There is no surprise to the ending of Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers. For one thing, it’s a fictional portrayal of the all-too-true events at Masada. Even if you, like me, were unfamiliar with the setting, the first line of the jacket copy gives fair warning- juuuuust about everybody dies at the end.
The story is told in four parts, each from the point of view of a different woman as she makes her way towards the Jewish stronghold of Masada in hopes of escaping the Romans. Yael is a lioness, the despised daughter of a famed Sicarii assassin. Revka was a baker’s wife, before she discovered what she was capable of alone. Aziza is a warrior princess, and Shirah, her mother, is a renowned sorceress.
Each of their stories intertwine, as the women all end up working together to care for the doves of Masada. The fates that have been written in the Book of Life unfold in Hoffman’s beautiful prose. You would think, with the foreshadowing- can you even call it foreshadowing? It’s more like… Well, I haven’t invented a word yet. Anyways, despite the grim subject matter, the book somehow manages not to be sad.
Rather, this is an extraordinary story of female strength in a time we don’t tend to think of encouraging that. There is also a lot of really neat stuff about magic in ancient Judaism. But best of all- oh my Lord, the food. Almonds and lentils, wild onions and asparagus, olives and honey. If it weren’t for all the goat milk, I could have been such a happy ancient Isrealite.
This dish is based on one of the first described in the book. It manages the difficult feat of being both light and hearty at once. Leave out the game hen for a vegan meal- no one will miss the meat. And whatever you do, use good olives!
The Dovekeeper’s Stew
1 Cornish game hen
1 tsp sage
1/2 c olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 c chopped olives
5 dried figs, chopped
1 Tb mint
2 bay leaves
2 c lentils
1/4 c barley
2 quarts water
An hour before you start the stew, sprinkle the game hen with the sage, salt, and pepper. Roast it at 375 for an hour. Let it cool while you start the onions.
Combine the onions, olives, and olive oil in a heavy soup pot, and let them slowly cook down over medium heat for 30 minutes. Pull the meat of the game hen, and set aside. Add the bones to the pot. Add the rest of the the ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes. Add reserved meat and simmer for another 15 minutes. Season liberally.
Serve with sliced cold cucumber and feta cheese. Serves a stronghold.