Past to Present: Food and Its Connection to Celebration

Food has always been an important part of our lives. Not only do we consume food every day (second breakfast, anyone?), it is also featured prominently in festivities and celebrations. Besides filling us up, why do we celebrate with food? The reason is simple. It’s because food brings us closer. It unites us. Sharing a meal over a dinner table can give us a shared point of relevance. It doesn’t even strictly need to be sharing the same food. Food gives us a reason to occupy the same space at the same time, an example being a cafeteria at lunch break. Therefore, food, and the need to eat to survive, has bound us together. We bring different food along wherever we go depending on the occasion, such as in picnics, and we are keen to try out different foods while on vacation. Food is highly appreciated and integrated into our lifestyles, and all it takes is a simple search on YouTube to pull up numerous recipes and tutorials. It is not uncommon nowadays to see social media feeds peppered with restaurant or café  recommendations, and there have been many blogs dedicated to reviewing good food. And it isn’t only while we’re living that food is important. The importance of food has been prevalent in our lives since childhood, and it remains relevant throughout our lives. Even in death, the importance of food carries into our afterlife. As National Geographic puts it, “Consider the cultures that leave delicacies graveside to let the departed know they are not forgotten.”

Bringing Food to Celebrations

There are numerous examples of foods that have been associated with particular festivals and celebrations. These foods become part of a tradition, and along with it comes the stories. Take the examples of mooncakes and t’anta wawa — both are featured as important elements in the tradition or stories.

In the case of the mooncake, there are many tales surrounding it, but the most prominent is that of Chang’e and as featured in some Chinese comprehension texts, the Ming revolution. Some say we eat mooncakes to worship Chang’e as a lunar deity. Others may cite the story of the Ming revolution, where mooncakes aided in overthrowing the Yuan dynasty. Mooncakes containing hidden messages concerning the revolution were passed out to the people, who initially believed them to be special mooncakes preventing the outbreak of a spreading plague. This plan was conceived by future Hongwu emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and advisor Liu Bowen, and it led to the eventual creation of the Ming dynasty. Hence, mooncakes brought about significant change in the pages of history.

It is perhaps rightfully so that mooncakes have become incredibly popular and are a staple in Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, sparking the creation of inventive flavours such as green tea, durian, and kiwi alongside conventional favourites like lotus seed paste.

T’anta wawa is also known as baby bread for good reason. It is bread that is baked into the shape of a bundled up baby with a painted-on face or a face taken from a doll. There are a lot of traditions behind t’anta wawa, including and not limited to being given as an offering for children who have passed on, and as a gift of affection to one another. In modern times, it is baked and eaten to celebrate All Hallows’ Day and the Day of the Dead. In 2012, Cusco bakers even attempted to create the largest t’anta wawa ever to grace the Earth.

It has come to the point where mooncakes and t’anta wawa are associated with their respective celebrations. These foods play an important role in memorialising certain parts of history and culture, and it is because they play this role that they are passed down from generation to generation, immortalised in history themselves.

Another widely carried out tradition is the inclusion of birthday cakes during birthday celebrations. Why do we even celebrate with cake? Why not use a loaf of banana bread instead, or a plate of iced biscuits? It turns out that the ancient Greeks baked round cakes lit with candles to resemble the moon to celebrate Artemis, goddess of the Moon and the hunt. This is combined with the German celebration known as Kinderfeste that dates back to the 18th-century. True to the ancient Greeks’ tradition, children celebrating their birthday would get a cake lit with the same number of candles as their age. Birthday cakes may be viewed as an important element of a party because the candles are called “the light of life”, symbolising the hope that the child would live through another year. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution when ingredients were more affordable and when bakeries started selling pre-baked cakes that the tradition of birthday cakes was widely spread.

This further demonstrates how food and intentions have been carried down from the olden days. The intentions may be unintentionally forgotten, but it’s a comfort at least to know that the pleasure that comes with consuming these treats (such as birthday cakes) remain intact.

Bringing Celebration to Food

Besides being part of history, it has also come to the point where food is featured as the main star of a celebration or festival. For one, Thorrablot is an Icelandic midwinter festival that first started before the 10th century and might have been named after the Norwegian king Thorri Snærsson, or Thor, the god of thunder. Thorrablot was revived in the 19th century and is celebrated to recognise Iceland’s past with pagan beliefs and practices. Icelanders feast on a range of traditional Viking fare, including pickled ram’s testicles, dung-smoked lamb, smoked salmon and rye bread. As if this isn’t all hard-boiled enough, partakers can choose to end their meal with an alcoholic drink called “Black Death”. 

Another festival where food is the centrepiece is Fête du Citron that takes place in the French Riviera. This is when the city of Menton celebrates its bountiful harvest of citrus fruits with a carnival parade featuring floats constructed with lemon-and-orange-covered structures. These citrus fruits are later sold at a highly discounted price. The idea of the festival was inspired by a hotelier in 1926, who had hosted a successful exhibition of flowers and harvest earlier on at the Riviera Hotel.

With the relevance food has to our daily lives, it is satisfying to know that they are being honoured in festivals like Thorrablot and Fête du Citron. In other words, all is as it should be.

With Halloween coming up (admittedly quite a while later), why not look into the history of dumb cakes? These dumb cakes were baked by young ladies as part of a ritual where they tried to invoke dreams of their future spouses. Although this doesn’t always end in a picture perfect manner, fascinating occurrences have been recorded, and you may need to think twice before baking your own dumb cake and engaging in visions of your future suitor.

There are many delightful foods out there, with such varying range and diverse flavours. With so many appetising morsels out there, it can be difficult to remember the history or culture that comes with each dish. Perhaps starting from where we are, we can look into the different stories that surround us in the food we eat, in the process of cooking, and in the realms of gastronomical adventure.

By: Jia Xuan

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