creating community through celebration

Revels and the Culture of Food

November is a good time to talk about food. It is a month in which our culture celebrates Thanksgiving - a day that despite some politically uncomfortable historical reference points, has become pretty much all about getting together for a good meal. As columnist Jon Carroll points out in his annual Thanksgiving piece, most holidays carry baggage of one sort or another that makes them problematic either culturally, morally or politically. It’s hard not to feel conflicted about the jingoism of the Fourth of July, and as for Columbus Day - well let’s not go there. But giving thanks and eating are two activities that we can all get behind.

Like Thanksgiving, Revels has a close association with food. The California Revels in particular is renowned for providing sustenance offstage during rehearsal, backstage during performances, at public events and private gatherings. We cook for each other and forage for potluck contributions. Recipes get invented, passed around and tried out on other willing Revelers. When we refer to the “groaning board”, we’re much more likely referring to the food table than to our beleaguered governing body. There is often a post-rehearsal adjournment to an eating or drinking establishment, and for all I know the elevator ride to rehearsal may be catered as well. We do like our food.

We have even included it in our list of core values. Here’s what it says:


Another core Revels value, the preparation and sharing of food, is the oldest expression of community. It is the metaphor, if not the literal expression of the desire to nurture and extend good will. The persistent appearance of eating and drinking (especially drinking) songs in every culture attests to the importance of the table in calling together and bolstering the spirits of the people. In both backstage consumption and onstage representation, the presence of feasting can be seen as a reminder that Revels is slow food cooking – a potent antidote to “fast food culture”.

And so the ubiquity of food at rehearsals and performances isn’t just about maintaining energy levels (although that’s what we like to tell ourselves), it is also a metaphorical reminder of the creation of community which is the goal of our efforts.

Michael Pollan’s meditations on food and nutrition are widely read. One of the bits of good eating advice that he proffers in his In Defense of Food relates to the importance of eating with others. He observes, “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from mere animal biology to an act of culture”.

Pollan, and many of the other writers he cites talk about the culturally defining aspects of cuisine, and the connectedness that we associate with the act of eating. Not only does a mindfully shared meal tie us to those around the table, but it also reinforces our sense of belonging to a specific culture and gives us a better feeling for our place in the world. Well-prepared food speaks well of the cook of course, but it also calls to mind the ingredients, the source of the meal itself.

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and essayist is someone who frequently shows up in Pollan’s writing. He has this to say about the larger meaning of dining:

“Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend”.

Thanksgiving, like many other seasonal rituals has been hugely influenced by modern society. It is subject to commercial influences that simultaneously engorge the observance of the event while diminishing its ability to offer sustenance. It has become yet another mercantile magnet, symbolized by the factory-farmed turkey - a creature of impressive dimensions and questionable nutritional value.

And yet the fellowship and caring that underlie this observance still have the power to enlighten and transform. Our challenge is to reclaim and maintain the human connections that inform this and all of our rituals. By emphasizing the thankfulness in Thanksgiving, we connect with the blessings all around us. By elevating food to a core value, Revels embraces the sense of wonder and gratitude that we feel, not only for the meal itself, but also for those with whom we share our time at table. It’s all about community.

- David Parr, Artistic Director

If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, I heartily recommend Michael Pollan’s writing. If you haven’t done so already, check out: The Botany of Desire; In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto; and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals. All are available in paperback from Penguin Press.