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Jessup professor’s new book looks at food in ancient times

By: Gloria Young,
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It was the everyday people of the ancient world — particularly their diet — that fascinated William Jessup University assistant professor Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliot during her years as a graduate student. Now she’s completed a book detailing her findings.

Her book, “Food in Ancient Judah: Domestic Cooking in the Time of the Hebrew Bible,” showcases her passion for archeology. But she also studied biblical and ancient texts — including Babylonian recipes — iconography and anthropology during the four years she researched the topic. The book, geared toward the scholarly community, adds to the databank on the ancient world.

Shafer-Elliott, an Auburn resident and Bear River High graduate, spends her summers as a seasonal excavation staff member at Tel es-Safi, Israel, where she works at a religious site. But she has excavated houses in the past.

“You find artifacts that have to do with daily activities all the time — cooking pots, bowls, jugs, even ovens,” she said. “Because we are at a Philistine site, there are hearths made out of round stones. … Being able to see a cooking pot and say this was probably something used on a daily basis and to think that you are the first person to see or touch this thing for thousands of years — the last person to see it or touch it, used it — that’s really exciting, that connection to the past.”

There were challenges to piecing together the diet of a people who lived thousands of years ago.

“Your research never anticipates hurdles you come up to,” she said. “But in anthropology, there’s a lot of work — a lot of people observing people baking, but not a lot on people cooking other things. So, when I looked at ancient recipes, I found that they almost always centered on stews. Even though the recipes are from Babylon and from palaces, so not your everyday diet especially for the average Israelite, you can still glean good information.”

Shafer-Elliott was able to ascertain that it is likely the everyday meal in Judah during that period — the Iron Age — was fairly light.

“Their diet was very cereal heavy as far as bread and porridge,” she said. “The evening would have been the main hot meal and more than likely would be a vegetable or legume stew. Something that was interesting is there’s been a conversation among scholars about how much meat was in the diet. My observation is that they probably didn’t eat much meat at all — unless they had reciprocal exchange.”

Along the investigative trail, she turned up things that surprised her.

“One is that we have this misconception in looking back at ancient history that everything was very patriarchal and women didn’t have any power — that they were the ones who did all the (household) work,” she said. “But out of the four (Old Testament) stories I looked at, in three of them the meals were prepared by men. I thought that was really interesting. But you have to ask, were some of these hospitality meals and did that have anything to do with it?”

Another pattern that piqued her curiosity was that in all four stories, something major happened at the meal, something she describes as a shift in identity.

“Someone’s identity changes — sometimes for better and sometimes for worse,” she said. “It’s something I want to look at more — how these stories relate to identity change and empowerment around these meals.”

She hopes her book “inspires a shift from the typical research concentrating on temples, palaces and large cities to focus more on the common household where people lived out their lives,” she said in a press release.

Shafer-Elliott’s adviser at Simpson University, Glenn Schaefer, said her work sheds light on an aspect he hadn’t seen before in his studies.

“When Cynthia Shafer enrolled in Simpson University (in Redding), we quickly became friends,” he said in an email. “Her goal early on was to become a university professor. To my knowledge, she is unique at Simpson in that she had a triple major: archaeology, history and biblical studies.

“Cynthia sent me a copy of her dissertation entitled Food in Ancient Judah. What is unique about her “take” on the subject is that she closely tied the biblical text to the archaeology of the period. She connected specific pottery vessels with the food that was being prepared. In addition, she chose familiar historical/theological passages of the Hebrew Bible to ask—and answer—specific questions about food questions.”

The book was published by Equinox and sold to Acumen Publishing, which specializes in scholarly works. It is available on amazon.com.

Gloria Young can be reached at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com.