COME TO THE TABLE!
We eat to survive. We feast, on the other hand, for a multitude of obvious and mysterious reasons.
Feasting can be a display of wealth or prestige, power or political status. It serves to underscore existing hierarchies within families (from the Seder, to Grandmother’s perfect pies, to Dad carving the Thanksgiving turkey). It reconnects children with nearly forgotten family and cultural traditions, and it serves as an occasion to bring out the rarely seen heirloom silver.
The tradition of feasting goes back as far as we do. Wall paintings found in tombs in Ancient Egypt show us the prominent place of this social ritual. Around the eighth century B.C., Homer put these words in the mouth of his hero, Odysseus: “…there is no greater fulfillment of delight than when joy possesses a whole people, and banqueters in the halls listen to a minstrel as they sit in order due, and by them tables are laden with bread and meat, and the cupbearer draws wine from the bowl and bears it round…This seems to my mind the fairest thing there is.”
Meat was relatively scarce in early societies, not because there wasn’t enough “hamburger on the hoof,” but because most domesticated animals were more highly valued as sources of milk, hair, wool, and for their ability to help their owners cultivate the land. Meat was usually consumed in connection with a sacrifice to the God (Israel) or gods (Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia) and so, from the very beginning, this gathering to share the meat was treated with respect and imbued with a deeper meaning. All communal meals in Ancient Greece began with a blood sacrifice, followed by food and, only later, strong drink. Ever wonder about the once-unchallengeable tradition of men and women going their separate ways after a banquet, the men to their whisky and cigars, and the women to their songs and “feminine” conversation? Well, this is the source of that peculiar arrangement.
Some societies caught on quicker than others: a second-century text by Athanaeus makes reference to some thirty Greek cookbooks going back to the fifth century B.C., but also notes that many of these recipes were actually developed by food-savvy Sicilians. Dinner was originally consumed around mid-afternoon but with advances in artificial lighting, the main meal of the day gradually moved into the evening hours and took its place, according to Cicero, at the heart of Roman civilization. Fine dining and table manners have come a long way since then, but excess is excess—no matter the century—and by the decadent height of the Roman Empire, it wasn’t entirely unusual for slaves to trim the toenails of dinner guests between the vast array of outlandish dinner courses.
The culinary arts took a backseat after Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in 410 A.D. The Mediterranean staples of olives, oil, bread and wine eventually gave way to the barbarian preference for meat, milk, and butter or cheese. Trade routes to the Far East and the Crusades of the Late Middle Ages introduced Western Europeans to a tremendous array of spices, flavors and exotic cooking techniques. In the monasteries where the Rule of St. Benedict held sway, monks ate two meals a day in silence, typically fish, bread, vegetables and wine, when they weren’t fasting; while in Scandinavia, Viking feasts revolved around drink (and toast after toast), rather than food; a pagan hold-over that continued long after their conversion to Christianity.
By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the lord’s feast attended by his vassals became an all-important expression of chivalry, feudal loyalty and medieval stratification. And it was about that time that table manners became a source of social anxiety, prompting a German treatise in 1215 to advise: “One must not eat the bread before the first dishes are brought. He shall be on his guard lest he drink or speak whilst he has something in his mouth.” In other words, the same things your mother told you. Oddly enough, when napkins were introduced, it was to clean your knife and fork rather than your hands (which is why gentlepersons wore their napkins over their left shoulders instead of in their laps. Try that at Sunday dinner).
It was a Vatican scholar, Bartolomeo Platina, who in the late-15th century published an influential book that established a “proper” order for food service, beginning with salads, eggs, and fruits and progressing through meat, fish, and vegetables to a final course of cheeses, nuts, fruits and sweetmeats. Renaissance cookery was Renaissance in every way, with the arrival of new foods from the Americas and such an abundance of imaginative ideas that a single, all-purpose cookbook contained over a hundred recipes for the lowly sturgeon.
The Industrial Revolution (along with one or two other notable revolutions) brought a new informality to the feast, at least for a time. Background music to aid the digestion was gradually replaced by well-read and witty conversationalists. The rise of restaurants and cafès during the 19th century taught us that dining was about choices, as well as companionship. Advances in transportation and, later, refrigeration brought the world’s harvest to our tables and continues to do so today. Diplomacy still revolves, in part, around the lavish state dinner designed to create the best possible impression of the host nation; companies still throw eagerly anticipated holiday parties awash in food, and families still gather to share their own special recipes and traditions, and to make them both memorable and meaningful to the next generation.
The definition of “feast” is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. As a stressed-out working mother, I would routinely light candles on the dining room table when we sat down to eat our hastily prepared one-skillet suppers. “Why?” my son would ask, prompting me to explain that anytime we had the chance to sit together and eat was a “special occasion” (even if it was only Tuesday) and a “feast for the heart and mind.”
I believed it then, and I’m even more convinced of it today.
Happy holidays from all of us at the Dallas Opera!
Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR