In every gospel version of the Last Supper, and in Paul’s version too, a strange textual sleight of hand occurs – the kind of thing that can easily go unnoticed in such a beloved and foundational story. From the Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, the feast itself disappears. The sacrificial animal is so essential that the same term, pascha, can mean both the roasted carcass and the whole meal. In the Greek of the New Testament, the disciples ask Jesus where they should prepare “to eat the Passover” – to eat the pascha. The traditional food is prepared, and they eat, but when it comes down to it, no one is shown eating the all-important course. In Luke, Jesus seems to refrain, saying that, despite his longing, he will not “eat this Passover until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God” (22:15–16). Explicitly shared around, under Jesus’ command to consume them, are of course only wine, the ordinary drink at meals, and bread.

But chapter 12 of Exodus contains the instructions for a truly celebratory meal. Animal protein was a luxury in the ancient world, and for the Passover, scripture went out of its way to specify what would have been a true treat: a one-year-old sheep or goat (nearly full-grown, that is, but still tender) for each house. The community is to gather and slaughter the animals in public – which means that, once there was a Temple, its officials did not take a share of the meat. The carcasses could be shared between small households, but the process could leave no individual out. (“You should apportion the animal according to what each person will eat.”)

Photograph by colnihko. Used by permission.

Each group of celebrants had to finish off their meat in one evening and burn any leftovers. This commemorates the hasty meal before departure from Egypt, but another impression must have been a lavish and confident banquet: “We’re eating meat here, and we’re not putting aside any of it.”

In the relatively cosmopolitan and urbanized culture of the first century AD, sacred law had found a number of workarounds. The Passover festival couldn’t in fact look like the homey rites prescribed in Exodus, but involved massive pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and all the necessary commerce was in place. But I intuit that the sustained gift-giving character of the Passover – at early harvest time God renders the people prosperous enough to eat meat, and household members share it among themselves with no subtractions for officialdom – helped send Jesus over the edge on this occasion, into his attack on people doing business in the Temple courtyard. The Temple, gigantic and colorful (Herod the Great, allied with pagan rulers, had expanded and refurbished it), must have looked to him the way a pseudo-sacred theme park would look today, with ticket booths, turnstiles, and hotdog stands.

After the public commotion comes the private banquet, the Last Supper. Jesus and his followers, observant Jews, would have had a Passover sacrifice to make short work of, but readers don’t observe them eating it. Jesus himself is about to become the “Lamb of God,” and “Christ our Passover” who is “sacrificed for us,” the flesh made (in him, briefly) lifeless to feed ongoing life. But the only food Jesus is shown dividing and distributing is bread.

In South Africa, against a background of destitution, it is striking how strong the human drive to share meat can be.

This would be the unleavened bread of the Passover, bread that didn’t have time to rise before the flight from Egypt. The “bread of haste” isn’t supposed to be savory. Matzo is hard and flat, with no extra salt or other spice like a cracker’s, and without even the flavor that yeast adds. Unleavened bread is slavery’s plain food made abnormally plainer.

So why does bread come forward at the Last Supper, pushing aside precious meat at the very moment when the dispersion of meat is being enacted festively and is about to become a new symbolic prescription? Jesus’ body is given to all of humankind, miraculously bountiful like the few fish multiplied over the five thousand – a rich, eternal feast. Why is the Passover meat invisible? Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask only for daily bread, when so much more was provided?

In South Africa, against a background of destitution and subsistence struggle, it is striking how strong the human drive to share meat can be. This struck me again and again during the nearly ten years I lived in Cape Town. As a guest at a club for retired housecleaners in a “black township” outside Cape Town, I was once given a heaping plate of chicken and struggled to do it justice, anxious to be gracious but concerned that I was taking leftovers away from several grandchildren waiting in the women’s homes.

Events such as traditional weddings and funerals, which demand the inclusion of the whole community (“If they know about it, they will come”), can devastate households. When interviewed for a documentary, a white clergyman reported that when he visits the African bereaved to ask what they have to live on after the death of their only wage-earner, he may well hear that they have nothing at all: they cleaned out the bank account to feast their near and distant neighbors.

Against this background, the habits of middle-class and wealthy whites who made up my social circle are troubling and understandable at the same time. Their feasts are lavish but exclusive. One year, the established host in my circle of professors and aid workers bought a shallow second-hand metal cart, about ten feet long and six feet wide, to convert into a grill big enough for the Afrikaner braii or barbecue. I counted – I think – ten kinds of meat crowding over the coals, including cuts too fatty for me ever to have seen in the States.

Photograph courtesy of Rachel Korinek

But we were discreet, in ways unspoken even among ourselves. I can recall only one African servant ever being present around the time of a party. This left the hosts a great deal to do, but they did it cheerfully; other white hosts I knew had some help with food preparation or clean-up, but that help was enclosed and muffled in a distant kitchen.

In my own home, I had adjusted to the overarching rule that servants were to be connected as loosely as practical to the food. Maids everywhere seemed to cooperate, withdrawing quickly with the food they were given, and professing themselves helpless in the kitchen except for cleaning. To me as a Quaker, at least nominally pledged to equality, the rule was shocking on its face, and I started out breaking it, serving lunch to my maid and foreign lodger at the same time and sitting down with them. But the maid was plainly distressed, so I took to filling a plate for her and letting her take it out to the porch alone.

After two short stints back in the States, and ending another long one in South Africa, I found I had been in an ethically impossible place. Wishing to give a farewell treat to a second beloved maid, Lucy, I asked a neighbor for whom Lucy also worked to drive us both around the scenic Cape Peninsula and join us in a restaurant meal. The neighbor agreed, but only on the condition that Lucy not have the whole day off but show up early to clean her bathroom. I was given to understand, however, that the ultimate imposition on my part, the hard evidence that I was out to spoil the help, was Lucy’s plate of soigné fish.

I’m still not sure exactly what I was up to: whether or not I was being self-righteous and impractical; whether I risked straining Lucy’s relationship with a household that valued her and provided her long-term security. What was the point, after all, of rubbing it in that Africans’ daily food, if they were lucky, was mieliepap, a thick porridge of cornmeal?

The cornmeal was one of the basic grocery items angrily named by my students when I suggested that a few rand from their modest stipends should purchase used books. It was the square of yellow powder in thin plastic bags doled out to roadside work-seekers by “Mr. Inasmuch” (so named by us because in the King James Version, Matthew 25:40 reads, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”), a retired prison chaplain whose good works the Cape Western Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends helps to fund.

Photograph courtesy of rawpixel

We visited him at his tasks one morning. The peanut butter sandwiches and soup were for now, he explained to us as he doled, but the mielie-meel was to take home in case not enough foremen came by in their trucks to recruit for building sites, which meant that for some work-seekers there would be nothing to feed the family in the evening. The readiest recourse then was to ask the wife to go sell herself for the five rand that would buy a bag of meal this size.

I guessed that it weighed two or three pounds; in many cases it would need to feed ten people for twenty-four hours or over a weekend. “You pure Quakers won’t like this,” Mr. Inasmuch told us, “but sometimes I have to give them a little klop. They tell me, ‘You can’t hit me – you’re not my father.’ I say, ‘I am your father, because I feed you.’” Right in front of us, when one of the men moved away from the wall with which he was supposed to stay in contact, Mr. Inasmuch slapped him upside the head.

But we revered this old man, who was feeding thousands of people alone. When we offered more money, he said that what he needed was help; he was becoming too frail to do the work alone. Could someone join him, with a view to taking over eventually? There were no takers. “Casual” workers who wait on the bleak sandy roadsides between warehouses outside Cape Town probably now lack any source of daily grain, any assurance of not going home empty-handed to their hungry families. I can’t find a trace of the old man’s operations on the internet, and I know from Quakers’ own long-ago ventures that food interventions entail mammoth difficulties. The first among these is to find someone who gets up at five every weekday morning, propelled by her clients’ condition, as if their hunger were her hunger, their bodies her body.