When Is Food a Feast?

Posted: July 9th, 2017 under Background, Craft.
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Recently, in another venue,  a writer posted a link to her blog post on feasts in epic fantasy, considered in a sociological way–her point being the feasts were always expressions of power, and that fantasy (and actually any genre) often/always failed to consider the power differentials, the role of a feast in showing off the giver’s wealth and power, and so on.  Some feasts certainly are exactly that–overt demonstrations to the attendees that the giver is richer, more powerful, than the guests, deserving of adulation and (even more) obedience, submission.   Feasts can be competitive in that way: “Prince A gave us as much beef as we could choke down, and distributed the rest to the castle servants…”  “Well, Prince B gave us beef AND venison AND ham AND stuffed peacocks!  And the leftovers fed the whole castle and village for a week!!!”  But–always the c0ntrarian in the details–I didn’t agree that feasts in epic fantasy were always like that, or that epic fantasy always ignored the kitchen workers, the woodcutters, the shepherds, etc.   In fact, I don’t think all feasts (as experienced) are like that.

So…when is food a feast?   I remember a cold (for central Texas) sunny day in February when two couples went hiking in Pedernales Falls State Park, before it got tarted up with a paved road in.   I had seen a bald eagle earlier that week and our friends were hoping to see it themselves.  We brought lunch:  a round loaf of homemade brown bread, peanut butter, honey,  a plastic bag of carrot and celery sticks,  and either brownies or gingerbread (I forget which).  And water.  We hiked around, finally saw a young bald eagle (and I now forget which year-old it was…but I have the picture somewhere.)  Big thrill.  We sat down finally to lunch, good and hungry, and that meal, eaten with good friends, after seeing the immature eagle (and other birds), felt like a celebration meal…a feast.   We all had enough to eat–were happy with the food and the amount of food.  Was there a power differential among us?  No–my having seen an eagle earlier that week didn’t give me any power, except to give evidence that eagles were there.   I made the bread, but I liked to cook…we all knew we could’ve bought store bread for sandwiches.  But why, with an eager bread-baker in the group?

When I was a child, we had a special breakfast on Christmas morning: waffles and bacon.  My mother bought a quarter pound of real butter once a year, for Christmas, and the taste of that butter on the waffles, with syrup, and bacon on the side still says Christmas to me.  The rest of the year we had margarine.  Later she could afford a half pound of butter, and finally a whole pound, but I remember the years it was butter at Christmas only.  That was a feast: my mother and I, and my step-grandmother.   She did Thanksgiving dinner, again with my step-grandmother and usually a much older family friend and sometimes someone else…though the room was small and the table sat six only with an effort.  And that was a feast, too.  More food, and bigger portions, than ordinarily.   My mother (with my help later) did all the cooking–made the stuffing from scratch (no mixes or bags of premade stuffing mix then), baking the turkey and the pies, cooking all the vegetables.  She and I did all the cleaning up, of course.  And it was a feast…everyone there wanted to be there, the food was good and abundant, there were exotic touches not seen at other times of the year (black and stuffed olives!  Little tiny pickles!  Celery stuffed with pimento cheese–one of my first tasks as a small child was swiping the cheese mix into the hollow of the celery stalk.)   But…a claim to power?  No.  She enjoyed cooking, and she enjoyed feeding people on happy occasions particularly.

Of course, growing up I did see some feasts that seemed more about display than anything else: wedding receptions, for instance, could get competitive, as could Bar Mitzvah receptions.   A family wanted to put on a good showing…but in part so their friends would enjoy themselves.  Back then, store-bought party foods were rare (though there was a bakery that specialized in wedding cakes.)  The hard-working cooks weren’t serfs…they were women proud of a particular special food they made for each special occasion in the life of someone they cared about.  On our block we had a woman who made a sour-cream chocolate cake everyone else loved (and couldn’t replicate, it turned out.)  Another made incredible pies (lemon and coconuts in particular) with towering meringue topping.   My mother made a widely-envied white cake (and apple pies and sugar cookies.)   The woman two houses down, on the corner, made “ambrosia” (something I’ve never liked but a lot of adults thought was wonderful).   Some things had to be catered (many pounds of boiled shrimp on ice.  No mother of the bride was going to stink up her kitchen boiling shrimp the day before the wedding!)

Big family gatherings, and church “dinner on the grounds” were always feasts in terms of “as much food as you could eat, in more variety than usual.”  And in some families, this did involve servants.  I remember a wealthy (relative to most–not in the 1%) who had a cook most of the time and always on holidays.  We went there one year–as a girl child I was always allowed into the kitchen and the lady of the house was mostly giving directions (including to me, as was usual: “Here, dear, take this out and put it on the table next to the centerpiece…”)    Church dinners were always cooked, served, and cleaned up after by the church members.   But the word feast wasn’t limited to organized functions…I heard adults say “My, this is a feast!”  on picnics, at home, anywhere that they were with people they liked, the food was good, and there was enough of it.  So my childhood model of “feast” was “people getting along happily and eating stuff they like until they’re full.”

Not Trimalchio’s feast, and not Henry VIII showing off both amount and fanciness of his offerings to impress his nobles.

When was food not a feast?  It wasn’t a feast if children (and even adults) were warned that something was running short, or told that no, they couldn’t have another piece because someone else hadn’t had their share yet.  It wasn’t a feast if something had gone wrong and the food didn’t taste good (at all!) and you were supposed to smile and chew and swallow it down anyway to be polite.  It could go from “feast” to “disaster” quickly if someone started a quarrel and everyone’s stomach clenched, or someone got sick (or worst case, died suddenly.)   Whiny, quarreling, rude children could ruin a feast (and were scolded “You ruined the feast for everybody!!”)   For individuals it wasn’t a feast if you were forced to go for some reason (power differential there)  or had to pretend to like food you didn’t like.

Anyway–back to fantasy feasts.  Are they all of the Trimalchio/Henry VIII type?  I don’t think so…though some definitely are.  Most of the feasts in LOTR are “friends/companions celebrating something or enjoying a meal after a difficult time.”   I suspect that many of the “show off” feasts are there because the writers know that’s accurate for the period in which they’ve set the story–based on the competitive feast-giving that certainly did occur.   And in Paksworld?   There are celebratory feasts (after a battle or a season of war) quite different from ordinary military mess, and friendly meals that I think seem feast-like to those participating, regardless of the fanciness of the food.  In OATH OF FEALTY and the related story “A Parrion of Cooking” there’s a clear depiction of the situation in a bad feudal household, where the serfs are “cattle” to the nobles…and clear depiction of what could be better, even in a thoroughly class-divided society, once Dorrin takes over as Duke Verrakai.

Any writer’s conception of their work’s setting will be based, at least in part, on their own experiences (as well as things they’ve read.)   What kinds of “feasts” have you experienced in your life?   Did your parents ever consider a meal at home a “feast?” because of a special food?   Or a certain number of guests?   Or were feasts always somewhere else?  Could a paid-for meal be a feast, or only one to which you were invited?

 

13 Comments »

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — July 9, 2017 @ 11:41 am

    1

    Growing up in rural Alaska, the best “feast” was the arrival of the salmon in June. First the Kings, and then the Reds. Fresh salmon filets, broiled. It’s not that different than a harvest feast like Thanksgiving, although it’s rooted in hunting-gathering and not farming. My favorite “feasting” memories are all centered on salmon and the ancient rhythms of their return to spawn.

    You didn’t mention the role of custom in feasting. While the salmon was practically unlimited in southwestern Alaska, it was bad manners to eat more than two servings. Not taboo, but against custom. Being greedy was bad form.

    I should also mention potlach, a practice of Pacific Northwest peoples, which was a form of boasting by throwing huge parties and gift-giving, centered on feasting. It was all about power. “I have so much I can afford to give immense amounts away.” The potlach tradition has infected a lot of fantasy, I think. There’s a very good lay treatment of the potlach tradition, The Gift, by French ethnologist, Marcel Mauss.


  • Comment by elizabeth — July 12, 2017 @ 7:35 am

    2

    Thanks for the information on the custom of “two helpings only.” That’s similar to what we had (at least as affected children) at wedding or Bar Mitzvah feasts…”Don’t be greedy!” and occasionally “You’re making people think WE don’t feed you enough.”

    But Italian-American families…wanted you to eat until you couldn’t walk across the room. “What’s the matter, you don’t like? Here–you’re too skinny–have some of this…” Our Lebanese neighbors were similar on the eating front, with guests at least.

    We did read about the potlatch tradition of the Pacific Northwest, the competition to give more and feed more as proof of power and wealth. VERY similar to the conspicuous display & consumption by the oil & gas wealth white families in Texas.

    So many kinds of feasts, and so many customs governing who should eat how much of what. The people who want to divest food and eating together from anything but calories and physical health are way too many thousands of years late…and it’ll never happen. Eating has always meant more than just putting the necessary nutrients into the body. It can be an expression of love, a way to bond with friends or a group with a purpose, a way to express power and dominance, a way to celebrate, a way to comfort…eating, even alone, carries meanings beyond just feeding the boy, and once it becomes social…wow.


  • Comment by Jace — July 12, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

    3

    It was an official Family Feast when Mom brought out the good china. Maybe 3 or 4 times a year. Much food, TWO kinds of pie! Lots of love,holding hands around table during Grace. Thank you for reminding me of good times.


  • Comment by RichardSimpkin — July 15, 2017 @ 5:00 am

    4

    Long before the end of the article, the surprise birthday feast for Dorrin at Kindle came to my mind.


  • Comment by elizabeth — July 15, 2017 @ 7:30 am

    5

    Thanks for telling me about your family’s feast-customs. Beautiful.


  • Comment by elizabeth — July 15, 2017 @ 7:46 am

    6

    Thank you! One of the themes of my childhood was the different way that the cultures where I lived regarded food, feasting, and theft of food. For one group, taking any food without explicit invitation was “theft.” For another, it depended on relative need, and was not theft if food was taken from someone with much more stored food (e.g., sugar, flour, slices of bread.) The person with more was expected to share, and if they wouldn’t share (or you were afraid they wouldn’t) taking a small amount to alleviate hunger was not theft. MY mother, who’d also grown up with both cultures, dealt with the situation by asking ‘Is there anything you need?’ or offering specifically at intervals. All the cultures involved have changed somewhat since then with more friction between them on more fronts.

    The fundamental conflict between Old Humans and the magelords in the Gird books is based on that. Who is stronger, the person who gives or the person who takes? And what does stronger mean, in moral terms and in terms of responsibilities? And being played out today in politics by people who don’t even know where the concepts started. Civilization arises not from technology, but from cooperation that can nourish technology…and from people who help each other, not from people who grab and withhold help because it will cost them to share anything. The magelords lost their magery because they used it to make their world worse, poorer, and after awhile they’d destroyed the roots of their own power.


  • Comment by RichardSimpkin — July 16, 2017 @ 3:12 am

    7

    How much does power lie with the boss who pays our wages, and how much with the politician who taxes them?


  • Comment by tuppenny — July 19, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

    8

    I am reminded of a thanksgiving feast when I was in grad school – most people brought something, there were 5 pies, a trifle, 7 vegetable dishes, assorted breads, salads and potatoes and dressings. We all chipped in for the turkeys -3 20 pounders as I recall. It was mostly floor lounging, buffet style. We started eating at noon, interspersed with talk, nibbling frenzies initiated when someone went back to the table for a little bit of something, eventually a break for chaotic touch football, nibbling, conversation, more nibbling. A more formal serving of glasses of Pimms cup …
    By midnight only the bones of the birds were left!
    That was a Feast of Feasts!


  • Comment by OtterB — July 21, 2017 @ 7:41 am

    9

    Your mention of it not being a feast if there wasn’t enough reminds me that when my father was a boy, when there were guests to dinner, his mother might tell the children whether a particular dish was FHB or MIK. That’s Family Hold Back, or More in Kitchen.


  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — July 26, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

    10

    We were a family of eight, so when we were all together, it was already a crowd. The “feasts” I particularly remember were Christmas Eve dinner. We wore our Sunday best, used the “good” plates, goblets, and silver. (Daily usage was heavy plastic or melamine plates, plastic glasses, and stainless steel flatware) All the usual menu items. Special times with Dad before dinner, doing activities, like learning about the moebius strip. We followed Scandinavian tradition, with Santa Claus bringing presents after dinner. We kids all hid with Mother in the kitchen, while Dad answered the door. Happy memories.


  • Comment by Kristina — August 25, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

    11

    I recall running into a different culture of food-sharing, where it was important to check how much there was of something, and help yourself only to your share. Coming from a culture where at a feast there is always more in the kitchen, as running out of food was deeply embarrassing, I was astonished to see everyone surreptitiously check how much food was available, including the extra of anything that is supposed to be left on the plate (that custom we shared).


  • Comment by elizabeth — August 25, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

    12

    That was pretty much true where I grew up, in Anglo families. You were supposed to know what “your share” was and not go over it, check with a grownup if you wanted an extra serving, etc. Sometimes the abundance was so obvious that a kid would be turned loose (and then later, sometimes, privately scolded for looking greedy.) But for a lot of people there was “enough” but not a enough for full-out “feast” even on a few holidays a year. There would be special foods, but not humongous amounts. So to preserve the fiction of more than ample abundance, people cooperated in not exposing the thinness of the larder.


  • Comment by elizabeth — August 25, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

    13

    We also had ordinary dishes and special event dishes. I still do .


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