Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, noted author, popular speaker, and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Bet Shemesh, has been a frequent guest in the Five Towns over the years. In this interview, he discusses the forthcoming “Feast of Exotic Curiosities” at the museum.
5TJT: What is the background to this “Feast of Exotic Curiosities”?
RNS: In the nearly three years since we opened the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we’ve had over 30,000 visitors, and we are branching beyond the standard museum experience into special events. Last year, we decided to produce an unusual experience, one that would relate to our mission of teaching about Torah and nature: “A Feast of Biblical Flora and Fauna.” It was a banquet of foods that were eaten by our ancestors in Tanach; soft matzah, doves, geese, the quails that the Bnei Yisrael ate in the wilderness, goat, sheep—even a whole roasted deer, as was served at King Solomon’s table daily, which had to be carried in by four people! Each dish was introduced with a presentation explaining the Torah significance of that dish. The event was amazing, and we wanted to do it again, but in a different way so as to make each event unique. So this year, instead of discussing and serving exotic foods that are in Tanach, we will be discussing and serving exotic foods that are not in Tanach, and which are of great interest from a halachic and gastronomic perspective.
5TJT: Can you give some examples?
RNS: We are trying to keep the menu somewhat of a secret, and we haven’t finalized all of the dishes yet; there are some complicated exotic items about which we are still working on clarifying the halachic status. But I can say that one of the species of birds that we will be serving is pheasant. This is considered to be one of the most gourmet species, an ingredient of haute cuisine. However, many people do not realize that it is kosher, and it is certainly not usually available for the kosher consumer. Amongst mammals, we will be serving Asian water buffalo—again, something that is 100% kosher, and yet most Jews have never eaten it. This is an animal which is mentioned on numerous occasions in the Gemara and is of great halachic interest, due to the difficulty of determining whether it is a domestic or wild animal.
5TJT: Clearly, there are many more kosher species than just cows and chickens. But surely, at the end of the day, there are many more that we are never going to be able to taste.
RNS: There are many things that we can never eat, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy their taste. The Gemara says that for everything that Hashem has prohibited, there is a kosher equivalent, including pork and meat with milk. We will be serving the kosher equivalent of both of those at the dinner—the Gemara names a certain fish as tasting like pork, but we have come up with a new bacon equivalent. We will also be serving “kosher oysters,” which are made with something very surprising!
5TJT: And that would be . . . ?
RNS: Sorry, I can’t reveal it at this point, because there could be agitators who will make a furor about it, and I try to stay away from controversy . . . But I will say that the ingredients for our “kosher oyster” dish have been certified as kosher by the halachic authorities for major kashrus agencies.
5TJT: Is it easy to prepare such dishes?
RNS: Chefs and caterers don’t have experience with such things, so when we planned this event, we knew that there was only one person to turn to: Chef Moshe Basson, internationally renowned as “Israel’s Biblical Chef.” He searches Tanach and the local countryside for clues to traditional dishes, which he recreates. Chef Basson was knighted in Italy for his resurrection of Biblical cuisine. He is thrilled by the challenge that we set for him with this event!
5TJT: Where do you get these animals and ingredients from?
RNS: We’ve had things brought in from all over the world for this event. We’ve been raising some of the exotic species at the museum. It’s been quite a challenge—one of our liveliest creatures at the museum, Cutie the coati (a sort of large raccoon-like animal), managed to grab three of the most expensive birds and he bit their heads off!
5TJT: Are there any special guests at these events?
RNS: Last year, we had Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who is on the museum board, as well as Rav Yosef Carmel, head of Eretz Chemdah, and the event was livestreamed by celebrity chef Jamie Geller. This year we look forward to hosting Rav Weinreb again, as well as other rabbanim, scholars, and public figures.
5TJT: I’m sure everyone wants to know—will there be locusts?
RNS: Actually, locusts are the only item that we are repeating from last year’s menu, because they are always such a hit! But we are preparing them differently. Last year, we served them chocolate-covered, which makes them much easier to eat, because you can’t really see what you are eating. This year, we will be frying them, so that you can see that you are eating an insect!
5TJT: But how can Ashkenazim eat locusts?
RNS: There are a lot of misunderstandings about this. Briefly, there is no Ashkenaz tradition against eating locusts. Rather, there is simply a lack of Ashkenaz tradition for eating locusts, since there were no locusts in Ashkenaz. Many poskim accordingly state that there is no problem in adopting the tradition from the Jews in North Africa, just as we adopt traditions for eating birds from those who have them. Not everybody agrees with this, and even some of those who do agree find it personally difficult to eat locusts; many Westerners are locust-intolerant!
5TJT: When and where is the Feast of Exotic Curiosities taking place, and who can come?
RNS: In order to accommodate our American visitors, we have planned it for October 2, right before Sukkos. The feast takes place at the museum itself, which provides the most amazing setting for such an event. It is primarily for the patrons of the museum—those who support our work in teaching about the connection between Torah and the natural world. However, we also have a limited number of seats available for others. Details are at www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/feast.
5TJT: Thank you, and bon appétit!