Festivals of Food

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FESTIVALS OF FOOD. Food festivals can celebrate one particular ingredient, single dishes, or entire culinary cultures. Their public display, orgiastic consumption, or their playful way of dealing with food provide us with illustrations of the fundamental importance of such festivals for the development of culture.

Prehistoric Roots

Alternating periods of malnutrition with certain occasions of extraordinary food consumption is typical for economies of penury. In the early phases of cultural development, therefore, the simple abundance of food was already reason enough for the celebration of a feast. Greenland's Eskimo communities, for instance, had spontaneous feasts whenever a large animal like a whale was captured. In order to hunt game and gather fruits in a world perceived as filled with spirits (animism), hunting and gathering societies depended on the help of shamanic rites. These rites were intended to persuade faunal and floral spirits to release animals and plants for human consumption. Game was always divided among the hunters and their community according to a customary ratio of distribution. This ancient practice gave rise to a variety of ideas and rituals. Sacrifice was one of the most prominent. There have been attempts to deduce the principle of gift giving and the exchange of gifts from this primordial partitioning of food. Even though various disciplines have theorized and discussed the subject extensively, its original character has not developed clearly. The attempted explanations ranged from the sacrifice as an act of reciprocity to the sacrifice as a community at table, where gods and humans take part. Essential, however, was the fact that the food offered was consumed during the festive ceremony and only the inedible parts (bones, gall bladder) or minor pieces (fat) were offered to the higher beings. Bulk slaughtering, like that on the occasion of the "hekatomb" sacrifices in Greek antiquity, originally limited to the offering of one hundred head of cattle, became popular festivals with plenty of food for everyone.

Mass feeding in ancient societies certainly was an effective instrument for the manipulation of public opinion. In the case of Julius Caesar, it helped to create a dictatorship. He celebrated his victory over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa in September 46 b.c.e. In order to outdo the triumphs of his predecessors, Caesar not only rewarded his soldiers, but almost the entire Roman citizenry. Approximately 320,000 people received a present of 100 denars and a special allocation of oil and grain. Meat also was distributed gratuitously and the Roman masses were entertained at 22,000 tables before viewing the games. The obligatory social mechanism behind this phenomenon was first described by Marcel Mauss as "potlatch" in his fundamental study on the "gift." Individuals who are offered a gift are obliged to reciprocate. This system, widely operating in traditional societies, could be seen in two different forms: the potlatch of gifts and the potlatch of destruction. Only the wealthy were capable of leadership because they could oblige others, upon whom they bestowed gifts. Even the deliberate destruction of goods or gluttony was a strong signal of the social segregation of the elite. So it is not surprising that feeding the poor became a customary social act among the European elites of the Middle Ages.

Charitable and Social Traditions

Byzantine emperors, for instance, invited the poor to their annual banquets on "vow day" (2 January). When an imperial prince was born, the event was celebrated by the distribution of lochozema, a "childbed soup," in Constantinople's main street. The ingredients, consisting of wheat flour, honey, butter, and sesame suggest the high prestige attached to this soup.

In many cultures, the birth of children or other rites of passage provide occasions for the public dispensation of food. Besides the wish to celebrate the happy event, elements of reciprocity also add to these customs. So, for instance, in eighteenth-century France it became customary for godfathers to throw "dragées" (sugar-coated sweetmeats), hazelnuts, almonds or aniseed among the children standing in front of the church. Yet these presents were eventually interpreted as the obligatory gift of the newcomer to those whose company they would share. In the nineteenth century the custom was also integrated into wedding ceremonies. Another example of this reciprocal exchange is the sihk puhn feast (eating from the common pot) of the Cantonese ethnic groups in the rural suburbs of Hong Kong. For this feast, nine separately cooked ingredients, mostly luxury foods, are mixed in a big pot from which each guest, rich or poor, is invited to eat. Representatives of every single household and the village's elders are invited to the feast. Hence. the hosts symbolically feed the entire community. Sihk puhn banquets are the only way to legitimize social transitions, since any marriage or birth that is not celebrated with a sikh puhn is not considered legitimate. The annual appointment of the village guardsmen also depends on the sihk puhn. If a significant number of lineage elders refuse the food, the selection procedures must be repeated.

Some existing festivals are rooted in the pious traditions of the medieval period, for instance, the feast of the Holy Spirit in the Portuguese-speaking world, especially in the Azores. There, the entire local community shares in an enormous banquet, which includes the distribution of food and money to the indigent. During the festivities a child is crowned as the "Emperor of the Holy Spirit." The festival, now nearly extinct in Portugal, first appeared on the Azores during the fifteenth century. Its origins are closely connected to the ideas of the Calabrian monk Joachim of Flore (c. 11351202/5), who professed the arrival of the age of the Holy Spirit, an era of peace and prosperity.

Cockaigne and Carnival

In addition to these social and charitable aspects, the themes of utopia and carnival became important elements of medieval and early modern festival culture. Of course, the idea of a utopian terrestrial paradise in which the lazy are rewarded and the diligent punished was already known to Greek and Roman authors like Lucian, Herodotus, and Strabo and was projected either onto foreign countries or the island of the blessed. But in the medieval and early modern period, the idea of a gastronomic utopia, the land of Cockaigne (Cuccagna, Schlaraffenland, Lubberland), developed in times of famine. This made an ideal theme for feasts of feeding. The "Cuccagna Napoletana" of the eighteenth century is a famous example. It was originally celebrated as the culmination of carnival in Naples with a procession of food carriages sponsored by the guilds of bakers and butchers. In 1746 the king ordered the food to be heaped up in front of the royal palace. For obvious reasons, the cuccagna had to be protected by guards until the king gave the sign from the balcony of his palace and the crowds were allowed to plunder the mountain of food. The cuccagna was conceived as a work of art, and all the victuals were displayed in the form of landscapes, gardens, or architectures. From 1759 a firm construction was used to drape the foodstuffs. The term cuccagana was also applied to more traditional forms of food distribution. So the disposal of food hanging from a wheel placed on the top of a post was called a cuccagna just as was the famous Carnival degli gnocchi of Verona. The latter is believed to date back to the year 1531, when the rich Veronese citizen Tommaso da Vico handed out flour, butter, and cheese to the starving masses of his hometown. Even though there is no documentary evidence for this festival prior to the eighteenth century, the event today is advertised as the "oldest carnival of Italy." Once the "gnocchi" were cooked and distributed, the sponsors of the festival, pompously dressed, took part in the procession of the "macaroni."

Numerous European festivals originate from charitable foundations or social obligations. An example of the latter is the Sindelfingen cake-ride in southern Germany, reflecting the millers' duty to deliver cakes and bread to the local authorities as well as to the pupils of the town. First mentioned in 1535, the annual delivery developed into a traditional horse race, until in 1837 "enlightened" officials abolished this custom. Nevertheless, the millers were obliged to continue the payment of a fee to the graduating pupils up until 1961. Only five years afterward, the cake-ride was reactivated as a tourist attraction and has been celebrated ever since.

Aspects of Economy and Amusement

Modern food festivals are generally characterized by the predominance of economic interests. There are few wine, beer, fruit, or vegetable festivals that originated prior to World War I. One of them is the Circleville Pumpkin Show (1903), in Circleville, Ohio. Despite its humble origins, this agricultural street fair soon developed into one of the largest festivals of the United States, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Countless agricultural festivals arose during the Depression of the 1930s. The intention was to promote consumption and to advertise products from certain areas. In the United States, such festivals were mainly founded by local voluntary associations like the Lion's Clubs, whereas in Europe the government played a more decisive role in their creation. For example, in 1930 the Italian ministry for agriculture ordered an annual countrywide celebration of a grape festival on 28 September. Nevertheless, the virtual mushrooming of food festivals is a recent phenomenon. The redefinition of ethnic and communal relations in a post-colonial and post-totalitarian world, as well as the revival of interest in regional foods since the 1970s, has contributed to this growth. Marketing also recognized the importance of festivals in providing firsthand experience with foods that would later be recognized by the potential consumer in the store. Yet, sheer human creativity still can lead to spontaneous festivities. The most spectacular food events of the present, the "tomatina" of Buñol, Spain, and the "battle of the oranges" at the carnival of Ivrea, Italy, are examples. Their key element is an orgiastic row, in which 55 tons of tomatoes and 350 tons of oranges are consumed, respectively, each yearand the numbers are rising. Food is used as a projectile and to soil others. The event of Buñol came into being in 1944/45, when a carnival parade got out of hand. In Ivrea the "battle of the oranges" dates back to around 1850 when upper-middle-class children practiced throwing oranges from the balconies of their houses. Today the contracting parties are organized in eight teams, each consisting of 100 to 300 members, who have to contribute to the festival's costs. Their main targets are the people on the thirty-two horse-driven floats moving through the masses. Here adults turn into children for a few hours. Georges Bataille explains this behavior as the most archaic element in festival culture and world economy. Since enjoyment of waste engenders the will for surplus production, excess is the essence of a festival, as Sigmund Freud writes in his essay "Totem and Taboo."

See also British Isles; Christianity; Day of the Dead; Fasting and Abstinence; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Halloween; Holidays; Metaphor, Food as; Shrove Tuesday; Symbol, Food as.


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Oliver M. Haid