Copyright 2018 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science
CHAPEL TALKS BY V.V. RAMAN - 2013 IRAS CONFERENCE
VI. Feasts and Celebrations
We thank the Forces
And their Unfathomable Sources
For Cereal and Grain
For Sun and Rain.
For Milk and Cheese,
For Fruits that please,
For Vegetable, meat,
And for all we eat.
For the Harvest on show
For making it grow,
For Family and Friends,
For Love that ne’er ends,
We thank the unknown Forces
And their Unfathomable Sources.
As we have been seeing throughout this week, there is great stress and concern among those who have been made aware of the serious problems our species is facing regarding food. This has been the thrust in the lectures and deliberations these days. To enable our minds to digest without too much strain all the heavy information we have received, and to help relax a little after the heavy doses of alerts and warnings we have to cope with I‟d like to recall some of the more positive aspects of food in human culture. Let us reflect on foods and delicacies and drinks from many parts of the world to see through our mind‟s eye the fulfillment that food brings to people. So we conclude this series by recalling some uplifting aspects of food: like feasting and celebrating, banquets and sharing, occasions when food is not only available, but served in plenty and in rich variety, consumed in large quantities and shared with fellow humans in a joyous spirit. We will have a taste of such sharing this evening at our annual banquet.
Religions pay homage to sparse eating by ordaining days of fasting. They also foster enjoyment of food through days of feasting. In every religious tradition there are joyous days when families and friends gather together and eat sumptuously. In the Passover Feast of the Jewish people, in the Divali dinner of the Hindus, in the feast of the Mahayana Buddhists on Buddha‟s birthday, in the joyous Christmas dinner, in the hearty Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha feasts of Muslims, as well as in the secular Thanksgiving dinner in America, all cultural groups have occasions and excuses for shared culinary delights. There is no religion or culture without the joy of shared meal for one reason or another, for ultimately religions and cultures are about connecting with others, with family and fellow members, bearing in mind the unfathomable grandeur of the cosmos and the inscrutable fact of existence. Feasts provide opportunities for that, for rejoicing and also for reflecting.
Nature too offers us countless visual feasts like the golden sun and the silvery moon, twinkling stars and grand galaxies, snow-capped mountains and surging rivers, fragrant flowers, patterned butterflies and more.
Feast days are festive days, commemorating events and personages from the sacred history of traditions. On such days, one not only eats well, but also recalls explicitly or implicitly something of significance in the culture‟s history. There is always a story or history behind every religious festival. The stories are from the sacred history of the tradition which is beyond the field of vision of secular historical microscopes. But they carry the weight of centuries and the authenticity of tradition: which is why they are celebrated as landmark events, and remembered by the practitioners. These are occasions not only for conviviality but also for affirming one‟s cultural roots.
Religious festivals are not for lamenting the human condition, though they could recall sad occurrences in the past. But they are rather for affirming the positive aspects of life. They are meant to give hope and cheerfulness, and to rejoice in the breath of life. These are occasions for celebrating community and culture.
There is no religious feast without giving thanks and without seeking blessings. Recall Luke where it says that Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them. Jesus‟s breaking bread is the symbolic act of sharing with deeper esoteric meanings. Every meal we share and every joyous banquet we are part of is a breaking of bread together. In that very act of breaking we are building a bond. Even where religion is rejected or pushed to the background one finds excuses and occasions for sharing food together.
In the modern world, notwithstanding all the hunger and pain worldwide, there are far more people at reasonably comfortable levels than ever before. The number of people who are extremely well off is also embarrassingly large in some countries. There are more millionaires and billionaires in the world today, including in the so-called poor countries, than there were lords and nobles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Wherever people can afford to have more money than is required for their daily dietary needs, they occasionally organize or participate in group dining and banquets. A banquet is essentially a large gathering of people for a formal many-course dinner where there may be one or more formal presentations also. It is a happy event with toasts and wines, and sometimes with speeches too. Blessed is any commmunity that can afford to have banquets.
It has been my good fortune to have participated in the feast-days of different traditions. I remember the deep-fried puffs dipped in sticky honey that I tasted at a hannukkah dinner. I have been to the home of a Mulsim friend in Calcutta on the day of the Eid celebratory dinner and had with the family some shima-i which is a special sweet made with vermicelli noodles, milk and fruit. As I was a pure vegetarian, I did not taste the Hyderabadi haleem which is a meat stew specially prepared on that day. Once during my student years in Paris I was invited to a Christmas dinner in a French family. Here I discovered for the first time feuilletés d’escargots which is French for snail pastries – no fast food this - and a dish with chapon which is castrated rooster. And what to say of the umpteen Navaratri, Divali, Janmashtami, Kartikai, and Vinayaka Chaturti feasts of my own Hindu tradition!
Aside from festival dinners we can reflect on foods from different cultures. Though by upbringing and taste, and by preference, I am a vegetarian, in my efforts to understand and appreciate other cultures I have tasted food from various countries and cultures. I browsed through my journals in preparation for this talk, and discovered that I have had mannapuuro - a milk porridge in Helsinki, Smørrebrød in Denmark, kimchi in South Korea, ostrich steak in South Africa, couscous in Algeria, goulash in Budapest, sushi in Tokyo, paella in Valencia, sausage in Munich, Wiener schnitzel in Vienna, haggis in Edinburgh, fish and chips in London, bolo pretu in Curaçao and pizza in Rome. Once in Bogota I even had a bite of hormiga culona which is essentially fried ants. All this in addition to the iddli, vadai, sámbár, rasam, álu-gobi, mutter paneer, began barta, malai kofta and more in India.
The preparation of food is a sophisticated art. Too many cooks in the same kitchen may spoil the broth. But there are also a great many cooks who not only cook food meticulously with the right amounts of butter and salt and spice, but also serve, embellish, and present it all with elegance. That‟s what haute cuisine is all about. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the delight in the dining is in the presenting. Marzipan in the shape of vegetables and fruits is as enjoyable to behold as it is to bite. This is equally true ofweddingcakes and holiday punches, and how pheasants used to be served at royal tables at one time.
There are conventions in eating: Protocols ranging from saying a prayer or bon appétit or its equivalent before starting, and toasting before sipping the wine. There are rules governing the placement of cutlery, and in some cultures prohibitions against belching to display one‟s supreme satisfaction with the food, while in others this is a requirement. At weddings there is the custom of the groom and the bride offering each other a spoonful of something to symbolize their promise to share everything in life.
We have festivals around foods: The Pongal in the Tamil world is a festival for harvests. The Afro-American festival of Kwanza derives its name from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza which means the first fruits of harvest. The Thanksgiving dinner in America symbolizes peace and cooperation between the European newcomers to the continent and native peoples: hence the role of turkey, corn, and sweet potato. We have different food cycles in different parts of the world: In the U. S., planting of wheat in spring, and picking of berries in early summer, knee-high corn in July, late summer for tomatoes, pumpkin and squash in October, and so on.
Let us now think a little of beverages. Since time immemorial human beings have not only quenched their thirst with cool and refreshing water, but done much more with fluids. The ancients thought of ambrosia and nectar and amrita: magical potions that the gods imbibe, making them immortal. Then there was soma, the intoxicant that transported the rishis of Vedic times to spiritual stratospheres. Imaginative authors have endowed liquids with magical properties, and spoken about love potions as in Tristan and Isolde where the imbiber turned lover overnight; and there are poisonous beverages too which have spelled the end of many a monarch in history. Since very ancient times humans have been transmuting grapes green and red and purple into wines of a hundred kinds and brands, and done the same with every fruit that grows on a tree. Other grains have engendered more potent stimulants bearing a fascinating
array of names like whiskey, brandy, bourbon, rum, cognac, liqueur and more. Wines are not only for toasting and reveling, but also used in sacraments where they are wisely used only in small portions: which probably explains why many ecclesiastical reverends who routinely administer the Holy Communion don‟t become alcoholics.
We should forever be grateful to the Chinese people for growing camellia sinensis, popularly known as tea leaves, which were unknown to people beyond the Great Wall until the sixteenth century. With various aromas and brand names, it is now the most widely enjoyed drink in the whole world: black tea, green tea, oolong tea and many more. Can we think of a morning in Delhi, lunch at a Chinese restaurant, or an
afternoon in Britain without tea? With leaves and a filter, or in bags with a thread, plain or with milk or even with a pinch of sugar or a spoonful of honey, what drink is more easily concocted and more heartily enjoyed than a cup of hot tea? We are all like tea bags, someone once quipped: We can never know how good and strong we are until we are put in hot water. According to a Chinese philosopher tea is to be drunk to forget the din of the world.
Then there is the competing ubiquitous drink named after the highland plant called Kaffa in Ethiopia whence it is said to have originated. Yes, coffee too has assumed a hundred different names and tastes and flavors. It is said that the credit for the discovery of coffee should go to a ninth century Ethiopean goatherder by the name of Kaldi. Unfortunately he did not patent the drink.
There was a time when coffee was imagined to have magical properties, especially if imbibed with appropriate chanting. When the Turks introduced coffee into Vienna, it spread like wild fire into Prussia. The first coffee house in Germany was established in Leipzig in 1685, the year of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach. Soon coffee houses sprang up all over the country.
The reception was both positive and negative. The introduction of coffeee caused some concern to the beer lobby and to Emperor Frederick of Prussia who felt that too much money flowed out of the country, as too much coffee flowed in. Coffee was vilified as disgusting and immoral. It was banned. But the public cried for coffee and illegal roasters popped up. There were government spies who sniffed to detect coffee aroma in the streets to spot culprits.
Poets sang the virtues of coffee and composers sang its praises. Picander wrote: “Here, a few days ago, there was a Royal Decree posted outside the parliament, which read: “”Unfortunately, for a long time, we have felt that merely by coffee many a person is ruined. Thus, in order to counteract this in a timely fashion, nobody shall dare to drink coffee, only the King and his court drink it, themselves; and others shall not be entitled to do so. However, now and then, permission will be granted...” Following this, one heard the women folk cry, oh, take our bread, instead, since, without coffee, our lives are dead!”
It was in this context that Bach wrote his famous Coffee Cantata, which actually occurs in an operetta in which a father strictly prohibits his daughter from drinking coffee. The daughter replies:
Herr Father, do not be so strict,
When I cannot, three times a day,
Drink my cup of coffee,
Then I will, in my torment,
Shrivel up like a dried-out roast goat!
Oh! How sweet coffee tastes.
And she goes on to sing:
Oh! How sweet coffee tastes!
Lovelier than a thousand kisses,
Softer than Muscatel Wine,
Coffee, Coffee, I must have,
And if someone wants to delight me,
Let him pour me coffee
Who would have thought that beans that were first harvested on the Ethiopian slopes would have houses named after them? Coffee houses are where philosophers explore weighty questions and people stop for chats. Few dinners are complete without a cup of coffee at the end. Nineteenth century France solved the problem of food distribution and initiated public eating places called restaurants. The French invented sauces, drank wine with food in restaurants, and created what has been called a secular worship of food that has spread all over the world.
Now let us extend our ruminations on eating by turning our thoughts to desserts. Desserts invariably offer that most ecstatic of all tastes: sweetness. Their backbone is refined sugar, molasses, or honey. These are at the root of the most irresistible temptations of culinary concoctions, and the richest sources of calories. There is no limit to the variety of these, from French pastries and Iranian halva to German Kuchen, Bengali rasagulla, Turkish baklava, and plain old American fudge. Add to all this the varieties of chocolates: Cadbury, Nestlé, Lindt, Côte d‟Or, Lady Godiva and such, with nuts and raisins, with fillings and without, black and milk; and we can‟t but be impressed by human creativity in the context of food. Human beings capable of making the sweetest and most delicious things cannot be all that bad.
I am all for multiculturalism, but in good conscience I cannot let this series pass by without referring to my own tradition. I will confess that when it comes to food, I have seldom enjoyed any food as much as a good Tamil samaaraadanai, as a feast is called. This is traditionally served on a large banana leaf which has to be properly placed in a particular orientation. The leaf has two sectors, an upper and a lower one. When the guests are fully seated on mats on the floor, one begins to serve the formal dinner. Something sweet must be first served at the lower right side. Then, one by one, other items come.
The menu is based on the principle that like the colors of the rainbow there are six fundamental tastes in vegetarian food: sweet, sour, salty, pungent (or spicy hot), bitter, and astringent. A feast should include at least one item from each of these tastes, singly or in combination with others. It should also have something dry, something wet, something fried, something sautéed, and something saucy with lentils. The feast should invariably include rice, ghee or clarified butter, and butter-milk. The vegetables served in a formal feast include cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, tomato, and peas. At least one dish should use coconut, and some hot pickle should accompany the course with rice and buttermilk. Rice is be served at least in two installments, first to be eaten with the saucy item, then with butter milk or yogurt. There should always be a tall glass of cold water with the feast which ends with a large sweet item.
This would be a typical feast at a wedding, noteworthy birthday, or important festival. It is said that people who are accustomed to this kind of feast are generally cheerful, optimistic, and friendly. If I speak in such adulatory terms about the richness and uniqueness of Tamil food, it is not because I am a chauvinist, nor even because whatever I have said it is absolutely true, but rather to show how deeply we are all touched by and connected to the cuisine in which we have been brought up. The culinary attachment to which every cultural being has been accustomed since the earliest years of infancy has a special charm and very strong appeal. It is the source of psychological and even spiritual comfort that only another exemplar in human culture can match.
And that is religion. No matter how trustworthy and fulfilling every religion is to its practitioners, we should never forget the role that upbringing plays in its formation. This recognition need not diminish our respect and devotion for what we hold to be true and of immense value. But it may enable us to show respect and consideration for similar attachments that others have for their own. That is an important message that needs to be propagated in the multicultural and multireligious world in which we live, and is therefore very relevant to the mission and goals of IRAS.
In concluding these chapel talks I‟d like to say this: Not everything we have been hearing this week was cheerful, uplifting, and hopeful. But there is one reassuring thought that can keep us from sinking into utter despair. That is, that we humans have extraordinary resiliency. People may die of epidemic and starvation, people may be killed in natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes and tornados, people may fight among themselves and be killed in the name of religion and sect, nation and ideology. But as a species, barring a brutal asteroid intrusion, Homo sapiens will not give in that easily. For more than a million years we have managed to survive. A thousand years from now, believe me, there will in all probability still be humans on this planet. You will have to wait for a very long time to see that I was right after all.
But in the meanwhile whenever and whatever we eat, let us do so without feelings of guilt, for nothing is served by feeling sorry for ourselves simply because we are not among the hungry of the world. As the Prophet Isaiah said: “Eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.” Let us always eat in a spirit of thankfulness even if we do not know whom to thank. At every meal let us also reflect a little on the less fortunate of the world. At the very least let us put a quarter or a dollar for every full meal we eat, and contribute the collection to soup kitchens and organizations that bring food to the hungry all over the world.
Let me conclude with a poem:
Of all the joys that come in life,
Save the boudoir bliss of man and wife,
If I'm asked to name the one
That gives the most delight and fun:
It will not be a movie great
Nor the book that I highly rate;
Running and jogging are both wholesome,
But, like swimming and talking, they are tiresome.
Singing is soothing, but not for my throat,
Sailing is fine, but it calls for a boat.
Dancing is dandy, but it is a test
To check if your motions are truly the best.
Walking is weary, and smoking is hell,
Jokes to be funny must be told well.
Games are too risky, they give you the blues
If instead of winning, you happen to lose.
Now close your eyes, and contemplate
A sumptuous dinner filling the plate.
With salad and dressing, a bottle of wine,
All at a table, with cutlery fine.
Could be veal or venison with almond paste,
Or fish and fritters, whatever your taste.
The thought of good food, seasoned, not bland,
Tickles the tongue and the salivary gland.
Of all the frivolous and fleeting joys
For young and old, for girls and boys,
There's nothing that can make one feel
As satisfied as a gourmet meal.