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Biblical Botanical Garden is an inner-city Eden

Sunday, June 22, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

When I first met Irene Jacob in 1995, one of the first things she told me was, "I don't cook." Oh, she cooks a little, she said last week, because she and her husband, retired Rabbi Walter Jacob, "have to eat."

Irene (pronounce the last e) may spend as little time as possible in the kitchen, but she certainly knows a lot about the other end of the food equation -- making things grow. To share her knowledge about the history of plants, Irene has devoted 18 years to the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden in Oakland.

Irene Jacob, the force behind the creation of the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden, has also been its caretaker for 18 years. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

If you go...

Where: Rodef Shalom, 4905 Fifth Ave. at Devonshire Street, Oakland.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; noon to 1 p.m. Saturdays. The garden is closed Fridays. Self-guided tours through Sept. 15.

What: "Introduction to the Garden" at 12:15 p.m. July 2, Gabi Dinman; Aug. 6, Nancy Berkowitz; and Sept. 3, Karen Herzog.

Evening programs: July 22, "The Exotic and Everyday in Your Kitchen" by Squirrel Hill cooking teacher and freelance writer Jane Citron; and Aug. 5, "From the Olive to the Peanut -- 5,000 Years of Oil" by Walter Jacob. Both at 7:30 p.m.

Admission: Free. Handicapped-accessible, free parking. For cookbook, call 412-621-6566, ext. 115.

Irene Jacob's "Plants of the Bible and Their Uses" is available for $15 and "Botanical Symbols and World Religion" for $7.50.

The botanical garden is a slice of solitude in the midst of the city, and if it weren't for the hum of cars driving by on Fifth Avenue, you'd think you were in the country.

As a farmer's daughter, I have more than admiration for the likes of 75-year-old Irene -- I'm in awe. The one-third acre she tends appears weedless, and I know how much work that is. She loves it.

"Gardeners get very old," she says with a smile. "There's always another spring to look forward to. Everybody my age has a backache, but not me."

The plants come to the garden two ways -- they are either one of the 110 mentioned in the Old Testament, barley and wheat, for example, or they have biblical names, such as Joseph's Coat. A third group is each summer's featured plants. When I last visited, the topic was grains. This year it's oils, and the exhibit title mirrors Irene's sense of humor:

"A Taste of Oil: Without Cholesterol."

That sly joke, of course, points up the fact that no plant has cholesterol; only animal products contain cholesterol. Visitors get a yellow sheet that lists each oil's uses and variations in the percentage of saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fatty acids. A mini-education on oils. (Mono- and poly-unsaturated oils are generally considered more healthful than those high in saturated fat.)

From A to V, she lists the oils: almond, apricot kernel, avocado, canola, coconut, corn, grape, hazelnut, linseed flax, olive oil, peanut, pumpkin, safflower, sesame, soya, sunflower and walnut. The last is the generic "vegetable oil," typically a mix of the oils that are cheapest at the moment. "We have 21 sources growing in the garden," she says. "No, there's an apricot, making 22."

Every oil contains the same amount of calories per tablespoon: 120.

Irene asks if I know why a favorite oil of mine is called canola, and not rapeseed oil. "Two reasons," she figures. "It's been grown in Canada, and rape doesn't sound good in our language."

The oil-producing linseed plant. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

A visitor's bound to learn something, and we needn't wait until some trendy chef dumps in a tablespoon of grapeseed or pumpkin oil and doubles the price of the entree.

Irene says she was fascinated to see soybeans growing in Alabama, old hat to me, because my family raises soybeans in Michigan, and my brother is always touting the oil's special characteristics. Most soybeans, though, don't go into the food supply -- never mind the popularity of soy flour, soynuts and tofu -- but into industrial uses or for animal feed.

Irene, who developed the docent program at Phipps Conservatory as a volunteer, continues to edit Papyrus, the newsletter that highlights the goings-on at the garden. This month it delves into olive oil through the centuries.

"Humans have always needed oil," Irene says.

She leads me through the garden, pointing out an oddity here, a crop failure there, a successful hunt fulfilled with a rare frankincense plant. Seated on a bench, I watch as she releases 40 goldfish into the upper part of the stream that represents the river Jordan. The garden itself is reminiscent of the shape of Israel, where Irene lived for 10 years. Born in Germany, she had grown up in England after her family escaped the Holocaust shortly before Kristallnacht. She met her husband while vacationing in Rome and moved to America.

A small boy and a woman, perhaps his mother, are intrigued. "Why no frogs?" the boys asks. "Too noisy," Irene says.

And so it goes for visitors to the Biblical Botanical Garden.

Meanwhile, Karen Herzog, who wrote "Dining with the Ancients," an intriguing cookbook using the ingredients from ancient times in Egypt, Greece and Rome -- proceeds benefit the garden -- is checking the visitors log. "Taiwan, the Czech Republic, six states, all in only 11 days," she says. Last summer there were visitors from 17 countries. The cookbook, which sells for a modest $5, is the personification of the Mediterranean diet, and Karen tested many of the recipes. In 1998, she had gathered a recipe collection called "Cooking with Beer."

The garden also has a whole drawer full of umbrellas, so visitors needn't be deterred by rains, gentle or otherwise. Groups are welcome to schedule tours.

Today, when it seems as if we're worrying about taking in too much fat, it's good to be reminded how the clever ancients worked so hard developing ways to extract it from plants. Who was the first person who figured out that gnarly old olive trees -- they can live 1,000 years -- could have their fruit pressed into a commodity practically as precious as gold?

According to the Papyrus newsletter, olive oil was used for anointing the religious and the royal, in embalming, for cooking and for lighting. Oil shops lined the streets of Pompeii, and the upper classes used it in salads as well as for frying and baking.

Today, the greatest producers of olive oil are Spain and Italy. Olive trees need rainy winters and thrive in hot, dry summers. Israel has lost many of its olive groves because of urbanization, and today has 22,000 acres under cultivation. The proposed Palestinian state has 225,000 acres devoted to olive trees.

Wine may improve with age, Irene writes, but olive oil does not. "The world's olive oil market is full of fakes laced with [substances from] soybean oil to food coloring. It is best for consumers to taste or smell when purchasing from open vats. As this possibility rarely exists in the United States, it is best to read the labels carefully."

You might think a product such as olive oil is either a virgin or it's not, but that's not true when it comes to labeling. Although I believe it is misleading, olive oil labeled "pure" is lower in quality than "extra virgin," which has 1 percent acidity, compared to 4 percent for pure, sometimes called "virgin." The date it was harvested should be labeled, but is not, Irene says.

Unlike labels for other foods, "light" olive oil doesn't mean fewer calories; it means lighter color and/or flavor. I always use extra-virgin, and have experimented with several brands. The best olive oil I have ever tasted came from former Pittsburghers Tom and Melinda McMahon's place in Tuscany. My dream is to sit with them in the Tuscan sun and dip Tom's bread (he was a BreadWorks partner) in their oil.

Irene has plans, too. This winter the gardener par excellence will pack her Toshiba laptop computer in her bags for Germany, where she'll do research while Walter teaches at Geiger College, which he founded for Reform rabbinical students in Europe and serves as president. Each year Irene focuses on a particular topic.

What's next?

Whatever it is, she has the resources to research it in their Point Breeze home, where they've lived for 38 years.

"I have a nice garden at home, too," she says modestly, admitting that it's "difficult to keep two gardens in shape." Nice is not the word. It's fabulous, a series of garden "rooms" designed by her and her husband on their L-shaped half-acre lot -- a mesmerizing walk in the woods amid shrubs, trees and flowers. "A garden should be full of surprises," she says.

They've done the work themselves, and their home seems to extend into the outdoors. We are about to have tea and cake outside, when sprinkles force us into the covered porch. As we talk, Irene is scribbling down the names of restaurants I've liked.

After a lifetime as a reporter, I've come to believe that gardeners -- and cooks -- are some of the best people of all. People who dig in the dirt have little time to dig up dirt, and the cooks are always in search of the fellowship of eager eaters ready to dip into their creations.

Food and hospitality are things that bind Americans together, so everyone is welcome to the garden, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu, any religion or no religion at all.

"There are no politics allowed in the garden," Irene says with a smile.

White Cheese with Black Olives

This appetizer is usually served as a dip surrounded by crackers or bread.

  • Approximately 16 ounces feta cheese or any white half-salted cheese

  • 1/2 cup seeded and diced black olives
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Diced black olives for decoration

Crush feta cheese with a fork to smoothen. Add all other ingredients except oil. Mix well to obtain a thick spread consistency. Add 2 tablespoons oil and mix.

Put in serving bowl. Sprinkle with remaining oil and decorate with diced black olives. Serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4 (more as an appetizer).

"Dining with the Ancients"

by Karen Herzog

Chicken Breasts in Balsamic Vinegar and Honey Sauce

A modern-day recipe using vinegar and honey for the sweet-and-sour flavor favored in Roman cooking.

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 5 ounces each)

  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Heat extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet and brown the chicken breasts for about 5 minutes. Dribble honey over the chicken breasts and cook on both sides, forming a glaze. Add the balsamic vinegar to the skillet and cook until slightly caramelized. Pour in chicken broth and simmer until the mixture is slightly reduced.

Remove chicken breasts from skillet and keep warm. Add the butter to the skillet, and stir together to form a sauce. Slice the chicken breasts and arrange in the shape of a fan. Spoon the sauce over the chicken breasts and serve.

"Dining With the Ancients"

by Karen Herzog

Food Editor Suzanne Martinson can be reached at smartinson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.

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