Beggars, Banquets and Sustainable Feasts

chef sam gowing figs and garlic

“Let the order of service be from the more substantial dishes to the lighter, and the simpler wines to the most perfumed” – Brillat – Savarin 

The celebration of the feast marks a day of unusual solemnity and joy to commemorate a special event.  Festive cookery was traditionally a part of historic, religious and cultural events on our calendar and celebratory days are still signified with special foods to emphasise their importance.

Our daily food rituals are declarations of who we are and one of the ways in which we express ourselves. Whether it is the sensual delight of a single ingredient or the progressive showcase of a degustation banquet, nothing defines us more than what we eat and how it has been prepared.

The word banquet derives from the word bench (banc) presumably where Christians first sat to share their communal meals. It usually represents a sumptuous meal, or series of dishes given to a number of guests on ceremonious occasions, or to bring together people of synergistic creative and literary pursuits.

Some of the first banquets were depicted in prehistoric cave paintings located in a small chamber at the end of a little cave called Enlene, near the entrance of the Tuc d’Audoubert, France. Discovered on the cave wall was a partly painted, partly engraved sorcerer or ‘shaman’ with a human face and long beard, the eyes of an owl, the claws of a lion and the tail of a horse. Surrounded by bison, this mystical figure conjured up mythical chants and incantations by which to bless and encourage the successful hunt.

Once slaughtered, the animal might have been subdivided into two parts – probably one for the sacrifice to the Deities or Gods and the other possibly for the tribe, clan or families where the men would congregate to determine which part of the animal they would receive. Thus the prosperity of the hunt would commemorate the two most significant events to man – birth and death.

These ancient artefacts are the first known indications of ceremony that brings together the mystique of man and beast in the pursuit of food conservation and promotion of the food supply. Through the ages, meat has been a conduit of communication to a higher source. The Hindu sacrifices of meat for the gods are well documented, as are the practices of many South Pacific islanders who revere their suckling pig at festive occasions. The ensuing spiritual and culinary practice of whole roasting, barbecuing and smoking meats continues to deliver the ancient offerings to a higher entity by way of sacrifice to the Gods and mortals alike.

The pomp and ceremony of the pagan feast are also well known. The ceremony of Epiphany (January 6th) decided who would be declared the King of the Feast at the Saturnalian banquet, the most important Roman holiday. This was the festival for the God of Agriculture, Saturn, which began on December 17th and became the precursor of our modern Christmas.  The Romans would choose their King by chance – the one who drew the bean would be King.

After the demise of the Roman Empire, European aquaculture continued to be a rich source of dietary proteins and for almost 1000 years.  In Europe, the production of fish was both cultured and wild from marine and inland sources. Consumption was encouraged by the religious demands of the Catholic Church, which declared that there would be 166 days of fasting a year – including 40 days of strict fasting for lent – during which fish could be consumed.

Egyptian feasts were some of the first representations of food handling and hygiene practices. Cooking and serving of the feasts were carried out by women and much fuss was made of pre-dining etiquette with “guests ushered into an ante-room on arrival” Larousse The New Larousse Gastronomique (1983) Hamlyn, London to have their hands and feet washed before feasting.  The Egyptians suspected that some illness might be the result of poor cooking techniques or more importantly, the wrong choice of food – a philosophy that was shared with the Indian dietetics of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The secular ritual of food rose to an apex during the Renaissance of Rome where lavish feasts were in direct response to the rise and rise of classical Rome[1]. Gluttony was the dish of the day and everywhere from Rome to Florence to Milan, food was magnificent. Christianity was on the up and “meat eating remained the cornerstone of society.” . C Spencer(1994) The Heretic’s Feast Fourth Estate, London

Quail, venison, peacocks, snipe and larks all got a guernsey on the table – and not just for the toffs. Mortal medieval man and his Missus were also eligible for such fare. Even the foods offered to peasants for their labour were barely, oatmeal, wheat and herrings that might have been salted or smoked, washed down with a lager and complemented by locally grown wild cabbages, onions, leeks and other Brassica. C Spencer(1994) The Heretic’s Feast Fourth Estate, London

The duality of vegetarianism versus carnivorous enjoyment is demonstrated throughout classical and contemporary civilizations. Both Buddhism and Hindu faiths celebrate the sensual desire for the satiable enjoyment of food and its preparation. The Vedas of India are steeped in doctorates that food should be whole, unadulterated and available for the whole mind body experience and the Zen macrobiotic philosophy redefined the last century by George Oshawa who advocated a wholefood diet of mostly grains.

The Renaissance activist, Lutheran and philosophical mystic, German born Jacob Behmen (1764-81), “…taught that fundamental human kinship with the universe was the basis for mystical union with God, and therefore to kill is to break and sunder that mystical union. To slaughter animals for food is to build barriers between the soul and God.” C Spencer(1994) The Heretic’s Feast Fourth Estate, London Behmen was the vegetarian visionary of the age, with strong religious beliefs that founded Behemenism, a pre-cursor to the Theosophists.

Interestingly, many cultures that celebrate the feast for sanctity involve the consumption of animal flesh.  For example, the Balinese custom of ceremoniously acknowledging the Gods at the temple offer beautifully coloured cakes, tropical fruits and grilled chicken as a symbol of faith, sacrifice and appease, which are then blessed with holy water and enjoyed by all.
De Neefe J  (2003)  Fragrant Rice Harper Collins, Melbourne

At a feast in regional Victoria we celebrated life with a sensuous repast of crayfish, exquisite Iranian caviar and Champagne. Luxurious ingredients indeed and prized for centuries, yet each with their own individual healing properties. Crayfish increases blood volume and kidney yang energy and in Chinese Medicine is prescribed as a pre-operative dietary suggestion for breast cancer patients.

Caviar is rich in the omega-3-fatty acids that are essential for brain function, mental health and have been clinically proven in the treatment of cardiovascular integrity, depression, Bi-polar and other Neuro disorders., A Stoll, M.D  The Omega 3 Connection Simon & Schuster, New York Some optimists suggest that it may the “Prozac of the Sea”, however with a RDI of 6 grams per day of omega-3, you would need 112 grams (4 oz) at approximately $100 a pop – nice work if you can get it!

After 20 years the availability of Iranian caviar has only just been re-introduced into Australia due to Communist fishing rights and increasing pollution levels of the Caspian sea. The creamy, salty Ossetra ova we enjoyed belong to the benighted 50 – 100 kilogram Ossetra sturgeon, Acipenser Guldenstaedi. Like their Atlantic Salmon counterparts, recent Caviar production demonstrates the contemporary aquaculture practices set to be the mainstream method of sustaining a fish supply in years to come due the rising temperatures of our oceans and environmental toxicity. 

Sustaining Evolution

“Sturgeon once swam in the Thames and more recently the Seine.
In 1958, more than a million sturgeons were registered in the spawning grounds of the Volga; by 1987, there were just over 2,000.  And the official catch fell from 15,000 tons in 1990 to 650 by 2001 – with an estimated 10,000 tons poached.”
[1] V Bennett 2003 The Taste of Dreams Review

Global warming suggests that our Victorian waters will become subtropical and invite species such as coral trout and other warmer weather friends to our shores. However as the evolutionary process unveils itself, these species will find themselves spawning amongst closed walls with thermally controlled aquaculture environments.

Everything we eat is a product of culinary evolution, consumer demand and agricultural technique. Nowadays very few foods are invented. Most are contemporary twists on traditional themes, specifically those foods that are highly processed and readily available for mass consumption.  Far removed from the original intention of nourishing, nurturing and healing the body.

If the human body is the vehicle for the soul, the attention to dietary detail is therefore paramount for the survival and evolution of the species. Overall, it is our continued pursuit of the enjoyment of food and the attainment of an emotionally healthy response from eating and utilising ingredients for their unique qualities that connect us with the ocean and earth – not the fragmented processing of foodstuffs with endless food miles and unknown heritage that dominate the mass market.



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