What does feasting mean to you? What associations does the word conjure in your mind? Do you think of communal and cozy Thanksgiving meals? The fleshy immediacy of a Robin-Hood style outdoor banquet? Beowulf’s pleasures and gift-giving in the ancient Mead Halls of Northern Europe? Once-in-a-lifetime meals that commemorate occasions, such as a wedding or a 60th birthday? Or religiously associated meals that engage us through centuries-old ritual and pageantry, such as Easter, Passover, Eid, or Chusok? Or perhaps the understated refinement of a Japanese kaiseki meal, requiring extensive labor, but minimalistic in appearance?
While its individual form and content may differ greatly, the feast or banquet functions as a strong symbol in most global communities. Food and feasting often defines community by establishing a connection between those who eat, what they eat and how they eat: as such it shapes national and cultural identities. As it is portrayed in Western philosophy from the seminal banquet in the pages of Plato’s Symposium, the feast is simultaneously erotic and philosophical. It has the potential to descend into gluttony or to rise to the level of the sublime. The feast can be an expression of decadence, or it can be a means of sharing bounty or giving thanks. Feasting can represent communion or transgression, just as eating “the flesh” may symbolize one of Christianity’s most central rites or one of Western society’s central taboos. In Asia, the influence of Buddhist reincarnation has instilled additional meanings and taboos upon the consumption of food.
The multiple purposes and nuances of food make it a rich theme in literature, film, and the visual arts. In this seminar, students take advantage of the collections at the Ackland Museum, part of the UNC campus community, to develop a virtual gallery about “The Feast.” Students choose works of art to study and write essays tying the work of art to readings for the class. See the “Feasting in Art” Gallery for representations and interpretations of food and feasting in painting and other visual arts. The Ackland Museum also has a delicious array of feasting tools from across cultures and time periods, from Greek urns and wine cups to Japanese tea chawan and picnic boxes. We have made a special study of the vessels used across cultures in the consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages. Please see the “Tools for Feasting” Gallery for the student essays about what one can learn from the study of these three-dimensional objects.
The food and banquet film has recently become a genre unto itself, and the outpouring of films is helpful in understanding cross-cultural differences and the place of food within culture. Frequently in these films, food is used as a vehicle for expressing broader societal concerns, such as the difficulty of preserving local cultural heritage in a globalizing world; the strains that can exist across generations; themes of loss, longing, and memory; or the precariousness of expressing individual passions within the strictures of society. For this gallery, students each chose a particular food film (or in some cases television show) to study outside of class. The films are not always obviously about food, but they use food visually or thematically in interesting ways. Each student also chose a still that visually represents the role of food in the film. The choices range from complex novels adapted to film (such as Lord of the Rings or Age of Innocence) to animated films aimed at family audiences (such as Ratatouille) to indie art films (such as The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover). The films chosen represent a number of cultures from French to Taiwanese to Greek-American immigrants to traditional Southern culture. See our “Cinematic Feasts” Gallery for the food film essays.
Studying representations of food and eating over time and across a variety of global contexts, each group of students considers one of our most basic human needs and its relationship to thematic dualisms such as necessity and luxury, love and wisdom, gluttony and sublimity, community and individualism, asceticism and consumerism, tradition and experimentation.
We hope you will enjoy the galleries! –Inger S. B. Brodey