The Easter feast, the Christmas dinner, a birthday celebration, a wedding banquet … they seem to have lost their luster over the years. How can a roast chicken or piece of cake be special when it’s there every day? I don’t consider my childhood wanting, but I do remember a time when these foods were eaten only on special occasions (not least of which because my parents weren’t home to prepare them). In the book I’m reading, Impulse Society: America In The Age Of Instant Gratification, Paul Roberts says:
Between 1970 and 1989, real prices for durable goods in the United States tumbled by 26 percent. Food costs as a share of household expenses plummeted. The price of a pound of chicken dropped by half. A McDonald’s cheeseburger cost 40% less. Consumption was becoming so cheap that the very idea of limits began to change.
So, relative cost and, without a doubt, aggressive marketing also play into the ubiquitousness of feast foods. Roberts is on to something when he says our ability to consume, even over-consume, has become so easy it has changed our psyche. There is, now as opposed to when I was young, a deep-seated feeling of expectation, at least concerning food. (Roberts’ book addresses all types of consumption.) Being able to eat whatever we want, whenever we want, has eroded the meaning of feast.
I just saw this article which says essentially the same thing:
For most of us, the orgy of roast meat, chocolate and hot cross buns, however lovely, comes on top of a daily existence in which these things are never scarce.
Feasts were what gave meaning to an otherwise dull existence. Communities have been held together by the foods they celebrated with, from the beer and bread of Mesopotamia to the wedding meat-banquets of east Africa. [Anthropologist Dr. Kaori O’Connor] quotes the ancient Greek writer Athenaeus, who pointed out that the pleasure of feasts is that they “transcend the usual”. A feast was therefore the one occasion when rich men enjoyed their food less than everyone else. “For since the tables set before tyrants are always heavily laden, they have nothing special to offer on feast days.”
When I look at the diets that sustained people into their 80s, 90s, and beyond, I see austerity. In CNN’s recent expose of Ikaria’s long-living residents, it was revealed that meat was not daily fare. It was usually reserved for a wedding or holiday. And it was shared among such a large group of people that each person had only a small portion. Can you imagine?