Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Baptism of Jesus—and food in the Christian tradition

January 10 is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This is essentially part of Epiphany: another of the major manifestations of Christ’s divinity—the final one in the Christmas season. “A voice came from heaven: ‘You are my son, the Beloved, my favour rests on you.’”; Luke, 3: 21-2. (This important scene is also narrated in Matthew, chapter 3; and Mark, chapter 1.)

This whole period, from the Nativity through the Baptism, is an extremely ancient period of celebration, dating back to the early Church in the region around the Holy Land.

This feast contains many rich themes—but from the point of view of food and drink a few themes are of particular interest.

First, is the emphasis on holy water: according to several of the great Fathers of the Church, at his baptism Jesus was not sanctified or purified by the water of the Jordan—rather, he blessed and sanctified it: he made the water of the Jordan holy.

This was a frequent season for baptisms. It was also a time when people asked the priest to come bless their homes with holy water, or they brought home holy water to bless each room.

Here is a beautiful quote on this and related traditions from a valuable older cookbook that focuses on Christian (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) food customs in Syria and Lebanon, The Art of Syrian Cookery, by Helen Corey (this book is still available on Amazon and elsewhere). This quote brings in the theme of holy water--as well as the themes of baptism, pure leaven, sweetness, and eternal life.

“Following church services, the priests visit the homes of their parishioners and bless the corners of all the rooms of the house with holy water… My mother told me of her activities in Syria … when she helped her mother prepare Zalabee (doughnuts; recipe below) and Awam (spoon doughnuts). These doughnut-shaped cakes were fried in olive oil, and when cooked, they were sprinkled with sugar to signify sweet and everlasting life. Although today the method of making these cakes has been simplified, at one time the dough used for the cakes was the result of being ‘baptized.’ The ceremony for the baptizing of the dough began with dying the dough in a white cloth. It was then carried to a fountain, immersed in the name of the Holy Trinity, and the baptismal chant repeated. The dough in the white cloth hung in the tree for three days, then was taken to the house. The dough rose without yeast. This new leaven, miraculously raised, provided the yeast for the next year. From this dough, small crosses were made and placed wherever food was stored in the dwelling.” Very interesting and moving! (What she is describing is a natural fermentation process--the creation of yeast--produced under the holiest of conditions.)

Recipe for Zalabee, or doughnut cakes, adapted from The Art of Syrian Cookery.
½ package dry yeast
1 ½ cup lukewarm water
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon oil (olive oil or vegetable oil)
Granulated sugar
Optional: cinnamon
Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then stir.
Sift the flour with the salt into a large bowl.
Stir the yeast and the oil gradually into the flour.
Knead briefly until the dough is well mixed and smooth.
Let the dough sit, lightly covered, for 45 minutes to an hour—until the dough has risen.
Roll the dough out to about 1/4 inch, and cut into strips about 2 inches wide and 7 inches long.
Fry the strips in a frying pan in about 1/2 to 3/4 inch of hot oil until they are golden brown.
Drain on paper towels.
Sprinkle the zalabee with sugar and (optional) cinnamon while they are hot.

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