New Worlds: Fancy Feasts

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We’re social creatures, and one of the ways we express that is by eating together. But in addition to fostering interpersonal bonds, meals can be an opportunity for display — even to the point of stomach-turning excess.

Before we get to the grand banquets of the elite, though, let’s take a look at the humbler end. Potluck meals are a kind of feast, one where the purpose is very much the solidification of bonds between equals; you still see this in action at many holidays and group gatherings, where everyone pitches in with a dish or two and the result is a truly staggering quantity of food. There may be politics at work here, too — someone showing off with the dish they’re famous for, or two people glaring daggers at each other because they both brought the same thing — but that’s a side dish to the event, if you’ll pardon the pun. Shared bounty is the main course, and the way that partaking of each other’s offerings brings you all together as a community.

In agricultural societies, this kind of thing went hand-in-hand with the harvest. After all, the harvest itself often used to be a communal affair; the huge amount of work involved in reaping the grain and preparing it for storage required many hands. In a pre-industrial farming community, everyone pitched in to harvest each other’s fields, working methodically through them based on both local conditions (some plots were liable to be ready before others) and, yes, local politics (whoever had the most clout or the most friends might get helped over the low-status loners). Having all cooperated on that, they celebrated with a grand feast, enjoying the bounty before winter’s careful rationing began.

But of course that’s only the thin edge of the slice of apple pie. When we think “banquet,” we’re usually not envisioning a bunch of farmers in homespun, gathered on the village green. We’re talking about nobles in silks and jewels, engaging in an orgy of conspicuous consumption.

A feast of this sort can be a dizzyingly grand affair. Multiple courses — and by “multiple” I don’t mean appetizer, soup, salad, entree, and dessert. We have historical records of banquets featuring dozens of courses, very few of which tended to be salad: several different types of soup, meat of every sort, fish in various preparations, and so on. In fact, the term “banquet” used to mean a kind of post-feast feast, involving multiple dessert courses served in a separate banqueting room. Often this stood in the garden, but Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, England has no less than six separate banquet pavilions on its roof.

How could people consume that much? After all, while competitive eating does exist, it isn’t a pastime most of us engage in — not to mention that it’s a modern phenomenon. And while it might occasionally have been true that people would purge mid-feast to free up room for them to eat more, it’s completely false that this was the purpose or meaning of a Roman vomitorium. (That word refers to a stadium exit, not a puking room in someone’s private villa.)

First you have to bear in mind that a meal like this was not a quick affair. It would go on for hours, and depending on the skill of the host’s staff, you might be sitting a long time between courses, your fellow diners chowing down while you waited for food that might well be cold or scanty by the time it got to your table. Plus — as I discovered the first time I experienced a properly designed five-course meal — if you know you’re in it for the long haul, you don’t serve up as much at each stage. A traditional Japanese kaiseki meal might have twelve or fifteen courses, but each one is comparatively tiny: the point is to savor a few bites of each dish, not to gorge yourself to the point of sickness. A courtier accustomed to these events would learn how to pace themself . . . or learn to be the pre-modern equivalent of a competitive eater, I suppose.

It isn’t just about the sheer quantity of food served, though. If you want to really go all-in on your display of wealth and power, you need to impress people with what you’re serving. And while this can take the form of exquisite culinary artistry, it can also go in, shall we say, other directions.

Remember those spices we were talking about last week? It’s time to break them out, in epic quantities. Serving a dish flavored with saffron to two hundred guests is what nowadays we call a power move. So is serving meat — better yet, wild game — better yet, exotic wild game. Slaughtering cows or sheep or camels from your own herds is a time-honored show of hospitality, but in the days before refrigerated transport, serving monkey or ostrich at an English banquet tells your guests that you can afford to have those animals brought to your house alive, and then killed for their delectation. Even if it winds up being not that good, people will remember that you were able to do it at all.

Even ordinary foods can be impressive, though, if they get dressed up right. It’s all about the presentation! Bring the boar in whole, with an apple in its mouth. Don’t just serve game pies; serve game pies with your own coat of arms sculpted into the dough. Have eight matched slaves wearing body paint and not much else carry in a golden platter, atop which rests a re-creation of the king’s most recent military victory, crafted entirely out of spun sugar. Your imagination is the limit — well, along with physics, your budget, and the skill of your kitchen staff. Historical banquets have featured some amazingly over-the-top displays . . . and that’s before you get to the horrifyingly tasteless ideas, like placing an enemy’s severed head as the centerpiece.

Displays of this sort aren’t always a success. If the food is bad — particularly if the booze is bad — and the attempts at spectacle come across as pathetic rather than impressive, the host risks becoming the butt of other people’s mockery. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible to pour out oceans of money on a feast and not reap nearly enough benefit in return. Much as with a royal progress, a king or queen can actually keep a restive noble in line by giving them the honor of hosting a banquet for their sovereign, leaving them stuck between the choices of draining their coffers or giving offense by refusing.

Politics of that sort are often the reason a feast shows up in a story. But it’s also a grand opportunity for literary food porn, making the reader’s mouth water at the amazing dishes parading across the page . . . or making their stomach turn at the train-wreck of a banquet gone bad.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Fancy Feasts”

  1. Don’t forget the other antics that occur at a banquet, especially if it’s a “subcultural” banquet; the military formal mess is an example. Formal messes of this nature extend back at least to the mid-Renaissance. Sometimes, the trooping of the haggis; the grog bowl; the ceremonies and service to the empty table; the grog bowl; the carving and “inspection” by the junior-most officer; the grog bowl; the grog bowl; the interminable wait after the dessert course is served while the guest of honor pontificates; and, of course, the grog bowl.

    Of course, if one doesn’t “do it right” when invited to visit the grog bowl, one gets to do it again until one DOES do it right. This used to be a lot more dangerous before a non-alcoholic grog bowl became an acceptable, albeit usually even-nastier tasting, option.

  2. Years ago a neighbor invited us to a President’s Day dinner. She researched dinners in the time of Washington and Lincoln. So we had many courses and about halfway thru the meal she served “hole in the stomach” – a small glass if liquor that was supposed to make you feel less full so you could continue eating.

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