The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

In honor of Easter Sunday, I decided to reacquaint myself with The Last Temptation of Christ, a book that has a very soft spot in my heart. This is the book and movie for which I was kicked out of Catholic school back in 9th grade. I didn’t get kicked out because I was a troublemaker or kissing boys behind the school or anything sinful that would warrant getting the boot from good old St. Michael’s High School. I got kicked out for asking questions. Let me explain.

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The movie came out in the mid-1980s and caused a huge ruckus in the Catholic Church, the reason being is that the movie – and the book it was based on – showed a scene of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. I will give you the context of that scene later in this blog, but oh the horror! My mom fell in with the ridiculous mob mentality of many parents back then and refused to allow my sister and I to see it. So of course, what does forbidding something from someone make them want to do? It makes them want to have it, of course.

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Anyway, I spent the weekend with my Dad during all this brouhaha, and we went to rent movies at Blockbuster one evening. I saw a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ – VHS old school, no less! – and asked if I could rent it. Being that he was a teacher, he was never big on restricting knowledge and so he said yes, I could rent it but I had to watch it with him and he’d answer any questions I might have. Oh goody goody gumdrops, was my reaction. So I watched it and was enthralled with the vision of the human Jesus that I had never previously experienced. (Also, how freakin’ cool is it that David Bowie played Pontius Pilate!!!!)

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I was raised Catholic, obviously, and the Jesus I learned about always knew he was the Son of God and what his ultimate fate would be, or at least, this was how it was presented to me. So to watch this movie, which showed Jesus as a man with doubts and fears and desires who was having visions of God and seeing and hearing things and thinking that he was going insane was a HUGE revelation to me. It’s hard to even put into words just how much of a revelation it was……literally life-changing because from that point on, my entire concept of Jesus and God and religion shifted and I wanted to know more.

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So Monday rolled around and I happily trotted back to St. Mike’s with the scales having fallen from my eyes, as it were, and ended my school day with religion class. I sat down in Brother Ben’s class, we did the lesson and I naively raised my hand to ask a question that had occurred to me after having watched the film. My dad, bless his movie censor heart, had fallen asleep during the film so I couldn’t ask him. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact question, but it infuriated Brother Ben, who was this large, red-faced, beefy Irishman of a priest and his face turned the color of a tomato when I asked my question. He said, “Why are you asking that kind of question?!” in a very peeved tone of voice. I responded “Well, I saw this movie this weekend and it made me start thinking about this so I wanted to ask you.” He responded quite angrily, “What movie did you see?” and dummy me, not seeing the warning signs at the time, said innocently, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Oh my Lord – pardon the pun – it was like throwing a match into a keg of gasoline. He exploded, shouting at me and questioning why my parents would allow me to watch such filth and that I had no business asking those kinds of questions, etc. etc. A few weeks later, at the end of the school year, my mom got a letter from the principal of St. Mike’s suggesting I would be happier in a “non-parochial environment.” I still laugh about it now.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Jesus and his path to realizing he is the Son of God, his ministry, his temptations, and his crucifixion. But then from there, while he is slowly and agonizingly dying on the cross, it veers into a lengthy, intense vision of what his life would have been like if he had been different, lived as a a normal man. In this vision, he lives, marries the woman he loves Mary Magdalene (hence his vision of them making love and the furor that created in the Church because what a horrible thing for Jesus to imagine his destiny differently), has children and lives an otherwise unremarkable, normal, happy life. In  other words, the sex scene is all in his mind as part of his vision of giving up being the Son of God. If you were dying slowly and horrifically, wouldn’t you want to escape mentally and imagine you were somewhere else with someone you loved? I would, JC! You’re not alone!

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The son of Mary felt calmed. He sat down on the root of the ancient olive tree and began to eat. How tasty this bread was, how refreshing the water, how sweet the two olives which the old lady gave him to accompany his bread. They had slender pits and were as fat and fleshy as apples! He chewed tranquilly and ate, feeling that his body and soul had joined and become one now, that they were receiving the bread, olives and water with one mouth, rejoicing, the both of them, and being nourished.

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Isn’t that the most beautiful description of eating? I just love it. It inspired me to make olive bread, because bread is the most Biblical of foods and olives were common in Jesus’ time, and then of course, you have the whole Mount of Olives reference and so on. This is the method I used, based on a long-remembered recipe from a Mediterranean cookbook I used to have. Best part? No kneading involved.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
4 teaspoons sea salt
4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Olive oil
1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, dried basil and dried thyme

METHOD
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast.

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Add one cup of flour and the sea salt, and stir until well mixed.

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Add the sliced olives and the garlic powder. Mix again.

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One cup at a time, stir in the remaining flour. You’ll notice the mixture getting thicker and shaggier with each cupful. This is normal.

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Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and set somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Add a tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then transfer the now-risen and very sticky dough to the oiled skillet. You may need to shape it a bit to make it the round size you want.

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Cover with the tea towel and let it proof another half-hour, and heat the oven to 425F.

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Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on top of the dough, sprinkle with the dried herbs and maybe a bit of sea salt.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top crust is nice and brown. Isn’t it beautiful? I was so proud!

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Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before removing the bread from the skillet. Let cool a bit more, and serve with either butter or very good extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of red wine. Because it’s Easter. You gotta have the bread and wine to be saved.

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Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

In memory of my beloved grandfather Tito Baca, who lived his life to the fullest. Just like Zorba.

Zorba the Greek is a man well known to me. This book, as well as the movie, was something I read as a teenager, not really “getting” it, but when I came across a used edition in a bookstore, I remembered reading it and comparing the boisterous Zorba and his love of food, dancing, music, women, wine and life to my grandfather, Tito, who was very much the same.

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The book is narrated by the unnamed financier of a lignite mine who meets Zorba as they travel together to oversee the mining operation and meet the working-class men who labor there. It’s really a study in contrasts. The financier is a rather repressed man, focused on work and profits and the details of life. Zorba, on the other hand, loves to sing and dance and drink and eat and make love to women. These two men are able to forge a friendship and share each of their unique personalities with the other, opening up to seeing the world in a different way.

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I think what I took away from the book, rereading it this time around, is the importance of living life to the fullest. Don’t just sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else. Get up and dance! Eat the food you love! Drink the wine you enjoy! Celebrate all that live has to offer. If you love someone, tell them. Don’t let fear or apathy or worry about other’s opinions keep you from doing what makes you happy.

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This is not to say Zorba is a saint, because he’s not. He has decided macho tendencies, though he loves women, but in the sense that he desires them physically. He loves the soft curves of women, the floral scent of their hair and skin, their cooking, their lovemaking……..but he is as much a heartbreaker as he is a lover.

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Zorba is a man of appetites, including food. The descriptions of the luscious seafood and Greek cuisine in this book are truly mouthwatering and make me wish I lived closer to the sea. This description of a beach celebration during Lent was particularly mouth-watering.

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We returned to our hut, where Zorba treated everyone to wine and Lenten hors d’oeuvres: octopus, squid, stewed beans, olives.

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In my interpretation of this luscious sentence, I decided to make a Greek seafood stew with octopus, squid, shrimp, mussels and clams, with some olives thrown in. Opa!

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Recipe courtesy of the amazing Greek food blogger Diane Kochilas, with (of course) a few flavoring tweaks by moi.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. medium-sized squid
1 lb. shrimp
1 lb. mixed seafood – I used clams, mussels, and octopus
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 14-oz. cans chopped tomatoes
5-6 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup anise liqueur – I used Pernod
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 bay leaves
12 Greek olives, pitted and sliced in half
1 cup feta cheese, for sprinkling
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Start the tomato broth up to two hours prior to cooking the seafood, so that the flavors meld. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and add the onion and garlic. Stir and cook for about 10 minutes.

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Add the tomatoes, wine, anise liqueur, herbs, bay leaves, and a splash of fish stock if you have it. If not, use tomato bouillon in addition to the canned tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning, for two hours.

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Allow the seafood to thaw for up to an hour before cooking. Cut up the squid into rings, and remove the shrimp tails.

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Add the squid, the shrimp, and the other seafood to the tomato sauce, and stir in the olives. Simmer another 10-15 minutes.

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Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if so desired. Simmer all together for 10 minutes and serve with good, crusty bread and some strong red wine. You can garnish with some sprinkled feta crumbles if you like, which adds such a nice saltiness to the briny seafood. The oregano and olives also make this dish quintessentially Mediterranean and you can almost imagine Zorba dancing with glee before devouring his bowl of deliciousness from the sea.

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