Charlemagne's Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting

Charlemagne's Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting

by Nichola Fletcher

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Feasts, banquets, and grand dinners have always played a vital role in our lives. They oil the wheels of diplomacy, smooth the paths of the ambitious, and spread joy at family celebrations. They lift the spirits, involve all our senses and, at times, transport us to other fantastical worlds. Some feasts have given rise to hilarious misunderstandings, at others

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Feasts, banquets, and grand dinners have always played a vital role in our lives. They oil the wheels of diplomacy, smooth the paths of the ambitious, and spread joy at family celebrations. They lift the spirits, involve all our senses and, at times, transport us to other fantastical worlds. Some feasts have given rise to hilarious misunderstandings, at others competitive elements take over. Some are purely for pleasure, some connect uncomfortably with death, but all are interesting.

Nichola Fletcher has written a captivating history of feasts and entertaining throughout the ages that includes the dramatic failures along with the dazzling successes. From a humble meal of potatoes provided by an angel, to the extravagance of the high medieval and Renaissance tables groaning with red deer and wild boar, to the exquisite refinement of the Japanese tea ceremony, Charlemagne's Tablecloth covers them all. In her gustatory exploration of history's great feasting tables, Fletcher also answers more than a few riddles, such as "Why did Charlemagne use an asbestos tablecloth at his feasts?" and "Where did the current craze for the elegant Japanese Kaiseki meal begin?" Fletcher answers these questions and many more while inviting readers to a feasting table that extends all the way from Charlemagne's castle to her own millennium feast in Scotland.

This is an eclectic collection of food and feasts from the flamboyant to the eccentric, the delicious to the disgusting, and sometimes just the touchingly ordinary. For anyone who has ever sat down at a banquet dining table and wondered, "Why?" Nichola Fletcher provides the delicious answer in a book that is a feast all its own.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
We all eat, but how many of us know how to feast? If Fletcher, a food writer and occasional feast designer, has her way, we'll all be reconsidering our party habits. True, we're not likely to offer cannibalistic banquets (she discusses those of Fiji, New Guinea, the Aztecs and others), or platters of cats with rats (a dish from the 1870 siege of Paris), or Kwakiutl-style blubber-eating competitions. Even the complex Ruskin feast that Fletcher herself catered (seviche of wood pigeon, wild greens, Coniston char, and roast venison with wild bramble sauce, all served on pollen-inspired ceramic platters, with readings from Wordsworth and Ruskin) for a scholarly set of foodies in the middle of a British forest at sunset seems best left to its designated guests. But as Fletcher describes Roman, medieval, Renaissance, Persian, Japanese and Chinese feasting traditions, some universal elements emerge. Feasts often celebrate key life events and feature symbolic foods like eggs (for birth and fertility) or candied almonds (bitter and sweet, like life). Nature is either evoked or revoked, but rarely ignored. Fletcher serves her culinary history buffet-style; thematic chapters on meat or fish are followed by palate-cleansing pauses to examine oddities like 18th-century French food writer Grimod's funeral banquets or Mr. Billings's horseback dinner in 1903, followed by chapters on Victorian banquets and modern Day of the Dead rituals. This is a veritable cook's tour of a mesmerizing social custom. Photos. Agent, Susan Howe. (Aug. 16) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Fletcher, a food writer/demonstrator and artisan food producer, deftly handles her subject in this lively, witty, learned, and aptly titled book. Whether delving into the history of Japanese tea ceremonies, medieval feasting in Europe, Chinese banquets, or even Aztec cannibalism, she displays a skill in choosing her topics and incorporating her meticulous research. Many readers will likely wonder what was so special about Charlemagne's tablecloth-reportedly made of asbestos, it was tossed in the fire at the end of the meal, then retrieved unscorched to the amazement of guests. After conducting her own research, Fletcher discovered to her disappointment that the asbestos tablecloth is one of many fantastic myths swirling around the legend of Charlemagne; it is a wonderful story nonetheless. A veritable feast of storytelling, this won a Silver Trophy at the 2004 Gourmet Media World Festival in Cannes and is recommended for all academic and public libraries.-Courtney Greene, DePaul Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A smorgasbord of informative and entertaining essays on feasts through the ages, from the sweet and spicy indulgences of ancient Persia to the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay at the turn of the second millennium. Scottish food writer Fletcher describes not just the dishes offered in feasts, but the rituals of preparing and presenting them and the ambience surrounding them. She also explores the myriad reasons for feasting and the occasionally dubious motives of the hosts. Many feasts-after the coronation of a monarch or the celebration of a wedding, for example-are held to mark rites of passage. Others give thanks for a good harvest or mark the end of a fast. Still others are staged in an effort to grasp or hold onto power. (The author's account of an aggressive feast held by a 19th-century chief of British Columbia's Kwakiutl people includes a stomach-churning description of competitive blubber swallowing.) The measures taken to impress guests can be astonishing: Fletcher cites a 16th-century Hungarian feast in which a quail was placed inside a capon inside a lamb inside a calf inside an ox. By way of contrast, she details a spiritual feast called cha-kaiseki, a frugal vegetarian meal served as part of a Japanese tea ceremony. One of the most interesting feasts described here is one prepared by the author herself for an international congress of deer experts; every dish contained some deer product, the finishing touches being an ice cream made of reindeer milk and a fiery liqueur containing extract of velvet antler. Fletcher's scope is broad. Her selections include an 1870 Christmas dinner during the siege of Paris at which the Restaurant Voisin served up creatures from the zoo, theAztecs' ritual cannibal feasts and the meager but memorable meal of bread and potatoes enjoyed by Primo Levi and his fellow prisoners at Auschwitz after the Germans abandoned it in 1945. This pleasurable treat can be consumed as presented or sampled in any order. (Three 8-page b&w photo inserts, not seen)

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Charlemagne's Tablecloth

A Piquant History of Feasting

By Nichola Fletcher

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2004 Nichola Fletcher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6440-5


What is a feast?

However far back you may go in time, the gastronomical value of food always outweighs its alimentary value, and it is in joy, not in pain, that man has found his spirit.


The Emperor Charlemagne had an asbestos tablecloth. He would impress his dinner guests by throwing it in the fire after the feast so all the crumbs would burn away and he could put it back on the table clean and white. The full story of Charlemagne's bizarre tablecloth is told at the end of the book; it was just one of dozens of colourful anecdotes that mention of a subject like this inevitably elicits. Everyone I spoke to had something to contribute, and as well as pouring forth excited memories, fantasies, aspirations, myths and tantalising snippets, they had questions about what prompts a feast and how some of the great historic events were organised. There were also discussions about what constitutes a feast; whether all feasts have common elements; and, inevitably, whether there is still a place for feasts or whether the notion of such spectacular magnificence is outdated – a barbaric squandering of resources when we are overfed anyway.

What do we learn from reading about culinary entertainments? Mostly we learn about ourselves: how inventive we can be, how sometimes we are individualists and sometimes conformists. We are social creatures, we love to eat, we love to show off and we love to laugh; you don't have to be Aristotle or Rabelais to recognise this, and with few exceptions feasts are to provide pleasure, to have fun. Nevertheless, simply to make a collection of every notable feast there had ever been would make tedious reading. Instead, by grouping examples together (for certain occasions prompt a feast in every society), or by using an event to illustrate a particular element of the feast, be it an 'ingredient' or the reason for staging the event, I have covered the main categories of feasting. Even if a particular feast appears unique it usually conforms to at least one type. In and amongst are some oddities I enjoyed and one or two examples of the magiric art that I staged myself. However, attempting to arrange subjects as diverse as these into any logical sequence presents problems. Whether arranged by calendar or life events, by geography, chronology, culture or social distinctions, there are in all cases too many that either simply don't fit or else fit into several categories. So I present them as a series of essays, each in itself a complete unit though there are obviously connections between some events. There is, purposely, no particular order about the chapters except that each seems to follow on from the other either as a complement or a stimulating contrast. Therefore this book may be read as a many-coursed feast from start to finish, or dipped into as a series of appetisers.

But what is a feast – exquisite refinement or gargantuan excess? Opinions differ. Once when I was foolish enough to refuse a second helping by quoting John Heywood's 1546 proverb 'Enough is as good as a feast', my host rounded on me, pronouncing that anyone who would not eat to excess should not be writing a book about feasts. Perhaps he had a point: the proverb has a sanctimonious ring that jars with the spirit of feasting. On the other hand, in different circumstances it is absolutely right: the chapter on feasting in adversity has many poignant examples.

There is no simple way to define a feast because so much is due to the state of mind of the participants. Or participant. For example, can you have a solitary feast? Some would say no, but two Roman epicures clearly thought otherwise. Lucullus, a general renowned for his lavish feasts, saw no reason to temper his eating simply because he happened to be without guests, so when his cook provided merely a reasonable dinner, he bellowed, 'Today Lucullus dines with Lucullus!' and sent him back to prepare something more splendid. And Apicius chose to feast alone for his last meal. Discovering that he had eaten his way through a large fortune and reduced it to a small one, Apicius was not prepared to compromise on the matter of his food and ordered the most luxurious banquet that Rome could provide. To quote Alexis Soyer's version of the event: 'On that solemn occasion, though there were enough culinary chefs d'oeuvre to delight an immense number of epicures, he only invited himself. "Sublime idea!" he ejaculated; "after dining like two Vitelliuses, or several Luculluses, to die in the midst of plenty!" Thereupon he swallowed poison and was found dead at the head of his table.' But these are exceptions; most would agree that conviviality is a vital element of the feast.

There is no doubt that politics alters our perception of when and what makes a feast suitable. A warring society run by absolute monarchs is more likely to express its invincibility by laying on an elaborate display, no matter how hungry the majority of its subjects might be. The wildly extravagant coronation of Bokassa, self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African Republic, was based on that of Napoleon Bonaparte and was shocking only because it took place in 1977. Two hundred years earlier, it would have been considered normal. Indeed, in cultures where the monarch was regarded as divine, it was expected that he should be provided with both quality and quantity – failure to nurture the king appropriately might anger the gods and lead to a famine. The notion of a queen riding round the streets on a bicycle, or that of a future queen having a modest four-course wedding breakfast in solidarity with the rationed post-war nation – both laudable today – would have been incomprehensible, indeed despised, in many earlier societies.

Holding a feast to enhance power or social standing has not disappeared, even though nowadays many are held ostensibly for charity. The spectacular feasts enjoyed by city guilds always included political bargaining with the guest of honour, as well as performing the role of reinforcing solidarity amongst the guild members – being part of a recognisable group is no less important now than it ever was. Indeed, feasting is an important way of ensuring that cultural traditions survive. Social and cultural groups can be identified through their feasts since it is usually the case that certain food combinations, along with some other traditions, now largely superseded in everyday life, are kept alive through these special events. To paraphrase Brillat-Savarin: 'Tell me how you feast and I will tell you where you are from.' How many British people eat a rich spicy steamed pudding bursting with plumped fruit and nuts, bound with breadcrumbs and flaming with brandy – a glorious medieval relic – except at Christmas? Look at the ritual feast of Passover, at American Thanksgiving, or at the festival of Diwali. Look at Iranian No Rooz and countless other new-year celebrations. Every culture has its own feasts that confirm its identity, and whose food is a source of comfort or, to an exile, of longing. One country's table manners, however, can be the opposite of another's and travellers never cease to marvel at other countries' eating habits. Occasionally it leads to confusion and discomfort. A Bavarian pastor told me how, as part of international reconciliations after the Second World War, he was host to a group of Japanese. Since food was scarce, the meal featured dumplings heavily, in all senses, and every time the Japanese visitors had managed to empty their plates, the pastor's wife pressed them to more. Every time, to their hosts' mounting incredulity (for the Bavarians were large and the Japanese were not), the Japanese accepted with alacrity, though it became clear that some discomfort was being suffered. It never occurred to either party to question the other's mealtime conventions.

Feasts may equally be an escape from or rejection of social norms: after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the anti-monarchist Calves' Head Club apparently held a covert feast every 30 January (the anniversary of Charles I's beheading). They prepared a dinner at which a cod's head represented Charles Stuart; a pike, tyranny; a boar's head, the king preying on his subjects; and calves' heads prepared in a whole variety of ways represented the king's head and his supporters. Copious toasts of defiance were drunk, after which the revellers wrapped one of the calves' heads in a bloody cloth and ceremonially flung it onto a bonfire in the courtyard. There will always be those who use a feast to shock and who revel in their guests' discomfort. If all the tales about Roman emperors are to be believed, their guests suffered a string of indignities such as having their air-filled cushions deflated during the meal, or eating their way through trick food made from anything from pork to pearls, or sampling a succession of rare and eclectic dishes, convinced that they would be murdered at the end of the evening. But if feasts are used to control and manipulate, they are also used to placate. Samuel Pepys's observation, 'Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody', will find echoes throughout the book. Sometimes we do love to behave badly, and in recognising man's innate need to let off steam, religions and states often condone unruly behaviour: the Bacchanals, Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools, Twelfth Night and Carnival are all good Rabelaisian examples. In complete contrast were some Greek symposia and the Zoroastrians' silent feasts, both models of philosophical restraint.

And so it continues. There are superstitious feasts connected with fertility and the annual cycle of food production, there are feasts of mutual benefit where people are lured to carry out some communal task by the promise of a generous feast, often on the tacit understanding that both work and reward would be reciprocated. The gathering-in of a harvest is one example, building a house could be another. Rites of passage are used as opportunities for feasting in all societies. Thanksgiving is offered for many reasons from the harvesting of crops to the end of a war or the return of a long-lost relative.

Sometimes feasts come about as a result of a glut – of fruit, fish, fungi or some other perishable treat – or are based around an ingredient, like Elizabethan venison feasts or the turtle feasts so popular in the nineteenth century. Sometimes the aim is to encourage: one of the most spectacular medieval feasts, the Feast of the Pheasant given by the Duke of Burgundy in 1454, was given to promote the idea of a crusade against the Turks. And the world's largest banquet was given in Paris in 1900 to revive flagging republican spirits. Émil Loubet entertained France's 22,695 mayors in a huge marquee in the Tuileries Gardens with beef 'Bellevue', a terrine of Rouen duck, chicken from Bresse, and ballottine of pheasant (note the focus on meat in this description, another common feast element). The waiters used bicycles to serve the seven kilometres of tables and the chief supervisor used an early automobile to move about. This event was meant to evoke General Lafayette's Festival of Federation held in 1790 on the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille when a series of 'endless tables' was set up in the park and representatives from all the provinces were invited to a continuous feast of fraternity.

A feast can occur for no other reason than generosity. Plenty of tales from the Middle East describe feasts of Arab hospitality with dozens of delicious dishes and sweetmeats, perhaps an entire herd of camels, produced to entertain a complete stranger. These feasts are examples of true open-handedness, where food and entertainment are given without counting the cost or expecting anything in return, in this world at any rate. The willingness to give generously to a complete stranger is integral to Islamic culture: 'If there is anything that resembles being a deity it is feeding people', and a guest is considered a gift from God.

The enjoyment of giving pleasure must have prompted many a private feast; it has certainly been the motive for the feasts I have staged for my friends over the years (see chapter 28, for example). But, as will be seen in other chapters, I discovered as well that capturing people's imagination through a feast can be a useful educational tool; I found also that accepting a brief to design a feast for somebody else to mount imposes an interesting working discipline, since the exciting element of risk which is a hallmark of all my own creative activities had to be tempered by a fail-safe, though none the less pleasurable, formula.

There are infinite ways of having a feast and I do not pretend that this collection is comprehensive. I have selected events that interest me and which I hope produce a satisfying coverage of the subject – I ask forgiveness of those who find my omissions leave them hungry. One obvious gap is intoxication, though it is not entirely absent from the text. However, the nuances that make thoughts and feelings profound, arousing or hilarious to the intoxicated are usually lost on those not similarly imbued. Likewise, that food and eroticism are connected is axiomatic if not a cliché, and the subject has been amply covered elsewhere. Some aspects of the feast, such as music, can never be given sufficient prominence in written descriptions yet music and musicians play their part. Indeed, much social and feasting history that would otherwise have been lost was passed down orally through ballads sung by troubadours and their successors. And therein lies the endless fascination of feasts. From whatever viewpoint they are regarded – theatre, food, drink, costume, music, perfume, etc., there is a lifetime's worth of discovery to be made. But a line has to be drawn somewhere; I reluctantly draw mine here in the hope that these extraordinary feats of human effort, imagination and generosity will inspire some members of our slightly insipid society to take courage and start planning a feast – the ultimate transient art. As one of Captain Scott's party put it (albeit in rather different circumstances since he was relishing his food in Antarctic conditions), 'This is the most satisfying stuff imaginable.'


Paradise: the origin of feasts

Pleasures may be divided into six classes, to wit, food, drink, clothes, sex, scent and sound. Of these the noblest and most consequential is food.


In the beginning there was Paradise, and paradisi – a Persian word – was a beautiful pleasure park irrigated with clear mountain water, for all the world like an intricately knotted silk Persian carpet spangled with thousands of tiny flowers and populated by lively gazelles. A thousand years later this Zoroastrian vision of gardens with cool fountains was revived during the European Renaissance, and in 1689 Sir John Chardin wrote wistfully: 'There is such an exquisite Beauty in the Air of Persia, that I can neither forget it my self, nor forbear mentioning it to every body: One would swear that the Heavens were more sublimely elevated, and tinctur'd with quite another Colour there, than they are in our thick and dreary European Climates.'

The Persians' legendary delight in indulgence impressed and seduced those who experienced it. A succession of conquests from Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Turks changed their borders, their religion, and their centre of power, but invariably each conquering culture assimilated the indigenous Persian culture, finding it more congenial than its own. As well as this, all the caravans bearing silks and spices from the Far East to the West passed through Persia. Trading went both ways: the Tang emperors of the eighth and ninth centuries were apparently very partial to Persian cakes. And so, although Persia had her share of successful warriors, her lasting influence on a very large part of the world has been through pleasure, especially that of food and feasting, but also those of polo, chess, falconry, wine-drinking and smoking, to name a few. Because of this flow, many elements of the East that are considered exotic – 'Arabian' Nights with their genies and magic carpets; whirling dancing dervishes, 'Turkish' delight, and harems; orange flowers, perfumed musk and ambergris; the Magi following their bright star; jewel-encrusted swords, hookahs, rose-water and saffron rice – are all in fact of Persian origin. Zoroaster's theory of 'hot' and 'cold' foods, which he worked out in the seventh century BC, was a hundred years ahead of both Hippocrates' system of 'humours' – adopted throughout Europe – and the Daoist 'yin and yang' philosophy that still exists in Chinese communities. Much later, the Crusades into the Middle East created a crucial conduit for such luxurious ingredients as spices, saffron, almonds and sugar, especially if made into marzipan. It is no exaggeration to say that Persia profoundly influenced the culinary and feasting traditions of at least a third of the world.


Excerpted from Charlemagne's Tablecloth by Nichola Fletcher. Copyright © 2004 Nichola Fletcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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