Easter is associated with currant-studded hot-cross buns and chocolatey eggs – foods that symbolize rebirth and renewal. But what about Judas cake? Or Judas beer? Or Judas bread?
Judas Iscariot, the archvillain of Christianity who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, has an intriguing range of food and drink named after him – some traditionally consumed in the days leading up to Easter.
Some of Judas' namesake foodstuffs, like the Judas fig, were so christened thanks to dark medieval depictions, while others, like the fiery Judas ketchup and the ultrastrong Judas ale, have more playful contemporary roots. What binds them, though, is their association with blood and death and treachery.
"Judas is mentioned 22 times across the four Gospels, but the only parts where he plays a key role are the Last Supper and at the Garden of Gethsemane, where he betrays Christ," says Peter Stanford, author of Judas: The Most Hated Name in History. "Judas' name has become easy shorthand for treachery. Take, for instance, the Judas Blond, a popular Belgian beer which my publishers gave me when the book was published. It looks very pale and weak, but it's actually quite strong, so it's treacherously hiding its strength."
In his book, Stanford, who is British, points to the popular English Easter confection called simnel cake (from the Latin for "fine flour"), which is sometimes referred to as Judas cake.
"It's a delicious fruit cake with layers of marzipan, and it dates back to the 13th century," he says. "In the Victorian era, it was decorated with a circle of 11 marzipan balls to represent the apostles, sans Judas, of course. There was a double space left blank where the Judas ball is meant to be."
In recent years, bakers who feel that Judas has been punished enough have begun to boldly place a 12th ball on their simnel cakes. This act has opened them to charges of moral equivalence.
But Stanford, who feels Judas has gotten a raw deal, is all approval.
"If you read Matthew's Gospel – and Matthew is the only one who gives us the detail of the 30 pieces of silver – he shows Judas feeling remorseful and going back to the temple to give the money back to the high priests," Stanford says. "He wants to make atonement, and he is so guilt-ridden that he hangs himself. So he has paid his dues. On a theological level, too, if you believe God is all-powerful and that he sent his son to earth to be killed as part of a divine plan, the fact that Judas betrayed Jesus, unpleasant as it might be, is simply Judas doing God's work. So, yes, he deserves his marzipan ball."
Others would agree. A few years ago, Peter's Europa House, an upscale restaurant in Shohola, Pa., introduced an Easter-themed menu with dishes named after the 12 apostles. Along with Matthew's Mozzarella, Bartholomew's Surf & Turf and Philip's Shrimp Cocktail, it has offered patrons a Judas Casserole and Judas' Chicken.
"I included Judas because he was one of the apostles," says owner Peter Jajcay. "My personal belief is that he was one of the strongest apostles, which is why I didn't want to leave him out. To be able to betray Jesus you have to be very strong. And, no, I've never had any negative feedback from my customers."
The story of Judas' hanging spawned a pretty Czech Easter bun called the Judas rope. These plaited buns – called Jidáše in the plural – are made with flour, butter, milk and egg yolks, and are traditionally served along with honey for breakfast on Maundy Thursday to commemorate the Last Supper.
Even legends about the tree that Judas hanged himself from have become a rich source of Judas namesakes, especially since accounts vary wildly about what kind of tree it was.
"According to one popular European invention, it was the fig tree," says Stanford. "Renaissance paintings of the Last Supper have a standard array of symbolic fruit, such as pomegranates, whose seeds recall the Resurrection; cherries, whose redness mark the blood of Christ that will soon be spilt; and the Judas fig, a foretaste of the traitor's death."
But another legend has it that Judas hanged himself from an elder tree. Which is why a rubbery, brownish-pinkish, ear-shaped fungus that grows profusely on the live and dead branches of the elder is known as Judas' Ear.
"It's supposed to be a manifestation of Judas' unquiet spirit," says Stanford. Cold and soft, it even has the texture of a human ear. And though it sounds unappealing, it tastes delicious in stir-fry, noodle soup and pad thai.
For wine lovers, there's the Judas Malbec, a rich, ripe and potent red from Mendoza, Argentina, and the mildly fizzy Sangue di Giuda, which translates as "Blood of Judas," from Italy's Lombardy region.
From a rubbery fungus to an ale that "may tempt you to evil deeds," foods named after Judas resonate with the dark characteristics of their namesake.
"Christianity tends to paint the world in black and white terms, so we shuffle all the bad things onto Judas," says Stanford. "And though we live in a time where conventional religious belief is fading – many people, for instance, might not be able to tell you the whole Easter story – when it comes to Judas, there's no confusion. In football, when a player changes teams for a higher fee and appears on the field, there are chants of 'Judas, Judas.' When Bob Dylan was called Judas by a fan for abandoning his acoustic guitar for an electric one and thereby betraying folk music, he was absolutely furious. Forty years on, he was still furious about it. He may have overreacted, but it shows that Judas still has the power to wound."
Just ask Paul Hollywood, a judge on The Great British Bake Off (also known as The Great British Baking Show in the U.S.). Last year, when the BBC lost the beloved baking program to its rival, Channel 4, judge Mary Berry and the two pun-loving, blazer-wearing hosts, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, quit out of loyalty to the BBC.
But Hollywood chose to stay on. Irate fans labeled him a Judas and accused him of chasing the dough rather than sticking with his mates.
It should be noted that despite these angry charges, Hollywood's recipe for simnel cake still calls for only 11 marzipan balls.