havre in 1925, he married for the first time and went on to start a small wine business in Paris. He took up painting again in 1934 when he made a large series of portraits in which he emphasized the vogues in art history. But again he stopped, developing his wine business at Bercy during the German Occupation of France.

In 1942, Dubuffet decided to devote himself again to art. He often chose subjects for his works from everyday life, such as people sitting in the Paris Métro or walking in the country. Dubuffet painted with strong, unbroken colors, recalling the palette of Fauvism, as well as the Brucke painters, with their juxtaposing and discordant patches of color. Many of his works featured an individual or individuals placed in a very cramped space, which had a distinct psychological impact on viewers. His first solo show came in October 1944, at the Galerie Rene Drouin in Paris. This marked Dubuffet’s third attempt to become an established artist.


In 1945, Dubuffet attended and was strongly impressed by a show in Paris of Jean Fautrier’s paintings in which he saw art which he believed expressed directly and purely the depth of a person. Emulating Fautrier, Dubuffet started to use thick oil paint mixed with materials such as mud, sand, coal dust, pebbles, pieces of glass, string, straw, plaster, gravel, cement, and tar. This allowed him to abandon the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush; instead, Dubuffet created a paste into which he could add physical marks, such as scratches and slash marks. The impasto technique of mixing and applying paint was best manifested in Dubuffet’s series ‘Hautes Pâtes’ or Thick Impastos, which he exhibited at his second major exhibition, entitled Microbolus Macadam & Cie/Hautes Pâtes in 1946 at the Galérie René Drouin. His use of crude materials and style incited a significant backlash from critics, who accused Dubuffet of ‘anarchy’ and ‘scraping the dustbin’. He did receive some positive feedback as well—Clement Greenberg took notice of Dubuffet’s work and wrote that ‘from a distance, Dubuffet seems the most original painter to have come out of the School of Paris since Miro…’ Greenberg went on to say that ‘Dubuffet is perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade.’


After 1946, Dubuffet started a series of portraits, with his friends Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Jean Paulhan and Pierre Matisse serving as ‘models’. He painted these portraits in the same thick materials, and in a manner deliberately anti-psychological and anti-personal. A few years later he approached the surrealist group in 1948, then the College of Pataphysique in 1954. He was friendly with the French playwright, actor and theater director Antonin Artaud, he admired and supported the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline and was strongly connected with the artistic circle around the surrealist André Masson. In 1944 he started an important relationship with the resistance-fighter and French writer, publisher, Jean Paulhan who was also fighting against ‘intellectual terrorism’, as he called it.


Dubuffet achieved very rapid success in the U.S. art market, largely due to his inclusion in the Pierre Matisse exhibition in 1946. Matisse was an influential dealer of contemporary European Art in the U.S. and was known for strongly supporting the School of Paris artists. Dubuffet’s work was placed among the likes of Picasso, Braque, and Rouault at the gallery exhibit, and he was only one of two young artists to be honored in this manner. A Newsweek article dubbed Dubuffet as the ‘darling of Parisian avant-garde circles,’ and Greenberg wrote positively about Dubuffet’s three canvasses in a review of the exhibit. His reception in the U.S. was very closely linked to and dependent upon the New York art world’s desire to create its own avant-garde.

Between 1945 and 1947, Dubuffet took three separate trips to Algeria—a French colony at the time—in order to find further artistic inspiration. In this sense, Dubuffet is very similar to other artists such as Delacroix, Matisse, and Fromentin. However, the art that Dubuffet produced while he was there was very specific insofar as it recalled Post-War French ethnography in light of decolonization. In June 1948, Dubuffet, along with Jean Paulhan, Andre Breton, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapie, and Henri-Pierre Roche, officially established La Compagnie de l’art brut in Paris. This association was dedicated to the discovery, documentation and exhibition of art brut. Dubuffet later amassed his own collection of this art, including artists such as Aloïse Corbaz and Adolf Wölfli. This collection is now housed at the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne.


Influenced by Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Dubuffet coined the term art brut ( “raw art”) for art produced by non-professionals working outside conventional aesthetic norms, such as art by psychiatric patients, prisoners, and children. Dubuffet felt that the simple life of the everyday human being contained more art and poetry than did academic art, or great painting. He found the latter to be isolating, mundane, and pretentious, and wrote in his Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre that his aim was

. . . not the mere gratification of a handful of specialists, but rather the man in the street when he comes home from work….it is the man in the street whom I feel closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work.

To that end, Dubuffet began to search for an art form in which everyone could participate and by which everyone could be entertained. He sought to create an art as free from intellectual concerns as Art Brut, and as a result, his work often appears primitive and childlike. His form is often compared to wall scratchings and children’s art. Nonetheless, Dubuffet appeared to be quite erudite when it came to writing about his own work. According to prominent art critic Hilton Kramer, “There is only one thing wrong with the essays Dubuffet has written on his own work: their dazzling intellectual finesse makes nonsense of his claim to a free and untutored primitivism. They show us a mandarin literary personality, full of chic phrases and up-to-date ideas, that is quite the opposite of the naive visionary.”


From 1962 he produced a series of works in which he limited himself to the colors red, white, black, and blue. Towards the end of the 1960s he turned increasingly to sculpture, producing works in polystyrene which he then painted with vinyl paint.

In late 1960–1961, Dubuffet began experimenting with music and sound and made several recordings with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, a founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA. The same period he started making sculpture, but in a very not-sculptural way. As his medium he preferred to use the ordinary materials as papier-mâché and for all the light medium polystyrene, in which he could model very fast and switch easily from one work to another, as sketches on paper. At the end of the 1960s he started to create his large sculpture-habitations, such as ‘Tour aux figures’, ‘Jardin d’Hiver’ and ‘Villa Falbala’ in which people can wander, stay, and contemplate. In 1969 ensued an acquaintance between him and the French Outsider Art artist Jacques Soisson.


In 1978 Dubuffet collaborated with U.S. composer and musician Jasun Martz to create the record album artwork for Martz’s avant-garde symphony entitled The Pillory. The much written about drawing has been reproduced internationally in three different editions on tens-of-thousands of record albums and compact discs. A detail of the drawing is also featured on Martz’s second symphony (2005), The Pillory/The Battle, performed by The Intercontinental Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choir.

Dubuffet died on May 12, 1985, in Paris.

It seems to me that making couscous is a fitting tribute to Dubuffet since it is an Algerian staple, the country from which he drew inspiration, and since it is so popular nowadays in France. Couscous is a traditional Berber dish of semolina (granules of durum wheat) which is cooked by steaming. It is traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it. Couscous was voted the third-favorite dish of French people overall in 2011 in a study by TNS Sofres for the magazine Vie Pratique Gourmand, and the first in the east of France.

Traditionally semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. This process is labor-intensive. For the traditional method of preparing couscous, groups of women came together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was traditionally made from the hard part of the durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the millstone. In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product is sold in markets around the world in instant form.


To make instant couscous you simply bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the couscous, bring back to the boil, then turn off the heat, cover tightly and let sit for 15 minutes (instructions are always on the package). Uncover, fluff, and serve. Simplicity itself. It is used, like rice, to accompany all manner of meat or vegetable dishes.

Lamb shanks are an all time favorite of mine and are popular in Algeria accompanied by couscous. They were very hard to find in Argentina because butchers sold whole lamb legs with shanks attached, and are equally hard to find here in Yunnan because lamb is rare. Nonetheless here is my heuristic recipe for Algerian lamb shanks from memory.

Algerian Lamb Shanks

Heat olive oil in a deep heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown one lamb shank per person on all sides. Set the browned shanks aside. Adding more oil if necessary, add chopped onions and minced garlic and sauté until translucent. Add minced fresh ginger, powdered cardamom, saffron threads, chili flakes, powdered cloves, caraway, fennel seeds, powdered cinnamon, and salt to taste. I usually just add these spices in arbitrary quantities, adjusting them later to my taste as the shanks simmer. Add a handful each of blanched, sliced almonds and raisins (or saltanas), canned tomatoes and the zest and juice of one orange per 4 shanks. Return the shanks to the pan and cover with beef stock. Bring to a simmer and cook covered for about 2 hours or until the meat is falling from the bone. Let the liquid reduce but not dry out. Add diced carrot and fennel bulb and cook for about 20 minutes more until they are fully cooked but not mushy. Serve over couscous.

May 312014


Today is the feast of the Visitation of Mary which celebrates a passage in Luke’s gospel (1:39-56). Chapter 1 of Luke opens with a foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth by the angel Gabriel, and then, when she is six months pregnant, Gabriel appears to Mary, a relative of Elizabeth, and foretells the birth of Jesus. Then there follows this passage:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

After this Mary sings a song sometimes known as the canticle of Mary, sometimes the Magnificat, which I will get to in a bit.


The feast of the Visitation is not a big deal in the church, mostly because the incident is rather minor in the whole gospel narrative. In fact the Eastern church did not celebrate it at all until the 19th century. It’s also moved around a bit. It was traditionally held in the Western church on 2 July but in 1969 Pope Paul VI moved it to 31 May, “between the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (25 March) and that of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June), so that it would harmonize better with the Gospel story.” The Eastern church celebrates it on 30 March (which longstanding readers will know is my birthday). Because the feast is relatively minor I won’t dwell on it, but instead look at the underlying story, and in the process reveal a little something about the ways I approach the Bible.


I’ve probably failed to mention before that along with being an anthropologist with primary interest in religion and ritual, I am an ordained Presbyterian minister and spent 15 years as a part-time church pastor. “Aha!” some will say. “So that’s why we get all these holy feasts.” Wrong. Presbyterians don’t venerate saints or keep their feasts. Furthermore, I find all the Medieval miracle stories quaint and a bit silly for the modern era. I include them, sometimes, purely for interest. So here’s my thing. There is a saying, “when you fall in love, follow your heart but take your brain with you.” Well, I am in love with the Bible, but when I read it I take my brain with me. That’s kinda what Presbyterians are known for. Because of that we are sometimes called “the frozen chosen.”

Back to Luke. Chapters 1 and 2 contain what are conventionally called the “infancy narratives,” with chapter 2 being lodged in popular consciousness because it contains the Christmas story – found nowhere else in the gospels. There are a few extra frills in Matthew, such as the visit of the Magi, but all the stuff we see plastered all over stores in the season of peace – going to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the manger, the angels, etc. etc. – all come from Luke and nowhere else. I’m just going to be blunt and say that I think Luke made all this stuff up. But he had good reason. Hebrew prophecy asserts that the Messiah would be of the lineage of David and would be born in Bethlehem in Judah – way down in the south. So how can Jesus be the Messiah if, as all evidence suggests, he came from Nazareth which is way up north at the opposite end of Israel?

Luke found a solution to this puzzle. Yes, Jesus and his family lived up north all their lives, but Mary and Joseph had to journey south to Bethlehem for a grand census that the emperor Augustus had commanded be conducted throughout the entire empire. And, wonder of wonders, Jesus got born there. Then they all traipsed back to Nazareth to live out their lives. Problem solved. Well . . . not quite. First off, there is no record in Roman histories of such a census taking place. You’d think at least one historian would have noticed such a monumentally important event. If that is not enough for you, though, ask yourself this: what emperor in his right mind would command everyone in the empire to return to their ancestral homes to be counted? It would be chaos on an unimaginable scale, and would be economically ruinous. Who was minding the shop whilst Joseph was away for a week or so? Who milked the cows and ploughed the fields? You get the point. It’s just inconceivable.

So what’s the Visitation all about? This answer’s a little more speculative, but is the consensus among scholars. In the early 1st century there were a number of holy men in the Middle East who attracted large followings. John the Baptist was one of the most well known of these. His followers were still loyal to him long after his death. Jesus also had a large following, also united as a fellowship after his death. Having divided camps like this was not good given that these were troubled times, and so it would be better for all concerned if they united. Luke’s solution was to suggest that they were really all one big happy family to begin with. The mothers of John and Jesus were relatives (convention now calls them cousins, but Luke says only that they were related), and they got along famously. John leaps in his mother’s womb at the arrival of Mary, and Elizabeth acknowledges that it is Mary’s child that will be the Messiah, not hers. Thus the followers of John should all come over to the Jesus camp, because they were really all related.

Having said all that, I do not mean to imply that there is not great spiritual power in Luke’s tales even though he made them up for theological and political reasons. There is incredible power in the Christmas story despite the fact that underlying it is a convenient fiction. This bit is where the head has to depart and the heart take over. The Visitation is a tale of the immense power of sisterhood in pregnancy. It is a deeply moving story. For this little moment the men are pushed aside; they are not important. The women take center stage and reveal that it is their bond that is the glue that holds society together. It becomes a tale of universal importance.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Oj?da

After the tale there follows this:

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

This is called the canticle of Mary, or the Magnificat, and forms a central place in the liturgies of Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. In monastic communities and within high churches it is recited or sung daily. It is one of a group of eight pieces that are considered the oldest sacred songs within the Christian tradition. Although it can be recited, it is designated as a song in Luke and so has frequently been set to music. These settings vary from simple tunes to major choral works. Many composers, starting in the Renaissance, worked grand pieces around the words, and the tradition continues to this day. Claudio Monteverdi used it in his “Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610.” Vivaldi composed a setting of the Latin text for soloists, choir and orchestra. One of the best known is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat in D major. Anton Bruckner composed a “Magnificat” for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ. Rachmaninoff, and more recently John Rutter also produced settings, inserting additions into the text. Arvo Pärt composed a setting for choir a cappella. I don’t want to wear you out with a musical analysis of them all because this is not a musical post. Instead, here is Bach:

One of the lines of the canticle is, “He has filled the hungry with good things.” That certainly gives me plenty of scope for a recipe.

In antiquity, the basic daily cooking of vast swathes of the Middle East was the same from culture to culture, and remained that way for centuries. So it’s not possible to pin down the dishes of 1st century Israel as in any sense unique or distinguishable from those of neighboring cultures. The dietary staples were bread, wine, and olive oil, but also included, in varying degrees, legumes, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fish, and meat. Admittedly the people of Israel did not eat pork, which set them apart from some, but not all, cultures, but meat eating was a rarity. The day to day meals of all cultures in the region looked more or less the same.

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The absolute bedrock of daily eating was bread made with barley flour. Barley was much better suited for the climate and soils of Israel than wheat, although wheat was grown. Bread was served at every meal and was a substantial component, not just a side affair. All flour was ground by hand using a stone quern (left image), and this task took up a big chunk of the (woman’s) work day. Anthropologists estimate that it took 3 hours per day to grind enough flour for a family of 5. Except at Passover the barley bread was leavened using the sourdough process, that is, pinching a piece off of the dough before baking and using it as a starter to leaven the dough the following day.


After grain, legumes such as lentils, broad beans, chickpeas and peas were the main element in the diet and were the main source of protein, since meat was rarely eaten.


Vegetables that were most commonly eaten were leeks, garlic and onions. Other vegetables played a minor role in the diet. Field greens and root plants were generally not cultivated, but were gathered seasonally when they grew in the wild. Leafy plants included dandelion greens and the young leaves of the saltbush plant. Leeks, onions and garlic were eaten both cooked in stews, and uncooked with bread. I imagine they were not as strong as modern varieties.

They usually ate meat from domesticated goats and sheep. Goat’s meat was the most common. Fat-tailed sheep were the predominant variety of sheep in ancient Israel but as sheep were valued more than goats, they were eaten less often – explaining the Biblical, now proverbial, saying concerning “separating the sheep (more valued) from the goats (less valued).” Most people ate meat only a few times a year when animals were slaughtered for the major festivals, or at tribal meetings, celebrations such as weddings, and for the visits of important guests – such as Mary’s visit to Elizabeth! Typically when meat was eaten it was stewed rather than roasted.

Meat stewed with onions, garlic and leeks and flavored with cumin and coriander is described on ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, and it is quite likely that it was prepared similarly in ancient Israel. Taking off from this idea I propose a dish of braised lamb shanks accompanied by all the other ingredients. Braising is not an ancient method of cooking, but it adds a little variety. Anybody with any cooking experience at all can take that list of ingredients, stuff them in a pot with water, and simmer for several hours. Let’s be a little adventurous.

For me there is just one snag in preparing this dish and photographing it for you. I can more easily get iguana or guinea pig in Buenos Aires than lamb shanks. First of all, lamb is not popular at all in the city where beef is king. Second, Argentine butchers don’t butcher lamb that way. You get the whole leg or nothing. So I’m going to have to give you the recipe as I conceive it and maybe you can try it and send me a photo? The basics are simple. I used to braise lamb shanks all the time, and swapping a few ingredients around is no big deal. My name here evokes the idea that this lamb dish might be something Elizabeth could serve Mary on her arrival.

©Visitation Braised Lamb Shanks


4 lamb shanks
1 large onion, diced
1 leek, white part only cut in rings
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps cumin
2 tsps coriander
1 cup red wine
3 cups light stock
olive oil
salt and pepper


Pre-heat the oven to 325°F (165°C).

Pour enough olive oil in the bottom of a dutch oven and heat it over high heat. Ad the lamb shanks and brown them on all sides. When they are evenly browned removed them.

Add ½ cup of wine to the pot and scrape off all the bits on the bottom. Add the onion, leek, and garlic to the pot and cook until the onion is slightly translucent.

Return the lamb shanks to the pot and add the stock, the rest of the wine, cumin, coriander, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Heat on the stovetop until the liquid comes to a boil, then cover with a tight-fitting lid and transfer to the oven.

Cook for about 3 hours. When the lamb is tender and the meat is pulling away from the bone, it is ready.

Take the pot from the oven, remove the lamb shanks and set them aside on a heated plate covered with a tent of foil.

If there is fat on the top of the sauce skim as much off as you can, then reduce the sauce over high heat until it is thick. (This step may not be necessary if the sauce has already reduced in the oven.) Turn the heat to low and return the shanks briefly to be sure they are hot.

Serve with barley bread or whole wheat rolls.

Serves 4