A bas-relief from Tell el-Amarna in Egypt shows Queen Nefertiti banqueting with her husband, the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, although “banqueting” may be too refined a term for this gluttonous display. The chill, remote beauty we know from her famous bust in Berlin is here revealed as a two-fisted gourmand: seated on an exquisite throne, she seizes a chicken in both hands and tears into it with her teeth, nary a knife, napkin, or fingerbowl anywhere in sight. Akhenaten, meanwhile, belies his reputation as a frail visionary: with a strength—not to mention an appetite—more worthy of Hercules, he brandishes an entire rotisserie of meat as if it were nothing more than a shish kebab, gobbling the topmost steak like another Ramses the Great. Conspicuous consumption has seldom been so conspicuous.
But then feasting, as Roy Strong shows in his compulsively readable, well-illustrated book, has always been hard work. Monarchs from King Belshazzar to Louis XIV have used the public consumption and distribution of food to dramatize their power, flaunting their mastery of trade routes by eating delicacies from the remote ends of the earth, reveling in the refinement of their taste, or simply indulging the jolliest of the seven deadly sins. Often, the remnants of royal feasts were distributed to the poor, culinary bribery to impress the masses and quiet their resentments, at least for the moment. Banqueting halls have performed as much political business over the years as throne rooms—often they have amounted to the same thing.
Ancient Roman plutocrats may have counted their freedom from tyranny back to the expulsion of their Etruscan overlords in 510 BC. But they still played the despot from their dining couches, ordering slaves, chefs, and guests to do their bidding. Nor is it an accident that King Arthur’s knights lorded it over a Round Table. Roy Strong devotes a fascinating chapter to the Victorian dining room, showing that it could become ceremonial space as hedged in by rites and rules as Akhenaten’s holy city of the sun-disk or the endless dinner party on Mount Olympus. Sadly but inevitably, Strong ends his survey with a despairing look at our own fast food nation, where, in the words of playwright Ken LeZebnik, the feasts of old have been reduced to “sink eating”: a standing fuel stop in the kitchen, poised for an instant between the faucet and the refrigerator.
The connection between feasting and power may be as old, and as obvious, as the food chain, but just for that reason the subject has proved endlessly fascinating to the human animals who toil in its thrall. In a comedy of 423 BC, The Knights, the young, angry Athenian playwright Aristophanes tried to expose the machinations of a local demagogue, Kleon, by writing him into the play as a blustering houseboy who grinds, cooks, hoards, and serves food to his crusty old master, Demos—“the People” of democratic Athens—with unctuous hypocrisy. What another of Kleon’s enemies, the historian Thucydides …