The latest guest on my podcast Your Last Meal is Carla Lalli Music. She was the first-ever manager at Shake Shack, the food director at Bon Appetit magazine and she just released a new cookbook called That Sounds So Good. For someone completely entrenched in the gourmet food world, Carla’s last meal is surprisingly simple.
“Fresh baguette, some beautiful, made-that-day, crusty loaf of bread, good butter, flaky salt and a bottle of red wine,” she said. “A nice Chianti.”
If you’ve never listened to Your Last Meal, here’s how it works: I interview a celebrity and then gather up other experts to talk about the science, history or culture of the guest’s last meal. My first step to finding interesting angles and guests is super basic: I Google the last meal in question. And what do you think comes up over and over and over again when you Google “bread and wine?”
It almost exclusively calls up articles on Christianity and The Eucharist, where bread represents Jesus’ body and wine represents his blood. Carla Lalli Music confirms there is nothing religious about her meal choice, but the biblical angle was too obvious to pass up.
So I called Generoso Urciuoli, an Italian archaeologist who specializes in the history of early Christianity. A few years ago he published research revealing what Jesus and the apostles really would have been eating at The Last Supper.
The most famous visual depiction of this biblical meal is The Last Supper, painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1490s. In the painting, Jesus is seated at the center of a long, wooden table and surrounding him, on the same side of the table, are the 12 apostles. It looks like everyone has a dinner roll, or maybe a small, brown potato. There are little glasses of red wine and some other foods that are hard to discern. The Bible rudely left out one major detail of this important event: what they were eating for dinner!
Through much research, and analyzation of ancient texts and art works, Urciuoli determined that everything about Leonardo da Vinci’s painting is historically inaccurate. He explains that the food on da Vinci’s Last Supper table is Italian and represents what was eaten in his era.
“In the masterpiece of Leonardo, we found the typical food of Italy. The wine is the wine of Italy,” said Urciuoli.
But Jesus and the apostles were Middle Eastern. Urciuoli also disputes the way they’re seated at the table.
“They would not have eaten sitting on the chair and they would not have used a table,” said Urciuoli.
He says the food would have been served communally, in big earthenware bowls, and they would have been sitting on cushions on the floor, around a low table. In The Last Supper painting, the wine is red. But Urciuoli says there is no way of knowing if Jesus was sipping a nice Chianti or if he’s more of a rosé-all-day kind of guy.
So what were they eating at the last supper?
“It’s sort of a ‘guess what,’” said Urciuoli. “Why? Because according to the public’s imagination, The Last Supper took place during the Passover celebration.”
If Jesus was, in fact, Jewish and The Last Supper was a sort of Passover Seder, which many believe it was, Urciuoli says they most likely would have been eating lamb, a bean stew called cholent, olives, a bitter herb with pistachios, charoset, a chunky fruit and nut paste still eaten at Passover tables today, and most likely a fermented fish sauce that was also very popular with ancient Romans. And, of course, bread and wine. But if it was, in fact, a Passover meal, the bread would have to be unleavened, similar to the matzo we eat today.