When is food a luxury?
Marijke van der Veen
This paper explores deﬁnitions of luxury foods and considers the role of luxuries in marking social
distinction. It is proposed that luxury foods are those foods that offer a reﬁnement in texture, taste,
fat content or other quality (such as stimulant or inebriant) and offer distinction, because of either
their quantity or quality. Ethnographic research has revealed that an emphasis on quantity of food
and elaboration of common staples is found mostly in societies without strong social stratiﬁcation,
while an emphasis on quality and style is characteristic of societies with institutionalized forms of
social ranking. In the former context the consumption of luxury foods is used primarily to create or
enhance social bonds, in the latter to create or enhance exclusivity and distance. The archaeological
recognition of luxury foods is reviewed to demonstrate how archaeology is well placed to add
regional breadth and chronological depth to the study of the changing role and meaning of luxury
Food; luxury; consumption; elites; exotics; semiotics; material culture; archaeology; feasting.
Food can be described as ‘a highly condensed social fact’ (Appadurai 1981: 494). While
food debris per se has long been studied by archaeologists, there is now a growing aware-
ness of the value of studying the social context of food; of seeing food as material culture
(e.g. Gerritsen 2000; Gosden and Hather 1999; Gumerman 1997; Miracle and Milner 2002;
Thomas, K. 1999; Wilkins et al. 1995). This paper and this issue of World Archaeology
represent further contributions to this discussion, and focus on one area of food consump-
tion, that of luxury foods. Deﬁnitions of ‘luxury’ are rarely fully comprehensive and they
vary in the degree to which emphasis is placed on economic rather than social aspects of
the concept. The deﬁnition offered in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1991) is three-fold:
‘1) choice or costly surroundings, possessions, food, etc. . . . 2) something desirable for
comfort or enjoyment, but not indispensable, and 3) providing great comfort, expensive.’
In terms of foods, luxury usually denotes foods that are desirable or hard to obtain but
not essential to human nutrition. These frequently, though not necessarily, include exotic
World Archaeology Vol. 34(3): 405–427 Luxury Foods
© 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd ISSN 0043-8243 print/1470-1375 online
foods, that is, foods that are unusual or desirable because of their foreign origin. Deﬁn-
ing what is and is not essential is, of course, fraught with problems, and the ﬁrst part of
this paper will consider the opposition between needs and desires. I shall then focus on
which types of food may be considered luxuries. The consumption of luxury foods often
takes place on special occasions, from small-scale family celebrations to large-scale feasts,
and the archaeology of luxury foods is thus closely linked to the archaeology of feasting.
Finally, I examine how luxury foods are often directly associated with elites: they are seen
as the preserve of the upper classes, who use expensive and exotic foods to mark social
status, to identify distinction. Is this the true arena of luxury foods? Is the study of luxury
foods essentially a study of food consumption within hierarchical societies, or is this
assessment too strongly prejudiced by current Western perceptions of luxury?
The concept of luxury
Needs and desires
Deﬁnitions of the concept of ‘luxury’ as found in many dictionaries all stress the non-
essential nature of luxury goods, using terms such as extra, extravagance, indulgence,
treat, afﬂuence, sumptuousness and splendour; but how do we differentiate between a
need and a luxury? The concept of needs versus luxuries is a complex one, because they
are clearly relative terms.In his book The Idea of Luxury (1994) Christopher Berry
explores these concepts in detail and he identiﬁes two types of need:
a) Basic needs, such as sustenance, shelter, clothing and leisure. All four are universally
regarded as necessary features of human life, and they can be described as objective
or universal, in that they do not refer to the particular requirement of an individual,
but to the general needs of all human beings. Following Wiggins (1985: 152–3) such
needs are described as ‘the way the world is’. For example, we all need vitamin C to
avoid getting scurvy (that is the way the world is), but this is independent of our desire
to eat fruit. In this sense, needs are not intentional and not privileged; they are ‘states
of the world’, as opposed to ‘principles of action’ (Berry 1994: 9–10).
b) Volitional or instrumental needs, which are ‘instrumental means to an end’. These are
often, though not necessarily, utilitarian objects such as a pen or an electric knife,
which one needs to fulﬁl a desire, i.e. to write a letter or to carve a joint of meat. Thus
these needs are different from basic needs, in that they arise by virtue of a prior desire
In contrast, luxuries are to be viewed as ‘objects of desire’, which give physical or bodily
satisfactions, and are usually associated with physical or sensory enjoyment. Examples
given by Berry are: being hungry and needing bread to satisfy this hunger, but desiring
fresh bread, or being cold and needing clothing but desiring a cashmere coat rather than
a sheepskin. Thus, luxuries are things that offer pleasure and enjoyment and are charac-
terized by a qualitative reﬁnement of a basic good: they represent an indulgence. In this
sense, they are intentional and privileged and allow choice (some may desire fresh bread,
406 Marijke van der Veen
others wholemeal, organic bread, etc.; some may desire coffee, others tea, etc.)
It is not, however, sufﬁcient for a good simply to be desired, to be expensive or to be a
qualitative reﬁnement: for a good to be a luxury it needs to be desired by many but
attained by few. Goods coveted or much desired by one or more individuals (Berry’s
example is a book lover who desires a special edition) or goods that have sentimental
value to one or more individuals are not luxuries in his deﬁnition of the term. Nor are
foods used in funerary rites, religious offerings and other rituals. These foods are not
desired as a reﬁnement of a basic food or a means of marking distinction, but because of
their symbolic meaning. They are used in an attempt to facilitate the journey or improve
the afterlife of the deceased, placate the gods, honour deities, etc.; as such, they are a
means to an end and thus, in Berry’s terminology, ‘instrumental needs’, not luxuries.
Health foods, in the sense of foods eaten as medicines, i.e. home remedies, may similarly
be regarded instrumental needs, in so far as they are desired and eaten as a means to main-
tain health or to restore the body to a previous state of health. Moreover, ‘health’ is a
basic bodily need (ibid.: 22). But here the issue is more complex. The current use of the
term includes expensive and organic foods, the consumption of which may be used to
express status, and the term also refers to medicinal nutrients mentioned in the culinary
manuals and dietetic texts of the medieval Islamic world (see Waines this volume). Here,
their association with bourgeois households gives them a clear status context, even though
their consumption may not be directly instigated by the desire for reﬁnement or prestige.
Nevertheless, some members of society may view such consumption, and that of foods
employed in religious offerings and rituals, as ‘luxurious’.
Luxuries have a wide appeal precisely because they are concerned with basic human
needs (food, shelter, clothing and leisure). This and the fact that the process of reﬁnement
is, in principle, inﬁnite gives luxury goods ﬂuidity; their status can change over time. If the
number of people who have access to a luxury increases, the status of these goods changes;
they turn into commonplace goods and may ultimately become necessities. This is an
important point: needs and luxuries are not absolute but rather relative concepts, just as
poverty is. There is no ﬁxed minimal necessity. Needs are deemed social necessities, and
luxuries are deemed socially unnecessary: both are culturally speciﬁc. Berry concludes
a luxury good is a widely desired (because not yet widely attained) good that is believed
to be ‘pleasing’, and the general desirability of which is explained by it being a speciﬁc
reﬁnement, or qualitative aspect, of some universal generic need. (Berry 1994: 41)
Thus, members of late twentieth-century industrial societies will all recognize caviar, a
palace, a Christian Dior gown and a weekend in an exclusive hotel as luxuries. Members
of earlier, or different, cultures would have speciﬁed other goods, but the same four basic
categories (food, shelter, clothing and leisure) would have been identiﬁable (ibid.: 42).
This is a broader deﬁnition of luxury than that used by economists. The latter see needs
as goods that are bought in the same quantities regardless of changes in price or income,
and luxuries as goods that have a high income elasticity of demand: once expenditure has
covered that which is needed, the surplus will be spent on luxuries. A drop in income will
When is food a luxury? 407
result in a drop in expenditure on luxuries (Douglas and Isherwood 1979: 68–9). The
problem with this deﬁnition is that demand is not always functional. Leibestein (1950)
identiﬁed three instances of this phenomenon (as quoted by Berry 1994: 27):
a) Bandwagon effect: demand increases due to the fact that others are consuming the
product (i.e. fashion).
b) Snob effect: demand decreases due to the fact that others are consuming a particular
c) Veblen effect: demand increases when the price is higher rather than lower.
Thus, in certain circumstances, people will forgo basic needs and spend money on
luxuries in order to maintain their social status. This brings us to the next aspect of luxury
consumption, that of the exclusive nature of luxuries and their use in conspicuous
Exclusivity and social distinction
A slightly different approach is that which sees luxuries primarily in terms of ‘social
meaning’, in line with the view that consumption is a system of meanings or signs (e.g.
Appadurai 1986; Baudrillard 1988; Douglas 1984; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Miller
1995). Here the consumption of luxury goods is regarded solely as a means of advertising
and displaying social status, as conspicuous consumption: that is, the lavish consumption
of goods with a view to enhancing one’s prestige. Here the focus is not on the inherent
characteristic of what is consumed, but on the signal it gives to those who cannot consume
it.This has led to a new deﬁnition of luxuries, as goods ‘whose principal use is rhetorical
and social, goods that are simply incarnated signs’ (Appadurai 1986: 38). Rather than
representing a particular class of things, Appadurai suggests that they are seen as a special
‘register’ of consumption. The signs of this register comprise some or all of the following
a) restriction, either in price or by law, to elites;
b) complexity of acquisition, which may or may not be a function of real ‘scarcity’;
c) semiotic virtuosity, that is, the capacity to signal fairly complex social messages (as do
pepper in cuisine, silk in dress, jewels in adornment and relics in worship);
d) specialized knowledge as a prerequisite for their ‘appropriate’ consumption, that is,
regulation by fashion; and
e) a high degree of linkage of their consumption to body, person and personality.
Many scholars see social distinction and exclusivity as the true arena of luxury goods,
while all agree that luxury goods are, by deﬁnition, outside the reach of mass consump-
tion; using Berry’s words, it is not possible to ‘democratize’ luxuries (1994: 32). The
conclusion sometimes drawn from this is that luxury goods will occur only in societies with
strong social stratiﬁcation, where elites require goods in order to display and maintain
their status. Diamond (1997: 269), for example, suggests that luxury foods occur only in
chiefdoms and states, not in bands and tribes. This argument fails to acknowledge,
however, that most, if not all, human beings know the desire for luxuries, that all societies
408 Marijke van der Veen
show elements of social stratiﬁcation, and that the status quest is inherent in all human
societies (Paynter 1989; Wiessner 1996). The question is not why and when inequality
emerged, but when inequality became formalized or institutionalized, and whether or how
this process affects the nature of luxury goods (see below).
The ‘trickle-down’ effect
A well-recognized phenomenon in the history of luxury goods is the ‘trickle-down’ effect
which refers to the tendency of luxury goods to change status over time, from being
desired by many but possessed by few, to becoming widely available and, ultimately, to
being deemed social necessities. Classic examples include the history of sugar, coffee, tea,
chocolate, televisions and indoor sanitation. Most of these changes in status concern shifts
downwards, though the opposite does also occur – as with oysters in Europe (see Ervynck
et al. this volume) and blue jeans (Davis 1992). While there has been little research to
date on exactly why and how such changes in status occur, a reduction in production and
thus purchasing cost, the power of social emulation and the ‘naturalism’ of luxury goods
have been put forward. Hayden (1998, and this volume) has proposed that, as leaders use
some luxury foods in feasting to enhance or maintain their social position in the
community, it is in their self-interest to reduce the cost of these foods where possible.
While this is initially beneﬁcial to them, it changes the status of such foods in the long run
and thus their value in prestigious displays. Mintz (1985, 1993) has discussed how the shift
in status of sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate and tobacco was also strongly connected with a
reduction in production costs (associated with the use of slave labour), and a consequent
drop in prices, coincident with an increase in the buying power of the masses. In a study
of the character of Bronze Age trade in Greece, Sherratt and Sherratt (1991) illustrate
how the social signiﬁcance of luxury goods, such as ﬁne metalwork and perfumes, often
goes beyond their actual scarcity value and is derived from their association with certain
social practices (see also Foxhall 1998). They emphasize the power of competitive emula-
tion between elites in raising the demand for and thus the production and availability of
The critical role of social emulation in the ‘trickle-down’ effect is widely recognized:
the drive to improve one’s standing in society is universal, as is the desire for luxury foods;
their consumption has become diagnostic of the attainment of a certain standard of living.
Campbell warns, however, that imitative conduct does not automatically imply the pres-
ence of emulative motives, and suggests that emulation is ‘a goal with many different
motives’ (1993: 41). Goods may and are desired for their own sake, rather than for any
prestige that may be attached to them: coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar, for example,
provide immediate satisfactions independent of their expense, status or origin. A shop-
keeper who is able and willing to purchase a product previously viewed as a characteristic
of superior aristocratic consumption patterns does not necessarily seek to imitate an aris-
tocratic way of life; likewise a maid who imitates her lady’s dress style may desire to rival
her in fashionableness, rather than seek to be considered her social equal (ibid.: 40–1).
This matches Berry’s unease with too great an emphasis on the semiotic meaning of luxu-
ries, and his concern to underline the ‘naturalism’ of these goods, that is their ability to
provide universal satisfaction (Berry 1994: 31).
When is food a luxury? 409
Attempts to thwart the tendency of luxuries to become widely available are found in
most societies, often taking the form of prohibited foods and/or sumptuary laws regulating
expenditure, especially with a view to restraining excess in food and clothing. Mennell
(1985: 30) gives the example of a sixteenth-century French law which forbade private
families to have meals of more than three courses, and speciﬁed the number and type of
dishes to constitute each course. It goes without saying that this law was not very effec-
tive. While such regulations are often couched in the moral and political views prevalent
at the time, their underlying rationale was the maintenance of the existing hierarchy, by
monopolizing certain foods, cloth, etc., solely for elite consumption (Berry 1994: 31, 85;
Dietler 1996; Goody 1982: 103, 141). The process of staying ahead became almost a sport:
each time ‘the lower orders drew closer, appropriating to themselves the goods previously
owned by higher groups, so did the elites innovate, reﬁne, and increase the value of their
goods in an attempt to re-establish correct social distances’ (Guerzoni 1999: 336). For
example, in sixteenth-century Europe, when meat became plentiful, the aristocracy
emphasized the consumption of game animals (from their estates) and strengthened the
anti-poaching laws (Mennell 1985: 61).
Social order and political morality
In today’s Western world of commerce and consumerism the private desire for goods may
be regarded as both innocent and legitimate; however, this is not a universally held senti-
ment. Many hierarchical societies and world religions have a moral code concerning food
consumption, with over-consumption or luxury consumption regarded as a vice – giving
rise to resentment and tension – and abstinence as the path to holiness (Goody 1982:
112ff.; see also Glennie 1995; Guerzoni 1999; Waines this volume). Berry (1994) investi-
gates the intellectual career of the idea of luxury, highlighting how in the Classical world
and in early Christianity the concept of luxury had a negative connotation, being associ-
ated with the corruption of a virtuous, manly life. During the pre-modern period the
boundless uncontrollability of bodily desire was regarded as a threat to liberty. This
changed in Europe during the eighteenth century when the liberty of individuals to pursue
their own desires became viewed as a value; noticeably, it is at this time that the sumptu-
ary laws disappear (Appadurai 1986).
While early criticisms focused primarily on the ability of luxuries to undermine virtue,
the modern critique emphasizes the moral obligation to meet the needs of others. Thus
the socialist perspective holds that it is morally wrong for some individuals to indulge in
luxuries while others have not yet met their basic needs. A full discussion of these issues
falls outside the scope of this paper, but it is important to stress here that the social value
put on luxuries has varied over time. The deﬁnition of what is regarded as a need and
what as a luxury is culturally determined and, as such, can give us a clear insight into the
social order of that culture. It helps identify what that society is about, and gives us the
‘social grammar’ of that society (Berry 1994: 37–8). The value judgement attached to the
concept of luxury is linked directly to the political morality of the individual or the society
making the judgement. Rather than see this as a constraint, and retreat into relativism,
this should, instead, be regarded as a positive opportunity to use the study of luxury foods
as a way towards understanding past societies.
410 Marijke van der Veen
Quantity or quality
Having considered the wider concept of luxury, we next need to focus on what types of
food are consumed as luxuries. In a cross-cultural classiﬁcation of food, Jelliffe gives the
following deﬁnition of luxury or prestige foods:
All cultures have prestige foods, which are mainly reserved for important occasions or,
even more, for the illustrious of the community.... Examination suggests that, even in
vegetarian societies, these are usually protein, frequently of animal origin. They are
usually difﬁcult to obtain, so that they are expensive and relatively rare. In the western
world they may have been hunted wild, as opposed to domesticated, or imported from
distant regions. Lastly, and of much signiﬁcance, they may quite often have been long
associated with the dominant socio-historical group – as, for example, with ‘game’ in
western Europe, probably dating back to the medieval social system and hunting laws.
(Jelliffe 1967: 279–81)
Other examples of prestige foods given are a special milk dessert (shreekand) in vege-
tarian communities of India, camel stuffed successively with goat, turkey, chicken and
dove in some Arab communities, and poi dog in ancient Hawaii (ibid.: 280). In addition
to being difﬁcult to obtain, difﬁculty of preparation is a further characteristic of prestige
foods. This is also emphasized by Hayden (1996: 137), who identiﬁes as feast foods those
foods that are the rarest, the most difﬁcult to procure or the most-labour intensive to
produce, together with labour-intensive preparations; they include the richest, largest,
sweetest and most succulent foods available.
The prominence of animal protein and fat as preferred foods is highlighted in many
other cross-cultural studies (e.g. Abrams 1987a; Tannahill 1973). Some evidence exists to
suggest that this preference has a genetic basis, but it may also reﬂect cultural codings that
favour meat and other animal products, as these represent more complete and concen-
trated forms of protein and more efﬁcient nutrient and energy sources than other foods
(Harris 1987). A genetic basis for our preference for sweet foods appears more certain,
as a sweet taste tends to characterize high-energy, and thus nutritious, substances, whereas
a bitter taste often characterizes harmful or poisonous substances (Abrams 1987b).
However, Harris cautions us against too simplistic an application of this phenomenon;
there are plenty of examples where cultural programming has overridden these innate
tendencies (1987: 80).
De Garine (1976) and Goody (1982) have drawn attention to the fact that there are
marked differences between societies in the types of foods used at special occasions. Both
have carried out ﬁeldwork in Africa, where they noted that the foods used in celebrations
and conspicuous consumption are often the same foods that are consumed normally, and
that it is usually a matter of ‘more of the same’, especially more meat, rather than different
foods – in other words, quantity not quality. The only aspect of quality that they both
identify is that a headman or chief may get some better cuts of meat, rather than just more
meat. They contrast this situation with Europe where prestige or luxury foods are usually
foods that are different and/or in short supply, and include different constituents, especially
foreign ingredients, great complexity in the combination of ingredients and in the prep-
aration, presentation and consumption (table manners, etiquette). This emphasis on ‘high
When is food a luxury? 411
cuisine’ is, of course, not restricted to Europe, but can be found in other hierarchical
societies, such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and Rome, ancient China
and the medieval Islamic world (Goody 1982; see also Waines this volume).
That quantity of food and especially of meat was and is a potent symbol of success can
be seen everywhere, especially in situations where food was/is scarce and its availability
irregular. In medieval Europe the powerful distinguished themselves from their inferiors
by the sheer quantity they ate: ‘those who could, gorged themselves; those who couldn’t,
aimed to’ (Weber 1973: 202, quoted by Mennell 1997: 324). The importance of quantity
and elaborate presentation of daily foods (meat, dairy products, cereals and beer), in what
Goody calls ‘low’ cuisine, has also been identiﬁed elsewhere: Leach (this volume)
observes that in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century East Polynesia staple foods were
elevated in status through labour-intensive processing, the diversity of forms in which they
were served or the sheer abundance of display. Similarly, MacLean and Insoll (this
volume) stress the quantity of food and the effort invested in its preparation, as well as
the importance of formal communal dining and feasting in Goa, West Africa, and in
Bahrain. Thus, in many societies, ‘a feast was a time of plenty, not a time of difference’
(Goody 1982: 78).
Both De Garine (1976) and Goody (1982) suggest that this distinction between quan-
tity and quality is connected to the social structure of societies. Those without strong, insti-
tutionalized forms of social ranking (‘hieratic’ societies in Goody’s terminology), with
little difference in lifestyle between members, seem to be characterized by the use of
quantity of food to mark special occasions, whereas hierarchical societies where major
differences in lifestyle between individuals and groups of individuals are embedded in
social institutions – i.e. where sub-cultures exist – tend to use quality and ‘foreignness’.
Goody (1982: 44ff.) also stresses the contrasting modes of production, with African
communities, along with most pre-industrial societies, displaying close links between the
processes of production, distribution, preparation and consumption, the use of reciprocal
exchange and the consumption of food that originates from within the region. In contrast,
in modern Western societies there is no direct link between those that produce the food
and those that consume it, goods are traded through markets, and many of the foods
consumed originate from far away.
In Europe the transition to a differentiated cuisine may be relatively late. Braudel
(1981: 187ff.) suggests that before the ﬁfteenth or sixteenth century the emphasis was on
the quantity of food (especially meat and alcohol), not on sophisticated cooking, and, in
his fascinating account of European eating habits, Mennell (1985) shows how it was the
improved availability of food for the masses that led to the development of a high cuisine
from the sixteenth/seventeenth century onwards. With increasingly more people able to
imitate the elite and distinguish themselves from the lower classes by the quantity they
ate, it simply was no longer possible for the nobility to set itself apart by eating more. By
the early post-medieval period, Mennell argues, it became physically impossible for the
elite to continue to increase the quantity of their food intake, and new forms of distinc-
tion were required (1985: 32). This is when new ingredients (spices and foods from the
Americas) arrive and an emphasis on new ways of preparing and combining foods,
cookery books, table manners and the development of a menu – that is, foods being served
in a particular ‘order’, rather than being placed on the table all at the same time. It was
412 Marijke van der Veen
no longer desirable to put quantity on the table; instead, what was needed to distinguish
oneself was the knowledge of how to put the food together. Gluttony became vulgar, and
obesity, from being a sign of the wealthy and the powerful, was deemed a characteristic
of the lower classes.
Returning to the deﬁnitions of luxury presented earlier, recall that luxury foods were
deﬁned not as speciﬁc items of food, but as foods offering a reﬁnement of a basic food
that is widely desired (because not yet widely attained) anda means of distinction. Reﬁne-
ments of food may be expressed in terms of texture (e.g. ‘white’ versus unreﬁned or
‘brown’ bread or rice; fresh rather than dried food; succulent versus tough meat),
additional ﬂavour (salt, sugar, herbs, spices, chilli), a higher fat content (meat, dairy
products, nuts, chocolate, avocado, etc.) or other qualities (especially stimulants and
inebriants such as coffee, tea, beer and wine). Means of distinction may be expressed in
either quantity or quality, whereby the former conveys success and prestige (symbolic
power) and the latter exclusivity and distance (cultural power).
Building bridges or erecting fences
Many anthropologists and sociologists have demonstrated how food is used as a semiotic
device, signalling rank and rivalry, solidarity and community, identity or exclusion, and
intimacy or distance. Appadurai, among others, has tried to combine the role of food in
the social organization of a society with its role as a system of symbols, categories and
meanings, by seeing food as part of the semiotic system in a particular social context
(Appadurai 1981: 494–5). He poses a series of questions that might be helpful in our study
of food in an archaeological context:
a) what do particular actions involving food (and particular foods) say?
b) to whom?
c) in what context?
d) with what immediate social consequences?
e) to what structural end?
His studies of three social contexts in Hindu South Asia, those of the household, the
marriage feast and the temple, revealed how in these contexts food served two diametri-
cally opposed semiotic functions: homogeneity and heterogeneity. Food can be used to
mark and create relations of equality, intimacy or solidarity or, instead, to uphold relations
signalling rank, distance or segmentation (Appadurai 1981). Each food consumption
event will contain a contrast between host and guest, giver and receiver, insider and
outsider, though most contexts will contain components of both homogeneity and hetero-
geneity. The acts of sitting down to eat together express these tensions by highlighting
who is doing the sharing, who is participating and who is excluded.
Feasts are, par excellence, contexts of luxury food consumption, being often used either
to enhance or to establish social relations. They have two principal characteristics: the
When is food a luxury? 413
communal consumption of food (including drink) – usually of foods that are different
from everyday practice – and the social component of display – usually of success, social
status or power (Dietler and Hayden, 2001a, 2001b). Hayden (1990, 1996, 2001 this
volume) sees feasts primarily as displays of biological or ecological success and as the prin-
cipal context for investing surpluses and the consumption of luxury foods. He argues that
we should regard the intensiﬁcation of food procurement as a process driven by the status
quest, which resulted, perhaps most signiﬁcantly, in the transition to farming. Dietler
(1990, 1996) meanwhile emphasizes the political role and ritual nature of many feasts.
Both have categorized different types of feasts; for the purpose of this paper, I mainly
follow Dietler’s categories:
a) celebratory feasts, which usually serve to reinforce existing social bonds, either
between individuals of approximately equal social standing or between individuals of
different social standing in instances where the feast does not include a competitive
aspect. These include small family celebrations, larger community feasts in societies
with little emphasis on inequality and many ritual feasts, where issues of rank and
distance may be temporarily suspended (Appadurai 1981: 509; Hayden 1996: 128);
b) entrepreneurial or empowering feasts, which are used to acquire social power and/or
economic advantage. Here unequal relations are created: by hosting a feast the host
raises his standing, and his prestige; and by eating the food the guests accept the obli-
gation to give something in return, either deference or, in the case of work-party
feasts, labour (Dietler 1996: 92–6);
c) patron-role feasts, which use commensal hospitality to reiterate and legitimize exist-
ing unequal relations of status and power (corresponding to redistribution). Here,
unlike the previous category, there is no expectation of equal reciprocation. The
unequal social relations are accepted through the repetition of unequal hospitality
events. Chiefs are expected to host lavish parties, though some of the food offered
may be the result of tribute or work-parties (ibid.: 96–7);
d) diacritical feasts, which serve to naturalize or reify differences in social status, but
where, unlike the previous two categories, there is no element of reciprocity. Here the
‘audience’ no longer participates, and the emphasis is on style and on foods that
symbolize that exclusivity (expensive foods, exotics) (ibid.: 98–9).
Each of these feasts serves to homogenize or heterogenize the participants, with elements
of both present at all. The ﬁrst three categories, on balance, are more concerned with the
creation or maintenance of social bonds, while diacritical feasts are ﬁrst and foremost
concerned with exclusivity, with the creation of distance, with the erection of fences,
rather than the construction of bridges. The role of the host varies too, from looking for
prestige to looking for distance. Following Bourdieu (1994) we see how feasts can convert
economic capital into either symbolic power (ﬁrst three categories of feasts) or cultural
capital (diacritical feasts). As argued above, the types of food used in these situations also
While the consumption of luxury foods always contains an element of exclusivity (as
noted, luxury foods cannot be ‘democratized’), they tend to be favoured for what Berry
calls their ‘naturalism’, for their ability to fulﬁl universal satisfaction because of their
texture, fat content, ﬂavour and/or quantity. But when food is used ﬁrst and foremost to
414 Marijke van der Veen
express distance this changes: now we see foods desired not for their texture, ﬂavour, etc.,
but for the message they convey. Thus exotic or foreign foods are desired not so much as
foods, but as symbols, as markers of distance, and the paraphernalia surrounding their
consumption (presentation, table manners, menu, etc.) are developed not to enhance the
enjoyment of the food, but to enhance the message of exclusivity. What this alteration in
use identiﬁes is a shift from the consumption of luxury food primarily as a desire to the
consumption of luxury food primarily as an ‘instrumental need’, and with it the ‘natural-
ism’ of luxury food is in danger of disappearing (Berry 1994: 31).
In order to clarify the contrast between these two types of luxury food consumption, it
was necessary to talk about the extremes, in what may be a continuum of use. This can
be hazardous, as too close a focus on the meaning of food may give the illusion that we
are dealing with a static situation, and may fail to observe the process. As outlined earlier,
cohesion and distance are part of all commensal acts; our challenge as archaeologists
should be to identify their relative importance in different sets of circumstances. A
diachronic study of the role and signiﬁcance of luxury foods, exotics and sumptuary regu-
lation will help detect the process.
If, for a moment, this simplistic dichotomy between simple societies (those with no formal-
ized or institutionalized inequality) and highly complex societies (those with insti-
tutionalized hierarchies) is maintained, then what distinguishes these, in terms of luxury
foods, is the routine with which these latter are consumed. The daily routine of food
consumption reﬂects and recreates the social and symbolic codes of a society (Bourdieu
1990). In simple societies, day-to-day consumption consists of foods locally produced, with
the emphasis on staples and occasional meat. There will be little or no differentiation
between households, except that the leader may have access to more or better cuts of
meat. Here luxury foods will be eaten in exceptional circumstances only, usually during
feasts. Feasts are large-scale consumption events, both in terms of the number of partici-
pants and in the quantity of food consumed. Such events will often take place at special
locations and thus be identiﬁable as such. By contrast, in strongly hierarchical societies
day-to-day consumption will be characterized by differences between households, groups
of households and types of settlement, and these differences are displayed not during
occasional feasts, but on a regular basis, if not every day. Here, in some households, it is
‘party time’ every day. Thus, some households will display consumption of food that is
different from the rest, in terms of either quantity or quality, and this may include expen-
sive, rare or exotic foods. Here, the consumption of luxury foods is a regular event, though
only at certain households. Thus, in simple societies we need to look for the exceptional,
in highly complex societies for the ordinary, the everyday events.
Critical here is an accurate identiﬁcation of households. While Pompeii-style cata-
strophic abandonment events have been found in several regions and periods (e.g. Emery
When is food a luxury? 415
this volume), they remain exceptions and most archaeologists are forced to wrestle with
the complexity of continuous occupation and the temporality of data sets. Households
may, of course, contain members of more than one social class and the dichotomy between
the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ will be far too simplistic in many societies especially across
any extended time span (e.g. Emery this volume; Ervynck et al. this volume; for a detailed
discussion of these issues, see Allison 1999).
The distinguishing characteristic of food in comparison to other forms of material culture
is that food is transient: it is eaten and thus largely disappears from the record. While this
presents a challenge to archaeologists, it is one that can be and has been successfully met,
though it may explain why archaeologists have often focused more on food production
rather than on its consumption. Goody (1982: 37) has shown how a study of the phases of
production, distribution, preparation, consumption and disposal can help identify the
social context of food:
Phase Process Locus
Production Growing Farm
Distribution Allocating/storing Granary/market
Preparation Cooking Kitchen
Consumption Eating Table
Disposal Clearing up Scullery
All leave archaeologically recognizable traces, and this scheme can be proﬁtably applied
in archaeology (e.g. Gumerman 1997; Samuel 1996; see also Barker and Grant 1999).
Much of environmental archaeology has been focused on the various aspects of the
production phase: the identiﬁcation of wild versus domesticated plant and animal species,
production and consumption sites, types and scales of arable cultivation, types of animal
husbandry regime, changes in agricultural tools and implements, etc.; too many to refer
to here explicitly. The distribution phase has also been well studied, with analyses of the
type and spatial patterning of storage facilities (storage vessels and pits, granaries), longer-
distance movement of agricultural staples (sometimes identiﬁed by the spread of insect
infestations) and the rise of markets. The preparation phase has proved more difﬁcult,
but not impossible. There are ample studies on grinding and pounding tools, butchery
techniques, some on issues such as marrow extraction, boiling versus roasting of animal
meat on the bone (e.g. Monton 2002; Outram 2002), and recently some discussion of
different preparations of cereals (friké, bulgur) (e.g. Hubbard and al-Azm 1990; Valam-
oti 2002). The analysis of residues in cooking pots should also prove useful (Evershed et
al. 2001). The spatial patterning of food preparation structures (such as stoves or hearths)
and implements (such as grindstones, cooking pots, etc.) is another very proﬁtable area
of study (e.g. Hastorf 1991; Samuel 1999). A change from individual household arrange-
ments to central provisions (or vice versa) is very informative: for example, when and
where do we see the grinding of grain organized centrally in mills or the slaughtering of
416 Marijke van der Veen
animals by butchers, rather than performed on a household basis? Such changes highlight
the separation of and increasing distance between consumers and producers, often a sign
of growing inequality.
The consumption phase itself is, as mentioned above, the most difﬁcult phase to
identify. Apart from the occasional stomach/intestinal content, coprolite and cesspit,
ceramic evidence can assist. The quantity of pots may signify the use of ceramic vessels
as status indicators; the presence of exceptionally large vessels may point to the likely
occurrence of feasts; and a change from large communal pots and serving bowls to the use
of individual plates, drinking vessels and cutlery may point to a shift from eating out of a
communal bowl to helpings served out to individuals, (e.g. Deetz 1996; Dietler 1996;
Hayden 2001; Sherratt 1986, 1991). Variability in the access to meat (more meat for higher
status individuals and men in general) will, of course, be visible in the stable isotope ratios
of individual skeletons, and this area of research offers tremendous prospects (Sealy
Finally, there is the phase of disposal, the true arena of archaeological practice: here we
hit the realm of formation processes. Food remains, because of their biological nature, are
preserved only in certain circumstances. Meat and vegetable foods decay, as do animal
bones in acid sediments and plant remains in most aerated sediments, unless they have
been accidentally charred or waterlogged, and both require sieving through ﬁne meshes
to ensure full and accurate retrieval. Sample size and method of quantiﬁcation are
additional issues of concern, and all of these factors are, justiﬁably, the focus of much
research in environmental archaeology. While these factors and their study may some-
times seem to obscure that what we are looking for, it is worth stressing here that many
formation processes can be controlled for in our analyses, while others may actually be
indicators of exactly the types of behaviour we are searching for; after all, the disposal of
rubbish is socially and culturally deﬁned.
Types of food
Many of the types of luxury food mentioned earlier have been identiﬁed in the archaeo-
logical record. Starting with feasts in simple societies, I have already mentioned the publi-
cations by Hayden (1990, 1996), Dietler (1990, 1996) and Dietler and Hayden (2001), but
other examples include the evidence for feasting at the henge enclosure of Durrington
Walls (Albarella and Serjeantson 2002) and at the causewayed enclosure of Windmill Hill
(Fairbairn 1999), both in Neolithic Britain, and at the Mesolithic site of Pupićina Cave,
Croatia (Miracle 2002). Here the quantity of the remains, their special location, the butch-
ery and cooking methods of the faunal remains and the absence of marrow extraction all
helped identify the remains as feasting left-overs. In other cases the size of the pots may
be diagnostic (e.g. Blitz 1993; see Hayden 2001 for a full list of potential archaeological
signatures of feasting). The archaeological visibility of labour-intensive preparations,
diversity of preparation and the presence of a superior variety of a staple crop (in terms
of taste, texture, colour or size; cf. Leach this volume) is much more problematic, but
could the unusual number, type and size of preparation and serving vessels, the presence
of unusual combinations of hearths and stoves, as well as display facilities (scaffolds, etc.)
be possible indicators?
When is food a luxury? 417
Evidence for the consumption of more meat (or other animal protein) and/or better
cuts of meat in high-status households or by high-status individuals has been identiﬁed all
over the world, as in early state Hawaii (Kirch and O’Day this volume), Maya Guatemala
(Emery this volume), late Iron Age Mozambique (Barker 1978), Roman and medieval
Britain (Grant 1988a 1988b, 2002; Stokes 2000) and Europe (Ervynck et al. this volume)
and eighteenth-/nineteenth-century USA (Singer 1987; see Reitz 1987 for an unsuccess-
ful attempt). An example of a rather select feast is that of the seventeenth-century
ecclesiastical community in Worcester Cathedral, England, again with an emphasis on
meat (Thomas, R. 1999). These interpretations are mostly based on the quantitative and
spatial patterning of faunal remains, but isotopic analyses of human skeletal material are
also highlighting the preferential access of high-status individuals to meat (e.g. late
Roman Poundbury, Britain (Richards et al. 1998) and Olmec Chalcatzingo, Mexico
There is a very considerable literature on the role of alcoholic drink as a positive
stimulant to festive occasions, as a facilitator of social interactions and as a status differ-
entiator (e.g. Mandelbaum 1965). Archaeological and ethno-archaeological examples
include Iron Age France (Dietler 1990), prehistoric Europe and the Mediterranean (Sher-
ratt 1987, 1995; Vencl 1994), classical Greece (Murray 1990), ancient Western Asia (Joffe
1998), present-day Ethiopia (Arthur this volume), Kushite Sudan (Edwards 1996),
Pharaonic Egypt (Murray 2000; Samuel 2000) and the late pre-Hispanic central Andes
(Hastorf and Johannessen 1993). For examples of the role of other stimulants, see Lovejoy
(1995) on kola nut and Sherratt (1995) on narcotics.
The proposition that early domesticates should be regarded as luxury foods and
competitive feasting as the driving force behind the transition to farming has been well
argued by Hayden (e.g. 1990, and this volume), while the role of early domesticates as
prestige goods rather than subsistence material, and the associated sumptuary practices,
has been highlighted by Stahl (this volume, with further examples and references) and
previously by Lewthwaite (1986).
Exotic food items are possibly the category of luxury foods most easily identiﬁable in
the archaeological record. The temporal and spatial patterning of their occurrence in any
one region will almost certainly reveal luxury consumption, as well as status differences
between sites or households. The elevated position of spices, such as black pepper, cinna-
mon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger, is signalled by the expense to which nations were
prepared to go to obtain these from foreign shores (e.g. Braudel 1981; Miller 1969; Milton
1999). Their initial occurrence on high-status sites is a witness to their value (e.g. pepper
– see Bakels and Jacomet this volume; Cappers 1999), while their ultimate commonplace
occurrence is an example of their universal appeal and the reduction of their acquisition
costs. Shipwrecks may offer speciﬁc time capsules for the study of long-distance transport
of luxury food items, and the late fourteenth-century Uluburun and mid-eighteenth-
century Sandana Island wrecks are classic examples (Ward 2001 this volume). Isotopic
analyses and dental caries may help identify the uptake and spread of sugar in Europe
(Moore and Corbett 1978). An interesting example of an exotic food that became a staple
not because of its taste but because it was technologically undemanding and economically
important is, of course, the introduction of potato in late sixteenth-century Britain and
Ireland (Leach 1999).
418 Marijke van der Veen
The presence of Mediterranean imports in Central Europe during the Roman period
(Bakels and Jacomet this volume) raises several interesting questions. First, who was
consuming the imports, such as olives, pomegranates, pine kernels, almonds, etc.? Were
they individuals of Mediterranean origin or local elites? The former may have regarded
such foods as social necessities, in contrast to the latter, who would have used such foods
as a means of acquiring social identity. This touches on the process of Romanization of
the native population in the regions occupied by Rome, and a study of food in relation
to this phenomenon would be insightful. In this particular case study those imports that
could be successfully grown in northern Europe (such as walnut, garlic, dill, celery,
apples, pears, cherries) did become part of the local cuisine and continued to be used
after the withdrawal of the Roman army from the region, while those imports that could
not (such as olive, pine nut, almond, pomegranate) disappeared. This suggests that the
elite that desired and could afford these imports ceased to exist with the end of Roman
occupation, while foods that were desirable but no longer exotic (they were now grown
locally, and thus no longer very expensive) did become accepted and ultimately widely
Finally, the shift to quality and style: much of this is expressed in table manners, cookery
books and who is invited to the dinner party, and for this we rely much on historical
research. Excellent and illuminative examples are Braudel (1981), Elias (1978), Flandrin
and Montanari (1999), Jameson (1987), Montanari (1996) and Mennell (1985) for Europe,
André (1981) and Giacosa (1992) for ancient Rome, Chang (1977) and Anderson (1988)
for China, Lewicki (1974) for West Africa and Ahsan (1979), Rodinson (1949) and
Zubaida and Tapper (1994) for the Middle East. Invaluable case studies that proﬁtably
combine historical and archaeological evidence include Goodwin (1999) and Wall (1994),
while Baart (1990), Bulliett (1992), Courtney (1997), Emmerson (1992), Spencer-Wood
(1987) and Vickers and Gill (1994) highlight the contribution of ceramic studies. Last of
all, the long-distant transport of ﬁne wares can be used as an indicator of their elite status
and expense (e.g. the ﬁnds of ﬁne porcelain, as well as coffee beans, cardamom, nutmeg,
etc., in shipwrecks such as the mid-eighteenth-century Sadana Island wreck in the Red
Sea off the coast of Egypt (Ward 2001)).
Goody (1982: 133) regards the ‘high’ cuisine as typical of Eurasian societies and
expresses surprise at Braudel’s (1981: 187ff.) claim that much of Europe before the
sixteenth century did not have a differentiated cuisine. However, Dietler (1990) and
Bakels and Jacomet (this volume), among others, identify elements of such a differenti-
ated cuisine in Europe between c. 600 BC and AD 400, demonstrating that there is no
simple linear or chronological development from ‘low’ to ‘high’ cuisine. In this context
the study by De Hingh and Bakels (1996) of the early medieval estate of Serris-Les
Ruelles, France, is illustrative, as it highlights the role of meat as a status indicator, but
shows no other indicators of status in the food remains. The botanical remains from the
manor house and the peasant village of this seventh- to early eighth-century demesne are
similar in terms of composition and quantity, but the faunal remains show an abundance
of pig bones for the manorial household in contrast to the village. There is clearly a need
for more regional research and time depth in such studies, something that archaeology is
eminently capable of providing.
When is food a luxury? 419
Returning to the question in the title of this paper, ‘When is food a luxury?’, I suggest that
we follow Berry (1994) in deﬁning as luxuries those foods that are widely desired because
they offer a reﬁnement or qualitative improvement of a basic food and a means of distinc-
tion because they are not yet widely attained. Thus, they are not speciﬁc items of food,
but rather those foods that in any particular place and time are regarded an indulgence
and a status indicator. They are those foods that a society deems extravagant and unnec-
essary; as such, both needs and luxuries are relative concepts. Each society determines
which foods are social necessities and which are luxuries, and this distinction reﬂects the
‘social grammar’ of a society, its moral and political make-up. There is no speciﬁc moment
in time when food as luxury comes into existence; special foods are known by all cultures,
just as some degree of social differentiation and the status quest, though the categories of
food chosen as luxuries do vary between different types of society and the message
conveyed by their consumption changes.
The categories of food that often feature cross-culturally as luxuries are those that offer
a reﬁnement in texture, taste, fat content or other quality (such as stimulant or inebriant)
and that offer distinction because of either their quantity (especially of meat and alcohol)
or quality (the latter including expense, exotic origin, complexity, style, etiquette, etc.). It
follows that, strictly speaking, foods used in religious ceremonies or as medicines are not
luxuries, as neither is eaten out of a desire – neither represents an indulgence – even
though there is clearly a component of status distinction involved in both.
While the types of food used to display status and distinction are culturally speciﬁc,
there is no need to retreat into cultural relativism. Clear patterning has emerged in terms
of the categories of food used in certain types of society. In simple societies the emphasis
is on quantity, especially of meat and beer, and on elaborations of common staple foods.
Furthermore, here the consumption of luxury foods takes place primarily at communal
feasts, which create or enhance a feeling of social bonding and cohesion. Leaders of such
societies use feasts to convert their economic capital into symbolic capital, as a way of
acquiring or maintaining prestige. In highly complex societies the emphasis is on quality
and style: the focus is on expensive, rare and exotic foods, on the complexity of the meal
and its ingredients, as well as on table manners and expensive porcelain, with knowledge
of correct cuisines and etiquette written down in cookbooks and manuals. Here the
emphasis is on exclusivity: the wealthy convert their economic capital into cultural capital
with the purpose of creating distance. This distinction between the emphasis on quantity
and cohesion or quality and exclusivity is signiﬁcant as it reveals the hidden meaning
behind consumption events and with it the structure of a society. This distinction lives on
in many modern societies today, with the former characterizing the feasting among the
lower classes, and the latter the dining of the higher classes.
In archaeology, both the intrinsic qualities of luxury foods (such as meat, alcohol,
exotics) and the contextual evidence, using a comparative approach to identify status
differentials, have been employed to recognize luxury foods. I have suggested that, to
detect different consumption patterns, we need to look for the exceptional in simple
societies (i.e. feasting) and for the ordinary in more complex societies (where differenti-
ation between households is embedded). Inevitably, this discussion has contrasted uses of
420 Marijke van der Veen
luxury foods that lie at opposite ends of a possible continuum but, with its regional breadth
and chronological depth, archaeology is well placed to detect gradual changes, as well as
shifts from one to the other and back again.
The detection of exotics will play an important role in such studies; they have a high
archaeological visibility and their symbolic value will make any diachronic study of their
occurrence and differential access highly proﬁtable. It is somewhat ironic that the shift
towards quality and style in post-medieval Europe was brought about by the improve-
ment in living standards of large parts of the population and their consequent desire for
social emulation and ability to achieve it; this resulted in a shift away from the inherent
desirability of luxury foods, the consumption of food as an indulgence, to an emphasis on
food as a means to an end, that is, conspicuous consumption. It remains to be seen whether
a similar process was responsible for the rise of a high cuisine in other cultures (e.g.
Mesopotamia, ancient China and the classical and medieval Islamic worlds).
It will be productive of insight to compare and contrast the transition process from
luxury to staple for early domesticates and later luxuries. The former were either native
to a region or introduced into areas that did not know agriculture but quickly adopted
their cultivation (e.g. cereals in the Near East versus Europe); the latter were sometimes
introduced into areas where they were subsequently cultivated or traded to areas that had
become instrumental in their large-scale production (through colonialism) but could
never adopt their cultivation due to environmental constraints (e.g. potato versus cane-
sugar in Europe). Can we detect a change in the speed with which luxuries lose their
elevated status? Is the current ﬂuidity of luxury foods primarily a characteristic of modern
The important shift in the social meaning of luxury consumption gives the study of
luxury foods extra value. While we can use such studies to help differentiate households
of different social status, the real signiﬁcance and attraction of these studies lie in their
potential to reveal the social structure of a society, as well as the symbolic meaning of
consumption events: the study of food will go a long way towards understanding culture.
While researching this paper I have beneﬁted from discussions with colleagues, their
suggestions for further reading, and/or from their comments on earlier drafts. I should
particularly like to thank Neil Christie, Paul Courtney, Lin Foxhall, Andrew Sherratt,
Carol Palmer, Rob Young, David Waines and Jane Webster. I am grateful to the
University of Leicester for the sabbatical leave during which this paper was written and
this volume was edited.
School of Archaeology & Ancient History
University of Leicester,Leicester LE1 7RH, UK
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