There’s a long tradition among social thinkers and policymakers of treating workers as walking, talking machines that turn calories into work and work into commodities that get sold on the market. Under capitalism, food is important because it provides fuel to the work force. In this line of thinking, enjoyment of food is at best a distraction and often a dangerous invitation to indolence.
The scolding American lawmakers who want to forbid the use of food stamps to purchase junk food are part of a long lineage that goes back to the Victorian workhouses, which made sure that the food was never inviting enough to encourage sloth. It is the continuing obsession with treating working-class people as efficient machines for turning nutrients into output that explains why so many governments insist on giving bags of grain to the poor instead of money that they might waste. This infantilizes the poor and, except in very special circumstances, it does nothing to improve nutrition.
The pleasure of eating, to say nothing of cooking, has no place in this narrative. And the idea that if working people knew what was good for them, they’d simply seek out more food as fuel is a woefully limited view of the eating experience of most of the world. As anybody who has been poor or has spent time with poor people knows, eating something special is a source of great excitement.
As it is for everyone. Standing at the end of this very dark and disappointing year, almost two years into a pandemic, we all need the joy of a feast — whether actual or metaphorical.
Every village has its feast days and its special festal foods. Somewhere goats will be slaughtered, somewhere ceremonial coconuts cracked. Perhaps fresh dates will be piled on special plates that come out once a year. Maybe mothers will pop sweetened balls of rice into the mouths of their children.
Friends and relatives will come over to help roast an entire camel for Eid; to share scoops of feijoada, that wonderful Brazilian stew of beans simmered with off-cuts, from pig’s ears to cow’s tongue; to pinch the dumplings for the Lunar New Year; to fold the delicate edges of sweet coconut-stuffed Maharashtrian karanji, to be fried under the watchful eye of the matriarch. The feast’s inspiration might be religious, but it could as well be a wedding, a birth, a funeral or a harvest.
People across the socioeconomic spectrum have adapted these celebrations as opportunities to feast, too: My family in Kolkata, many, many generations away from farming, still celebrates the winter harvest. Rice, coconuts, date sugar, sweet potatoes, milk, sesame seeds and more are turned into countless varieties of mishti, delicious Bengali desserts — and those warned off eating too much sugar have to suffer the sight of them piled high on tables.
It is probably no accident that feasts tend not to be the most efficient or nutritious ways to get fed: The ingredients can be expensive (camels don’t come cheap); the making takes planning and hours of mindful work. And yet, especially when life is hard, these moments spent cooking and anticipating and then that bite into something nice can provide much-needed variety and joy. Cheap, nutritious and monotonous are what most people eat day in and day out. An occasional splurge on something delicious, a meal that excites the mouth, makes it easier to keep going.
This feasting season, that momentary joy is likely to feel especially essential. Most of us have had reasons to worry — about ourselves, about our children and parents, about where the world is headed. This year many lost friends and relatives, jobs and businesses. Many spent months working in Zoom-land, languishing even as they counted themselves lucky to be employed.
There’s a widespread need to reconnect to all the things that make life worth living, and what better moment than now? What better way than with a feast?
Now, it is easy to become sententious and moralistic about the holiday season, even for an entirely nonreligious person like me. Does it have to be quite so much about consumption? Is there not something a little vulgar and indolent in all this unrestrained feasting? What about the true meanings of Christmas and Hanukkah. What about the life of the spirit?
I believe that this is probably reading history backward. The human practice of feasting has been traced back at least to the dawn of the agricultural age. Some 12,000 years ago in a cave in what is now northern Israel, partying humans left behind the remains of 71 tortoises and three wild cattle. And the celebration of the winter solstice as an act of defiance against the cold and dark certainly predates all organized religion. What better way to warm the innards than with lavish consumption? Dishes rich in fat and sugar, lubricated with glogg or mead, while huddled around a fire. Feasting, drinking, community and warmth are where this holiday season began.
Of course, for many around the world, feasting arm to arm isn’t going to be possible this year. The Omicron variant of the coronavirus and the rising tide of infections it has brought have thwarted hopes for a more normal holiday season, and people are hesitating to travel or to come together across a table.
But it’s worth remembering that a feast does not require a 16-pound roast turkey or a goat on a spit. Maybe all that we can commit to this year is to do something special for ourselves, a feast for the spirit. It can be a meal, yes, but it could also be a long phone call with an old friend, both prepared to be silly and laugh a lot. To get into a feasting mind-set, what matters is doing something that is not what you would usually do, something that feels special and lavish.
Let me suggest one small but exquisite feast: Buy half a pound or so of soft, flavorful cheese. (I like robiola or Taleggio or a ripeish Brie.) Cut it into morsels, roughly the size of the top phalanx of your index finger, and place those in a shallow bowl. Slice two fat cloves of peeled garlic thinly and add them to a cup of nice fruity olive oil, along with a teaspoon of gently crushed peppercorns and two tablespoons of chopped fresh tarragon or another fresh herb. Whisk in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sherry or white wine vinegar and pour the mixture over the cheese. Refrigerate for four hours or overnight; take the bowl out an hour before you are ready to feast. Warm a baguette or other crusty bread, pour yourself a glass of whatever you like to drink and settle down to watch a good film or listen to a beloved album as you scoop up chunks of macerated cheese and garlicky olive oil.
When the cheese is gone, you might wonder whether those slices of garlic are worth biting into. They are.
Abhijit Banerjee teaches economics at M.I.T. He was a recipient of the 2019 Nobel in economic science for work on an experimental approach to alleviating global poverty. He is a co-author of “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.” This year he published a cookbook, “Cooking to Save Your Life,” with Cheyenne Olivier.
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