On Feasting

You are a character in a fantasy novel. Congratulations: you have been invited to a feast.

The first course is already on the table when you arrive: strange, small fruits and pungent cheeses, goblets brimming with wine, tiny salted fish, smoked meats.

The second course arrives before you’ve had time to sample everything in the first: small birds cooked in cinnamon and pepper, rum-soaked buns studded with currants, eels in a pie with a flaking brown crust. Olives so salty that they make your tongue curl. More wine.

The third course comes along quickly, and it’s a beautiful one: peacocks with the tails still attached, their bodies stuffed with figs and ginger, their beaks flaking with gold leaf. Huge joints of boar. Good brown beer, or more wine, whichever you want. A whole suckling pig with an apple in its mouth, its skin dripping with molasses and pepper. A huge fish served on a bed of squid and salt.

This is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. Most of the food tastes strange (wonderful, but strange). You don’t know the names of half the things you’re eating. In the corner, musicians play familiar songs, and there are several rounds of raised glasses at particularly good choruses of songs you remember from your time in the army.

There is no respite. Food bows the table. You try to taste everything, but it’s all whisked away so quickly to make room for more. At the end of the night, dessert: sweet wine and tiny glasses of strong anise liquor. Huge bowls filled with grapes and oranges and lemons and kumquats and huge green fruits that you don’t know the name of, with centers like custard. Cakes, a dazzling variety of them, all sparkling with sugar. This one is filled with a banana cream; that one is dotted with strawberries. Spiced sugared nuts, tasting like nutmeg and clove and honey. At the center of the table, towering and beautiful, a croquembouche: puff pastries piped full of sweet cream, stacked into a tall pyramid, and strung with threads of caramel. Half of them are filled with vanilla cream, and half with chocolate.

After dessert, as everyone tries to find buttons to undo so that they won’t feel quite so full, coffee and tea and brandy and pipes.

No one is murdered at the feast. You stagger home sated and drunk and groaning and certain that you won’t need to eat for months. You sampled everything that you could reach, but you’re sure that there was more you didn’t get to try. You hope you’ll be invited back.

What a nice story. Nobody died, the food was all delicious. Perhaps this is a children’s book. Perhaps it’s a happy ending, a wedding feast. All is well. How pleasant this is.

You can stop reading now if you’d like.

A parade is more than just a show, and a feast is more than just a meal. The feast to which you were invited was more than just a collection of important people eating as much as humanly possible. It was a display of wealth and power. It was a subtle, quiet threat. It was a bribe. It was a conversation.

Fantasy feasts are modeled after real-life feasts, and those feasts were conversations, too: between those who had power, and those who did not. Every dish that graced the table at a lush, overwrought feast was a line in a victory speech.

Nutmeg and cloves, from Indonesia.

Tea and oranges, from China or India.

Bananas and cocoa, from Central or South America.

Coffee from Ethiopia, or maybe from Central America.

Sugar and rum and molasses.

Lemons.

Peacocks.

Tobacco.

You and a hundred others are sitting in a dining room, arrayed in your fineries, and every new platter that emerges from the kitchen is there to remind you of how you got where you are. Look around you: who is wearing silk? Jewels? Gold? Silver? These are the people who know where the food comes from. The food is a prize, a trophy that you are being allowed to see and touch and feel part of.

Some of the people at the feast are responsible for bringing back the goods, others for ensuring the people who grow and harvest them don’t change their minds about who has the right to their goods, to their land, to their lives. Still others are responsible for nothing but feasting, enjoying the novelty and variety of the evening, and being pleased with the results of whatever regime they support.

Consider the journey of the tiny salted fish: packed in barrels aboard a ship that also carries peacocks in cages, or crates of bananas, or a precious orange tree with its roots shrouded in burlap. Consider the people whose hands touched the bananas before they were sent to you. Consider the origin of the spun sugar that is draped over the croquembouche. Where did it come from? Who wielded the knife that cut down the cane plant? Who choked on the smoke from the burning of the cane field?

Do you know?

Do you care?

Or is your belly full?

It is easier, isn’t it, to enjoy the feeling of your belly being full? If you think too much about the display you’ve witnessed, about what it means, about the empire you live in—the sugar might turn to ash in your mouth. It’s easier not to think about it, or to imagine that the display you’ve just witnessed is a celebration of free trade. Your kingdom sends ships and caravans and armies out to map the far reaches of the world, and to bring back whatever it can. And if people leave the feast—the parade of wealth and power—wanting more? And if they decide to send more ships and caravans, and if they decide to claim the land that the tea grows on, the land where the peacocks are fed, the land where the gold rests waiting in the earth for ready hands to take it?

So be it. There will be more ships, and there will be more armies, and there will be more feasting. Go to sleep, for now, and wake up with a headache from the wine, and remember the feast. Remember the silks and the jewels. Remember the tobacco and the lemons. Remember the strange fruit you don’t know the name of.

Remember that, and forget the rest. The rest is ugly. The rest is hard.

You have been invited to a feast.

Will you attend?

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