A Return to Feasting as Peak Cultural Experience by Brian Hayden

 <<As part of the Feasts project, and the “Make an Everyday Meal Utopian” strand of it, we’ve asked people with a wide variety of expertise to contribute some pieces which might be of interest to anyone setting out to add a salting of utopia to their daily bread. The pieces won’t be anything as standard or straightforward as a set of recipes to be followed mechanically; but rather, a series of fresh ingredients to be stirred into the mix, as anyone wishes, and if they see fit.>>


Over millenia upon millenia, we have developed euphoric reactions to the sights, sounds, tastes, odors, and contexts of feasts. They have become potentially exhilarating, all-encompassing experiences, especially when combined with music, dance, costumes, and ritual. In fact, feasts were some of the peak experiences of our ancestors—the most remarkable events in their lifetimes (as well as their rituals and the combats that they engaged in). Hosts originally went to great lengths to procure the finest, most delicious foods and to prepare them in the most delectable ways posssible (the origin of our own cooking and fine cuisine tradition). In fact, I have argued that plants and animals were originally domesticated in order to provide rarer, larger, more succulent foods for feasts, including animals with higher fat contents and thus juicier, more savory, cuts of meat.

In keeping with our observations on the inherent tastiness of meat, the sacrifice is the main component of almost all traditional feasts. Even in today’s Industrial society, meat is, and should be, the centerpiece in all feasts. Traditionally, the sacrifice of an animal represented many things: a high cost for the host, a great deal of effort invested, a higher level of life taken and ingested (the consumption of animate life or even “spirit”), and the appreciation of meat for its gustatory appeal. Bears and bulls were hunted for special feasting occasions even before the sacrifice of domesticated animals. In the autumn and winter, bear meat was very fat rich and relished by everyone, but it was rare and dangerous to obtain. Wild bulls were even more dangerous to hunt, being 25% larger and a lot nastier than domesticated bulls. Thus, eating bull meat was not only delicious, but might confer great power on those who could kill a bull and eat its meat.

As an insightful experiment one day, you might try grilling a steak (tenderloin fillet is best). Sit down by candle light. Take a bite. Close your eyes, and imagine the power of the ancient bulls being absorbed into your body.  Pour a glass of rich red wine and tell yourself, like the Hungarians, that you are drinking bull’s blood. To continue the experiment, procure the best fresh French or Italian bread that you can find. Heat the bread for a few moments in the oven (not microwave), and then use a piece to soak up some of the meat juices. This was the essence of feasting from the early Neolithic until Medieval times. And even before that, large game kills were rare events that were causes for great rejoicing. The Kalahari Bushmen hunters were only able to bring back on average 1.7 large animals per hunter per year. Among the Algonquin, kills of moose or bear were occasions for lavish communal meals. Eating these kinds of meat appears to have provided ecsatatic experiences for our distant ancestors.

At the dawn of the Mesolithic, some 12,000-15,0000 years ago, people began to collect, process and consume wild wheat, rye, rice, and other small seeds. There is no evidence that cereals were used in any systematic way much before this. Mesolithic technological innovations such as basket harvesting, boiling, and grinding, made these cereals attractive to use for food. In some cases, such as wild rice, more calories were probaby expended in the collection of the grains than were gained from eating the harvested yield. Therefore, the use of this wild grain may only really have made sense as a luxury food, similar to many very highly priced foods today used in feasts like wild quails’ eggs or truffles (with no calories resulting from their consumption) or saffron. But the flavor of boiled wild grains was delicious and complemented the taste of meat like few other foods could. To get an idea of the flavor of these early feasts you might try another experiment: cook up wheat berries (I think kamut are the best), or red rice and serve one of these with a tenderloin fillet. Experience the wonders of wheat that is unrefined and much closer to its wild state. Feel your jaw muscles enjoy the crush of the grains. Add some red wine, and again think of it as bull’s blood consumed together with the bull’s flesh. You may not want to do this for a formal feast (although you might), but it will give you a new perspective on what early feasting may have been like.

While grains could be eaten boiled, by investing more labor in their preparation, they could be ground and transformed into heady, freshly baked bread with chewy crusts like crusty French or Italian breads that made jaws rejoice. (The best bread that I ever had was “humz tanour” in Lebanon, baked over a fire of dry Cannabis stalks). Early grains could also be transformed into intoxicating beverages, like beers. In fact, DNA analysis of yeasts has shown that beer yeasts began to be affected by human manipulation possibly even before bread yeasts.

Honey is another traditional food that has largely become debased by commercialization and mass production. It may come as a surprise to some people, but not all honey tastes the same. It largely depends on the flowers the nectar is obtained from. Grade A honey has nothing to do with the taste, but only refers to the water content and the elimination of small inclusions (including bubbles). The most common “Grade A” honey is clover or fireweed honey. Both are relatively tasteless and overly sweet. Sugar, and not much more. But real honey (from wildflowers or other kinds of herbs), together with butter and bread is divine. In the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon where both bread and honey are exceptionally good, I could have lived off of honey, bread, and butter alone for the rest of my life.

As another experiment in the flavor of the previous one, and again using the best bread that you can find, coat one side lightly with butter, and then add a coating of honey (hopefully with some good flavor, notclover or fireweed honey). What a gustatory delight! Enjoy, and imagine that you are at a tribal feast! The best honey that I ever had was from “les garigues” (wild shrub scapes with thorn bushes and aromatic herbs) in the south of France. The honey in the Bekaa was also at the top of my list. Don’t forget, honey was hardly easy to obtain either in early times! Bee suits, gloves, and mesh bonnets are all relatively recent inventions.

And what a bizarre notion must have been the idea of drawing milk from the teats of an animal, and then turning it into butter or, even worse, fermented forms like cheeses. Cheeses, too provide some fabulous taste sensations with their concentrated milk fats, varied cultures and ripening techniques. Even today, fine cheese is a gourmet’s delight and a key ingredient in many feasts. However, like most great feasting foods, of the past, there are cheap and banal imitations of great cheeses, meats, breads, and beverages that should neverbe used in a serious feast. Even the choice of eggs is important for proper feasting. Crass, run-of-the-mill, supermarket eggs are an insult to the palate. Eggs from free range chickens taste far richer (even better are duck eggs or eggs from an organic farm), and are better for the chickens as well.

While I think that all the specialty feasting foods that were meant to impress chosen guests probably originated as difficult-to-obtain or difficult-to-prepare items used exclusively in feasts, there undoubtedly were continual attempts by the more ambitious individuals (without adequate wealth to sponsor lavish feasts) to try to emulate impressive meals in less expensive ways.  I call this the “progressive pauperization” of foods. Thus it is, I suggest, that over the millenia, many of the rare feasting delicacies gradually became less costly and more affordable by families of average means. Genetic increases in size and improvements in production technology (irrigation, plows, hoes, metal spades) made it possible to produce grains like wheat and rice in ever increasing quantities so that they could be used not just for feasts, but eventually for daily meals as well. Thus, 5,000 years after wheat and barley were first domesticated, progressive pauperization of grain resulted in cheap, abundant grain harvests. In fact, the grains needed to produce beers became so common that beer and bread were used to pay workers their daily wages in Sumerian and Egyptian states.

In a similar fashion, progressive pauperization has resulted in our consumption today of meat on a daily basis (with little thought about it) whereas before the Industrial Revolution, meat was exclusively reserved for feasting occasions.

Thus, progressive pauperization has meant that many people can consume beer or wine today on a daily basis, whereas in the past it was exclusively prepared for special events.

Thus, we also consume mass produced white bread and cakes that have lost their taste whereas in the past white flour was the exclusive prerogative of the elites or only used for special feasts.

Thus, progressive pauperization has meant that we can consume chocolate bought with a few pennies, whereas before 1500 of the Common Era, chocolate beans were used as an expensive currency by the Aztec elites, and only they could afford to grind up chocolate beans to eat or drink them.

Even though many of these items have become affordable today by everyone, anytime, the prestige of the formerly difficult-to-obtain foods has often persisted in our traditions. So, cakes made with finely ground white flour and icings laced with sugars and unpronounceable oils or lipids (formerly butters) are almost mandatory for our birthdays and special events, as is alcohol, bread, and meat. As already noted, rice, which may once have required more calories to collect than it could provide from consumption (and therefore was probably only used to impress guests), now is so abundant that it is considered essential for daily meals by large portions of the world’s population. Yet, it still holds a sacrosanct place in all feasts in the Far East and must be a main feature of feasts. Whole leaves of lettuce that used to be reserved for elites (while commoners ate the broken and bug-eaten leaves) are still requisites for any important meal in Europe despite the impracticality of eating large leaves and the widespread availability of perfect heads of letteuce.

But with the mass production of perfect produce has usually come a pauperization in quality and flavor that we are all familiar with: the processed cheap cheeses, the wonder white breads, the bad wines, the cardboard rices, the waxy chocolates, the tasteless tomatoes and fruits, and on and on.

The goal of feasting is supposed to be to transform consciousness to a higher plane. It should be a spiritually exhilarating experience. Thus, many Romans held their feasts at the temples where animals were sacrificed and cooked for such events. But this is no longer the case today except for occaisonal picnics in sacred groves like parks. And banal, cheap, pauperized industrial foods will not create exhilarating spiritual experiences, not with low quality produce, excessive processing, and the numerous synthetic additives or fillers. They will not make your palate rejoice or your spirit soar. Depauperized foods will only lower your level of consciousness to baser and baser profane levels which may lead to the ultimate profanities.

Thus, the First Cardinal Rule of feasting, if you want to impress your guests and create close bonds with them, is to return to the basic logic of feasts: to seek out foods or preparations with tastes that rise above the quotidian mundane fares—foods with rich savory tastes. Good French or Italian breads that have body, texture, and flavor. Rices that have texture and flavor like many red or black rices (closer to the wild flavorful varieties originally used to impress guests). If these are not available, try adding some pearl barley to the best basmati or jasmine rice you can find. While starch dishes may have been second in importance only to meat in traditional feasts, they have tended to be woefully neglected in many contemporary feasts. They need more attention.

Spend some extra time to find a wine that tastes wonderful as opposed to just “okay”. Good wine can create marvelous taste sensations and can have remarkable effects on hosts and guests alike. As Ben Franklin is reputed to have said: “Wine is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.”



Brian Hayden is a Research Associate in the Anthropology Department at the University of British Columbia. He has conducted ethnoarchaeological research on feasting since 1990 in Southeast Asia and Polynesia and written a major synthesis on feasting for archaeologists (The Power of Feasts). This piece is an adapted extract from a book currently in preparation.



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