Food festivals can celebrate one particular ingredient, single dishes, or entire culinary culture. Alternating periods of malnutrition with certain occasions of extraordinary food consumption is typical for economies of penury. In the early phases of cultural development, therefore, the simple abundance of food was already reason enough for the celebration of a feast. Greenland’s Eskimo communities, for instance, had spontaneous feasts whenever a large animal like a whale was captured. In order to hunt game and gather fruits in a world perceived as filled with spirits (animism), hunting and gathering societies depended on the help of shamanic rites. These rites were intended to persuade faunal and floral spirits to release animals and plants for human consumption. The game was always divided among the hunters and their community according to a customary ratio of distribution. This ancient practice gave rise to a variety of ideas and rituals.
Sacrifice was one of the most prominent. There have been attempts to deduce the principle of gift-giving and the exchange of gifts from this primordial partitioning of food. Even though various disciplines have theorized and discussed the subject extensively, its original character has not developed clearly. The attempted explanations ranged from the sacrifice as an act of reciprocity to the sacrifice as a community at the table, where gods and humans take part. Essential, however, was the fact that the food offered was consumed during the festive ceremony and only the inedible parts (bones, gall bladder) or minor pieces (fat) were offered to the higher beings. Bulk slaughtering, like that on the occasion of the “hekatomb” sacrifices in Greek antiquity, originally limited to the offering of one hundred head of cattle, became popular festivals with plenty of food for everyone.
Mass feeding in ancient societies certainly was an effective instrument for the manipulation of public opinion. In the case of Julius Caesar, it helped to create a dictatorship. He celebrated his victory over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa in September 46 b.c.e. In order to outdo the triumphs of his predecessors, Caesar not only rewarded his soldiers but almost the entire Roman citizenry. Approximately 320,000 people received a present of 100 denars and a special allocation of oil and grain. Meat also was distributed gratuitously and the Roman masses were entertained at 22,000 tables before viewing the games. The obligatory social mechanism behind this phenomenon was first described by Marcel Mauss as “potlatch” in his fundamental study on the “gift.” Individuals who are offered a gift are obliged to reciprocate. This system, widely operating in traditional societies, could be seen in two different forms: the potlatch of gifts and the potlatch of destruction. Only the wealthy were capable of leadership because they could oblige others, upon whom they bestowed gifts. Even the deliberate destruction of goods or gluttony was a strong signal of the social segregation of the elite. So it is not surprising that feeding the poor became a customary social act among the European elites of the Middle Ages.