LUXURY. Luxury means spending more than one needs to, and, in the view of some who concern themselves with the matter, more than one ought to, on comforts and pleasures. Since eating and drinking are (to most people) pleasures, luxury may take the form of lavish spending on eating and drinking, which is the form relevant to this encyclopedia.
Consider the possibilities. You can eat more than would be necessary to stay alive and healthy. You can drink more wine than is consistent with sobriety. You can choose foods and drinks for their flavor, their appearance, their rarity, their cost, their reputation, or their brand name, rather than because they are handy and nourishing. You can also make choices of dining companions and of ambience that others consider luxurious. If you entertain friends in a Michelin three-star restaurant, you and your guests are probably doing all these things. With a focus on different individual aspects of your pursuit of pleasure, you may thus earn specialized epithets such as glutton, gourmand, gastronome, connoisseur of fine wine, bon vivant. All of these, along with the nonfood pleasures that you enjoy before and after your visit to the restaurant, are subsumed in the general term "luxury."
Can we manage without it? Le superflu, chose si nécessaire : "The superfluous, a very necessary thing" is the paradoxical definition with which Voltaire approaches the topic of luxury in Le Mondain, a poem published in 1736. Whether or not luxury is necessary to individuals, we may still see it as playing a crucial role in human society, making the distinction between haves and have nots, identifying social classes, setting targets for the upwardly mobile.
At any rate, luxury exists in most cultures in which some people have superfluous wealth, power, or leisure to expend on its pursuit. In ancient Greece, even the Spartans (who were proverbial for their frugal way of life) found that some fellow citizens brought better game and finer delicacies to the communal meal than others. In the twentieth century, even among the Russian Communists there was a distinction between the Nomenklatura, who could afford—and were authorized—to buy luxury imported produce, and the others, who could not. It seems that to bring full satisfaction to those who practice it, luxury must not be shared too widely. Thus the list of luxuries changes continually. In the early twentieth century, fresh fruits that were not in season locally, hothouse peaches, for example, were costly luxuries, available to few. Thanks to refrigeration, air freight, and cheap gasoline, fresh exotic fruit is now no luxury—but the number of food luxuries, costly products that only some people can afford, is somehow no smaller than it was before.
The practices of luxury extend worldwide. In China, there have been costly, exotic luxury foods for more than two millennia. Beginning with the Emperor and the Court, there have been people who have spent lavishly on fine foods, enjoying banquets that might number hundreds of dishes. In India and Southeast Asia, too, it is possible to read descriptions of luxury feasts and entertainments dating back nearly two thousand years. In all these countries, there have been many people who could afford none of this. Thus the necessary contrast has existed between those who want and those who command luxury. Throughout the world, there have been philosophers and hermits who have consciously renounced the pursuit of luxury in favor of meditation; among them was the Buddha, who lived in India in the 6th century b.c.e. and whose life and teaching have influenced the whole region deeply. However, Buddhism and the other ascetic traditions stopped short of criticizing those who chose to live a life of luxury. To the Buddha himself this statement is attributed: "I do not despise sensuality: I know that is what this world is. I also know it to be transitory; therefore it does not seduce my mind" (Aśvaghoşa, Buddhacarita 4.85). Thus his renunciation of luxury was a personal matter; it was not enjoined on all. In this sense, in traditional southern and eastern Asia, the pleasures of luxury were not a problem: simply, some people abstained.
The great Near Eastern civilizations, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian (fourth to first millennia b.c.e.), as they grew in wealth, grew also in their appetite for luxury. Of the Persian Empire (sixth to fourth centuries b.c.e.), which swallowed up all of these, it was said that the best foods and luxuries, and even the best drinking water, were brought from every province to the Persian king's table. Classical Greek travelers and historians reported with awe on the vast quantities of fine produce (four hundred fatted geese and thirty pounds of anise are just two items in a very long list) that were supplied every day to the Persian court for the so-called "King's Dinner." At the courts of the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Near East, ruled by Greek monarchs in the third to first centuries b.c.e., lavish and costly banquets followed the patterns already established by the Persians. The biblical legends of King Solomon's wealthy court and of Belshazzar's feast are inspired by Persian and Hellenistic royal feasting.
Rome's conquests in the East, particularly in Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the second and first centuries b.c.e., brought the wealth and skills that enabled Rome to enjoy luxury on an imperial scale. The Roman general Lucullus, who served in Anatolia, is proverbial for his luxurious lifestyle: one may speak still of a "Lucullan" feast that offers the finest food and entertainment at astronomical cost. Several of the Roman emperors (first to fifth centuries c.e.), unmatched in wealth and power, fully demonstrated a capacity for luxury and gluttony. Among these emperors, Claudius (ruled 41–54 c.e.) is famous for his practice of vomiting after a big dinner to make room for another. Arabs and Byzantines continued these Roman traditions. At the marriage of the emperor Maurice, in 582, "the city celebrated for seven days and was garlanded with silver: deep platters, basins, goblets, bowls, plates and baskets. Roman wealth was spent; a luxury of golden display, the secret riches of the imperial household, formed a theatre for all who wished to feast upon visions" (Theophylact Simocatta, History, Book 1, section 10). There are equally breathtaking anecdotes of luxury from late medieval, Renaissance, and modern European royal courts.
The Western literary tradition of sensuous description and lavish praise for the pleasures of gastronomy and luxury has been paralleled, for more than two thousand years, by an opposing tradition urging renunciation of luxury and of the wealth that pays for it. This tradition may be traced to Greek philosophers, including Plato (c. 428–348 b.c.e.) and his contemporary Diogenes the Cynic. The pronouncement of Jesus, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24.10) foreshadows the early Christian thinkers' fierce criticism of the usages of luxury. Such philosophers and religious teachers were reflecting popular views and also helping to shape them. Many people, ancient and modern, have believed that overspending on food, wine, entertainment, and other luxuries is morally wrong. These views have influenced government policies. Some Greek and Roman governments imposed direct restrictions on luxury spending or legislated to cap the prices charged for fashionable products. For example, in 89 b.c.e. the Censors at Rome decreed that Greek wine should not be sold at more than one copper per gallon; a few years later, Julius Caesar (it was said) authorized officials to enter private dining rooms to confiscate dishes whose ingredients contravened the antiluxury laws. Many modern governments impose differential taxes on luxury purchases. In France, for example, sales tax on fast food is levied at the reduced rate for "essentials" of 5.5 percent while on restaurant meals it is levied at the standard 19.6 percent.
Those who oppose luxury tend to complain that the businesslike satisfaction of hunger, which ought to be the purpose of food and drink, is progressively overshadowed by the pleasurable satisfaction of the senses. To satisfy the sense of taste is natural enough, but it is wrong to put flavor above nourishment in one's selection of food. The same applies to the sense of smell, and are we distracted from the proper business of the meal by scents and perfumes around us? As for the sense of sound, serious conversation is quite appropriate, if only conversation were always serious and never seductive. And must the senses of sound and sight be distracted by artists employed to dance and make music at a meal? Finally, the sense of touch: must these entertainers also mix with the guests and seduce them to promiscuous sexual pleasures? Thus, at some times and in some places, luxurious meals have turned into orgies. All of this comprises "luxury," a term that in Christian moral thinking came to be characterized as a sin. In the canonical list of mortal sins as catalogued by Pope Gregory in the sixth century, five sins are subsumed under Pride, leaving two, gluttony and lust, to belong to the classification of Luxuria, or sins of the flesh. These Seven Deadly Sins have been a recurrent theme of art and literature ever since, woven in the mid-twentieth century into Anthony Powell's novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time (A Buyer's Market  and The Kindly Ones ).
Examples in this article are taken from many cultures at many periods, to show how widespread is the appreciation of luxury in food and dining. In each case, therefore, the date and place are specified.
Luxury in Detail
The simplest characterizations of gastronomic luxury are those that focus on the quantity of food and wine and on the convivial pleasures that surround them. In the Odyssey, one of the two early Greek epics (c. 700 b.c.e.), the hero Odysseus, addressing his host Alcinous on the magical island of Scherie, sets out what later Greek readers considered to be the quintessence of ancient tryphe (Greek for luxury): "I believe there is no more delightful pleasure than when there is happiness among all the people; when feasters in the house, sitting in rows, can listen to a singer, while beside them tables are full of bread and meat, and a waiter brings wine from brimming bowls and fills their cups: this seems to me in my heart to be the best of all." Such descriptions can be found in oral literature of other times and places. Modern Americans, if recommending a barbecue, are likely to paint a similar picture, and to emphasize, like Odysseus, the quantity of meat available.
If tastes become more sophisticated, one will find that emphasis is placed on the quality rather than the quantity of food. This leaves room either for encyclopedic listing or for mouth-watering details.
The wine will perhaps be of varied kinds; Julius Caesar (100–44 b.c.e.) made his gastronomic mark by being the first politician in Rome to serve four wines in sequence at his public banquets. Or it will be from a good vineyard: the vogue of Chateau Haut-Brion, still a noted name among the Bordeaux vineyards, can be dated from the April 1663 dinner at which the London diarist Samuel Pepys "drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with." Or it will be from a renowned region: the luxury banquet laid out in the famous tomb of King Tutankhamen of Egypt (died 1352 b.c.e.), intended for the monarch to enjoy in the afterlife, included a gourmet selection of wines inscribed with names of wine districts—appellations, one may call them—in the Nile Valley, the Nile Delta, and the Oases. Or it will be a well-aged vintage wine: in the fictional Dinner of Trimalchio, an episode in Petronius's novel Satyricon (Italy, first century c.e.), the boastful host presents a wine labeled with a truly great vintage, the consulship of Opimius in 121 b.c.e., and spoils the effect by adding, "I didn't serve such good stuff yesterday, and my guests then were much better class." Or it will be of a special style, like the so-called East Indian Madeira favored in eighteenth-century England: loaded in casks at the Portuguese island of Madeira, this wine took the long sea journey to the East Indies (modern Indonesia) and back again to Europe, crossing the equator ten times, rapidly developing a toasty maturity, and just as rapidly increasing its price. Or, if nothing else, it will be expensive: witness the strange early-twenty-first century vogue for Beaujolais Nouveau, harvested, vinified, and bottled in indecent haste. Wines and liqueurs that claim to belong to the luxury class may sometimes be as boastful as Trimalchio. The sweet wine of Tokay, in Hungary, is labeled in Latin Vinum regum—rex vinorum (the wine of kings—the king of wines). Bénédictine, a commercial liqueur from Fécamp in northern France, carries the dedication D.O.M. (to God, best and greatest) on every bottle.
The food will be notable in various similar ways. The meat may perhaps be that of a suckling animal, suckingpig or baby lamb or kid; these are always expensive, because economic sense dictates slaughtering animals when full-grown. Or it may be game, from wild hare to wild boar to grouse. In many cultures, game reflects glamour on a male host by implying that he is the huntsman; in others, including the modern West, serving boar or venison is simply a sign that serious money has been spent. As far back as the Assyrian and Persian empires, the wealthy have kept private hunting parks stocked with "wild" animals such as boar and deer; for example, thirty gazelles were supplied each day to the Persian King's Dinner mentioned above. Or the food may be taken at the precise time of year when it is known to be at its best, its tenderest, or its most flavorsome; Archestratus, Europe's first gastronomic writer, insists on this point continually in his instructions for selecting Mediterranean fish. Like an appellation wine, the food may come from the very region where it is said to reach its peak of quality or from the producer who has the best reputation; this emphasis found fashion in restaurant menus in the United States in the early twenty-first century. It may be of very distant origin—which in earlier times would mean that it had necessarily made a slow voyage across dangerous seas, had passed through the hands of many traders, and would fetch a vast price at journey's end. This helps to explain certain strange and lavish uses of spices: true camphor (from Borneo) in medieval Chinese tea, nutmeg and cloves (from eastern Indonesia) in modern European cakes and puddings, myrrh (from southern Arabia) in classical Roman spiced wine, cinnamon in medieval Byzantine porridge. Cinnamon, which came to early Europe from Southeast Asia across the stormy Indian Ocean, fetched three times the price of gold.
Above such tastes as these lie the higher levels of luxury, those at which a host will pay fabulous prices to make the desired statement. Notice in the examples that follow, and in some of those already given, that the high price and reputation of the food and wine matter more than their effect on the taste buds. The visual effect of the display of wealth in tableware, decoration, service, and entertainment matters more than the (often minimal) contribution of these things to the participants' pleasure.
At these levels the wine will be of the highest reputation and of the most expensive vintage. "What kind of champagne is it?" "I'm afraid to look." "Suffering Pete—Bollinger 1911," said Guy Bolton to P. G. Wodehouse (New York, 1920s) in awed contemplation of a luxury buffet, ordered in their name, that they could not pay for (Bolton and Wodehouse, Bring on the Girls, chapter 5, section 6). The food must also be at the top of its class. It may be perennially rare, as is caviar (it will become rarer each year). It may be costly to produce, as hothouse peaches used to be and as foie gras still is. Foie gras and caviar are not bad, but are they really a hundred times as good as pork liver and cod roe? It is easy to name other foods that are neither as tasty nor as nourishing as their price might lead one to suppose. The ordinary eater can do little with truffles, yet their rarity and reputation ensure that the price fetched by the truffles of Périgord and Tuscany remains extremely high. Bird's nest soup is said to be almost tasteless, yet the difficulty of obtaining it and its reputation ensure that its price is still fabulously high in China. There have through the centuries been many delicacies whose price owed more to fashion than to flavor and food value. Rome's second emperor, Tiberius (ruled 14–37 c.e.), considered legislating when the market price of red mullet, in response to fashion, rose to ten thousand sestertii each. (Note that it was Tiberius on one occasion who demanded luxury of a nongastronomic kind by insisting, when accepting an invitation to dinner, that the waitresses be nude.) Three of this emperor's successors—Caligula (37–41), Vitellius (69), and Elagabalus (218–222)—were famed for their use of ridiculously costly ingredients. Vitellius's triumph (shortly before his assassination) was the recipe "Shield of Minerva," his personal invention. It included parrot-wrasse livers, pheasant and peacock brains, flamingoes' tongues, and the milt of moray eels, all these supplies specially fetched for him by Roman naval commanders from both ends of the Mediterranean and even beyond.
Once-exotic foods are available across the world; spices that were once fabulously costly are ridiculously cheap; philosophers and religious thinkers have ceased to decry luxury. Luxury has a past; the difficult question is whether luxury has a future.
See also Art, Food in: Literature; Class, Social; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Greece, Ancient; Medieval Banquet; Pleasure and Food; Renaissance Banquet; Rome and the Roman Empire.
A readable collection of historical episodes and anecdotes of luxury in ancient Greece and the Near East is to be found in Athenaeus, the Deipnosophists sections 510b–554f; see vol. 5, 293–521 of Charles Burton Gulick's translation (London: Heinemann, 1927–1941). On the Persian King's Dinner see David Malcolm Lewis, "The King's Dinner (Polyaenus IV 3.32)" in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and A. Kuhrt, eds., Achaemenid History II: The Greek Sources (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1987), 79–87. On the Deadly Sins in medieval Christianity see John T. McNeill, Helena M. Gamer, eds, Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales and Selections from Related Documents (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938). The following works focus on luxury in general or luxury in specific cultures:
Berg, Maxine, and Helen Clifford, eds., Consumers and Luxury: Consumer Culture in Europe, 1650–1850. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1999.
Coe, Sophie. America's First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Dalby, Andrew. Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Davidson, James N. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins, 1997.
Schafer, Edward H. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. [Early China.]
Twitchell, James B. Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
"Luxury." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/luxury
"Luxury." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/luxury
426. Luxury (See also Wealth.)
- angora cat behavior suggests self-indulgence. [Animal Symbolism: Jobes, 96]
- Babylon ancient city on Euphrates river; famed for its magnificence and culture. [Mid. East. Hist.: NCE, 202]
- Cadillac expensive automobile and status symbol. [Trademarks: Crowley Trade, 83]
- Cartier’s jewelry firm founded by Alfred and Louis Cartier in Paris (1898). [Fr. Hist.: EB, 10: 177]
- caviar extremely expensive delicacy of sturgeon’s roe; byword for luxurious living. [Western Culture: Misc.]
- chauffeur-driven car sign of the high life. [Western Cult.: Misc.]
- chinchilla one of the costliest of furs, made into luxurious coats. [Western Culture: Misc.]
- Chivas Regal expensive Scotch whisky. [Trademarks: Crowley Trade, 106]
- clover indicates wealth and ease. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 350]
- Cockaigne fabled land of luxury and idleness. [Medieval Legend: NCE, 589]
- Dom Perignon renowned vintage French champagne. [Western Cult.: Misc.]
- fat of the land Pharaoh offers Joseph’s family Egypt’s plenty. [O.T.: Genesis 45:18]
- fleshpots of Egypt where Israelites “did eat bread to the full.” [O.T.: Exodus 16:3]
- land flowing with milk and honey promised by God to afflicted Israelites. [O.T.: Exodus 3:8; 13:5]
- life of Riley easy and troublefree existence. [Am. Usage: c. 1900 song, “Best of the House is None Too Good for Reilly”; TV: “The Life of Riley” in Terrace, II, 26]
- Mercedes Benz expensive automobile and status symbol. [Trademarks: Crowley Trade, 368]
- mink coat highly prized fur apparel; traditionally associated with wealthy ladies. [Western Culture: Misc.]
- Pullman car comfortable, well-appointed railroad sleeping car named for maker. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 210]
- Ritz elegant and luxurious hotel opened in Paris in 1898 by César Ritz; hence, ‘ritzy, putting on the ritz.’ [Fr. Hist.: Wentworth, 429]
- Rolls Royce the millionaire’s vehicle. [Trademarks: Brewer Dictionary, 928]
- sable fur of this mammal produces luxurious, soft fur coats. [Western Culture: Misc.]
- Savoy sumptuous hotel in London; at the time of its opening, it set new standards of luxury. [Br. Hist.: EB, 8: 1118]
- Schlauraffenland fantastic land of sumptuous pleasures and idleness. [Ger. Legend: Grimm “A Tale of Schlauraffenland”]
- silk expensive fabric used in fine clothing. [Western Cult.: Misc.]
- Tiffany’s jewelry firm founded by Charles Lewis Tiffany; store in New York caters to the wealthy. [Am. Hist.: EB, 10: 177]
"Luxury." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury
"Luxury." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury
lux·u·ry / ˈləksh(ə)rē; ˈləgzh(ə)-/ • n. (pl. -ries) the state of great comfort and extravagant living: he lived a life of luxury. ∎ an inessential, desirable item that is expensive or difficult to obtain: luxuries like raspberry vinegar and state-of-the-art CD players he considers bananas a luxury. • adj. luxurious or of the nature of a luxury: a luxury yacht luxury goods. ORIGIN: Middle English (denoting lechery): from Old French luxurie, luxure, from Latin luxuria, from luxus ‘excess.’ The earliest current sense dates from the mid 17th cent.
"luxury." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury-0
"luxury." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury-0
So luxuriant prolific XVI; profusely growing, etc. XVII. — prp. of L. luxuriāre grow rank (whence luxuriate XVII). luxurious †lascivious, †excessive XIV; self indulgent XVII.
"luxury." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury-1
"luxury." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury-1
"luxury." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury
"luxury." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/luxury