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Chapter One

Historical Banqueting

., Native American Feasts

Feasting is an American tradition dating to the social ceremonies of many of the Native American tribes. Early written records of naturalists and explorers such as John Bartram and George Catlin provide a fascinating glimpse of the use of food in ceremonies in Native American societies. A ceremonial feast called a pot- latch was held by tribes in the American Northwest to mark important occasions such as a marriage or the succession to a chieftainship.

The rules of potlatch required the host to provide, as a sign of conspicuous wealth, the best-quality foods available in quantities too great to be eaten by the number of invited guests.

He was also expected to give away a fortune in gifts. . . . [A]t a single Kwak- iutl potlatch, the guests . . . were gratified with eight canoes, six slaves, fifty- four elkskins, two thousand silver bracelets, seven thousand brass bracelets, and thirty-three thousand blankets.5

George Catlin was served the following feast by the Mandan plains tribe:

The simple feast which was spread before us consisted of three dishes only, two of which were served in wooden bowls, and the third eaten in an earthen ves- sel. . . . The last contained a quantity of pem-i-can and marrow-fat; and one of the former held a fine brace of buffalo ribs, delightfully roasted; and the other was filled with a kind of paste or pudding, made of the flour of the “pomme blanche,” as the French call it, a delicious turnip of the prairie, finely flavored with the buffalo berries which are . . . used with divers dishes in cooking, as we in civilized countries use dried currants, which they very much resemble.6

., The Colonial Period

Pre-revolutionary American cuisine and the patterns in which meals were served primarily followed English custom. The menu pattern for formal meals, as shown in Figure 1.10, was offered in two courses, each a complete meal in itself. Figure 1.10 details a banquet meal like those served in Providence, Rhode Island, at the home of wealthy merchants during the early 1700s.

General Nathaniel Greene wrote to General James Varnum of his visit to Phila- delphia in 1779:

Luxury and dissipation is everywhere prevalent. When I was in Boston last Summer I thought luxury very predominant there: but they were no more to compare with than now prevailing in Philadelphia, than an Infant Babe to a full grown Man. I dine’d at one table where there was a hundred and Sixty dishes: and at several others not far behind.7

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