Marvel at the Old World's Lavish Banquets

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The Egyptians dined among skeletons, the Romans fabricated eggs, and the Persians sat amid tapestries hung with cords of scarlet linen ...

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Commenting on the most famous chef's guide in history, Julia Child once proclaimed that "if I were allowed only one reference book in my library, Larousse Gastronomique would be it, without question." The famed repository of culinary knowledge was published in 1938, translated into English 23 years later, and updated regularly ever after. Entries are arranged in the style of an encyclopedia. Just now I took a copy published in 1961 off a shelf in the house I am subletting, perused the pages at random, and happened upon an entry that immediately became my favorite.

The subject is banquets.

A lengthy definition of the term is offered, but I trust the reader has a working definition in mind that is sufficient for our purposes. What delights about the entry is its survey of banquets the world over. "Enormous progress was made in cooking when clay or bronze vessels were invented, vessels that could withstand fire and in which meats, vegetables and fish, seasoned and spiced, could be cooked," the reader is reminded. "The era of banquets began, and the most magnificent were those that took place in the fertile lands of the orient, especially rich in spices and flavorings." To read all that follows you'll have to snag your own copy of Larousse Gastronomique.What follows are some of the excerpts that were most to my taste.

  • The Banquets of the Egyptians -- "Boy and girl musicians provided music on the harp, lyre and tambourine, blending the harmony of their instruments with the fragrance of the dishes and the measured movements of the dancing girls. Sometimes even acrobats and pantomimes performed their comic or daring turns during or after the meal... In order to inspire guests to enjoy all the terrestrial pleasures to the full, a coffin was brought in at the end of the meal, with an imitation skeleton in it, so that in front of the image of death, more value was set on the joys of the table in particular." 
  • The Banquets of the Assyrians and the Chaldeans -- "The doors of the palace remained open to all comers for seven days. Multicolored draperies were hung on the walls, transforming the courtyards into immense banqueting halls. People crowded into them from morning till night, stretching out on state couches or sitting on seats, ordering whatever they liked. The slaves had been ordered to refuse than nothing, but to bring everyone whatever they desired." 
  • The Banquets of the Hebrews -- "At the time of the Kings, Hebrews sat down to take their meals. Later they adopted the habit of reclining on couches to eat. Then they perfumed their wine added fragrant essences to it... As soon as the guests arrived at the house prepared for the banquet, holy water and perfumes were poured on him, he was crowned with flowers and took his place according to his rank. Glass vessels with relief design on them were placed in front of him and utensils of bronze, gold and silver were set on the table."
  •  The Banquets of the Persians -- "The Persian kings tables' were lavish, if we are to go by what Athenaeus says: 'one thousand animals are slaughtered daily for the Kings table; these comprise horses, camels, oxes, asses, dear and most of the smaller animals. Many birds are also consumed, such as Arabian ostriches... geese and cocks. They sometimes used to roast animals whole. The Book of Esther describes a banquet given by Ahasuerus, at which Queen Vashti's fall from favor was proclaimed... This magnificent banquet, served in the palace gardens, lasted seven days. White, green and hyacinth colored tapestries were attached with cords of fine scarlet linen and silver rings to marble columns. The couches were silver and gold on floors of porphyry, alabaster and streaked marble. Drinks were poured into gold cups of different shapes and there was an abundance of wine. The manner of drinking was as ordered."
  •  The Banquets of the Greeks -- "Religion prescribed that every day there should be a sacred meal. For this purpose, men chosen by the city were required to eat together, in its name, within the enclosure of the prytaneum, in the presence of the sacred fire and the protecting gods. The Greeks were convinced that, if this repast was interrupted but for a single day, the State was menaced with the loss of favor of its gods. At Athens, the men who took part in the common meal were chosen by lot, and the law severely punished those who refused to perform this duty. The citizens who sat at the sacred table were clothed for a time in sacerdotal character; they were called Parasites. This word which, at a later period, became a term of contempt, was in the beginning a sacred title.

On it goes for page after page.

The banquets of the Romans might include 600 ostrich brains, peas served with grains of gold, and as happened on at least one occasion, a tray "containing a basket on which there was a hen, carved out of wood, wings spread out as if she were sitting. Up stepped two slaves and, after rummaging in the straw, took out pea-fowls' eggs, distributing them among the guests... For the purpose of eating these eggs, spoons weighing at least half a pound each were handed to us and we broke the eggs, which were made of light pastry and looked exactly like a shell."

The banquets of the French are chronicled course-by-course across the centuries.

And American banquets go unmentioned. Perhaps I can briefly put forth some information to give future readers a sense of our times. The only banquet the typical American is likely to host occurs on his or her wedding day. The elevated status of the occasion is marked by friends and family, who are willing to travel great distances to attend, and assorted merchants, who charge 15 to 20 percent more than they would if providing the same goods for a different occasion. Fowl is a common dish. The relationship between cost and quality is extraordinarily weak, with the best fare often served at inexpensive weddings of recent immigrants or their children. Desert is traditionally an elaborate cake chosen more for its aesthetics than its moistness or flavor. Though the typical American attends many banquets in a lifetime, it is vanishingly rare for any to cite a banquet when listing the most delicious or elaborate meal he or she has eaten. Insert Tocqueville quote here.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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