Spread the Feast
Spread the feast upon the long table’s
plane — the heaped bowl of tumbling citrus;
woody sugar of cinnamon sticks
bouqueted in mason jars; deep splash of dark wine
poured. Now call the guests together.
Welcome the scuffle and scratch as chairs
pull close; a warm aura of laughter blushes
a dreamy haze across the scene. When you look
to either side it seems the table stretches on, and
faces beam back uncountable, like stars fixed in your sky.
— Matthew Kosinski
The goddess Inanna was hurt. Her father, Enki, had passed her over when assigning responsibilities to the gods, leaving her with dominion over nothing at all. Inanna went to her father’s home to express her anger — where he welcomed her with a feast of beer and barley cakes. Inanna saw an opportunity in Enki’s lavish hospitality and, once her father was sufficiently drunk, she convinced him to give her authority over a host of human affairs, from peace and truth to weapons and writing. Thus Inanna left the feast feeling flush with power, and she brought a great bounty back to the people of her city, which flourished now that it had such a wealth of cultural and spiritual riches.1
An ancient Sumerian vase depicting an offering to Inanna; Source: Wikipedia
This tale, from the ancient Sumerian poem “Inanna and Enki: The Transfer of the Arts of Civilization from Eridu to Uruk,” is considered by many to be the very first literary mention of feasting, recorded some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.2 And it’s no accident that the poem sees the gifts of Sumerian civilization parcelled out over fine food and drink, Inanna’s trickery notwithstanding. For almost as long as human society has existed, we’ve been using the ritual of the feast to shape our communities, strengthen our bonds, and build the world we want.
What Makes a Feast?
At the most basic level, a feast is a meal shared between people — but it’s not like we’d call a typical family dinner a feast. What makes a feast distinct from a run-of-the-mill communal supper?
According to anthropologists Brian Hayden and Suzanne Villeneuve, feasts are marked by a certain “specialness” of food and occasion.3 Put another way, a feast is a food ritual. It differs from an everyday meal in that the dishes served and the reason for gathering have some intentional symbolic or social meaning.
An Elegant Party, attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD); Source: Wikipedia
The anthropologist Michael Dietler sees feasts as fundamental practices in the “micropolitics of daily life.” Feasts, he says, are one of the primary ways people form new connections, reinforce existing relationships, and even reimagine the social order.4 For example, think of the feasts you encounter in your own life. They often commemorate holidays and major life events, like weddings. In fact, a wedding reception meal is a pretty good example of the feast’s many purposes: They’re often a chance to meet new people, catch up with old friends, and formally recognize the creation of a brand new family, as represented by the married couple.
Feasts can mark many different occasions and take many forms, but theorists say they can all be boiled down into two broad categories: promotional feasts and solidarity feasts. In a promotional feast, a host looks to attain or reinforce social status for themselves. (Think: A medieval aristocrat throwing a feast for the peasants in his own honor.) Solidarity feasts, on the other hand, are feasts in which people come together as equals to share food and reinforce bonds of community.5
While there have been — and still are — plenty of promotional feasts, the human tradition of feasting is most firmly rooted in the communitarian impulse. The earliest feasts were solidarity feasts.
“The human tradition of feasting is most firmly rooted in the communitarian impulse. The earliest feasts were solidarity feasts.”
Hilazon Tachtit Cave; Source: Israel21c
The oldest known archeological evidence of feasting, found at Hilazon Tachtit Cave in present-day Israel, dates back 12,000 years. There, a grave thought to belong to a shaman woman is covered by a layer of tortoise shells and auroch bones indicative of a large meal held in the deceased woman’s honor.6
The Natufians, who held the feast, were the first humans to live in settled communities rather than nomadic bands. Scholars believe they may have invented the ritual of the feast as a direct result of their new, more sedentary lifestyle. When tensions arose in nomadic groups, people could always split up and go their separate ways. Now that everyone lived in a fixed location, the Natufians needed other means to mediate conflict. By sharing meals, the Natufians could maintain social connections and keep the peace.7 Some even speculate the birth of feasting helped speed up the development of farming: Holding these meals required a lot of food, and gathering it all from the wild was tough work.8
It’s also noteworthy that the first known feast happened at a funeral. Feasts occur for many reasons, but honoring the dead may be the most widespread of all. As the journalist Lisa Rogak puts it in Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs From Around the World, “You can ask any caterer: Most people eat a lot more food at funerals than at weddings. And that cuts across all cultures.”9
"Wedding Feast in front of a Farm," Pieter Brueghel the Younger; Source: The Huffington Post
In Rogak’s view, feasting is so tied to funerals because of its fundamentally life-affirming nature. “There’s no better way to prove you’re alive ... than by eating,” she writes.10 Eating is the basic biological function that keeps our bodies going. By sharing a meal, we are both tending to our own lives in the wake of a painful loss and toasting the life of the departed.
In some funeral rituals, the symbolism is even more explicit. As part of the Hindu practice of shradh, for example, a family cooks a feast of a departed loved one’s favorite foods on the anniversary of their death. They then feed some of this food to the crows, which are seen as a link between this life and the afterlife. By feeding the crows, the family is offering nourishment to their deceased loved ones.11
As Close as Can Be
Feasting is perhaps the most widespread ritual of all, across times and cultures, in part because of its ability to be what anthropologist Michael Dietler calls “polysemous.” That is, a feast can address multiple audiences and empower people in multiple ways at once. A religious feast, for example, can knit together participants on a personal level, connect people with their faiths, and even give some prestige to the person or institution holding it.12
Watercolor by James G. Swan depicting the Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka at Port Townsend, with one of Chetzemoka's wives distributing potlatch; Source: Wikipedia
Dietler also notes that food and drink are particularly potent ritual items because they’re “highly condensed social facts” that contain all manner of “relations of production and exchange.” In other words, when we eat a meal, we’re connected to the people around the table, to the people who prepared that meal, and even to the people who grew and harvested the ingredients that went into making the meal.13 And these connections created through food are highly intimate: In literally consuming a meal, we take the bonds it represents into our very bodies, making them a part of us.
“In literally consuming a meal, we take the bonds it represents into our very bodies, making them a part of us.”
A feast’s ability to imbue people with a sense of deep connection and shared community is readily apparent in the potlatch ceremonies practiced by many of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, including the Heiltsuk, Tlingit, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Kwakwaka'wakw, among others. These large feasts are celebrated with singing, dancing, speeches, and gifts for all guests.14
The attendees of a potlatch are invited as witnesses. By participating in the feast, they affirm and make real whatever social event occasioned the gathering, whether the naming of a child or atonement for past wrongdoing. To quote Bill Cranmer, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of northern British Columbia: “Every important thing that happens in the community was marked by a potlatch or a feast. It was also a way for our people to keep our history alive, because every time you held a potlatch, you invited people to be witnesses – and they kept our history going by remembering what they witnessed at the potlatch, as we had no written language at the time.”15
Feast by Brooke Lark on Unsplash
Let’s Get Together
Today, the average Westerner’s typical feast is more casual and less elaborate, but the ritual is still a part of how we build our communities.
Take the example of the late Jim Haynes, a writer and lecturer who helped found Scotland’s Traverse Theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After moving to Paris in 1969, Haynes instituted an open-house policy, under which anyone — literally anyone — was welcome to have dinner at his house on Sundays. As many as 120 people would stop by at once, and it’s estimated that more than 150,000 people participated before Hayne passed away early last year. As his son Jesper put it, "His goal from early on was to introduce the whole world to each other. He almost succeeded."16
And no discussion of modern feasts in America would be complete without mentioning Friendsgiving, the pre-Thanksgiving potluck that has grown increasingly popular since 2014. While it’s hard to say precisely where Friendsgiving originated, its organic and improvisational tone may be the perfect representation of what feasting is all about.17
Feast Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash
Returning to anthropologist Michael Dietler, we find that feasts “express idealized concepts: the way people believe relations exist, or should exist, rather than how they are necessarily manifested in daily activity.” Friendsgiving can be seen as an intentional intervention in our relationships, a way of expanding a holiday traditionally centered on the nuclear family (Thanksgiving) to include even more of the people who matter to us. In effect, it’s a way of widening our social spheres and asserting new communal connections.
While the time for Friendsgiving has passed — or is 11 months away, depending on how you look at it — it’s still an instructive case study of how we can fit feasting into our lives. You don’t need an official sanction, nor worry about intricate etiquette (unless you want to). The meal itself need not even be all that opulent. All you need is good food, good friends, and maybe even a few people you’d like to get to know better.
— The Keap Team
P.S. If this story inspired you to create a feast of your own in the coming months, check out our January drinks recipe, Janus, inspired by feasting and the traditional new year’s champagne cocktail. We even have instructions on batching Janus for a feast or party!