Many people include healthy eating as part of their goals for the new year. This is in part because we believe the new year is an occasion for a new start and a chance to break and create habits. But it is also because we spend so much of the holiday season participating in celebratory eating that we need a break. Large group meals that are sponsored and produced by specific individuals are a luxury—both in terms of the foods that are served in these settings and the event itself—but they are also ripe with obligation.
Group meals from community feasts to dinner parties are indicative of the availability of a surplus; and from a historical perspective, surpluses are significant. To gain an understanding for why, let's go back to the Mesolithic period. This timeframe, between the Upper Paleolithic and the Neolithic, was a period of immense cultural change. Humans were trending toward domestication and with this development came momentous technological innovations. For example, nets, fishhooks, and weirs allowed for mass fishing techniques. And the emergence of seed processing techniques like boiling and crushing led to long term storage solutions. These advances allowed humans who lived in favorable conditions to stockpile resources, which could then be strategically deployed to support survival and reproductive benefits.
In these early stages of food management, storing foods for one's own needs only went so far because there was only so much that could be consumed before it spoiled. Some stored foods may have been used to support domesticated animals, which increased the return on investment in food storage, but even so, food storage would have necessarily exceeded projected needs to account for uncertainties like spoilage, infestation, or theft. This extra was deployed toward social means by individuals looking to establish reciprocal relationships.
This gives us the basis for group meals—feasts—which carry an underlying sense of obligation for participants. Given the cadence of agricultural efforts, group meals would have been repeated at regular intervals. They would have been directly tied to performance, putting pressure on organizers to ensure a surplus to maintain their status. They would have been driven to increase food production, especially of desirable items. And they would have needed to acquire the material goods necessary to present the feast—fancy platters are more than just decorative: they reflect the status of the guests as well. It also means that the people of lower status are in a position to try and produce more to improve their chances of obtaining allies or partners, requiring more effort and resources on their part to achieve a similar means.
Group meals were a social contract. They formed a social network that could be deployed in times of need. They contributed to social status by creating distinctions between and within producers and consumers. Hosting a meal meant that you could rely on labor or resources from attendees; attending a meal meant you owed something to the host. It could be labor, it could be a cup of sugar, it could be a sympathetic ear, or a hand in feeding their family at a later date. People who did not fulfill their social contracts when called upon would not be invited to subsequent feasts, and could ultimately be removed from the network through systematic non-contact. This link grew increasingly important as social ties were dispersed when connected people began to move away from eat other. It meant that there was a support network available in a separate context, which may not be susceptible to the same challenges.
While our modern-day group dining efforts are largely celebratory in nature on the surface—birthdays, weddings, holidays, etc.—psychologically and socially they serve the same need: they gather our allies (both family and friends) and renew our social obligations to each other. Our holiday gatherings bear echoes of harvest calendars. The generosity encouraged during the holiday season may be derived in part from the surplus of the harvest and the sense that individual larders within the group may have shrunk during this time. It is a time when people may need help but the price for that assistance is an obligation to reciprocate in some way. This debt is recognized and we may try to offset it with a gift brought to the event—a bottle of wine or a hostess gift in some form, for example—but the economics of exchange require an equal-or-better-effort to fully discharge what is owed to the host.
Dinner parties create debts, establish and break social neections, and generate social status. Perhaps one of the reasons we’re so keen to turn toward healthy eating in January is due to the obligations we renew during the holiday season. We look to symbolically reduce our social debts, and maybe begin “saving” to reciprocate, by looking to consume less in a more careful, calculated way.
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Hayden, Brian. “The Proof is in the Pudding: Feasting and the Origins of Domestication.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 50(5), 2009: 597-601.
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Image Credit: Didriks