Antique pottery Boian culture - Danube

Antique Pottery and Modern Tableware

More often than not we imagine earlier generations as gathering around long tables, eating and drinking in gargantuan amounts and enjoying the social life more than we do.

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Paolo Veronese. Fragment from The Wedding at Cana. 1562. (Louvre)

We, on the contrary, feel guilty for “bowling alone” at our tiny side tables, for eating nay above-zero-calories food, and for losing time in activities that don’t help our personal growth.

Campbell's Soup
Andy Warhol. Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962.  (MOMA, New York)

We better take a closer look at the art of eating together now and before.

Neolithic Artifacts for Sharing Food

Let’s pay a visit to a Greek village, Makrygialos (Pieria), some 50 km southwest from Thessaloniki. It is 5.500 BC, the time of Sesklo and Dimini cultures. People are busy with food preparations. Cooking is usually done outside, in hearths and ovens shared by 7 or so households. However, one can’t randomly choose such an outdoor kitchen, even though the village is rich with 30, for they are surrounded by ditches and fences. Not as ample as the ones bounding the village, but enough big to clarify the ownership. Each cluster of households uses only its outdoor cooking place.

Cooked food is shared within a cluster of households. Raw food is private. It’s only the wild animals’ meat that makes the whole village sit at the same table, because that meat is immediately cooked and eaten in a large celebration. Feast an joy are riven with rules of indebtedness, though. Enjoying some household’s food obliges to offer later help, products or protection.

Domesticated animals — pigs, sheep, goats and cattle — are mostly shared within a group of households. Plants are stored privately at home. Each house has a living + bedroom (some 20 sqm) and a smaller storage room for barley and lentils, einkorn and emmer, figs and grapes. A few houses started the “indoor kitchen” trend: a small cooking pit inside the room. This new trend proves good for lonely munchers. One eats from no-matter-what pot in no-matter-what position at no-matter-what time.

Commensality (sitting at the same table) has rules as opposed to munching alone. It is essential to eat from ornamented pottery (a quick overview of Neolithic pottery art available at https://archcitykids.wordpress.com), to share more or less equally under the others’ eyes, and to be aware that your turn to give will come soon. 

Modern Art of Eating

Whether you want it or not, we still hold Neolithic habits. First, each celebration revolves around food. Christmas revolves around pork in Eastern Europe and goose or duck in Western Europe. Thanksgiving orbits around turkey; Easter around eggs and lamb; Hannukah around potatoes pancakes; Passover around unleavened flatbread, to name but a few from the world’s religious feasts. Even secular celebrations rotate around food: birthday parties need birthday cakes and official receptions need appetizers and drinks. Any gathering has in general a nutritious component.

Second, food sharing implies specific, decorated tableware. We differentiate today, as before, between cooking ware, table ware and storage ware. We don’t eat directly from the cooking pot. The same went with the Neolithic people in Greece. The remains found on their pots suggest that they prepared food in 3 classic ways, just like us: boiling, frying and baking. Each preparation had specific pots, which lacked decorations and were shaped as trays (for baking) or round pots (for boiling and frying).

The main difference between now and before is the tableware’s size, which suggests their common eating from the same beautifully decorated plate. Small ware, usually for liquids, was rarely found.

The major similarity is that table arrangements for celebrations are today, as well as in the past, an art in itself. Colors, decorations and ornate dinnerware have the same effect as the pottery patterns painted 7.500 years ago (for Neolithic pottery art follow the free drawing course https://archcitykids.wordpress.com/drawing/). They signal the out-of-ordinary event. The anthropology of commensality shows that eating together is as special now as it used to be before.

Third, the debts incurred by guests diluted throughout millennia. Commensality indebts today only loosely. Being a guest doesn’t necessarily imply offering favors in return.

It’s worth differentiating here between commensality and hospitality. Commensality is an old word for fellowship at the table and comes from the Latin com (with) and mensa (table). Hospitality, an often use word, comes from the Latin hospes formed from hostis, which means not only stranger, but also enemy (hostile has the same root). Thus, etymology gives us a hint into how friendly strangers have been perceived in time. Hospitality implies inviting a stranger at the table, whereas commensality only acquaintances.

This potential stranger marks the difference between celebrations today and before. We may be indeed lone wolves at present, eating mostly lonely at our tiny side tables in front of TV. Commensality might have lost any meaning. But we’re at ease with hospitality. We’re a thousand times more relaxed when meeting a stranger than any Makrygialos villager ever dreamt.

Despite our high-tech modernity, we still need to eat in the real, not virtual realm. Regardless of all pessimistic forecasts about loosing the enthusiasm to celebrate together, we still gather together, usually around some nicely arranged caloric intake. The beauty is that this caloric intake means more than just energy and health. As long as it needs decorated containers, we’re safe from robotization, standardization, and artificiality. Eating together is a deeply human act, an art in itself.