Egyptians of antiquity and Babylonians were the first to celebrate social occasions with lavish banquets. Some were very elaborate affairs that would make modern banquets look modest, if not downright poor.
Egyptians held ceremonial feasts at least 2000 years before Romans and offered a range of food, music, dancing girls, acrobats and mimes to invited dignitaries.
Archeologists found in Sakkara, the site of Egypt’s oldest pyramid, remnants of a banquet consisting of; barley porridge, quail, kidneys, pigeon stew, fish, ribs of beef and small loaves made of primitive emmer wheat.
Small round cakes, fruits, cheese, wine and beer accompanied the repast.
Egyptian banquets catered to people up and down the Nile River. On arrival they were taken to special rooms, bathed, anointed, scented and garlanded with flowers.
Dishes were of gold, silver and bronze. Beer and spiced wine were served in goblets of fine glass that Egyptian artisans had been manufacturing since 2000 B.C.
Banquet menus consisted of pungently spiced fish (raw or cooked), roasted fowl, boiled meat, miniature loaves, dainty pastries, compotes and seasonal fruits. Fingers were mostly used during eating; spoons employed only for liquids.
The last great Egyptian banquet was the one given by Cleopatra for Marc Anthony and his retinue when she joined him in Cilicia (today southeastern Turkey around Adana close to the Mediterranean coast).
In Assyria, Assur-bani-pal celebrated great events with weeklong banquets. His victory over Zelam prompted him to open his palace and gardens at Niniveh to the populace and fed all who came.
In Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar also opened his vast gardens and orchards for seven days in honour of his capture of Jerusalem in 586 B C. Slaves served spiced wine, spit-roasted whole oxen, sheep and goats. People ate shellfish sprinkled with spices, fried locusts, roasted partridge, hare, antelope, and wild ass.
Nabuchadnezzar’s profligate son Belshazzar gave the historic banquet that triggered the fall of Babylon. This banquet began with salted river perch garnished with locusts and seasoned with ginger and coriander, followed by roasted duck and geese with mint and mustard sauce, lettuce salad, stewed turnips, leeks, carrots and onions, roasted game and honeyed barley cakes. Beer, date palm wine and heady red wines accompanied the sumptuous food tat was served by slaves and beautiful girls.
Meanwhile, Darius the Mede and his army were within the city, but Belshazzar was too drunk to defend it!
A Greek banquet was divided into two parts – feasting and symposium (for drinking and talking). They are while reclining on couches. A slave served each guest. Women never attended a Greek banquet. First, roasts of joint of pork, goat and sheep were served, and then came boiled meats. All the while, diluted wines were served to wash down the heavy food. Greeks who employed slaves captured in Asia Minor were the first to serve cheesecake. Then came the symposium with plenty of wine and endless discussion on a range of topics.
A wedding banquet given by a wealthy Macedonian in 310 B C reveals the extent of Greek ostentation; only 20 guests were invited each bringing his retinue of slaves. First came roasted chickens, ducks, pigeons, geese, hares, turtledoves, and partridges. Then each guest was served a whole roast boar stuffed with trushes, oysters and periwinkles, followed by a whole roasted kid.
Between servings guests rested, strolled to the nearby beach, watched dancers, acrobats, and fire-eaters!
Finally roasted fish was served, followed by cheesecake and sweetmeats.
The banquet went well into the night.
Roman banquets were pure gluttony with guests repairing to the vomitorium between courses. Wealthy Romans and government officials went to great extents, importing exotic foods form England, Gaul, Greece, and Asia Minor. Even Roman generals were instructed to seek exotic fruit trees and bring them to Rome. General Lucullus is said to have brought back apricot and cherry trees from Armenia. From Rome, the trees were shipped to Spain and other lands for planting.
Roman banquets were more entertainment events featuring dancers, mimes, gymnasts, clowns, gladiators and untold amounts of food. All was washed down by copious amounts of wine served by slaves. Romans ate while reclining on couches. A feast for 1213 guests required 400 oxen, 500 lambs, 200 deer, 200 pigs, 5000 chickens, and 10,000 saltwater eels.
European banquets served in the 9th century at the time of Charlemagne were huge, and respectable women attended such events for the first time.
Government employees served the food, from huge trays carried by two. Platters were distributed and banquet guests helped themselves.
In early England, the legendary king Albinus at a banquet is said to have eaten 100 peaches, 10 melons, 50 figs and 300 oysters.
In the 13th century Marco Polo reported from Hangchow that a Chinese banquet might serve 200 different dishes, including 19 kinds of pie, 57 desserts, and 17 different trays. Wine was also served.
Catherine de Medici came as a royal bride to France in 1533 and introduced the idea of menus – soup, fish, meat and dessert, instead of serving everything at once as the French were doing at the time.
She also brought the fork from Italy, but it became popular almost 150 years later.
Following the 16th century, banquets were scaled down serving fewer, but more refined dishes.
Marie Antoine-Careme, chef to Talleyrand, Tsar Alexander, George IV, and Baron de Rotschild, contributed greatly to the refinement of banquet menus and food presentation.
Today, social banquets are almost always served in hotels or banquet halls that can accommodate up to 2000 people. Menus contain no more than five courses, and the emphasis is almost always on the speed of service.
Buffet style banquets are popular for up to 200 – 250 people. Many people like the choice offered, but inevitably, individuals take too much food and pile them up on their plates, rather than going twice or thrice to replenish.
The decline of great houses, kings, dukes, politicians, great spenders, and great chefs started after World War II. Memorable banquets became history.
The last memorable state banquet was given by the Shah of Iran to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. One emperor, eight kings, a cardinal, crown princes, grand-dukes, presidents, vice-presidents, premiers, sheiks (all told 600 people) spent four days and nights enjoying an untold opulence provided by a huge brigade of French chefs flown in to a tent city near Persepolis in Persia.