What was the entrée at The Last Supper?
Was the meat served hot or cold at the Round Table?
We know, in both cases, who was there. We know about the 12 apostles. We know about King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Sir Percival, Sir Galahad and Sir Gawain.
But what the disciples ate, after their ceremonial bread and wine, the Bible doesn’t say. Nor do we know whether the knights of Camelot feasted on wild boar, tuna casserole or Stouffer’s frozen meatloaf. No writer thought it important enough to mention.
Food — in short — isn’t necessarily the most important thing about eating.
Meals are social occasions. They’re about people. More, sometimes, than about nourishment.
That’s something to reflect on during the coming holidays, when some of us — those with fully vaccinated families — may be lucky enough to welcome guests into their homes for something like a normal Passover (March 27 to April 4), Easter (April 4), Iftar (the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan: April 12 to May 12) and Eid, the feast at the end of Ramadan.
“People bond over food,” said Roblyn Rawlins, an assistant professor of sociology at William Paterson University in Wayne. “It’s something that brings people together.”
Dressed for dinner
Our year of isolation, of lonely microwaved meals in front of the TV, has surely given us a new appreciation of that almost-forgotten creature, the dinner guest.
Not for nothing did our great-grandparents have a million rules about where to sit, which fork to use, how many people could be at the table.
The dinner table is where the family was strengthened, where social hierarchies were maintained, where great issues of state were decided, or — as in the coming holidays — where rituals of faith were enacted.
“This is a very primary, primordial way for people to come together and manifest their social natures,” said Joe Chuman, for 46 years the leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County (now retired), who teaches at Columbia and Hunter College.
With the pandemic, that’s something we’ve missed for more than a year. Not for nothing, Rawlins says, did many families set up Zoom meetings with relatives last Thanksgiving, so their loved ones could be virtually — if not actually — at the table.
“There are some anthropologists who argue that cooking is actually what made us social beings,” said Rawlins. The sociology of food is her specialty: she is the co-author of “Making Dinner: How American Home Cooks Produce and Make Meaning Out of the Evening Meal.”
“If you don’t cook, then you just go out and capture and forage your food, and then you eat it,” she said. “Once you start cooking, then people have to gather, wait for it to be done, and then you’re all eating it at the same time.
“Cooking and eating are really the major way, historically, that people have gotten together.”
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When in Rome
The ancient Romans, as we know, liked to gorge and guzzle. And on some things we wouldn’t consider very nice: flamingo tongues pig uteruses and giraffe meat.
But meals — for them as for many later cultures — were above all social occasions. They were about power and status.
You may recall Trimalchio, the first century A.D. millionaire, model for The Great Gatsby. He’s a former slave, risen to nouveau-riche opulence, who, in the novel “The Satyricon,” shows off his new prosperity by throwing huge banquets.
Singing slaves would give pedicures to guests — who would stuff themselves with pastry eggs, dormice dipped in honey, and a hog that was cut open to release dozens of live thrushes, which were then caught by bird-catchers. “Trimalchio ordered that a thrush be given to each guest,” the author Petronius tells us.
Not the kind of meal you would whip up at home, for yourself. The whole point was to wow the guests.
The banquet hall that is the center of the action in “Beowulf” (c. 7000 –1000 AD) is key to the life of the community. So much so that when dinner is repeatedly interrupted — not by robocalls, but by a monster named Grendel — the hero Beowulf is engaged to rid Denmark of it.
“What’s noteworthy is the universality of this,” Chuman said. “I suspect every single culture makes eating together essential to the solidification of social relations.”
Meals, through the ages, have served other social functions, too. They strengthen bonds of trust. Toasting began as a gesture of confidence: Each man holds up his drink, to show the other it’s not poisoned.
Food can bridge gaps of culture. There is a scene in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) where Col. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is being led through the desert by an Arab guide, Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin). Their relationship is strictly business — until Lawrence asks to share his guide’s meal.
Not because he’s hungry: we see from O’Toole’s expression that he, the proper Englishman, finds the “Bedu food” unappetizing. But because he wants to bond. He swallows it bravely, smiles and says “good.”
Tafas offers him more — and the two become fast friends.
“The Arab cultures are very big on dining,” Chuman said. “In the Mediterranean world, there is a tremendous emphasis put on food preparation. These are big food cultures.”
Affairs of state
In the 18th and 19th centuries, state dinners were where all the important issues of the day were decided, over brandy and cigars. “The room where it happened” — as the musical “Hamilton” calls it — was most often the dining room.
That, for instance, was where the future site of Washington, D.C., was hammered out in the famous “compromise of 1790.” Over hors d’oeuvres, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did a deal. We’ll give you a Southern location for the White House, Hamilton said — if you Southerners will allow the federal treasury to assume state war debts. It all happened around Jefferson’s dining table in New York, on or about June 20 — no doubt aided by the lubricant of good food and wine. “The dinner table bargain,” it was called.
Stevens, the butler in “Remains of the Day” (played in the 1993 movie by Anthony Hopkins), is always reminding his staff of the importance of service. In a great English household, he tells them, momentous things are decided at the dinner table. A spotty glass, a misplaced fork, could bring down an empire. “History could well be made under this roof,” he tells them.
Often, history was made in such households. Generally to the clink of brandy glasses. “With treaties, people raise their glass to signify an agreement,” Chuman said.
Tea ceremonies in Japan, the family feasts of Diwali and the Seder of Passover, all have food. But they’re not about food.
“On the Seder plate, the egg, the bitter herbs, all the food has symbolic meaning,” Chuman said. “Judaism is a religion that primarily takes place in the home. In effect, sharing the table together as a family has been central to the survival of the Jewish people, in the midst of catastrophe and persecution.”
Dining, most universally, is bound up in family.
There is a telling moment in Barry Levinson’s 1990 movie “Avalon,” about several generations of a Jewish family in Baltimore.
Family meals are the glue that holds them together — especially the Thanksgiving dinner with its kibitzing and bickering, its children’s table, its irate Uncle Gabriel (Lou Jacobi), who becomes incensed when the turkey is carved before he arrives. Then, one Thanksgiving, the family gets its first TV set. Everyone gathers around it mesmerized — though all they can get is a test pattern.
The movie cuts back to the dinner table, empty and forlorn. For the Krichinsky family, that’s when things start to unravel.
“When I was raising my six children, I would insist that the family be together for dinner,” Chuman said. “What’s happened in modern America, with the breakdown of social institutions, is that people have become increasingly isolated. That’s not a good thing. Bonding through food, over the table, is absolutely essential.”
And at no time is that more true than during the holidays.
“Holiday feasts are about intentionally choosing to spend a piece of us, probably the most precious piece —time — with those with whom we celebrate together,” said Neriko Musha Doerr, assistant professor of cultural anthropology and international studies at Ramapo College in Mahwah.
So those of us lucky enough to welcome dinner guests back into our houses, in these coming weeks, should remember the real centerpiece of the holiday table is ourselves.
Human companionship — not beef brisket — is what we’re really hungry for, after 12 months of isolation. The food is just the excuse.
“Food helps knit relationships,” Rawlins said. “Everybody is together, breaking bread.”