Sure, we’ve all heard of manna—you know, the manna from heaven. Exodus 16 is all about the origin of manna. Moses is leading his (increasingly hungry, increasingly cranky) people through the desert. They get a real break from God when manna starts showing up 6 days a week (they got double on Fridays, so they could all observe the Sabbath on Saturday). This stuff just showed up with the dew each morning, all-you-can-eat buffet style! A one-item buffet in which the one item is some fine, flaky substance that tasted like honey. Here’s what they did with it: “The people went around gathering it, and ground it in a mill or crushed it with a pestle; it was then cooked in a pot and made into pancakes. It tasted like cake made with oil.” So what was this stuff, exactly? All myths and legends have some sort of factual base. If a large tribe did survive for years in the desert, hiding out, they must have been eating something.
From the Smithsonian’s Food and Think blog come these two ideas: 1) The Israelites were consuming “the sweet-tasting secretion of a kind of plant lice that infected certain shrubs in the Sinai Desert,” which Bedouins continue to use as a food source, as it contains three basic sugars. Any carb’ll do in a desert situation, really. And then we have theory number 2): they were munching on a “dried form of algae or drought-desiccated and wind-dispersed lichen.” First idea: ew. Second idea: boring. What else do we have?
From the Ask the Rabbi column: “Most probably the Manna was some type of YEAST which contained all proteins and B-vitamins and enough fats for a daily diet… [But]…we know of no yeast which has full nutritional value. Also different yeasts have different yields of nutrients.” Ultimately, however, the rabbi notes that he doesn’t know what it is; no one does. In fact “the word MANNA literally means WHAT IS THIS—I DON’T RECOGNIZE IT.” (This rabbi likes to use ALL CAPS to DISTINGUISH between key terms AND explanatory teXt.)
Although the rabbi points out that no one actually knows what this stuff was, Wikipedia provides some compelling ideas (as well as additional details [and horrifying photos] of the plant lice and lichen proposed by Food and Think):
- The resin of the tamarisk tree partially matches the Bible’s description of manna, but its texture would not allow it to be made into cakes.
- Kosher locusts
- Sap from succulent plants known to work as an appetite suppressant.
So many theories abound that even this lentil soup recipe has a theory:
“In the story of Moses, “manna,” a grain harvested in the morning dew under white flowers, saved Moses and his band from starvation in the wilderness. Like manna buckwheat is harvested in morning dew. Its flowers are white and its grains are often hidden under these. It was just seven weeks after the lamb was slain during the Passover that manna was available in the story of Exodus. Buckwheat grows in poor soil, rapidly, in 6 – 8 weeks. Like manna also, buckwheat wilts in the heat, and is about the size of coriander seed. Buckwheat has a slighty sweet nutty taste: manna tasted like honey according to Exodus (16: 31).”
When lentil soup recipes begin achieving sentience and developing theories about Old Testament foodstuffs, you know things are getting weird. Not weird enough yet? Here’s the VERY BEST ONE:
Some ethnomycologists (mushroom experts) note quite a few parallels between manna and Psilocybe cubensis (yes, that’s magic mushrooms). According to the story, God dictated that no one should hoard manna overnight, because they didn’t need to; He’d always send down more in the morning. Those who did keep their leftovers found them smelly and full of maggots in the AM (as punishment for doubting). And these mushrooms here rot a rapid pace and are infamous as bug breeding grounds. Manna was supposed to look like frost; these mushrooms propagate via little fungusy tendrils that look like frost. Also, one side effect of ingesting this mushroom is loss of appetite: a handy feature when little food is available. Finally, where you have people hanging out in deserts, you have people tripping and seeing God:
In a Psilocybin study from 2006 one-third of the participants reported that the experience was the single most spiritually significant moment of their lives… This speculation…is supported in a wider cultural context when compared with the praise of Haoma in the Rigveda, Mexican praise of teonanácatl, the peyote sacrament of the Native American Church, and the Holy Ayahuasca used in the ritual of the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime.
Mushrooms wouldn’t make nice little cakes that taste of honey and oil, unless of course you are tripping in desert, on the run from Egyptians, with very little food. Those conditions open up worlds of possibilities for perception and new realities. I really need to read the Bible more; this is good stuff.