Q&A: Jamie d’Antioc

Author of God’s Cook Book: Tracing the Culinary Traditions of the Levant

 
Interviewer: What inspired you to create this cookbook?

Jamie d’Antioc: My grandmother was my inspiration. She followed a diet that used recipes similar to those in God’s Cook Book, and lived to be 108 years old. It is my belief that her cooking habits contributed enormously to her excellent health. The foods that she prepared formed the basis of my diet as a child, and I am continually reminded of the natural foods used in her recipes. Her sisters and daughters also lived well into their nineties. But even before I became aware of my grandmother’s diet, I was already considering how we in the modern world could preserve our health through food. To use an engineering analogy: my family owned a Mercedes, and when you opened the driver’s side door, there was a notice stating which fuel to use in the car. And I remember thinking – God created man on the sixth day, but where is our label, telling us what fuel we need? So I decided, at the age of twenty, that one day I would create a kind of instruction manual for human beings.

 

Interviewer: What is the religious philosophy behind this book, and why is its message important?

Jamie d’Antioc: There is no specific religious philosophy behind this book. God’s Cook Book is not an attempt to open up a religious dialogue; nor is it an attempt to unite the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, or an investigation into finding common ground between them – except in their culinary traditions. The book simply focuses on the common elements of diet from these three religions, as documented in their holy books; in some areas they overlap, in others not, but they all have some dietetic value. This is the food of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad, and, as such, it is truly the food of God.

 

Interviewer: Could you explain some of the governing principles between the types of foods that made up the Mediterranean diet that unifies the three Abrahamic faiths?

Jamie d’Antioc: The diet from God’s Cook Book is based on a minimum of meat and a maximum of fish and vegetables, and an emphasis is placed on local produce. Much of the food is prepared simply through steaming and grilling.

 

Interviewer: Instead of illustrations or photos of the dishes created through the recipes in this book, the book includes many lovely illustrations of the ingredients in their natural states. Why did you decide to include this type of illustration in the book?

Jamie d’Antioc: In my opinion, photographs of prepared foods are not appetizing. Therefore, the decision was made to use the resources of the Arcadian Library to present beautiful illustrations of natural ingredients, as well as illustrations of mosaics and other images of objects used in food preparation. In addition, the beautiful illustrations of the Orientalist artist David Roberts illustrate the environments in which these dishes were prepared.

 

Interviewer: Why do you think these ancient recipes have become so timeless?

Jamie d’Antioc: The recipes from God’s Cook Book produce healthy, slim people, who enjoy the benefits of long life. Much modern food is heavily prepared, with artificial additives and preservatives, and the over-consumption of such foods often results in serious medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. However, we are now seeing a strong movement back to common, natural foods, as represented by God’s Cook Book.

 

Interviewer: What was the process for collecting the recipes for the book? Did you test all the recipes yourself?

Jamie d’Antioc: The first stage was to go back to old manuscripts documenting religious eating habits from hundreds of years BC, right up to Apicius, one of the very first cookery books on record, thought to have been written in the 4th or 5th century AD. We also studied The Medicine of the Prophet, which documents a history of Islamic medicine. Other resources included records written by Catholics that fled the Romans in Jerusalem and Nazareth and took refuge in places such as Sednaya and Maaloula, north of Damascus. There they documented their methods of survival, including their diet, which was based mostly on wild plants and pulses – rich in fiber and protein, low in fat, and entirely natural.

The second stage then involved not my own research, but that of my grandmother. As she was fluent in Aramaic, Syrian, Classical Arabic, and Hebrew, during her life she had been able to read a great many books and documents on the diets of holy people throughout history – and I was extremely lucky that she was still alive to dictate much of this information to me while I was researching God’s Cook Book. But the fact she was still alive is down to her own eating habits, which in turn provided further material for the book, since it covers not only what we should be eating, but when, how often, and in what quantity. My Grandmother ate two meals a day, accompanied by plenty of healthy snacks in between, and never ate late in the evening – and she never had to see a doctor even once in her life!

All recipes have been tested to ensure they are compatible with modern ingredients. In addition, any recipes conflicting with any of the three faiths have been omitted.

 

Interviewer: How were the book’s religious quotes found?

Jamie d’Antioc: I went to the British Museum Library with two full-time literary assistants, one full-time researcher – who is also our archivist – and my eldest son, who has three college degrees in Oriental Studies. There we set about collecting all the quotes from manuscripts and antiquarian books from the divinity section of the library. We also travelled to the New York Library, and consulted the Library of the Arcadian Group. The latter contains some 14,000 volumes, many of them oriental. We also own over 5,000 volumes acquired from the library of the curator of the Vatican library’s Islamic manuscripts section, which provided us with a great many rare resources to use for research. It took us around eight years to collect all of the quotations, from 1988 to 1996. We then began collating all of our material and beginning the writing process, which took us another two years. Between research, collation, editing, and then design and printing, the book eventually cost over quarter of a million pounds to produce a mere thousand copies.