Passover, my favorite holiday of the Jewish faith, begins at the end of this month. Preparations are under way for the large, bread-free meals that kick off the annual tradition, and heaping platefuls of potatoes, meats, and greens will line many a table.
Huge meals are certainly part of the tradition, as Jews recall the time when our ancestors were forced into slavery by Egyptian tyrants—an episode that acts as a powerful metaphor for many instances of oppression throughout Jewish history. Like many cultures worldwide, we celebrate our religious, political, and cultural freedom by eating more than we really need.
I am fairly certain that my ancestors did not feed themselves as well as I’ll be eating. A new, provocative study supports my hunch, using evidence from the most famous Passover meal ever depicted: Jesus Christ’s “Last Supper.”
Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper–15th Century (courtesy of Wikimedia)
For starters, some Biblical scholars do not agree that “The Last Supper” was a Passover meal, but I like to think that it was. (Read here for more analysis.)
The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that the size of “Last Supper” entrees have progressively grown by 69 percent over the 1,000 years that the event has been illustrated in paint and print. Plate sizes have increased by 66 percent.
Researchers (and brothers) Brian and Craig Wansink surveyed 52 of the most highly regarded depictions of “The Last Supper” produced between 1000 and 2000 A.D., using computer scans to analyze portion sizes over time. The Wansinks argue that overconsumption is not a recent phenomenon, but rather a general trend that has grown during the past millennium.
“The last 1,000 years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance, and affordability of food,” said Brian Wansink, an overeating expert who directs Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, in a statement. “We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.”
Palma Vecchio's 16th Century Version (courtesy of Wikimedia)
Media such as paintings can shape our cultural norms and encourage various habits—including overconsumption. While I doubt that my ancestors had any connection with those who painted or collected “The Last Supper” pieces during the past 1,000 years, the evolving, expanding concept of supper has surely affected my family’s culture. During the Passover meal we will break apart unleavened bread, known as matzah, and say a prayer: “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.” My family and guests, fortunately not impoverished or famished, say these words and then gorge themselves on brisket, matzah ball soup, and pickled fish to their heart’s content.
In recent years, as the Jewish people have been able to express themselves freely and safely, many Passover meals are focusing on themes besides anti-Semitism, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. I plan to use my family’s Passover meal to raise awareness of the fact that we now face a new cultural struggle: the intentional stimulation of the desire to consume ever more, which, in turn, is undermining the well-being of the world’s ecosystems and with it, the well-being of humanity.
Unless we shift to more sustainable habits—such as eating organic, local, and vegetarian meals and wasting less—we will continue to enslave the planet through our unsustainable practices. I’d like to think that we can preserve the planet for at least another millennium. If not, future generations of artists may not be so kind in depicting our Last Supper….