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An epic of gastronomic proportions

Charlemagne's Tablecloth A Piquant History of Feasting Nichola Fletcher St. Martin's: 256 pp., $24.95

October 30, 2005|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten is the author of the forthcoming book "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution."

IF "Charlemagne's Tablecloth," a tantalizing study of the evolution of the feast, teaches us anything, it's that "Supersize it!" is not merely the battle cry of today's fast-food supplicant but a tableside command that echoes throughout history, from the Zoroastrian indulgences of antiquity to the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas gullet-stuffers in which most of us partake with relish.

In 29 taut chapters that leaps from epoch to epoch like a brisk multi-course repast, this deceptively small volume regales us with fascinating details delivered in a crisp and occasionally wry style by Nichola Fletcher, who operates a venison farm in England and is the author of four previous books on the culture and history of food.

Fletcher traces a jagged line from East to West. Ancient Persia was the taproot for all subsequent Old World feasting rituals, a region rich in natural bounty whose people had a predilection for mammalian nourishment -- oxen, camels and horses were staple dishes of the ruling class. As Persia was invaded and plundered by overlapping waves of Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Turks, a great culinary diaspora began in earnest, with fleeing Persians striking out mostly for India and China. The trade routes from East to West all passed through Persia as well, which meant that the country's exotic tastes and dining habits were absorbed into the European palate.

The heart of Fletcher's book is a 500-year period spanning the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a time when the elements of the feast remained unchanged. "We have seen more changes to our eating habits in the last forty years than occurred during those five hundred," Fletcher writes. It was not, suffice it to say, an era of calorie-counting moderation. Mainly, feasts were grand displays of regal ego, gastronomical epics for hundreds of dining guests and thousands of spectators, who considered the occasions a kind of extreme sport.

In the late 14th century, France's King Charles VI gave a feast for his betrothed that was a weeklong marathon of gourmandising splendor -- the grounds carpeted with the finest silks, the houses hung with tapestries, the fountains spewing red and white wines, the desserts carefully filigreed with gold leaf. Aesthetics were every bit as important as the food -- spices such as saffron (another Eastern import) were used to provide the requisite golden color.

Food choices adhered to a strict hierarchy, with meats being the "pinnacle of luxury," and fraught with social and religious symbolism. (Consider the fatted calf, the glorious gift presented to the prodigal son, and other meats used in holy sacraments.) Fish ranked low on the social order of feast-worthy offerings, and pork was strictly for peasants. Sometimes, feasts were purely symbolic: Food was laid out, only to be taken away without a single morsel touched. And veggies? Forget about it: Europeans hardly bothered with them.

But there was so much more to feasts than just royal preening. They were also competitive in nature. Fletcher writes of powerful men and women who tried to outdo each other at the banquet table in an attempt to claim gustatory supremacy, a contest similar to pistol dueling at 10 paces. Or, instead of presenting sublime dishes, kings and politicians might purposely serve rotten fare to their adversaries.

During the Renaissance, the grandeur reached absurd extremes. Mechanical devices bearing a political or personal message were de rigueur for every major feast, requiring workmen to spend weeks, sometimes months, constructing elaborate props. For the christening of the first son of England's King James I, a ship 18 feet long and 8 feet wide was built, the anchors made of silver, the sails white taffeta. Donald Trump surely would have been pleased.

In Polynesian cultures, cannibal feasts -- yes, human flesh served piping hot -- were held to annihilate the spirit of an enemy. The Aztecs placated the sun god with human sacrifice. In places where Mardi Gras and Carnival are celebrated, the feast is a gorging before the Lenten fast. Fletcher also writes of the ways in which feasting after long periods of fasting enhances the flavor of food.

There's hardly an occasion for which a feast is not an appropriate gesture, even death, as Fletcher's discussion of Mexico's Dias de los Muertos makes clear. So perhaps it's unfair of us to flagellate ourselves for our submission to the dark trans-fat mistress or the wicked sugar temptress. Indulgence, as this wonderful book reminds us, has been a constant source of joy throughout history; it's postprandial guilt that makes us so miserable. *

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