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Eating Together: How Banquets Made Us Human


The history of civilization is in how social events are celebrated.

What’s a party? The very word evokes the faces of friends or of beloved relatives, a place and time specifically reserved for the occasion, from a house to a garden, and with food and drinks in abundance. The Spanish word, “fiesta” comes from the Latin word fastus, a day sanctioned by the gods for celebrating or for starting a new business or company. (This is opposed to days of ne fastus, from which we derive the word “nefarious.”) But the idea that there are auspicious and positive days, as well as negative days, goes back even further in human history, and it’s the way by which our ancestors organized their ideas of ​​the world and time.

Parties and banquets, as well as fasts and funerals, are present within every civilization on the planet, and records of them are among the oldest of archaeological remains. Excavations such as those at Hilazon Tachtit in Israel, have allowed scientists to date one of humankind’s oldest banquets to some 12,000 years ago. It was a funerary banquet at which at least 28 individuals of different ages were buried, and where a lavish amount of meat from wild cows was consumed (as were at least 70 turtles!).

Although menus vary based on geography, the communal sense of banquets is consistent regardless of the occasion. Dr. Charles Stanish and his colleagues have investigated the ways in which the civilizations of ancient Peru formed strong ties of cooperation with neighboring populations through the construction of geoglyphs (lines of stone on the ground, as at Cerro del Gentil or Nazca ). Likewise, there were rituals involving food, drink and sacrifices of all kinds. According to the group’s findings, cooperative economies are regulated more efficiently if they share community ties, even without sharing geographic spaces. A common celebration, such as for the winter solstice, allowed communities to come together to cooperate rather than to compete.

A party or celebration, like a monument made of stone, commemorates an important moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s an independence day, Christmas, the end of Ramadan, the beginning of spring, a wedding, or a birthday celebration. As inhabitants of a living world, the passage of time is marked in the human measure through banquets, around a table and through the ritual consumption of certain foods.

In The Banquet, Plato recounts various dialogues taking place during a grand dinner. The theme of these dialogues is love in all of its different meanings and senses. When Socrates remembered the words of his own teacher, Diótima, love was said to be that which moved mortals to seek immortality through transformation. In other words, a mortal is perpetuated through change: old ideas are modified with new practices and take on new lives, always taking the place of the old.

Even during the period for which any living being is said to live and to retain his identity —as a man, for example, is called the same man from boyhood to old age—he does not in fact retain the same attributes, although he is called the same person; he is always becoming a new being and undergoing a process of loss and reparation, which affects his hair, his flesh, his bones, his blood, and his whole body. And not only his body, but his soul as well. No man’s character, habits, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, and fears remain always the same; new ones come into existence and old ones disappear.

This same sense of change and ritual transformation is what we mark every time we participate in a fast or blow out the candle on a birthday cake. The light that goes out (that is, which is symbolically sacrificed) marks the time past, and which has already died in us. At the same time, there is a promise, and even a vow, for a future time and for that which is yet to come.

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