feast – noun \ˈfēst\
: a special meal with large amounts of food and drink : a large formal dinner
: a religious festival
Feasting is a word I like to use when I want to sound poetic or imaginative or older than my 25 years—like centuries older. The word is so seldom used, I looked up the definition. In a huge nerd move, I like to use a thesaurus to define a word through context with the added benefit of learning new vocabulary. “Feasting” yielded words like “repast” and “wassail.” As their whimsical sound suggests, feasting and its synonyms describe more than a collection of food. Ancient feasts were exotic and sumptuous; feasting was an event, a memorial, an offering, a proposal of marriage, a final seal of peace between kingdoms and, ultimately, feasts told stories.
I don’t want to be one of those foodies that preach about food and eating being a holy experience…and yet it should be. “Holy” in its original Hebrew definition means “set apart.” Feasts were always meant to be deeply sensual experiences, and when we feast, we set apart our senses.
Food choices alone could not make old feasts pleasing to the eye. The elaborate table decor and the men and women attending in their best attire of gold ribbons and deep, billowing sleeves made a feast an accomplishment of sight. The tastes can almost go without saying, but how can you not talk about imported foreign spices marinating inside plump pheasants and fire-roasted vegetables whose hours-long preparation not only made each bite juicy and succulent, but allowed aromas to pour in and out of rooms from morning to evening. Then, consider the less overt sounds of a feast: cabinets and drawers being slammed by busy hips, pots and pans clanging on stove and table, voices shouting ingredients and measurements back and forth, and more often than not, a low hum or whistle of a song accompanying the steady work. Such noise continues with guests conversing and laughing, followed by the very particular silence that comes when hunger is satisfied during an especially good meal.
And then there is touch. Other than taste, I am most drawn to the act of touch within a feast. I experience meals in textures. From the trite beginnings of a feast in choosing what I will wear (denim and cotton for comfort, silk and lace for elegance) to the texture of food I experience while eating my food. I want to touch and be touched during a meal, in ways beyond the tangible. There is the inescapable touch of friendship and love in these meals. To think that someone took the time to meet or dedicated a few hours to preparing and sharing a meal is something extraordinary, especially in this age and American culture of idle busyness and technological distractions. Not every modern meal comes wrought with profound and soul-bearing conversation, but there is something wonderfully disarming about food. For a lot of us, food is one of our first comforts, and, for as much as I love words, I think the thing I like most about feasting is that it requires no language.
Of course, when I think of my longing for feasting—true feasting—I can’t ignore the origins of the idea and how they are deeply rooted in spirituality and religion. Every major religion has a component of their faith dedicated to food, whether it be mandated feasts and holidays or the strong belief in fasting. No matter the belief system, some of the greatest thinkers knew there was a spiritual aspect to why we eat, what we eat, how we eat, and even who we eat with. Feasting is a spiritual discipline, though it sounds indulgent and excessive, proving how far we, and I, have drifted from the true purpose and benefits of a feast—to share, to be creative, to discover, to find pleasure, and to be a part of something outside of ourselves. I feel no shame in saying that I have felt closest to God after a good meal.
WORD COUNT: 656
Ashly Stage is an accreditation specialist at Harrison College and a writer who loves feasting so much she recently started a food blog, http://foodaliberaleducation.wordpress.com, where you will find offbeat restaurant reviews and see how feasting affects her daily life.