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Feasts, the full story

November 24, 2005|Nichola Fletcher | NICHOLA FLETCHER is the author of "Charlemagne's Tablecloth; a Piquant History of Feasting" (St. Martin's Press, 2005). Website:

WHAT IS a feast -- exquisite refinement or gargantuan excess? Look up the word in most dictionaries and you find references to its religious significance. Mention the word to people, however, and the usual responses focus on more frivolous and secular events. Some, however, suggest that feasts belong to the past, and on the face of it they seem to have a point.

How relevant is the stereotypical feast with its ritual, its opulent tableware, its servants bearing such quantities of stuffed peacocks and other luxurious food that can scarcely be imagined, with trumpets and jesters to round it off? History is full of such accounts. The shopping list for Archbishop Neville's enthronement feast in 1465 included 41,833 items of poultry and meat. England's Prince Regent, in 1811, gave a feast for 2,000 at which the 200-foot-long table had a silver fountain from which flowed a meandering stream with mossy banks, little bridges and goldfish sporting about in the water.

And how politically correct is the other popular vision: buxom wenches serving up prodigious amounts of food, along with heroic amounts of drink, chicken bones flung over the shoulder, and other rumbustious entertainments?

Modern attitudes to exuberant behavior are illustrated by the disapproving media reports of the notorious $2-million birthday party that former Tyco executive Dennis Kozlowski threw for his wife in 2001. Among other titillating visions was an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's David spouting vodka from his manhood. In the past, however, such events were more acceptable.

Rabelais wrote: "Better to write about laughter than tears, for laughter is the essence of mankind." Feasts, after all, are intended to give pleasure; why else would you have one?

Actually, there are a lot of other reasons. Feasts take their part in jostling for power. What we now call a "power lunch" used to be a little more dramatic. Think of the competitive potlatch feasts of the Kwakiutl, which was one way of determining status and wealth. People might be obliged, for example, to eat more pounds of seal blubber or berries soaked in fish oil than the next fellow, no matter how nauseating they found it. Kings and emperors (or those striving to be) put on opulent displays to remind others of their superior status and wealth. Guilds used them to petition governments (industrialists still do).

Marriages are probably the most enduring (and endearing) of feasts. Some are modest, others less so: In 2004, British steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal rented the 17th century French chateau Vaux le Vicomte -- the model for Versailles -- for his daughter's $78-million wedding.

We celebrate death with feasts; Mexico's Dia de los Muertos is perhaps the most exuberant example. And people everywhere use feasts to chase away our fear of darkness, hence the plethora of winter feasts. Beyond their religious aspects, Christmas, Hanukkah and Chinese New Year feasts involve light, color, fire, noise and abundant food and drink to keep darkness and cold (i.e., death) at bay.

One of the first feasts of winter is Thanksgiving, which, compared to many historical feasts, is quite modest but has the democratic advantage of belonging to everybody. It is a family feast that gives thanks for home-comfort food. From a British standpoint, this seems especially relevant to Americans abroad who use it as a way of connecting to their country. More important than the opulence of the food (for turkey and pumpkin pie are not so very sumptuous nowadays) is the sheer gut-bursting quantity of it, and the collapsing in a stupor afterward.

There are those, of course, who view such eating extravaganzas with horror, now that obesity is such an issue. But it is not in leisurely communal meals, particularly feasting, that obesity finds its harbor. I reckon that if more people cooked (rather than serve up ready-made meals) and then took time to eat together, everyday food would be absorbed for what it is: a nutritious blend of social contact and balanced diet. And feasts would be appreciated for what they are: occasional fantastic treats to be treasured.

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