Bread of heaven, cake, muffin, scone, or hearth cake?

The bread of angels :  Honey, that ain’t no scone

Last Sunday’s First Reading is from the First Book of Kings, part of Elijah’s story. He has just fled for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab,  and has gone to hide from retribution (after slaughtering all the priests of Baal) in the desert. He falls asleep in despair, unable to see a way out for himself, but an angel wakes him up, with a jug of water and something to eat.  He eats a little, and goes back to sleep, but the angel wakes him again and insists that he has more to eat and drink, to strengthen him for ‘the journey’ (whereas Elijah had been hoping just to die quietly). He eats and drinks, and then walks for forty days and nights (where have we seen that before?) till he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God. And the story moves on.

Elijah, angel and bread
Elijah with the angel… and supplies

The prophet Elijah

I love this reading. Elijah is one of the most human and engaging of the prophets anyway, because his narrative is more practical than most. God has to keep stepping in to feed him, because he concentrates on being a prophet and forgets to worry about his own needs until it’s too late. His story starts in I Kings 17, and is a corking read, which I warmly recommend, with heroes, villains, food-delivering ravens, a wicked queen, slaughter and smiting, fire from heaven and all sorts of excitement.  There is a great cartoon, courtesy of Welsh television, available on the internet here, which uses Mendelssohn’s Elijah for part of its soundtrack (good call).

I want to focus on one tiny element, though, because it was what struck me on Sunday.  The angel touches him to wake him up, and tells him to get up and eat.  ‘He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water’ (1 Kings 19.6, Jerusalem Bible).

Bread in corner
The bread is bottom left
Catering for Elijah

This manages to be both vague and oddly specific.  The same thing happens earlier, when Elijah has no food and there is a drought and a famine.  God tells him where to go, and adds ‘I have ordered the ravens to bring you food there’ (1 Kings 17.4).  The ravens duly supply  ‘bread in the morning and meat in the evening’ (1 Kings 17.6).  When the stream dries up, God has thought ahead : ‘Up and go to Zarephath! […]. I have ordered a widow there to give you food’ (1 Kings 17.9).  Elijah goes off, asks the widow for water, and as she goes to fetch it, he calls after her to bring him ‘a scrap of bread in your hand’.   That ‘scrap’ is interesting; it’s not the usual word for a piece of bread.  Other translations have ‘piece’ or ‘morsel’.  She tells him that she has ‘no baked bread, but only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug’.  She is fetching fuel to cook that into a last meal for her son and herself, ‘and then we shall die’.   Elijah tells her to go ahead, ‘but first make a little scone of it for me and bring it to me, and then make some for yourself and for your son’.  He promises her that the meal and the oil will not be finished before God sends rain again.  She believes him and does as he asks.  Later in the story, the son dies, and Elijah brings him back to life, the first time this happens in the Bible.

Elijah, widow and son
Elijah restoring the resurrected son to his mother
What has the angel actually brought him?

Being a baker myself, I find this really interesting.  It doesn’t sound like a scone to me, more like a flatbread, but then Elijah tells her to make ‘some’ for her little family.  The only ingredients are flour of some kind, oil and water : no yeast, no raising agent, so not a scone.  (She must have put a little salt in it, though.)  So far I have been using the Jerusalem Bible translation, but I thought it might be interesting to see what the other translations might have to offer.

A cake is a loaf is a bread

What about the angel’s catering?  Mostly the translators seem to go for ‘bread’, but there is also ‘cake’, ‘a cake of bread’, a ‘bread cake’, a ’round loaf of bread’.   The same set of words occur in what Elijah requests from the widow.   They are all trying, but they are floundering.  The International Standard Version has, egregiously, ‘muffin’, and the Douay version has ‘hearthcake’, which is possibly the best for those who know what that is, but overwhelmingly I think what we have here is translators not knowing very well what they are describing.  The ’round’ seems to come from the more literal Aramaic translations, and probably reflects what was familiar, but it’s very difficult to make ‘a round loaf’ (not to mention a scone) if you bake it on hot coals or hot stones, especially with no raising agent.  You’re much more likely to end up with something more like an oatcake or a bannock, something you can make on a griddle or a hearthstone.  The Georgians and Turks make lavash, the Mexicans have tortillas.  You roll or pat them out to cook quickly, and then you can tear them into pieces or roll them up.  For a loaf that we might recognise as such, even a flat loaf like focaccia, you need yeast (or raising agent of some kind) and some sort of oven.

Viaticum, journey food

This is food to strengthen Elijah for his journey, like the Passover bread for the Exodus, which is also unleavened and quick to cook.  He doesn’t take it with him; he is described as eating it all before he goes, marching for weeks on one meal, but if this wasn’t a hero story, maybe he could have packed some, because it would fold down easily.  The practical problem would be to stop it getting mouldy.

A scone is not bread

Scones are different.   They seem to be a natural cause for debate and disagreement, from how they are pronounced (skons or scoanes), to whether you put the cream or jam on first (depends whether you’re from Devon or Cornwall; I just put on first whichever is thicker).  But they should always be light, which is why you need either yeast or baking powder or bicarbonate of soda or cream of tartar.  And they tend to be baked in an oven.  They are smaller than a loaf of bread, though of course bread can be divided into small chunks for speed of cooking (bread rolls), and this can lead to smaller bread chunks being referred to as scones, like Irish soda bread.  If you cook those on a griddle, you might even end up with soda farls (from the old word for a quarter, like farthing).

There’s another sort of scone which you can cook on a griddle.  That’s a drop scone (always pronounced ‘dropskon’ with the emphasis on the first syllable).  These are made from a sort of batter (hence ‘drop’), rather than a drier mixture (like Welsh cakes, say, probably very similar to the ‘raisin cakes’ that David has distributed in 2 Samuel 6.19).   Drop scones in old recipe books are often called Scotch pancakes, but that name seems to have died out as ‘Scotch’ has been replaced by ‘Scots’.  But they are very similar to what Americans call pancakes, which has also led to confusion.  Scones strike again!   Let’s not even mention the different understandings of ‘flapjack’.

I say baking powder, you say something different

Bread and baking terms are as confusing as the names for fish, and vary considerably across even a small geographical area.  It’s always fun to find out the local word for a bread roll, but you will need to ask an older person quite often.  It’s not just shape or size, it’s often linked to a particular glaze or finish.  Baps in the Midlands are always flour-dusted and soft, cobs are golden and crusty, and so on.  Loaves can be plaits (Kent), bloomers (everywhere south), cobs, tins, or other names, but are mostly currently described by what they are made from (‘wholemeal’, ‘white’, ‘brown’, ‘rye’, ‘sourdough’ etc.)  ‘Roll’ seems to be the nearest thing to a generic term for ‘small hunk of bread’ (though it’s definitely southern rather than northern British), and I’m surprised to find that no translation offers that to Elijah.  Maybe it sounds too dainty, because you wouldn’t eat part of a roll and then lie down again. 

But how could you resist a drink of water in a cutglass goblet in the desert?
Griddles, girdles and bakestones

And you really want something more rustic and a bit less shaped, if it’s been made on a griddle or cooked on a hot stone among the ashes.  What sort of bread can you cook on a griddle?  That’s a whole other group of possibilities, from the drop scones to singing hinnies, pikelets, crumpets, oatcakes and muffins (the UK sort, not the US).  But none of those is really bread, and drop scones need an egg where the others mostly use yeast.  We want to think of something more like Indian breads, I suspect, or the Turkish bread I’ve already mentioned.  An unleavened, possibly slightly tough, sort of pizza base, cooked in a frying pan if a griddle is not to hand.  This would tear into something like ‘scraps’, but I wouldn’t ever call it a scone.

Wesh cakes
My griddle’s bigger : we can do seven Welsh cakes at once
The Heavenly Diner or Carry-out

Of course none of this matters very much.  I do love the idea of God running a staff restaurant for the angels, from which he can feed deserving (and undeserving) mortals, like Elijah repeatedly here, or like the manna in the desert.  This seems to be the general understanding in the Old Testament : ‘Mere men ate the bread of angels’ (Ps 77/78.25) ‘You gave them bread from heaven’ (Nehemiah 9.15).  Bread is vital, so if God’s people cannot make it for themselves out of what he supplies, he will actually supply the made bread himself.  Not to lack for bread is a sign of divine favour.  We tend to think of the angels as not needing bread, but that’s a modern idea.  Everyone needs bread, so there’s obviously bread in heaven for the angels, and it can be sent out in case of need.  This whole web of ideas is behind all the bread images and discussions in the New Testament, underpinning the feeding of the multitudes and of course the Last Supper and the revelation at Emmaus.

Le pain juste

I still think ‘scone’ is not a good translation, but I am feeling much friendlier towards ‘muffin’.  The classic English muffin is indeed baked on a griddle, and is a bit more bread-like, but it needs ingredients which would not have been to hand….except I suppose in heaven you would be able to find anything you needed.  It’s not right as a translation here, because it brings in all sorts of unnecessary ideas, and is an intrinsically comic word, which doesn’t help.   But Elijah would have wanted something reasonably familiar and definitely substantial, for the journey he is about to embark upon.  I think I’d go for something like ‘bannock’, which sounds rustic and wholesome but has the big advantage that most people will have some rough idea but not anything too specific.  I do think that any Bible translation would be seriously improved if a few more women were involved in the discussion.  Some of them would know how to cook.

Classic Scottish bannock


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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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