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Makan dan minum bersama: feasting commensality in Minahasa, Indonesia

Gabriele Weichart


The preparation, distribution and consumption of food play prominent roles in Minahasa feasting culture. In this context, the standard formula is “makan dan minum bersama”, which encompasses notions of sharing, community and equality, and is used as an invitation and encouragement for guests to participate in the communal meal. The Christian ideal of an all-inclusive commensality is repeatedly emphasised at feasts, and most fully realised at informal picnic-style gatherings where food givers and receivers are largely identical and social differences and hierarchies become blurred or are even denied. At large banquets like wedding feasts, commensality is not offered indiscriminately and is not all-encompassing. The contextual practices reflect temporary or permanent differences in social positions, status and relationships. At such feasts, the hosts’ ambition to enhance their prestige by ostentatiously demonstrating wealth and generosity is in competition with the community’s egalitarian values of uniformity and integration.

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Editor's notes

My thanks go to the two anonymous reviewers and Peter van Eeuwijk for their constructive comments and stimulating suggestions on earlier drafts. Also to Ursula Winklehner for the final proof-reading. I would also like to express my gratitude to the Austrian Academy of Sciences (APART Fellowship) for its generous funding of the research project, and to the Indonesian Institute for Scientific Research (LIPI) in Jakarta for allowing me to carry out fieldwork in Indonesia.

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1“Makan dan minum bersama!” is a phrase I heard repeatedly during my fieldwork in Indonesia. It can be translated as “let’s eat and drink together!” or simply as “eating and drinking together”. It might serve as an invitation to stay for a meal or to join a party at a table; or as a standard formula towards the end of a prayer before starting to eat; or as the expression of an ideal behaviour with the accent on sociability, sharing and community. In most cases, the social context would fit the category of “feast”.

2Even among social scientists, definitions of feast do naturally vary, but they all agree that communal consumption plays a central role. Hayden (2001: 28) for instance presents feasts as “... any sharing between two or more people of special foods (i.e. foods not generally served at daily meals) in a meal for a special purpose or occasion” (italics by Hayden). Dietler (2001: 67) specifies such an event as “a form of public ritual activity”, though with an equally broad concept of “ritual” which in his view need not be a highly elaborate ceremony nor one that is “sacred” in character.

3The broad understanding of the term is largely what makes the feast a universal social phenomenon, and what forces the anthropologist to struggle with internal substructures and subcategories in order to make the concept operational. One of the most basic distinctions is sacred feast vs secular feast, with the latter prevailing in most contemporary societies.1 What all feasts do have in common is their “integrative function of creating communitas” (Dietler, 2001: 69) in which the provision, sharing and consumption of food and drink play a significant part. In the Christian tradition, the classical example of commensality and the sharing of food and drink is the Last Supper of Jesus, which is re-celebrated in the Eucharistic ritual.2

4Feasts have been described as important venues of alliance and solidarity but also of distinction and competition among participants as well as between hosts and guests. The building or reinforcement of social relations and the prospect to enhance one’s social status are strong motivations for organising and attending lavish feasts, especially in small-scale “egalitarian” societies. Thus feasts have also become phenomena of anthropological interest and significance.3 While many feasts are occasions where immediate or delayed reciprocity between donors and receivers is expected, others aim to perpetuate asymmetrical relationships based on differences of economic and political power and social prestige.4 The potlatch is undoubtedly a spectacular form of feast and has received due attention within the anthropological discipline.5 The usually more subtle interplay between socio-economic benefits and obligations can be observed in more moderate forms of conspicuous consumption.6

5Food and drink, as we know from the potlatch for instance, are not necessarily the only things widely distributed and shared at feasts; but they are the main objects. As Dietler has argued (2001: 73-74), food and drink, unlike other things, is “destroyed” or literally “embodied” by the consumer, transformed into other, bodily substances that provide a basis to establish relatedness on the most physical level.7 The receiver incorporates the gift and hence the social debt too. The gift is immediately and permanently removed from circulation and cannot be re-circulated in other gift exchange relationships.

6Giving, receiving, sharing and consuming food and drink are certainly not restricted to feasts and commensality is part of most people’s daily routine and experiences even if it is not always the preferred mode of consumption.The term “commensality” is literally translated as “sharing a table” (com- + mensa, lat.)8 and hints at “a fellowship at table”9 or “the practice of eating together”10. In the present paper, I will focus on the feasting context where commensality is at the heart of the event and is most visibly realised.

7For the following discussion I have chosen, as ethnographic examples and for reasons of comparison, two types of feasts, namely formal banquets and rather informal picnic-style gatherings. They are both common and popular social events in northern Minahasa, the main area of my fieldwork. Despite the variations that exist between as well as within these two categories, they share a focus on food and drink, and the festive meal constitutes the centre of the event. The paper will discuss the social value of commensality in such feasting contexts which emphasise the strengthening of relationships and the reaffirmation of similarity and proximity. It will further show how the cooking of food, the presentation of dishes and the act of eating together reflect social positions, status and relationships between the various participants.11

“Let’s have a party!”

8Minahasa people love to party, and perhaps even more so eating and drinking, so there is always a good reason for organising a feast. These are excellent occasions to witness conspicuous commensality and Minahasa is no exception in this sense. On the contrary, the region’s fame as a “feasting place” has spread well beyond its borders.12 They are thought of as “party people” who would invest more time and energy in feasts than in proper work – a rather dubious reputation that is normally accepted with a smile and not always without pride, although Minahasa people themselves occasionally complain about the social and economic demands related to such an excessive feasting culture.

9Excuses for a feast are abundant. These might be occasions of “public interest” such as national or religious holidays, the anniversaries of a village/town, a community, a church or a particular organisation, the commemoration of a historical event or a person, political events (eg elections) and the like; or they can be personal and family affairs such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, birthdays, university graduation or other professional and personal achievements. The nature of the occasion and its organiser will determine the form of the feast – its organisation, structure and course of events, the preparations that need to be made, the participants or guests to be invited, its venue, duration and costs as well as other minor decisions.

10According to Hayden’s definition as quoted in the introductory chapter, a feast could be any social event that steps out of the ordinary and has food involved. Since I cannot recall many social occasions in Minahasa when food would not have played a prominent role, feasts are virtually ever-present, anywhere and at any time. Thus people’s everyday lives are considerably affected and structured by feasts, in which they participate in different roles (eg as hosts, guests or workers) depending on the specific nature of the event and their particular connections to the other people involved in it.

11Wedding feasts are the largest and most spectacular social events that regularly take place in Minahasa villages, occupying a central position in the descriptions and interpretations of the following chapters. A rather informal type of social gathering, namely the beach picnic, will be presented in contrast to the very formal wedding banquets and should give an idea of the wide range and diversity of events that fall within the category of “feast”.

12The English term “feast” might here be replaced by the Indonesian term “acara” which is equally broad and multi-facetted, though the meaning is more suggestive of formality than commensality. However, the feasting part – food and drink – is a central element of most acara and I would dare to say that the prospect of a bountiful meal is a strong incentive for prospective participants to attend. What also unifies most events is the presence of the church. The many church groups and their leaders are themselves the organisers of many public feasts. The church also plays a role in other social (including private) events, in the community and sometimes even beyond. The church keeps a watchful eye on them. In short, there is hardly any feast or other social event without at least one representative of a church being present in an official capacity. His/her duties may range from a simple prayer before the meal to a religious service (ibadah) of 20-30 minutes.

Formal banquets – for example the wedding feast

13In rural areas, the majority of large-scale feasts are organised as banquets. These are characterised by a strong focus on food and drink, and a spatially and temporally confined margin for their consumption. In most cases, this would be the front yard of a private house or a public building. Food and drink are either presented in the style of a buffet or they are served to the guests seated at tables. Thus at least some of the guests eat and drink at the same time and commensality is inevitably practised. The venue of a banquet (eg a particular building or neighbourhood) may already tell us something about the occasion of the event and its organisers or hosts. The latter can be companies, organisations or other public institutions but most banquets I attended were arranged by individual families or households and were held on the hosts’ property, in the front yard of their house.

14The reason for organising such banquets is normally to celebrate or commemorate special family events. Christian and local traditions both support feasts to mark important life-cycle events like birth, marriage and death. Guests include the extended cognatic kin groups as well as friends, colleagues and local political and religious leaders. In accordance with their processual character, rites of passage often require more than one feast. The size and cost of a feast varies according to its importance, not only for the hosts and guests themselves but for the whole village community. Access to “private” banquets on private property is regulated, but these are all the same semi-public events, performed in an open space exposed to the public gaze and judgment. The baptism ceremony, normally accompanied by a fairly large feast, is the main “public” event following a child’s birth, to which large numbers of guests are invited13. Marriage and death require several banquets in order to comply with the respective wedding and funerary rites. In the village of Waleo, a traditional wedding is only completed after three consecutive banquets. The first marks the handing-over of the bride price (acara penyerahan) which normally takes place on a Friday. Seven days later, the wedding ceremony in church is followed by the second, most lavish banquet (pesta pernikahan). On the Sunday two days later, there is a third banquet (acara balas gereja) after which the final marriage contract, including bride price and dowry, is publicly confirmed and signed. Mourning banquets are even more numerous: one on the night of the death, following the funeral (acara pemakaman); one three days later (acara tiga malam); one on the first Sunday afterwards (acara dumingguan); one three weeks later (acara tiga minggu); one on the fortieth day (acara empatpuluh hari); and finally, a banquet on the first anniversary of the death (acara satu tahun) (see Lundström-Burghoorn 1981: 118-121).

15For the following more detailed description of a banquet, I have chosen the main wedding feast held on the day of the church ceremony which is the only one that “deserves” the term pesta in Minahasa.14 It is the largest, most spectacular and socially the most important type of privately organised feast, serving to celebrate newly created or reaffirmed ties between two kin groups, and giving hosts and guests the opportunity to demonstrate their respective wealth, status and social networks.15 Christian and more generally Western influences are evident here as the Minahasa people themselves do recognise. But this does not reduce the overall popularity of this kind of feast or its importance as an element of Minahasa tradition. The presence of the church extends beyond the religious ritual itself, with sermons and prayers in the course of the feast and church representatives present as guests of honour. The white bridal dress, the impressive wedding cake, the very formal speeches and deafening pop music are indications of a “Westernised” and/or “modern” social event. It is in the wedding meal and its preparation that rural Minahasa people affirm most emphatically the continuity and authenticity of traditional practices.16 This is a part of the feast that demands a lot of planning, supervision and financial input, and the success or failure of the whole wedding party will be judged on it. Attendance at the religious wedding ceremony seems to be a rather tedious duty for guests, and thus only a small crowd normally gathers in the church. Most guests go directly to the feast venue which would be the bride’s or the groom’s parents’ house. The feast itself usually starts at some time in the early afternoon, depending on the timing of the church ceremony and also on the efficiency of the organisers – it starts when people and things are ready.17 The formal part of the feast is quite lengthy, starting with extended speeches, prayers and the cutting of the wedding cake. Add frequent delays, and the meal is often not served before 3 pm or even later – too late for lunch and too early for dinner, in terms of normal rural habits. Guests may therefore eat before joining the feast, so the food finally offered by the hosts might seem almost a waste of money and energy. Many guests indeed eat less than they would in their daily meals or in a more casual environment, but to question the usefulness of such an opulent meal would be close to “heresy”. A feast, and especially a pesta, would be unthinkable without a big meal. The guests must be fed by the hosts and the food must be plentiful, more than anyone could eat, otherwise it would be shameful for the hosts. It is thus a wise strategy from the hosts’ side to set the meal at a time when most guests would not feel hungry – so they will surely leave the party feeling full. Eating small amounts does not mean that left-overs are wasted. Right after the last dish is served, small plastic bags are distributed to the guests to be filled with whatever is left on their plates. It is not unusual to ask for a second plate while food is being served so as to accumulate larger portions of each dish. Pieces of cake too are wrapped and distributed to guests towards the end of the meal. All are intended to be taken away and eaten at home.18

Towards the end of a wedding banquet

Towards the end of a wedding banquet

16The meal often does not last much longer than 30 to 45 minutes. The guests sit at long tables, squeezed between their neighbours and hardly able to move, with the plate(s), cutlery, a glass and a bottle of Coca-Cola in front of each person. Serving is not easy, and best done by the slender ones. Rice is placed in fairly small bowls or on plates from which everybody can help him/herself19. All other dishes are served individually in a fairly strict order: first the noodle dishes, followed by the vegetables, then the various meat dishes. The bitter papaya leaves mark the end of the meal. The dishes are typical “pesta food”, hardly ever cooked as daily meals which mainly consist of rice and fish, some green vegetables and occasionally eggs and tofu. Most guests eat their food in the same order as it is served and do not mix the meat with vegetables and noodles – a different practice to everyday eating habits. The food served at such events is always more or less the same with very little variation allowed or desired.

17This “traditional” Waleo wedding feast is increasingly replaced by a “modern” buffet-style event where the guests are free to choose the kind and quantity of food they eat, and eat it whenever they like (or as long as there is anything available). Eating etiquette and modesty are now absent. The guests have to be quick and choose carefully if they are to get the delicacies. Hot dishes may be sufficient and sufficiently varied for everybody, but desserts like cakes, sweetmeats, fruit salad and custard are available in limited quantities only. It is therefore not unusual to see young girls and women in particular turning first to the desserts and only afterwards to the main dishes. The freedom of choice is attractive to many guests, but elderly people often prefer the conservative style where greedy and indecent behaviour is not rewarded and each person receives an equal share without having to “fight over food”. Even at such fairly “unstructured” types of meal, the guests of honour are strategically seated close to the food tables. Most people, except the very old or disabled, have to help themselves to the food, but plates and cutlery (not glasses) are normally distributed in advance (at least to the “real” guests).

18Food is the main attraction at all feasts but drinks play a role too, though in a more discrete fashion. The drink with a daily meal is usually boiled tap water. Feasts feature purchased beverages like soft drinks and spirits. At traditional-style wedding feasts, each guest receives one bottle of lukewarm Coca Cola which he/she should drink with care because no other non-alcoholic drinks will follow. This soft drink is often mixed with the slightly alcoholic palm wine (saguer), which makes quite a refreshing drink. Water is only served on demand. Before the start of the meal, male “waiters” offer the local spirits cap tikus and anggur. Most men choose the first while women generally prefer the rather sweet anggur or take neither. Toasting is not a customary practice in Minahasa, but there is a communitarian element in the sharing of one glass for liquor. A waiter will circulate with a bottle and just one glass and offers a drink to each person. Minahasa people do not normally drink from someone else’s glass or use his/her cutlery unless the other person is a close family member. But I have never heard anyone objecting to this practice of glass-sharing when spirits are served, either at feasts or at home. At buffet-style feasts the local aperitif may also be served, but in a less systematic and egalitarian way, more for the benefit of men than women. Coke and saguer may be offered too but in much smaller quantities, which again means that not every guest will get his/her share. As with the food, it is the assertive personalities who have the advantage.

19The meal is the highlight of all wedding feasts but, while elegant wedding receptions in big hotels or other city venues will normally finish not long after the last guests have filled their stomachs, the village pesta continues until late at night or into the early morning hours. What starts as a fairly formal event turns into a party with dancing to which the whole village is invited, at least theoretically. These events are among the few opportunities for the young (and not-so-young) to gather in an informal, cross-gender fashion. Elegantly dressed guests change into more casual clothes and, in terms of consumption, the focus switches from food to alcohol which, for some men, is a clear incentive to join in.

Workers, guests and hosts

20The pesta is the biggest and most labour-intensive feast hosted by a private household. With the two smaller banquets either side of the main event, the organisation and preparation of a wedding becomes a very complex and demanding task, from a logistic and economic point of view. It keeps the bride’s and groom’s parents busy for months in advance. The actual on-site works start a few days before the first ceremony, the handing-over of the bride price. With only short pauses between the individual events, the work continues until the feasting site has been cleaned up after the last event. Waleo’s preferred location for wedding feasts is the bride’s parent’s house, but it might be the groom’s parent’s house, depending on each party’s circumstances. The first job that needs a lot of workers is the bamboo construction for the immense shade cloth (bangsal) that should cover the front yard of the hosts’ house and may even extend onto a public road or onto a neighbouring property. Next comes the preparation of food which also takes place outside the house, in the front and back yards. The division of labour is most strongly marked by gender: men are responsible for the physically more demanding but also more spectacular and prestigious jobs like the erection of the bangsal and the setting up of tables and benches for the guests; also the slaughtering of pigs and the preparation and cooking of the meat. Women’s more mundane work includes hours of chopping and cooking for the vegetable and noodle dishes (that may also contain pieces of meat) and the baking of cakes. During the festive meals, some – mainly female – workers are still needed to serve the guests and wash the dishes afterwards. Men take charge of the alcoholic drinks.

21At “modern” wedding feasts, the food for the buffet is often provided by a catering service which considerably reduces the demand for local workers. While such an arrangement may be convenient in practical terms, it is not uncontested. The “old-fashioned” and labour-intensive banquets are justified from a conservative point of view as continuities of tradition; also from a social point of view, as an integrative force that enhances village solidarity and alliances between individuals and kin groups.

22Workers, like guests, are chosen among kin and neighbours. Special skills, experience and economic need20 are factors. Otherwise, it is social proximity and age that determine the choice for one or the other group. Close kinship combined with relatively young age makes the “perfect worker” whereas older people and/or more distant relatives would rather mingle with the guests, although they may have helped with the preparations during the days and weeks preceding the event. Thus most guests belong to the middle-aged and older generations. The guest’s “job” is a fairly passive one – showing up in his/her best clothes, enduring the whole ceremony within the feasting compound with patience and good humour, engaging in polite, light-hearted conversation and finally eating the served food with appreciation and moderation.21 The guests are neither allowed nor expected to do any kind of work during the banquet. Their function is to emphasise the relevance and festiveness of the event. The large number of people invited, their elegant clothes and their rather formal manners make their role immediately noticeable even to outsiders. A wedding is an important social event for the whole village because it creates new affinal ties between different kin groups or emphasises already existing liaisons. Furthermore, a wedding formally establishes a new household (rumah tangga) which includes a list of rights but also duties and responsibilities. It also drastically changes the social status of the young couple. The act of celebrating and eating together is an enactment of the official recognition and approval of these transformative processes by the extended kin groups, the village community in general and in particular by the local authorities (government, churches) and their representatives.

23Depending on the location of the wedding feast, the bride’s or groom’s parents act as official hosts and hence they are responsible for the supervision, organisation and success of the event. But they do not themselves engage in the manual work. Other household and close family members, such as the hosts’ or bride’s/groom’s siblings and cousins, will actively assist the workers before and sometimes even during the feast. They may be dressed for the event like the guests, but they do not participate in the formal banquet under the bangsal. Instead they eat at a later time inside the house or in the backyard, hidden from the public gaze. Such behaviour, also evident at smaller domestic feasts, is frequently explained as “feeling embarrassed” (malu) to mingle with the guests. Only the parents and older generations, like the grandparents, can join the official table of honour and socialise with the guests during the meal.

24The terms “hosts”, “guests” and “workers” have been used here to describe the different temporary social positions and some of their responsibilities, rights and obligations related to the preparation and execution of large-scale feasts. In reality none of these categories is clear-cut. Individual roles may shift during the different phases before and during the event. This means that some people, for instance, may act as workers at one stage and at a later time as “junior hosts” (eg household and close family members) or as guests (eg grandparents). Even the guests themselves assume a rather ambiguous role. As part of the local system of mutual assistance and exchange (mapalus22), most would have contributed to the feast beforehand with supplies of bottled beverages, uncooked rice or other purchased items. Later they reappear as guests. Their deliveries of goods and/or services give the guests an albeit minor status as active participants and contributors. The fact that traditional wedding feasts follow prescribed standards, each feast being more or less a repetition of the previous one, further allows and even encourages the guests to observe critically and “supervise” the event. The host therefore has to do his/her best to please everybody and find favour in the eyes of his/her guests. Despite the formality, elegance and distinction of behaviour shown by the guests and towards them, most people formally invited to and attending a feast are actually not considered “real guests”. They are not considered as tamu. This term is reserved for strangers, guests from outside who are not part of the local network of reciprocity, such as acquaintances from the city who are treated with special reverence.

Beverages delivered to the hosts of a banquet

Beverages delivered to the hosts of a banquet

25Although the relationship between hosts, guests and workers can generally be described as situational and temporary, the “distribution” of roles is not always balanced. Depending largely on their social and economic status, some people more frequently act as hosts and guests, while others more usually take on the workers’ roles. A certain continuity in relationships of power and authority can thus be observed.

Informal gatherings – for example a beach picnic

26Formal events like banquets are distinguished by a fairly rigid structure, setting and procedure. Informal gatherings are less structured and more casual. They may be organised by private persons or public organisations to celebrate a special occasion like an anniversary or a public or religious holiday. With regard to the participants, we notice that distinctions like hosts, guests or workers become less important and may even disappear altogether. Invitations to join are expressed in a less formal way and the “guests” may even bring along some food or beverages to be shared.

27For convenience, gatherings are often held in a private house or public building, on verandahs or in front yards respectively. However, picnics outside the village in the open air or under a shelter (to be protected from sunshine and rain) are considered particularly attractive, as a pleasant change and an opportunity to escape the routine of village life. Coastal venues are natural favourites, especially for those living nearby like the people of Waleo, although mainly for the views, fresh sea breeze and soft sand. Swimming or bathing is not normally enjoyed by adults on such occasions. Participants arrive either on foot or by car or motorbike, depending on the distance. The few beaches that are established as tourist destinations have a basic infrastructure of wooden benches and roofs, barbecue sites and even food stalls or small restaurants. But most potential picnic locations are bare of such amenities. All food and drink, dishes, cutlery, blankets, barbecue equipment, etc has to be brought from home and taken back again. Since transport for a large crowd can pose major logistic and financial problems, big parties with lots of people normally take place in the vicinity of the respective village.

28This was the case on Easter Monday in 2002, a week after my arrival in Waleo, when the Protestant Evangelical community celebrated its religious service, followed by a picnic at the nearby public beach. After a rather busy Holy Week, it might be expected that the prospect of a more informal, relaxed and entertaining event would encourage community members to attend. At least, despite the rather unfavourable weather – it started raining softly soon after our arrival at the beach – the crowd of about fifty people was the same as might be expected for an indoor service, and everybody seemed to be in a good mood. Another advantage of a beach event is that casual clothes are allowed, in contrast to the generally rather uncomfortable dress worn at regular church and other formal events.

Beach picnic on Easter Monday

Beach picnic on Easter Monday

29Even the religious service itself, also performed at the beach, was more relaxed and definitely shorter than similar events held in the church. The change of place permits greater freedom and a certain liberation from the fairly strict social codes that rule life in the village, which is a strong incentive and attraction for organising a beach party and/or participating in it. Even irregular church-goers may feel encouraged to join in. The church has reacted positively to these needs and once in a while it organises such outings for the official purpose of holding an ibadah. During my first fieldwork phase, the young vicar of the Waleo GMIM regularly took the local teenagers (pemuda/remaja), who enjoy the sea and sand much more than their parents do, to a nearby but slightly isolated beach. These occasions did not include an ibadah but certainly a picnic.

30Private initiatives entail responsibilities and duties unevenly distributed among participants with the “host” taking over the major burden. At “public” picnics, every family (or household) brings along some food and drink, and everybody can help him/herself with whatever he/she likes. The same applies at most feasts in the church yard where only the “special guests” consume without providing a dish. Such events are opportunities for a hidden competition between the women23, demonstrating their skills, creativity and means to offer delicious foods. This does not mean that all plates, bowls and little plastic containers arranged on the tables on that particular Easter Monday contained expensive, exceptional or very elaborate foods. Many of them were fairly common dishes and did not differ much from everyday food. But some women were ambitious enough to undertake the cost and effort of special meat, fish and seafood dishes, home-made cakes and snacks like the tasty nasi jaha.24

31Although much time and energy is spent on the cooking, and the meal is certainly a central element of the event, the actual time of eating is often very short. Everything can be over within thirty minutes, with all plates, left-overs, etc packed away. Such behaviour can be observed at most feasts. Exceptions are feasts where guests do not arrive and eat at the same time, so food remains on the tables for several hours, with bowls and plates being occasionally refilled. This would be very unlikely at beach parties. Even if the food is eaten quickly, beach parties tend to last a couple of hours at least and on the whole longer than feasts in the church yard. Furthermore, children and young people may go for a swim (or rather have a bath in the shallow lukewarm water) and on Easter Monday the women showed their energy and fitness in a beach soccer match.

Social positioning, communication and commensality

32In Minahasa, as everywhere else, feasts are occasions where people get together, communicate with others and partake in “rituals” of commensality. Such behaviour does however change on different social occasions. The idea of pesta for instance – communal feasting, expressed in prayers preceding all forms of consumption – appears easier if all guests eat more or less at the same time. Sitting at tables facilitates communication during the meal. At buffets, many guests would talk only before and after the meal. After filling his/her plate at the buffet, the guest has to balance it on the knees while sitting uncomfortably in one of the rows of plastic chairs lined up around the food tables. Such a position does not encourage verbal or other forms of interpersonal communication. More than once I found myself sitting in a corner and eating without exchanging a word with anybody, and I could tell that this was not exceptional. But nobody seemed to be concerned about it, and neither was I. Eating is normally done quickly and in a few minutes several plates of cooked food as well as a couple of sweet dishes would have been consumed. Once the body and mind are satisfied, a person is ready to move over to relatives or neighbours for a conversation or jokes, or to present his/her talents in the karaoke show.

33It might be easier, and sometimes even inevitable, for guests seated at tables to engage in a conversation with the people next to them, whether they like it or not. The modern variant does at least offer guests the freedom to select their food on the one hand and their social contacts on the other. Where tables are set up, the guests of honour, who include local personalities of high status25 as well as guests from outside, are seated together at special tables. The other guests may choose their places themselves but there is a preference for gender and status proximity which means that most people would rather “stick to their own kind”. Even married couples do not necessarily sit next to each other.26 Thus food is ideally “shared” among those being closest in terms of social status in the community. The old-fashioned serving practice concluding with the distribution of cakes is commonly defended as a social mechanism that ensures everybody gets the same quantity and quality of food irrespective of a person’s status or temperament. However, there are occasions when the guests of honour are not served the routine pesta food together with the “commoners” but are offered a separate table with special delicacies from which they can help themselves as they like. There may be repeated references to an egalitarian ideal, which is also expressed in the invitation to eat and drink together, “makan dan minum bersama”. But banquets are also venues where inequalities become evident. Social hierarchies in the community are manifested at a feast by the organisation of space and by the accessibility to certain foods and people. But at least, the invitation to a feast is a marker of a person’s identity and social status. A wide kin network is the best guarantee of frequent invitations, but it is acquired social status more than inherited social status that supplies a seat at the table of honour next to the priest and the hukum tua (village head).

34It is a social obligation for the hosts to feed not only the guests but also the workers, generously.27 Depending on the event and their job, the workers eat together either before the feast in the front yard of the house at the actual feasting site or during and after the event in the back yard and kitchen. There, the atmosphere is much more relaxed than in the company of guests who may have had to wait for hours in their tight and often uncomfortable best clothes. Younger people especially do often prefer the relatively low-status worker’s role to the high-status but less entertaining guest’s role. The common meals are highlights of the working process and even those who have only helped to a small degree are welcome to join in. Here we see commensality in its most egalitarian form, social differences being invisible and largely irrelevant.

35Beach parties are events marked by general informality which also affects the presentation and consumption of food. The participants are fairly free in their choices of food, being providers as much as consumers. While this may be an advantage on the one hand, and the variety of dishes is generally appreciated, it does place cooks under social pressure to prepare tasty and if possible “special” dishes. Pork, game28, dog, seafood and certain kinds of rare fish always guarantee success (if they are well prepared). Noodle dishes too count as “party food”. It was easy to tell which dishes were the most popular and the cooks were visibly proud of their creations. Being the only foreigner and thus a special guest, I was encouraged to help myself freely. Greediness however is considered impolite when eating in public, which includes feasts. (Everyday eating by contrast is relatively uninhibited: everybody seems to eat as much as he/she can.) One should also avoid taking a generous share of other people’s foods which may be more refined than the dish you brought. I noticed that my host mother encouraged me to help myself from the bowl that she had brought along, rather than eating too much of other people’s food.29 Take small helpings of the various dishes offered, but fill your stomach with your own. A common solution is to eat at home first, then behave “lady-like” at the event – modesty being more a feature of the female role-model.30 Then again, beach picnics are casual enough to allow people to eat well and plenty.

36Gender follows status as the main criterion for the seating arrangements at traditional-style wedding feasts, but it only plays a minor role it the distribution and consumption of food.31 Gender seems to be even less important at modern-style banquets and picnics because men and women can mix quite freely, help themselves from the various pots and plates, eat at the same time and chat with each other. Here too however there is a general tendency to spend more time among one’s own peer group, or with people of one’s own gender and age.

Celebrating community

37Commensal behaviour is a feature of traditional forms of celebration in Minahasa as it is a feature of Christian celebration. The sharing of food and drink, as expressed in the Eucharist, is a declaration of community among the participants. The general motto of feasts is: makan dan minum bersama! This often serves as the explanation or justification of a social gathering – a bonding mechanism for the community – and it is not to be missed in pre-meal prayers.

38Eating and drinking together is realised in its most democratic form at food-sharing events like picnics where food exchange is based on immediate reciprocity. Ideally, everybody (except the priest and special guests) is both a food-giver and a food-receiver. There are no hosts, guests or workers; everybody holds the same position. Although a church committee and its individual representatives might act as initiators and principal organisers of the event, they do not perform as hosts. On the contrary, there is strong emphasis on the feast’s communitarian and egalitarian elements which mark it as an event held by and for the community.

39Minahasa society is traditionally based on egalitarian structures and values, a factor which facilitated the discourse and implementation of such Christian ideals. However, the absence of hereditary hierarchies does not necessarily imply the absence of other social and economic differences, and it has been well documented that competition and individual ambition were as much part of traditional Minahasa society as they are today.32 The institution of big feasts sponsored by wealthy individuals or families can be seen as a continuation of the traditional practices of foso, the feasts of merit where the hosts would accumulate prestige and achieve a higher status, even after death, through the redistribution and destruction of consumables (cf. Schouten 1995). Today’s wedding banquets in rural areas are related to traditional feasts, but hold a rather ambiguous position as venues of both competition and equality. The host can distinguish him/herself from other hosts by the status of his/her guests, the number of guests invited, the number of pigs bought and slaughtered and, ultimately, by the amount of money invested in the feast. Since there is hardly any variation in the food and drinks offered, quantity rather than quality is the area in which the host can excel. Repetition makes wedding feasts predictable, measurable and thus controllable social events. Workers and to a lesser degree the invited guests can make fairly accurate and detailed estimates of the size, expenses, workload, etc of a particular feast. They can exercise some control over the event and its organisers because they are active contributors of goods and/or services. Officially the feast may be the affair of two kin groups, but its preparation and execution are carefully watched and even controlled by the whole community.33

40The consumption of the same kinds of food over many years at all local wedding feasts may seem monotonous to a Western observer. But it makes sense from a local perspective, and not only for reasons of comparability and social equality.34 What becomes effective is the popular wisdom that “sameness creates sameness”. In other words, doing the same and being treated in the same way leads to the conclusion that all persons actually are the same, in time and space. Eating the same kind of food at the same time and place adds to this image. Food and beverages undoubtedly have an effect on the consumers’ bodies, on their composition, shape and size. However, it is not only the bodies’ appearance but also their essential qualities that are subject to influence. Solid as well as liquid consumables are transformed into bodily substances among which blood as “vital force” has the highest symbolic value. People are “biologically” connected, they are kin by “sharing the same blood” (Carsten 1997) – an interpretation shared outside Southeast Asian cultures. It is however a rather dynamic bond since blood is a regenerating substance that changes over time. The composition, quality and pressure of blood, which are often responsible for someone’s well-being or illness, are not least influenced by his/her nutrition. Eating the same food helps to create the same kind of blood, to make people alike and hence close to each other. We also find such ideas in local explanations of ethnic and religious identities, distinctions and integration in Minahasa (Weichart 2004).

41Cooked food – the only food accepted as makanan or “proper” food – is associated with the cook and the hearth from which it comes. Being prepared at the same place and by the same person gives the food its essential sameness which in turn creates sameness or relatedness among the people who eat it. The traditional pesta most fully corresponds to the ideal of a feast that creates or intensifies social ties among the guests as well as between guests and hosts. Buffet-style feasts at least partially fulfil the requirement if the guests are offered home-made dishes. Catering services are increasingly popular because they help the hosts save time, energy and trouble in the organisation of a feast. But they are not uncontested alternatives and are often rejected, particularly by older, tradition-oriented and rural people for whom the investment of communal labour and the serving of home-made food is still a requirement of a proper and meaningful feast. Wedding parties held in large reception halls in towns thus stand at the bottom end of this scale. The food is provided by professional specialists instead of the host’s kin group, and the mode of consumption hardly serves the objective of linking individuals and creating a sense of community among them.35 Status and prestige are important in the organisation of traditional wedding feasts, but they become the prominent features at such large and rather “anonymous” events where most guests do not know each other and some of them do not even know the hosts. Being invited and appearing at many wedding feasts (“seeing and being seen”) is a confirmation of someone’s status as a respectable and/or influential person. Staging a lavish feast at a luxurious location with hundreds of guests who have followed the invitation is a sign of wealth, high status and a large and widespread social network. While relationships among the guests are of minor importance, large-scale modern wedding feasts still serve as a social link between the hosts and their individual guests who benefit from the shared wealth and repay generosity with admiration and respect, and perhaps envy too.


42In Minahasa, as in other parts of the world, commensality is a demonstration of community, of belonging and sharing. Eating the same food at the same time and place is a sign of being or becoming similar, of being connected, being kin. Offering and accepting food establishes or reaffirms relationships between two or more persons.

43In Minahasa rural areas, commensality most frequently and regularly occurs within a household, restricted to the nuclear family and other close kin, inside the house and hidden from the public gaze. Feasts are special occasions where commensality is practised among persons who would rarely eat together in everyday life. Unlike daily meals, feasts are often staged in “public” exposed to the curious and critical eyes of the wider community and other passers-by.

44This is also characteristic of the feasts I have presented as ethnographic examples. Among them, wedding feasts are the most spectacular and socially important for village communities with the communal preparation and consumption of food at the core of the event. Hence, Wedding wedding feasts have been the main focus of the paper, with informal gatherings like picnics serving as contrasting and complementary examples.

45The organisation of banquets requires a division of labour and, thus, temporary social differentiation between hosts, guests and workers. Picnics by contrast emphasise equality and mutual sharing, all participants offering food to others and eating other people’s food. Social differences and hierarchies are played down and the dishes provided by each household should stay within given margins in terms of quality and quantity – neither too much nor too little, neither too expensive nor too cheap. The Christian churches are the main organisers of public picnics and similar kinds of events, and their influence cannot be denied.

46The festive meal for all guests is the highlight of a wedding party and the moment when the community celebrates unity and cohesion. By feeding his/her guests with food cooked at the same time and at the same hearth in his/her extended kitchen, the host – who does not participate in the official meal – reaffirms social ties and notions of kinship among the guests as well as between the guests and himself/herself as host. Being served special food at separate tables, in the role of tamu or high-ranking local guests, is a sign of privilege and high status but also of difference and exclusion from the larger community. Despite the egalitarian and communitarian ethos that is emphasised in contexts of commensality, social hierarchies and differences (among guests, hosts and between guests and hosts) are often intentionally made visible. Wedding feasts are particular venues where the collective desire for uniformity and equality conflicts with the individual desire for distinction.

47When comparing feasts with the social context of everyday meals in the village, I would apply Carsten’s “image of the community as an expanded house” (Carsten 1997: 187). The household is the basic food production and consumption unit.36 Only members of the same household, in most cases the nuclear family, will cook and eat together. At traditional banquets, the ideally endogamous community performs like a household whose members collectively prepare and consume the food at the host’s house and hearth. Household and kinship boundaries that play vital roles in everyday life become irrelevant on such occasions. Neither picnics nor modern banquets with professional food deliveries can fully meet these requirements because community participation and sharing are reduced to the consumption of food that is mostly prepared outside the feasting venue.37 I would argue however that the household units, though hidden and perhaps even denied, as Carsten has noticed for Langkawi, are still present at the various kinds of feast described. As providers of foodstuffs, beverages or money, individual households directly or indirectly contribute to the feast and its success.

48Commensality creates relations and identity; but notions of equality and intimacy, albeit contextual and imagined, are preconditions for entering into such a food-sharing relationship. At wedding feasts and similar kinds of banquet, the host-guest-worker division is most prominent but there are also more subtle practices of differentiation. Among the guests, for instance, the rituals of invitation, the guests’ seating and sitting practices, their access to different kinds of food and drink, their clothing, manners and behaviour towards the hosts and other guests are the most notable and visible expressions. However, differences are rarely verbally expressed and social hierarchies are somewhat negated within the feasting context. Wedding feasts supposedly demonstrate mutual and reciprocal assistance and thus relations and equality within the community. In this context, reciprocity is delayed and equality in relationships can sometimes be observed only over a long period. Picnic-style community feasts, on the other hand, are venues where immediate reciprocity is aspired and realised by a simultaneous giving, receiving and sharing of food among the participants. Hence picnics correspond more closely to an egalitarian ideal of lived community, in accordance with Christian teaching and proclaimed by the local churches which are also the most active initiators and organisers of such events. By providing similar quantities of food for all participants, each household contributes to the aim and process of reinforcing relationships between community members and their feelings of belonging and collective identity which is confirmed in the act of collective consumption. “Makan dan minum bersama”, the general motto of feasts, is also the pronounced objective of banquets where, however, commensality is not indiscriminate and all-encompassing but rather regulated by social and structural boundaries.

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1 Secular feasts often adhere to principles of economic exchange and, among others, can include work-party feasts and marriage feasts, as Wiessner (2001) described the Enga feasting culture in highland Papua New Guinea.
2 In addition to a vast number of theological descriptions and interpretations of the Eucharist, there are several works of particular anthropological interest, such as Neumann (1997) and Effros (2002).
3 According to Hayden’s (2001: 44) classification, traditional Minahasa societies would belong to the category of transegalitarian horticulturalists. They are characterised as placing emphasis on surplus production, storage, wealth accumulation and economically based competition which includes the display of success. While in the past such an attitude was probably an adaptive way of securing success to resources, labour and security, it has increasingly become a means of social differentiation.
4 For an overview on feasts from an anthropological and archaeological perspective see Dietler and Hayden (2001).
5 See eg Mauss (1968), Boas (1966), Benedict (1970) and Perodie (2001).
6 See eg Godbout (2000).
7 See eg Lupton (1996), Carsten (1997, 2004), Counihan (1999) and Probyn (2000).
8 Concise Oxford Dictionary, 11th ed., 2004: 286.
9 Webster Dictionary at dated 18-02-2006.
10 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged version, 15th ed., 1966: 456.
11 The ethnographic material was collected during a period of 15 months between 2002 and 2006 in the region of Minahasa at the northeastern tip of the Province of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. The research, which focused on food habits in a rural area, was conducted in a “classical” anthropological way based on participant observation and informal conversations. Also included were various types of interview with men and women of different ages from different social/economic backgrounds, as well as other qualitative research methods. Living in a local household for most of the time allowed me to observe people’s behaviour in everyday affairs. I also had plenty of opportunity to participate actively in feasts of various kinds, which enabled me to distinguish the “ordinary” from the unusual and made comparison possible.
12 Minahasa people’s “natural desire to feast” (Kraemer, 1958: 27, cited in Schouten 1995: 16) supposedly dates back to pre-Christian times.
13 Most children are not baptised shortly after birth. Parents often wait several months or even years, not least because of the social pressure to organise a big feast after the ceremony in church.
14 Although pesta is a generic term for feast or party, Minahasa people apply it to the main wedding feast only; most other feasts, as well as many other events, are subsumed under the label acara.
15 Wedding feasts hosting 500 guests or more are not uncommon in rural areas. See also Lundström-Burghoorn (1981 : 111-114) for a description of a wedding ceremony and feast.
16 I will therefore draw most of the following wedding descriptions from my experiences in rural areas, particularly in the village of Waleo.
17 The expression jam karet, rubber time, is an accurate metaphor for the elasticity of time conception and management in Indonesia.
18 Similar practices have been observed in other Southeast Asian societies; see for instance Geertz (1973: 147) on the Javanese slametan.
19 It is noticeable, however, that only small quantities of rice are consumed by the guests. They prefer to fill their stomach with the more “luxurious” foods.
20 Although the workers are normally not paid with money for their job, an attraction for the economically weak is to receive free meals during the time of preparation and the event itself as well as additional food and left-overs to take home to their families. For a detailed discussion of work feasts see Dietler and Herbich (2001).
21 Some guests, either close kin or persons of high repute in the community (see van Eeuwijk 1999: 39), have to take over more active functions like giving speeches or participating in the various rituals that accompany a traditional wedding. There is a link between social status and manners which means that guests of honour, either from the village itself or from outside, are expected to show more controlled and formal behaviour.
22 See eg Lundström-Burghoorn (1981: 163-180) and Mai and Buchholt (1987: 39-42) for descriptions and discussions of the mapalus system in Minahasa.
23 Most Minahasa men have learned to cook and occasionally do it for themselves or their family when their wife is sick or absent. Most of the time however it is the women who prepare the meals, for themselves, other household members and guests. The exception is very large feasts where the preparation of the meat and its cooking will usually be the men’s duty.
24 These are fatty rolls made of glutinous rice, ginger and other spices cooked in bamboo poles and cut into small pieces.
25 These people are either actively involved in local politics, village administration or church organisation, or have held such positions in the past. They often belong to well respected and influential local families.
26 This means that most people would rather sit next to others of the same gender and similar age and status, a common habit that can also be observed in other public contexts (eg in church) in Minahasa and other parts of Indonesia.
27 The expense of food and alcoholic drinks for the workers has to be added to the other costs of the feast. At one particular wedding organised by a relative of my host family, 85 workers were involved in the preparation of the main wedding party alone. Adding the two other fairly large feasts (on the Friday before and on the Sunday after the actual wedding ceremony – each with approx 100 guests) even the so-called “free labour” is not necessarily “cheap”.
28 “Game” includes here animals like wild boar, forest rat, snake, monkey and bat. They are hardly available at most local markets but are hunted by the village people themselves in their nearby gardens and in the forest. Due to their scarcity today, these animals have become much sought-after delicacies.
29 Modesty may be the ideal behaviour but it is not always practised. Many people try to get the best food as quickly as possible and in generous quantities. My behaviour however was watched carefully, due to my special role in the village. I had to correspond to the acclaimed standards perhaps even more than others did.
30 I was at first puzzled by this habit of a pre-lunch meal, which was also mentioned in the description of banquets. But over time I developed some understanding of it, especially after various feasts where we had to wait for several hours until the meal was finally served.
31 The distribution and consumption of drinks, however, shows gender-specific characteristics.
32 Schouten’s (1998: 37-38) description of Minahasa pre-contact society reads as: “[It] may be called egalitarian, since it had no mechanisms for transferring status from one generation to the next within a certain kin group. Minahasan society can also be called hierarchical, because at any given time everyone had a position inferior or superior to that of others, and these status differences shaped their actions. This hierarchy, however, was fluid and ephemeral, since people were always employing strategies to improve their position. War and wealth were the main roads to improvement of status.”
33 Since even minor incidents in the village and its neighbourhood are commented upon and discussed in detail, wedding feasts are certainly of major interest to the local population, a topic of gossip before and after the event itself.
34 Although repetition and continuity are emphasised in the local discourse on pesta food, changes do take place over time and novel forms of food do gradually replace traditional dishes.
35 Since modern wedding feasts are completely organised and arranged by professional agencies, the invited guests contribute to the costs of the event with a standard sum of money.
36 Although Carsten refers to “houses”, I consider the term “household” more appropriate in the Minahasa context, corresponding to the Indonesian term rumah tangga which is usually applied in related local discourses.
37 It must be remembered, however, that other collective works like the setting up of the feasting venue still have to be performed and so contribute to a “communal spirit”.
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List of illustrations

Title Towards the end of a wedding banquet
File image/jpeg, 56k
Title Beverages delivered to the hosts of a banquet
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Title Beach picnic on Easter Monday
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Electronic reference

Gabriele Weichart, « Makan dan minum bersama: feasting commensality in Minahasa, Indonesia », Anthropology of food [Online], S3 | December 2007, Online since 21 March 2008, connection on 02 June 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Gabriele Weichart

Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna, Austria.

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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