The Never-Ending Feast opens with “the remains of countless ghostly feasts” (p. 2) stored in the British Museum, images which reappear throughout the course of O’Connor’s analysis of elite feasting in Europe and Asia from c. 4000 BC-AD 1600. Known for her work on the anthropology of consumption, O’Connor presents an engaging analysis of food, drink, and elite society across the Eurasian continent, along with the secular and sacred views on food for each region. The six chapters each focus on one of five geographical regions—Mesopotamia (chapters 2-3), Greece (4), the Eurasian steppe (5), China (6), and Japan (7)—and are ordered chronologically. O’Connor brings together methods from history, archaeology, and anthropology in her study of feasts and elite society and aims to provide her readers with “a synthesis … to consolidate and revitalize the foundation on which theory should be grounded” (p. 21). This ‘revitalized foundation’ stands on the parallels seen in O’Connor’s thoughtful analyses across the five regions, especially regarding the connections between myth, ritual, and feasting practices, the materialization of social structures at feasts, and the importance of alcohol for feasting paradigms.
Chapter 1 provides a chronological overview of the major works and trends for food studies in history, archaeology, and anthropology, focusing especially on the influence of the Cultural/Material Turn.1 A clear and thorough summary, it stands as a good introduction for students and those new to the field. O’Connor’s approach for the book draws on Notes and Queries on Anthropology, a manual of anthropological fieldwork designed to prompt observations on social organization, and M. Sahlins’ ‘anthropology of history’, which approaches culture as history and vice versa.2 This leads O’Connor to focus on how social structures and processes manifest through social actors, their actions, and their material culture.
Chapters 2 and 3 (Mesopotamia) examine first Sumeria and Babylon and then Assyria and Persia. These chapters, as well as chapter 6 (China), provide the most material on the sacred qualities of food, as feasting practices mediated the human-divine divide with food operating as both a sacred and secular technology. In Sumeria and Babylon, this manifested in the ideology of service owed to the gods: only by feeding the gods could the peoples of Mesopotamia themselves eat. O’Connor tracks the progression of increasingly hierarchical feasting from the Ur III period into chapter 3 with the Assyrians and then the Persians. In all three societies, the elite used feasts as a venue to display and compete for social power, a social phenomenon seen repeatedly throughout the book, especially in connection to China and Japan. The analysis of Assyrian and Persian feasting nicely demonstrates how the physicality of feasting participated in these status displays: for the Assyrians, destroying an enemy’s feasting wares was roughly equivalent to destroying his city walls, while guests at a Persian feast could leave with leftovers or tableware, a tangible demonstration of the king’s favour. In both chapters, O’Connor uses ration texts and inscriptions to illustrate Mesopotamian food ideologies. Concerning the latter, she associates the prominent texts with the obligation of the Assyrian and Persian kings to provide food in abundance, which is connected to their respective religious world-views. This status through largesse can be linked with Veblen’s theory of ‘conspicuous consumption’,3 and those who make use of Veblen’s work may find it profitable to consider how conspicuous consumption through both consuming and providing food, as seen in this chapter, impacts the theory.
Chapter 4 (Greece) focuses on “the social dynamics of all-male public sacrifices, public banquets, and the symposion and the institutionalized misogyny that were key features of the Greek never-ending feast” (p. 89). O’Connor argues convincingly that archaic- and classical-era egalitarian feasting derived from the Homeric epics, whose focus on a single class (the heroes) at the expense of the rest of society permitted feasts that should have been hierarchical to be egalitarian. The archaic symposion receives a lengthy treatment as a form of ‘constructive drinking’, or “the way in which alcohol makes the structure of social life apparent, and, through the ceremonials of drinking, constructs an ideal world” (p. 102).4 O’Connor then turns to classical-era public sacrificial feasts and private banquets, both of which served to affirm dominant social values and community. O’Connor’s analysis provides a useful supplement to existing studies of Greek feasting 5, particularly due to her anthropological approach to the material and in regard to how sacred and social technologies were connected through feasting practices. This chapter is heavily Athenocentric, however, especially concerning the symposion and private eating, and focused on linking ‘community through feasting’ with democracy. O’Connor does note that she focuses primarily on Athens (p. 98-99), but there is a tendency to concentrate on democracy and democratic values as a general social telos for Greece without considering the social and commensal alternatives (there is no discussion of Cretan or Spartan communal meals, for example). O’Connor relies heavily on Athenaeus and his compilation of earlier authors, but does not supplement with extant classical sources.
Chapter 5 turns to the Eurasian steppe, “where a distinctive diet, way of life, and drinking feasts emerged” (p. 116) amongst the Scythians and the Mongols and incorporates material from the newly emerging finds of steppe archaeology. The Scythian wine ritual, wherein those who did not kill a man in the year previous were excluded, shows how inclusion/exclusion work within a community: “Full exclusion … means to be present but visibly marginalized, for all to see” (p. 120). The Mongol feasts are liquid feasts—soups, broths, and kumiss, fermented mare’s milk. While meals reaffirmed the social hierarchies, the drinking of kumiss was “constructive and integrative … One was expected to drink, even obliged to drink, in the same way that one would be expected to participate in social life more generally” (p. 141). The restricted drinking of black kumiss by the elite and kumiss by the general population suggests differences in kind or quality, but not function, for Mongol drinking amongst different social groups, a division perhaps paralleled by wine drinking in Greece.
Chapter 6, China, opens with an overview of Chinese food studies, which O’Connor divides into four types; this chapter falls into those concerning the relationship amongst food, politics, and religion. She examines Chinese feasting in the Shang, Zhou, and Han periods, which becomes increasingly elaborate and structured over time. Like Mesopotamian feasting ideology, in Shang-period China the preparation and consumption of food linked humans with the gods and ancestors, here through the use of bronze vessels which bridged the two realms by transmuting food into offerings. O’Connor’s analysis of Zhou and Han feasting reveals changes in commensal patterns and their connection to their socio-political climate as the sacred technology of Shang feasting becomes secular under the Zhou and as the ideology of feasting is recast as a service to the state under the bureaucratic state Confucianism of the Han.
Chapter 7 turns to Japan and the particular form of Japanese culinary aestheticism. Samurai feasting practices and the associated culinary manuals place the emphasis on the social rituals around food and its appearance rather than on nutrition or taste. To investigate this often unquestioned aestheticism, O’Connor turns to the elaborate and strictly regimented Heian banquets as recorded in the monogatori (‘ethnographic novels’) written by court women and the diaries of the Fujiwara regents. O’Connor links the sparsity of details in these accounts to the origin myth for food: the deity of food, upon expelling foodstuffs from the nose, mouth, and rectum, is killed, after which the corpse continues to provide food. This myth, she argues, explains the turn to aestheticism in Japanese cuisine, as it distances the consumers from the original source of their food and the associated disgust. Her reading of myth and social practice here, along with the earlier analyses of ritual and feasting practices, strongly argue for the need to consider both myth and ritual, and what they reveal about people’s relationships to their food as both raw material and cooked cuisine, in studies of food and feasting.
The epilogue (ch. 8) turns to the prevalence of alcohol in connection to feasting and argues that, like food, drink links the mortal and divines spheres and that communal drinking provided a social glue to counter the differences exacerbated by feasting hierarchies. O’Connor concludes the book by comparing her findings regarding the display of difference at ancient feasts with the prevalent notion in food studies that feasting displayed community. The issue of Greek feasting might have been profitably discussed here in connection to the more regimented feasting of the other regions to investigate further in what ways and to what degree feasting practices could be divisive. As she aptly demonstrates, feasting practices often materialized status divisions: chair height reflected status in Assyria, as did seat position in Persia; there were dominant and subordinate sides at Mongol meals, and in China and Japan strict rules dictated seating position and the type and amount of food in accordance with social rank. Greece’s public feasts consolidated the citizen body through shared food and attendance; difference was emphasized in relation to those outside the feast (non-citizen men and women), as is also the case with the other regions. If O’Connor is correct that feasts expressed difference rather than similarity within the feasting group (as seems likely), then the question arises as to what extent Greek citizen feasts followed this paradigm and how.
The Never-Ending Feast provides a well-rounded and engaging introduction to food studies, the feasting practices of antiquity, and their social capital for undergraduates and scholars. The images throughout the book are well chosen and reproduced, and typographical errors are minimal. The range of sources used is extensive, and O’Connor’s skillful contextualization of them and the associated religious and political ideologies demonstrates the potential these ‘remains’ of ancient feasts have. O’Connor’s Eurasian perspective for the project shifts the emphasis towards Asia and the east, offering an alternative, eastern-inspired view of Greek feasting, while the balance between feast/difference and drink/similarity prompts questions on how these opposing tendencies were used by individuals and social groups to consolidate their memberships and promote themselves at the expense of others. Specialists for the various regions may raise points similar to those above regarding the chapter on Greece; on the whole however this text is an excellent introduction to anthropological approaches to food and ancient feasting.
1. Among others: Kuper, Jessica (ed.) 1977. The Anthropologists’ Cookbook. (London); Douglas, Mary and Isherwood, Baron. 1979. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. (London); Goody, Jack. 1982. Cooking, Cuisine, and Class. (Cambridge).
2. Notes and Queries on Anthropology. 1929 . Edited for the British Association for the Advancement of Science by A Committee of Section H. London, Royal Anthropological Institute; Sahlins, Marshall. 1992. Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Hawaiian Islands. Vol. 1: Historical Ethnography. (Chicago).
3. Veblen, Thornstein. 1970 . The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. (London)
4. Term is from: Douglas, Mary. 1987. Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology. (Cambridge).
5. E.g., Davidson, James. 1997. Courtesans and Fishcakes: the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. (New York); Węcowski, Marek. 2014. The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet. (Oxford).