food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

Dates (phoenix dactylifera) & “Pasqua Ebraica” (Jewish Easter)

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“The righteous shall flourish like a date palm…” (Psalm 92: 13)

“On the walls all around the [great] Temple [of Jerusalem], he (King Solomon) carved cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.” (1 Kings 6:29)

1883 excavations in Naro, Tunisia revealed a 6th century mosaic of a date palm. Hammam Lif Synagogue

1883 excavations in Naro, Tunisia revealed a 6th century mosaic of a date palm. Hammam Lif Synagogue

As the quotes from Psalm 92 and I Kings 6 – as well as the more than 30 other biblical references to the sacred tree and its fruit – suggests, the date palm was laden with symbolism. In fact, the date palm was incorporated into religious practices and iconography across a wide swath of Near Eastern cultures. Thus, 1 Kings 6 is not the only text associating the date with sacred structures. The ancient Sumerian text “Inanna and Sukaletuda” celebrates the palm, which is said to grow “forever,” while the dates it produces are observed “heaped up next to pure grain [found] in the temples of the great gods.” Still, it is with ancient Israel that the date palm can justifiably be said to have the strongest symbolism. The Romans, who enjoyed dates stuffed with chopped nuts and dipped in honey, saw the date palm as a symbol for Israel. It appears as such on the Sestertius known as “Judaea Captured” that was minted in 71 C.E. On the coin’s reverse a mourning Jew is depicted seated beneath a date palm beside which stands the victorious Emperor Vespasian. Here, as in a similar coin minted a couple of years later during the reign of Titus, the tree represents a land and its people. Given the association it is curious that in the “Fasti” Ovid compared Rome’s mythical founders Romulus and Remus to two palm trees, one grand and vigorous, the other not.

IUDAEA CAPTA Sestertius, minted 71 C.E.

IUDAEA CAPTA Sestertius, minted 71 C.E.

While both the Greek and Roman physicians Hippocrates (ca. 460-360 B.C.E.) and Galen (130-200 C.E.) appreciated dates for their medicinal value and Augustus Caesar is said to have preferred dates from Judaea over all others, the inhabitants of the Land of Israel valued the date palm for more than the health benefits and delectable nature of its fruit. Palm fronds were woven into baskets and mats, palm wood was used to make doors, fences and roofs, and the pit, or stone, was a source of fuel. But perhaps most importantly, the tree that the Akkadians poetically dubbed the “tree of riches” and the “tree of abundance” was related to a variety of Jewish religious celebrations, including Succoth (Leviticus 23: 34 and 23:40) and Chanukkah (II Maccabees 10:6-7). At this time of year dates find a place at the Passover table in the form of the condiment Haroset.

Haroset comes in various forms, each a reflection of a specific place and its vegetation. Haroset recipes from Surinam include coconut but not dates and my mother-in-law’s cherished Haroset is a blend of apples, almonds and spices. Persian, Yemenite, Egyptian and many Italian versions – from the seafaring cities of Venice, Padua, and Ancona – include dates. Combined with nuts, honey, figs, raisins, prunes and sometimes pomegranate that is then laced with cinnamon, cumin, pepper, cloves, cardamom, dates are a reminder of the trade ties that connected cultures across the Mediterranean. But at Passover dates – or rather Haroset – is intended to remind those gathered around the table of the mortar used in the pyramids that were built with forced Jewish labor. As Joyce Goldstein puts it in her cookbook “Cucina Ebraica,” Haroset is “a sweet symbol of a bitter memory.”

Newly harvested dates, Morocco

Newly harvested dates, Morocco

In his cookbook of 1571, Bartolomeo Scappi offers both advice concerning and recipes that include dates. “To be good, dates should be fresh and of a delicate, sweet flavor, because after six months they go bad.” Like the fifteenth-century master cook Martino of Como, Scappi offered a recipe for a date torte that sounds remarkably like Haroset!

Paraphrased here it is, feel free to try it for Passover or Palm Sunday supper:

Thoroughly grind “into a mortar” 6 ounces of almonds that have been softened by soaking in water for 8 hours*, plus 6 ounces of pinenuts (also softened), 4 ounces of dates, 4 of pistachios and 3 ounces of muscatel grapes. Add to the mix 3 ounces of breadcrumbs that have been softened by soaking in goat’s milk. Force through a strainer then add 2 pounds of sugar and mix well. Cook over a low coal fire, stirring constantly. When the mixture is thick and smooth add cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, some butter and rosewater. Remove from heat, stir in 6 fresh eggs and 6 ounces of ewe’s curd. Serve either hot or cold.
* Maestro Martino suggested soaking the almonds in “some good fatty fish broth and a little rose water”

a choice of dates awaits shoppers in Moroccan markets

a choice of dates awaits shoppers in Moroccan markets

Author: Pulcinella Pasta

Fredrika Jacobs, professor emerita of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of three books focused on the art and culture of Renaissance Italy ("Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the language of art history and criticism" (1997/99); "The Living Image in the Renaissance" (2005); and "Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy" (2013). Additionally, she has contributed essays and articles to dozens of books and scholarly journals and spoken at symposia and conferences around the world.

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