Our Jerusalem Dinner
Every year I looked forward to this dinner, my family’s “Jerusalem Dinner” held on Christmas Eve. Amidst the magic and wonder of Santa and gifts and lights and excitement, this dinner was centering. The table was set with Mom’s simple stoneware plates and cups, reminiscent of the humble dishes probably used at meals in a humble carpenter’s home in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. No utensils were allowed beyond a few simple serving utensils. The kitchen was always a flurry of preparations as everyone pitched in with the peeling and slicing, mixing and cooking. Fruits and vegetables common to that part of the world were featured, as were hummus, pita, and fish. Mom’s home-bottled grape juice from the vines in our backyard, thick and purple and sweet, was always the beverage at this meal. When my older sister returned from a study abroad in Israel, we added other and hopefully even more authentic components, like the classic Herodian oil lamps.
When the dinner preparations were complete, the little oil lamps were topped off with oil and their wicks lit. A quiet excitement filled the air as we turned the overhead lights off and gathered around the table. Dad would welcome everyone and offer a prayer. A special spirit, a lovely combination of gratitude and anticipation and the spirit of the season, was always present, like a strong and gentle flame flickering in the heart of our family.
I hadn’t really thought about it until recently but one gift this tradition gave us was a unique glimpse into the Savior’s life. Eating what Jesus might have eaten, wondering what his favorite foods might have been as a child, brings home the point that he was real, that while he was the Son of God and immortal, he was also the son of Mary and mortal. He grew up, he ate, he loved, he probably played games and had chores. Considering him in this light, especially as a child, adds new depths to one’s ability to relate to him and to the reality of him.
In addition, the fun and novelty of eating everything with our fingers, the unusual tastes, the favorite tastes, the friendly lamp light, and the joy of your loved ones all around you—all of these ingredients combined into a most beautiful and beloved Christmas tradition.
To use your oil lamp, thread the wick through the spout and pull the end slightly out of the spout (the more wick you have exposed, the brighter your flame will be). Pour olive oil into the interior, taking care to not get oil on the unglazed exterior, and light the wick. We recommend keeping the lamp on a plate rather than directly on a table or tablecloth when it is lit.
Cod, orange roughy, or tilapia are what we always used. Fry the fillets in plenty of butter (with a touch of oil to increase the burn point) until golden brown. As they cook, season both sides of the fish with copious amounts of salt, garlic powder, and lemon pepper. I’m not kidding on the “copious” part.
This was more for fun, as I doubt people who lived during Christ’s time had access to canned sardines with mustard sauce (who knows though—perhaps they enjoyed mustard-flavored fish paste? There probably wasn’t a can involved though). J My dad loves sardines. The rest of us hate them but some, like myself, love the novelty of trying at least one icky sardine once a year.
Fresh Fruits & Vegetables
Fresh fruits and veggies, washed, peeled and cut however you would like, that are grown in that part of the world: Cucumbers, tomatoes, lemons, oranges. When my sister lived in Israel, she enjoyed cucumbers cut into large pieces, not sliced thinly, and the tomatoes were eaten more like apples.
You can deseed them beforehand if you have the time or simply cut the whole fruit into manageable pieces (like fourths or eighths) for each person to deseed themselves on their plate.
Simple, healthy, delicious, and popular in the Middle East—a perfect addition to our event.
We used to buy any variety from the grocery store and it worked great. Then my sister went to Jerusalem on a study abroad and soon after that she married a man who loves to bake. This resulted in us enjoying fresh-baked pita bread at our Jerusalem Dinner. Oh. My.
Another gem that my sister introduced from Israel was challah bread. It isn’t authentic from 2,000 years ago but it is definitely from that area of the world and that culture presently. Plus, it tastes delightful.
We don’t drink alcohol so we had to adapt this drink common in the Christ’s time to our own family. Fortunately, we were very spoiled to have Mom’s home-bottled grape juice, from the Concord vines that line the length of her backyard. The juice is thick and dark and sweet and amazing. If you are so fortunate to have access to something like that, congratulations. Isn’t it to die for? If you don’t have homemade grape juice, no worries! Bottled grape juice from the store will do in a pinch.
A staple from the Middle East for thousands of years, we love the medium or small black variety (do the large black olives have a weird taste or is it just me?). Admittedly, we’re not that much into other kinds of olives and there are many. If you’re an olive aficionado, go nuts!
Again, a staple from that part of the world and so easy to find at grocery stores now. There are different varieties and seasoning choices. We usually stick with the straight-up, no extra seasoning kind. Buying it pre-crumbled is fine but we prefer getting it in a brick so that we can break off pieces ourselves.
We recommend buying these pre-pitted, for convenience’ sake. The plumper and juicier they are, the better.
Where we live (the desert in Utah), finding good, fresh figs is impossible. Our recommendations for these are 1) Cry a little over not having access to the amazingness that is a fresh fig and 2) Do what you can to find acceptable preserved figs. We are usually able to find dehydrated whole figs from the health food store, enough for everyone to have a taste.
After all, it’s in the scriptures, right? Our across-the-street neighbor growing up was a beekeeper and could sometimes set us up with honey still in the honeycomb. See if you can find a beekeeper in your area. The honeycomb is so fun, for the children especially, to explore at dinner. If you can’t find honeycomb, having honey on the table will represent just fine.
This is what our family has done. Our recipes have been tweaked and added to through the years. We adapted every element to our family’s needs, tastes, and budget and we encourage you to as well.