The Feat of Feasting

One cannot both feast and become rich.
Ashanti Proverb

Feasting Scappi
Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi (1605)

“Feasting,” for all practical purposes, appears to be the antonym of “hunger.”

And yet, feasting is rife (ripe?) with teeming contradictions and ritualistic conventions. For some, feasting implies hunger.

Ambrose Bierce defined feasting in a rather limiting manner in his irreverent Devil’s Dictionary:

FEAST, n. A festival. A religious celebration usually signalized by gluttony and drunkenness, frequently in honor of some holy person distinguished for abstemiousness. In the Roman Catholic Church feasts are “movable” and “immovable,” but the celebrants are uniformly immovable until they are full. In their earliest development these entertainments took the form of feasts for the dead; such were held by the Greeks, under the name Nemeseia, by the Aztecs and Peruvians, as in modern times they are popular with the Chinese; though it is believed that the ancient dead, like the modern, were light eaters. Among the many feasts of the Romans was the Novemdiale, which was held, according to Livy, whenever stones fell from heaven.

What Bierce describes is termed “mortuary feast,” just one of many types of feasts.

Feasting turkey

Feasts, like the American Thanksgiving feast, may celebrate the harvest, urging the lucky population to give thanks for having escaped famine, enabling them to escape the grip of death for another season. Feasting after the end of war, if there is any food left, offers another example of the thanksgiving feast. Many of these types of feasts now symbolize the society presenting them, providing a sense of identity. Exiles and expatriates, in particular, cling to the accoutrements of these feasts, paying exorbitant prices for food items that cost mere pennies back home. I recall many Thanksgiving feasts in far-away places, where finding a large turkey and pumpkin-like squash for “pumpkin” demanded more mettle than money.

Gluts of food provoke feasting, as in certain African and Native American cultures, as Diana Buja mentions in an excellent commentary on the subject.

But other, more predominate, attributes generally define feasts. Perhaps the most common trait of many feasts — no matter in what culture that feast may occur — has to do with underlying power plays. “Commensal hospitality” sums up the ritual gift-giving associated with feasting (think potlatches on the Northwest Coast of the United States). Politics and power aspirations drove many of the feasts recorded in old cookbooks, and many our present day table manners originated in early feasts.

Renaissance feasting gave rise eventually to banquet-management manuals, further encrusting the ritualistic aspect present in feasting.

Weddings, obviously, represented a joining of families and resources, and the past this arrangement tended to be more economic than romantic. A type of initiation feast as well, the wedding provides a glimpse into the workings of society.

Feasting Christine de Lorraine
Christine de Lorraine

And one of the most spectacular weddings ever to occur took place between Grand Duke Fernandino I de’ Medici to Christine de Lorraine, a niece of French king Henri III and granddaughter of Catherine de’ Medici. A true display of power and wealth, the preparations for this 1589 wedding boggle the mind. A month-long extravaganza, the wedding demanded planning and resources to accommodate thousands of people, not just guests, but workers and performers as well. Grand, inedible sugar sculptures appeared at one event, while, on Easter day, a thirty-two-course banquet satiated 280 noble women and their companions.

That wedding set a precedent for the October 5, 1600 nuptials of Maria de’ Medici and French king Henri IV. Since gathering the supplies for the wedding feast demanded more than a quick trip to the local supermarket, or even hiring a caterer to handle the food side of things, the measures taken to ensure adequate food make for fascinating contemplation. People outside the inner circle of power suffered when noble feasting was due to take place. In the case of this Medici wedding, beginning nearly a month prior to the big day, vendors in public markets could not sell eggs, poultry, or game birds and other sundry items. The Wedding Deputies co-opted all of these ingredients for the feast. On the day of the wedding, the menu included thirty cold dishes — salads, plums cut in half, beans, stuffed pastas, jellies stuffed with figs, and stewed game birds. Pastries came next, containing peacock, cranes, boars, and “dragons.” Castles made of salami and prosciutto roosters demonstrated the length to which artists got for their medium. Eel and needlefish appeared on the table, too.

Feasting Maria de Medici
Maria de' Medici

After the cold dishes, eighteen hot dishes followed, ranging from roasted game birds (ortolans, quails, pigeons, turkeys, and pheasants) to rabbit cooked alla francese in honor of the French groom, Henri IV. Combining theater with food went on for days like this.

In examining the profound dent placed on the local food supply by feasts like the Medici feasts, as well as the tribute demanded of peasants by the lords, one wonders if eating local was all that present-day local foods advocates claim?  No wonder people welcomed — well, some of the time anyway — the foods and spices brought through by trade.

To be continued …

© 2009 C. Bertelsen