For eleven months of the year, you may calculate carbs, foreswear fat for fiber, pick protein over pasta, consume skinny-conscious salads, and dutifully deny yearnings for the taste of something sweet. That’s a good thing, because from Thanksgiving until the beginning of January, we will encounter a continuous parade of tables piled high with succulent turkeys and hams, potatoes and yams, savory stuffings, canapés and casseroles galore, and pies, cakes, and cookies by the score. With hardly a blink, even the most steadfast calorie counters among us will succumb to the temptation of The Feast.
If pangs of guilt are surfacing already, relax. You’ve got a great excuse to indulge. Feasting is genetic. For at least ten thousand years, humans have marked every significant occasion with an eating binge. That’s what I’d call a hard habit to break.
It all started back in the cave with the `feast or famine’ syndrome. Gathering was a sketchy way at best to stock the larder, and hunting was literally a hit or miss endeavor. Finding a field of wild grain or successfully bringing down some large animal — an Irish Elk for instance — was real cause for celebration.
Once agriculture was invented, life became somewhat easier, except of course when a storm of insects blew through eating everything in sight, a fungus ravaged the crops, a drought dried up the water supply, or war-mongering neighbors burned the fields and slaughtered the herds. Famine was never far from hand.
History’s first really big feasts occurred in conjunction with religious events. This not only honored the gods, but also appeased the general public for the daily suffering they endured simply because they had been born poor. The concept went over so well that `holy days’ morphed into `holidays’ many of which are still called Feast Days on liturgical calendars, the most notable being The Feast of Christmas.
Not to be outdone by gods who nibbled ambrosia and sipped nectar on Mount Olympus, the Greeks made an art of feasting. Delicacies were imported from all parts of the Mediterranean. Certain cooks prepared meat, poultry and fish; others dedicated themselves to making honey-drenched desserts. Since there were only so many religion-related reasons to feast, epicurean societies filled the gaps, and members brought their own food to the events, thereby devising the original `pot luck’ suppers. To keep things from getting totally out of control, sumptuary laws limited the number of guests allowed to dine at any one time.
The Romans turned feasting into the stuff of legend. They adopted cooking methods and recipes and introduced new foods from every civilization they subjugated. They came up with the concept that one room in a home — the kitchen — should be devoted only to cooking and invented oyster beds, aviaries, fish ponds, and foie gras. They dressed their guests in special dining togas, served them on jeweled plates, provided reclining dining beds on which one might satisfy more earthy appetites once hunger and thirst had been appeased, and spent literal fortunes on their feasts. The 1(st) century gourmet, Apicius, a man who devoted his life to pursuing the pleasures of fine food, is the supreme example of Rome’s feasting obsession. When his net worth fell to a mere 10 million sesterces (approximately $500,000 which was a whopping huge sum two thousand years ago), he staged one final feast during which he swallowed poison rather than live in fear that on some future day he might have to cut back on his banquet budget.
In ancient Ireland, a feast was more than just a meal. It was the primary form of entertainment. And the lengths to which chieftains went to outdo each other in the eating arena fairly boggle the mind. Entire herds were roasted to feed a multitude of guests. Diners supped and drank for days and even weeks. Before, during, and between courses, singers and dancers performed to harpists’ music, shanachies recounted ancient sagas, and combatants fought mock battles. Nothing was too farfetched or outlandish. Flocks of birds sprang from faux pies. Miniature towns were fashioned of spun sugar. For many, the only pause in the feeding frenzy came when they swooned from overindulgence.
One of the earliest accounts of the Irish affection for food and feasting occurs in the 12(th) century poem, Aisling Meic Con Glinne — The Vision of Mac Conglinne. In the story, a hungry scholar dreams about a meat castle with a roof made of sausages and puddings. It is surrounded by a moat of custard, backed by a butter mountain, an ale waterfall, and a forest of apple trees, and fronted by a milk lake. The dreamer has visions of bread, salmon, smoked bacon, mutton, beef, cheese, carrots, kale, berries and nuts.
Other Irish feasting tales are no mere flights of fancy. During the famine year of 1435, the wife of An Calbhach O Conchobhair threw an open house for 2,700 men of arts and letters. Their daughter Margaret outdid her parents somewhat later by inviting to her feast every poet in the land. But the prize for the most outrageous banquet of all goes to the Christmas feast thrown by Rian na Murtha O Ruaire at Dromhair Castle, Co. Leitrim in 1591. Two hundred years later people were still talking about it, prompting Jonathan Swift to write:
O’Rourke’s noble fare will ne’er be forgot,
By those who were there, and those who were not.
His revels to keep, we sup and we dine,
On seven score sheep, fat bullock and swine.
Usquebaugh to our feast in pails was brought up,
A hundred at least, and a madder our cup.
Oh there is the sport, we rise with the light,
In disorderly sort, from snoring all night.
Throughout history, despite wars, plagues and famines, The Feast survived. Through the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Western Expansion, the Industrial Revolution, and right up until today, every culture in every comer of the globe celebrates every occasion — be it a holy day, a holiday, or a personal milestone — with a feast.
CDs have replaced troubadours, and globalization provides more food variety than anyone ever dreamed possible, but only the individual elements have changed. When you sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and all the trimmings, graze from the buffet at a holiday party, pour a glass of eggnog, or snitch a handful of cookies from that plate left out for Santa, you will be participating in not only one of the dearest Irish traditions, but one that has been reinforced in our collective genetic memory since the cave. So don’t hold back. Enjoy The Feast. You can diet again in January. Slainte! ♦