Feast & Famine
By Marina Wolf
IF YOU’RE LUCKY, you’ve had some experience with hunger in your life. Not enough to stunt your growth or make you die, but just enough to put an edge on your appetite. Maybe you’re a member of a religion that imposes periodic fast days. Maybe you didn’t make enough money in college, but your scholarships counted against you at the food-stamp office.
I had all of that, plus six brothers and sisters and parents plagued by layoffs and underemployment. We got free school lunches and, during the worst months, food bank-surplus TVP for snacks. First helpings were small, and second helpings, if there were any, inevitably led to noisy skirmishes and heated charges of parental favoritism. Food, in other words, was a highly charged issue at our house, and only at Thanksgiving and Christmas could we relax, two days in one month when we would have more than barely enough. We always started those dinners with a prayer, how thankful we were for each other and blah blah blah, but it was really all about the big roasted bird in the middle of the table. When the last amen was said, we pigged out in the old style. We were a roomful of Tiny Tims getting excited about our plum pudding.
This low-level deprivation used to bother me a lot. But it’s true what they say: A bit of hunger really does make a great-tasting sauce. And I will forever appreciate the occasional feast.
Our ancestors did, too. They really knew how to get into the food, with their spit-roasted oxen and fig-stuffed titmice, followed by towers of sugar paste borne into the dining hall by sweaty kitchen slaves, who themselves were planning a gorgeous gorge with oxen leftovers after the Lord High muckety-mucks had theirs. Scholars may point to such decadent meals as a prelude to the fall of Rome or as a sign of class inequities in medieval Europe. But actually most people back in the old days, even members of the upper class, were living in a state of uncertainty when it came to their next meal. There were church restrictions and locusts and kings and barbarians taking a bigger cut.
We as a nation, on the other hand, are no longer immediately dependent on harvest or hunting. Many of us can load our grocery carts anytime. Stand at the end of a checkout counter sometime and watch our modern-day cornucopia–the conveyor belt–overflow with holiday provisions.
But we are drowning in a sea of indifferent plenty. Without the contrast, that tiny edge of everyday desire, our hyperabundance becomes just one more luxury to take for granted. Hey, there’s always one more stuffed thing, one more set of side dishes, another choice among four desserts. You can get it at any restaurant seven days a week, or even at home if you’ve just come back from the supermarket. When the festive board groans more than once or twice a year, we stop listening, and the creaking table blends into all the other holiday noise.
But there is a part of human nature that craves the contrast of hunger and humongous meals. The postmodern, well-fed American, lacking in fast days and famines, tends to find that contrast with post-holiday diets. It’s an understandable impulse that has become almost as much a ritual as the Rose Parade.
But on behalf of people everywhere who have been or are now hungry, I’d like to say to the nation: This year, spare us your collective anorexia. It’s a mockery of the real thing. Festive food–having it, sharing it–should bring you only joy.
From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.