Students Karen Metheny’s summer course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) are contributing guest posts. In today’s post Gastronomy student Swarnta Prabhu considers different types of commensality.
Chee-Beng defines commensality as “not only a biological act of consuming food but also a communicative act which has the significance of social relations” (2015, 13). For example, food is the active medium that is believed to bridge the gap between the physical world and the psychical realm. The celebration of the memories of ancestors and the appeasement of the souls are performed through the offerings of food, drinks, and other delicacies. This act of serving, nurturing, and nourishing the ancestors and spirits is practiced by several cultures across the globe. Why people use the medium of food in their act of remembrance and feed the ancestors and spirits, what rituals they perform, and which cultures believe in commensality with the spiritual world are questions that allow us to learn more about the practices of spiritual commensality of different cultures and their significance.
In India, Shradh is a prevalent practice among the Hindus through which loved ones are remembered and memories reminisced. The ritual of Shradh is performed during the lunar period of Bhadrprada, the 15-day yearly ritual based on the Hindu calendar (NDTV Food Desk 2017). Shradh is observed to give respect to the ancestors and for the attainment of peace for the departed soul. Shradh involves chanting of prayers by the priests and the family members (primarily the elder son of the family) along with offerings to the holy pyre of rice, black sesame, and ghee (clarified butter). The prayers, which appease the soul, are followed by a vegetarian meal that consists of the dishes or a symbolic dish that the ancestors relished. The food is first served to animals and birds. It is believed that ancestors return to the physical world in the form of animals or birds and it strictly observed that the birds or animals are served first, after which the priests consume the food. Finally the rest of the people may partake in this commensal act. In the Hindu culture, ancestors are believed to visit the physical world as crows, symbolic mediator, and communicator between the physical world and the spiritual world. They partake in the spiritual commensality. Served either on a silver plate or a banana leaf, with ingredients such as sesame, mustard, clarified butter, honey, barley and millet, the meal is an elaborate and ornate preparation.
One can find similar practices in other Asian cultures. Chuseok, a three-day festival observed in Korea, is held to express gratitude to the ancestors for the year’s harvest and the protection provided by the spirits to the people (Funeral Zone 2017). Chuseok is celebrated with families coming together to recognize the contribution of the ancestors, visit family tombs and graves, and share flowers, foods, and drinks with the ancestors. The offerings given to the ancestors on the last day involve specific foods that are oriented in specific spatial directions. Songpyeon, a type of rice cake, is made and offered to the ancestors. The Chinese festival of Qingming, and the Japanese Obon festival also involve paying respect and sharing symbolic foods with the ancestors (2017).
African communities practice spiritual commensality and show their respect to ancestors and spirits through different types of food and drinks. The Haya of Bukoba, Tanzania, conduct ancestor propitiation ceremonies where banana beer is the mediating symbol (Carlson 1990, 297). By reaching altered consciousness through beer drinking, the Haya may placate the ancestors and spirits in order to receive their blessings. The blessings will bring continuity of lineage, the productivity of banana grove, health, fertility, and support and protection from the ancestors. The Zafimaniry of Madagascar also believes in the union of the living and the departed that is witnessed during the feasts (Bloch 1999, 7). Honey and rum are consumed not only to establish closeness amongst the people gathered for the feast but also between the living and the departed. The feast reflects two different emotions: one is the fear of punishment in the form of diseases if the ancestors are not pleased, and the other is a form of joy brought by unification.
Spiritual commensality is evident in many South American cultures as well. Quechua communities of the high Andes frequently consume coca leaves, which are not only a symbol of cultural identity but also a means of connecting with the spiritual realm (Allen 1981). Quechua people share the coca leaves with each other after blowing over the leaves so that the scent of the leaves reach the ancestors, who are believed to bestow blessings. The ritual of communicating with the dead dates back thousands of years in Latin America where people follow different customs and rituals (Robertson 2016). This ritual is known in Ecuador as Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased), and in Mexico it is known as Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This tradition involves remembrance of loved ones by friends and families and sharing of meals to celebrate the journey of the dead to the next life.
In exploring several traditions and rituals related to spiritual commensality, food is the medium through which the occupants of the physical world communicate and express their gratitude to the ancestors. People during their lifetime leave markers through several medium. Food is one such medium which establishes the identity of an individual, community, society, nation, and region. Social markers, left by our ancestors, through mediums such as food are what enable us to remember, cherish, and reminisce their presence. The ubiquity and universality of food, its ability to form an identity, and its capacity to communicate and carry the meaning are unparalleled and the innate reason for being the chosen mode to relate with the spiritual world.
The act of commensality with our ancestors and our loved ones provides us a sense of contentment and emotional prosperity. These rituals provide solace to those who are remembering their loved ones and appease the soul of the one who is being remembered. Some might partake in the ritual out of fear, some out of grief, some to share joy, and although the reasons vary, the unquestionable commonality is the food that promotes commensality, both with the physical world and the spiritual world.
Allen, Catherine J. 1981. To Be Quechua: The Symbol of Coca Chewing in Highland Peru. American Ethnologist 8(1): 157-171.
Bloch, Maurice. 1999. Commensality and Poisoning. Social Research 66(1): 133-149.
Carlson, Robert G. 1990. Banana Beer, Reciprocity, and Ancestor Propitiation Among the Haya of Bukoba, Tanzania. Ethnology 29(4): 297-311.
Funeral Zone. 2017. Chuseok Celebrations – Remembering the Dead. Funeral Zone. Date of access, 20 June, 2019. https://www.funeralzone.com/blog/chuseok-celebrations-remembering-dead
NDTV Food Desk. 2017. Shradh 2017: What is Shradh? The Do’s and Don’ts to Observe During this Period. NDTV Food Desk. Date of access, 19 June, 2019. https://www.ndtv.com/food/shradh-2017-what-is-shradh-the-dos-and-donts-to-observe-during-this-period-1744437
Robertson, Amy. 2016. Bread Babies and Purple Drink: Ecuador’s Spin on Day of the Dead. NPR’s The Salt. Date of access, 19 June, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/11/02/500105108/bread-babies-and-purple-drink-ecuador-s-spin-on-day-of-the-deceased
Tan Chee-Beng. 2015. Commensality and the Organization of Social Relations. In Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast, ed. Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, and Morten Warmind, 13-29. New York: Bloomsbury.