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The Origins of the Feast: Sharing a Meal

Why is eating together a feature of every culture?

Key points

  • Among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the feast after a successful hunt was a celebration of skill, cooperation, and survival.
  • Since our hunter-gatherer days, human families, friends, and associates have come together over food in every culture.
  • The fast pace and pressing demands of modern society are undermining the shared feast. Too many of us eat alone or on the run.

Everyone takes it for granted: Families that eat together, stay together. They do more often, anyway, than families that don’t. One of the first questions that a family therapist asks troubled clients is, “Do you sit down together for family meals?”

A Hallmark of Our Species

The family meal—a form of communal food-sharing—is universal in human cultures. Travel to any country in the world and you will find it. Travel back in time, even to the dawn of our species, and you will always find it, although in some times and places, you would need to watch out, for you could be on the menu. The family meal is verily a hallmark of our species.

Why are we like this? Why is the ritual of eating together ubiquitous and deemed so important? The answer is that the family meal was—in a sense and to some extent—a selection factor in the transition from ape to human.

In many other species, including our nearest relatives, no such thing exists. The core of ape “families” is made up of a mother and her offspring. And she only feeds them until they are weaned. Apes and monkeys generally forage on their own, eat what they’ve managed to scrounge up, and don’t share it around.1 Many carnivores and scavengers do eat together, but the semi-violent growling and threatening of individuals as they try to hog the meat for themselves make the gatherings of lions and hyenas at the kill very different from the typical human luncheon.

In chimpanzee troops, and in other mammal societies, males often kill the offspring of other males once they become dominant, but what marked our early evolution was the transition to a system that joined the males to the family. They were no longer a danger to the offspring of other males and could and would provide food for the family. Instead of eating what they killed where they killed it, hunter-gatherer males brought it back to a home base, where the meat was shared by band members.

Here’s a description of an Mbuti feast:

As soon as the hunters return they deposit the meat on the ground, and the camp gathers to make sure the division is fair. Nobody acknowledges that it is, but in the end everyone is satisfied. Cooking operations start at once and within an hour everyone is eating. If the hunt has been a good one, and the day is still young, the most energetic men and women dance immediately afterward, followed by the children. In the course of such a dance they imitate, with suitable exaggeration, the events of the day (Turnbull, 1961, p. 134).

After the transition to agriculture and large societies, the feast took on additional meanings and served other purposes than bringing the band together. Kings, emperors, and prelates demonstrated their status by throwing enormous banquets with incredible amounts of food and drink. For example, the feast celebrating the enthronement of George Neville, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1465, lasted three days. Six wild bulls, 12 porpoises and seals, 204 goats, 400 peacocks, 1,000 herons, 2,000 hot custards, and 13,000 kinds of sweetmeats were consumed (the amount of wine consumed is unknown). Feasts could also include guests the host wanted to intimidate or “neutralize.” Indeed, one might have thought twice before accepting a dinner invitation from Lucrezia Borgia.

Meals Today

Nevertheless, the family meal remained, and remains, a signature activity of our species. The famous Norman Rockwell painting of a Thanksgiving dinner—three or four generations of an extended family gathered around the table in anticipation—is an iconic representation of the role of the feast in human life and myth. Over the years since Rockwell painted the picture, more and more Americans eat alone and often on the run. We stuff ourselves a lot, often with bad food that we regret eating and in ways that don’t bring us closer to other people. It seems that we rarely sit down to celebrate wholeheartedly. Does this have some connection to the loneliness that seems so marked among the crowds that roam our streets and inhabit our offices?

Footnote

1. One exception: When chimpanzees hunt monkeys, they share the meat with others who beg for it.

References

Turnbull, C. (1961). The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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