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, couches in the careful, devastating analysis of power that makes up Books III and IV of The Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes embodies dramatically in one long contest over food, pitting the houseboy Kleon against a sleazy sausage vendor from the Athenian marketplace in a thousand-line contest to curry the favor of Master Demos. (To find a profession as dubious, as involved in mangling and recycling the culture’s chief power symbol, we might now have to cast the sausage vendor as a used-car salesman.)
Their obsequious flattery quickly takes tangible form as feeding the fat, grizzled character who literally impersonates the Body Politic, each sycophant serving Demos one delicacy after another in a torrent of revolting blandishments. With a triumphant flourish, the sausage seller finally reveals that Kleon has been hoarding as much as he gives away to his master, whereas the abject vendor has given Demos—the people—his all. And thus, with remarkable subtlety, Aristophanes exposes both Kleon’s crude hungers and his essential selfishness. Food, as it turns out, is the ideal metaphor for political power, a concept for which Thucydides himself was only beginning to find the right words. (He came up with two in particular: dynamis, “force,” and paraskeue, which means something between “resources” and “preparedness.”)
The food metaphor would work equally well two millennia later for the Tuscan humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who denounced the corruption of life at the Vatican in a little tract called On the Miseries of Curial Officials (De Curialium Miseriis). Addressing the booklet to a German lawyer, he noted that his friend had “barked among those courtly dogs a few years yourself.” And like dogs at a banquet, as he shows, the young officials of the Curia were kept in their place by the sight of lavish spreads and the taste of table scraps. The most vivid passages of Piccolomini’s diatribe detail the injustices perpetrated at papal feasts; as with Aristophanes, food is the all-sufficient metaphor for power:
Those who find their only reason for living in the palace are fools, and live the life of sheep, not men…. Like flies to a picnic, they flit around the lord’s banquets, but however royal the banquet, they’ll get less than the flies. Let’s see, then, what pleasure curialists take in eating and drinking amid the regal pomp.
What’s dinner like, then? They serve wine that a woolen rag wouldn’t deign to lap up (as Juvenal puts it), which, if you’re insane enough to drink it, will make you vinegary, watery, corrupted, dropsical, sour; either chilled, or tepid, with a bad color and taste…. And don’t think you’ll be drinking from vessels of silver or glass; there’s the fear of theft with the former, and of breakage with the latter. You’ll be drinking from a wooden cup, black, ancient, fetid, with dregs caked on its bottom, which the lords have used as a pissoir. And you won’t get your own cup: so whether you want your wine mixed with water or pure, you’ll get what everyone else wants, and wherever you bite down some louse-ridden beard or a slobbering lip or rotten teeth have gone just before. Meanwhile the king is receiving toasts in vintage wine so fragrant that it fills the whole palace…. You’ll want to drink but you can’t until your betters do….
Cheese will come your way only rarely; if it does, it will be full of worms, perforated, squalid, harder than a stone. Fetid butter and rancid lard are your condiments. You’ll only get eggs when they already have chicks inside; your bread and apples are rotten or green, and if you didn’t eat them they’d go to the pigs…. Lords love to observe the disparity between themselves and their servants.
Roy Strong notes how often acts of sadism have accompanied banquets, from the Roman paterfamilias who cut off a slave’s hands and drowned him in the fish-pool for a dropped goblet to the Philistines who brought in the blinded Samson as an intermezzo for their feast (at least until he pulled the banqueting hall down on their heads). Renaissance diners had their own varieties of amusement, scarcely more enlightened than the ancient Romans from whom they drew such inspiration. Vicious rumor had it that Pope Alexander VI Borgia once invited fifty naked prostitutes to scamper after chestnuts on one floor of the Apostolic Palace as he, the cardinals, and his daughter Lucrezia looked on. One cardinal famously held a “hell banquet” in which guests arrived at his black-draped villa to drink from skulls by can-dlelight; the haughty courtesan called “Matremma non vole”—“Mamma-doesn’t-want-me-to”—vomited from fear. Pope Leo X, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, once induced his court fool to eat a whole leather jacket stewed in savory sauce.
But the feasts that Strong describes best, evidently his favorites, are those appointments with cheerful gluttony that human beings from time immemorial have used to punctuate the year. Most of these feasts mark religious occasions, or are religious rites themselves: Passover, Communion, the Christmas pudding. He omits Thanksgiving, the single most celebrated holiday in the United States, a ceremonial dinner whose cross-cultural ingredients encapsulate, for better or worse, the story of a continent. That first Thanksgiving brought together battered European colonists and indigenous families to mark a moment of wary truce, both in their shared strife against the elements and in their dealings with one another. But the same strivings, and the same truces, can be seen working almost identically in feasts from other times and places, as Strong shows in a wealth of anecdotal detail—and with books about food, as with conversations about food, anecdotes are essential.
He begins with what he rightly calls “the most notorious description of a feast ever written,” the banquet that serves as centerpiece to the Satyricon of the Roman writer Petronius, written at the height of the Emperor Nero’s reign (that is, probably circa AD 63–65). Petronius takes pains to mock the vulgarity of his fictional banquet’s host, the freed slave turned plutocrat Trimalchio, whose grammatical errors are as colorful—and frequent—as his social blunders. The dinner was filmed by Fellini, but Petronius is already weird enough:
In the entree dish stood a donkey of Corinthian bronze, bearing a double pannier which contained white olives on one side, and black on the other…little bridges which had been soldered on spanned the dishes; they contained dormice dipped in honey and sprinkled with poppy-seed. There were also hot sausages lying on a silver grill, and underneath were plums and pomegranate seeds.
Trimalchio’s banquet is famous above all for the food fashioned to look like something else: the hare done up as Pegasus, the wooden hen that lays pastry eggs filled with little birds, the wild boar nursing pastry piglets, whose pierced flanks release live thrushes.
It is clear that Roman palates were tuned to a different set of tastes than our own. As Strong observes, “in spite of their theoretical taste for simplicity, the Romans disliked any ingredient in its pure form. There is hardly a recipe without a sauce, one that radically changes the taste of the principal ingredient.” Sweet sauces abounded on meat (as with those honey-dipped dormice). Fish were served sweet-and-sour. From Britannia to Berytus (today’s Beirut) a salty fish sauce called garum traveled the Mediterranean trade routes to serve as the Roman version of Worcestershire sauce (present-day Thai and Vietnamese fish sauce is made with similar ingredients and has a similar taste). Some ancient Roman snacks still persist today as Italian street food: the salted beans called lupini and roasted chestnuts.
Strong emphasizes the debt that Roman writing about food owed to ancient Greece, and this is certainly the case. Sadly, no documents survive to tell us what Roman diners owed to the Etruscans, whose influence on Roman dining habits was probably greater still; all we have to work from are a plethora of Etruscan cooking vessels, meat hooks, braziers, and portrait statues of satisfied, potbellied men, double-chinned women, and chubby infants. The Etruscans were known for their well-fed physiques, and for good reason; aside from the New World contribution of polenta, tomatoes, and peppers, Tuscan feasts may not have changed all that much over the millennia, and they are irresistible.
Ancient Greek food could be a much stranger affair, with such delicacies as cheese and garlic grated into wine, a Hellenic version of haggis, and the ubiquitous garos—the Greek version of garum. On the other hand, a menu preserved by the late-second-century AD author Athenaeus of Naucratis simply presents the bounty of an unpolluted Aegean Sea in tantalizing profusion: “eel, skate, huss, ray, cuttlefish, squid, and honey-glazed shrimps,” served in between courses of white barley and croissants with clotted cream. Greek cooks were credited with magical powers; they aimed to preserve health through food by keeping the body’s four humors in balance: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. If harmony and balance seem to govern thinking about food in every culinary tradition, the means by which that balance is achieved has produced radically different results. According to the Greeks, “old men had to avoid starches, cheese, or hard-boiled eggs. And the foods consumed in winter should be hotter, stronger, and drier than those in the summer.”
A ribald parody of this ancient culinary philosophy was composed in the very early seventeenth century by a German scholar and book thief named Melchior Goldast, who around 1606 fabricated a series of letters between Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and the physician Quintus Soranus (who actually lived two generations after them) in which Antony asks advice about how to curb Cleopatra’s libido and is rewarded with a set of recipes. For Cleopatra, with her hot nature, Soranus advises a diet of grainy bread, lettuce with vinegar and a little salt, rough wine, meat, and “frigid things”; for the more sluggish Antony, spicy radishes; Goldast, for all his reprehensible character, was nothing if not learned in the ancient authors.
Cookery in the Middle Ages continued to go on the premise that food was medicine for the bodily humors, but the feasts at which this “medicine” was consumed took on new ritual forms with the advent of Christianity. To convey the range of medieval dining, Strong contrasts a meal in a monastic refectory with a banquet in a king’s hall. Both feature diners who sit up straight instead of reclining in the ancient Mediterranean style, and in both cases the meal takes on overtones of the Last Supper. In other ways, however, medieval banqueting was not so different from the banquets of Greece and Rome. Like many peoples the world over, the ancient Greeks associated feasting with animal sacrifice (thus ritually acknowledging the food chain), and the Last Supper is itself a sacrificial meal, a Passover seder whose slaughtered lamb will itself become a symbol for Jesus, arrested by Roman authorities that same night and executed the day after.
But what Strong associates most suggestively with the Christian table is “the birth of manners,” embodied in the immaculate place settings and elaborate courtesy of medieval monks:
The monks gathered, washed their hands, and then entered the refectory…. Before each monk there was a knife, a cup, and a piece of bread covered with a cloth…. Cups had to be held with both hands and not cleaned with the fingers but with a cloth. Fingers and knives should be first wiped on a piece of bread and then on the tablecloth; salt was to be taken on the tip of the knife; nothing was to be passed without a mutual bow of respect.
Moving directly from this placid vision to the Viking feast hall, Stong makes it clear that we are not to expect manners at the secular table just yet. But chivalry would eventually make its impact felt; by 1215, an Italian from Trieste named Tommasino da Circlaria had devoted 15,000 lines of verse to taming German table manners:
A man should be very careful
Not to put [food]
On both sides in his mouth
He shall at that time be on his guard
Lest he drink and speak
Whilst he has something in his mouth.
A generation later, refinement has proceeded to the point that blowing one’s nose into the tablecloth and using one’s knife as a toothpick “as still happens here and there…is not good.”
By the fifteenth century, revived interest in the Greek and Roman classics had brought classical ideas of dining back into vogue, especially among Italians, and it is not surprising to find that a Burgundian banquet in 1468, to celebrate the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, is a riot of food in metamorphosis:
Guests entered to find fifteen gilded and six silver swans, each wearing a collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece and the arms of an individual knight. The table was further populated with an array of elephants bearing castles, camels with panniers, stags and unicorns all in gold, silver and azure, and filled with sweetmeats. Each figure carried a banner with the arms of the province of the duke.
Renaissance banquets provide Strong with plenty of anecdotes, especially in Rome, where tales about lavish dinners virtually became a genre all by themselves. Neither popes nor cardinals could match the dinner parties thrown by the Sienese magnate Agostino Chigi, whose canny strategies and limitless ducats underpinned the grand projects of Popes Julius II and Leo X in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. Chigi flaunted his connections with the Sultan Bajazet II by riding the magnificent horse that had been his present from the Sublime Porte, and serving a sauce of parrot’s tongues from Constantinople at one of his soirées.
Strong devotes a page to several of Chigi’s most memorable banquets, including the one held in his loggia alongside the river Tiber, perhaps in 1514. The cardinals who attended were served on golden plates bearing their coats of arms; these were cast into the river after every course, but Chigi, a great prankster in the Tuscan tradition, had stretched nets under the surface of the water to gather them up again. Agostino had lost eleven silver vessels at a previous party, presumably tucked away under some fat cardinal’s billowing robes. Ironically, Chigi’s letters reveal him as a man of plain tastes in food: he seems to have liked nothing better than a good pear and a fresh cheese wrapped in fern called raveggiolo.
However studied its classical pedigree, the Renaissance banquet differed radically from its ancient predecessors in one respect: the triumph of sugar. Brought in from the New World and the Canary Islands in increasing profusion, sugar, from the fifteenth century onward, was whipped into fantastic sculptures that were literally called trionfi. The sweet powder also made its inroads into dishes at the table, where its presence began to change the palette of European cooking from the ancient pairing of meats with sweet sauce to a more pointed contrast between sweet and savory. At about the same time, forks began to make their appearance, first in Italy and then in the rest of Europe (although it is difficult to imagine Henry VIII wielding anything so dainty; even Queen Elizabeth seems to have made do with no more than a tasting knife).
The mid-seventeenth century brought in coffee, tea, chocolate, and champagne, as well as increasingly elaborate table settings: napkins folded into fantastic shapes, tabletop sculptures of sugar or bronze. At the Vatican, holy themes like the Passion of Christ might appear in sugar trionfi amid the canapés; so, too, might mythological scenes like the infant Hercules strangling snakes. The banqueting table became a landscape, or a stage set in its own right. It could also become the scene of international incident, as when Pope Alexander VII met Queen Kristina of Sweden, newly converted to Catholicism, at Rome’s Porta del Popolo in 1655. Alexander had looked forward to the meeting with anxious anticipation; the Queen’s conversion and abdication from the Swedish throne had promised him a powerful new ally for the Catholic cause. But Kristina was not quite what the Pope had anticipated. He was, after all, an Italian man (from the same family as Agostino Chigi), and he must have been waiting for a blonde Amazon; instead, his diary laments of the dark, pop-eyed little queen with the off-kilter shoulder: “non è bella” (“she isn’t pretty”). When he took her off to a banquet with him, she complained that her table was lower than his and refused to sit down until their meals were served on the same level.
It was for an infinity of inconveniences such as these that, as Strong’s tale enters the Enlightenment, the ritual of the royal banquet, with its sacrificial and religious overtones, gave way to the studied informality of Madame de Pompadour’s soupers intimes, where witty conversation could take the place of endless ceremony, the king could shed some of his divine aura, and the dinner party as we know it could begin to take form. It also spread among the growing ranks of the bourgeoisie, and unlike the shrewd Roman businessman Trimalchio or Agostino Chigi, whose status as a merchant banker was disparaged by the prim snob Elisabetta Gonzaga, the hosts and hostesses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hailed from an increasingly large segment of society. Unabashed consumers, they invested in etiquette books, chefs, and sophisticated flavors, in ice cream, aspic, and candles on the table.
How could it all end so quickly, in “grazing,” crash diets, fast food, and anorexia? Even the TV dinners of the 1950s, eaten on special tin TV trays that clipped into place, had the virtue of collective experience. Now TV trays have gone the way of the dinner table, relics of a more convivial era. It was a matter of high civic import for Henry VIII to dine alone before an immense population of servants and subjects, but for the solitary sink eater, in Strong’s words, “the very expression ‘feasting’ no longer seems pertinent.” And perhaps this is the most important point of his entertaining book: it traces the history of an experience we now risk losing altogether, an experience of community, of common humanity, that has been central to our collective experience for as long as we can remember. One of the most durable of all human traditions is now proving more fragile than we knew.
July 15, 2004