Two finely illustrated scrolls on paper, using brush, ink, & color, depicting a series of elaborate formal presentations of banquet cuisine. CEREMONIAL CUISINE SCROLLS.
Two finely illustrated scrolls on paper, using brush, ink, & color, depicting a series of elaborate formal presentations of banquet cuisine.
Two finely illustrated scrolls on paper, using brush, ink, & color, depicting a series of elaborate formal presentations of banquet cuisine.
Two finely illustrated scrolls on paper, using brush, ink, & color, depicting a series of elaborate formal presentations of banquet cuisine.
Two finely illustrated scrolls on paper, using brush, ink, & color, depicting a series of elaborate formal presentations of banquet cuisine.

“Conspicuous Non-Consumption”–Rath; Food as Art & Metaphor

Two finely illustrated scrolls on paper, using brush, ink, & color, depicting a series of elaborate formal presentations of banquet cuisine.

Scroll I: 305 x 7365 mm., scroll II: 305 x 4820 mm. At end of each scroll it is written (in trans.): “1632. Written by Youemon Hirase for Sakuzaemon Kimura.”.

Formal banquets, created by hochonin (chefs and carvers) for daimyo, shoguns, aristocrats, and the emperor, at which ceremonial cuisine was served in late medieval and early modern Japan, oftentimes required that the food not be eaten. “Avoiding eating was often the most polite thing to do at a formal banquet…In extreme instances, a guest might sit down to an elaborate and visually stunning banquet in which only a small number of dishes could be eaten. To know what to do in these circumstances, diners had to rely on past custom, visual cues, and a familiarity with the symbolic associations of ingredients and the mean of certain place settings, and remain attentive to any hints from their host about what they were expect to eat and what they should not try to consume…ceremonial cuisine was synonymous with practices of not eating that demanded the appreciation of food in other ways, sometimes as a symbol evoking transcendent values such as martial virtues or marital felicity, and other items as an art form akin to flower arrangement or sculpture.”–Rath, Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan, pp. 52-53.

The earliest Japanese culinary writings, from the late 15th to the mid-17th century, were concerned with inedible dishes at banquets, written for a select readership of specialists to facilitate creation of the most refined dining experiences for the elite.

These two finely illustrated early scrolls depict such banquets in a series of sets of dishes, served in fixed sequences on square wooden trays with flattened corners (sanbo or sumikiri). The beautifully presented dishes, placed in positions of significance, are meant to be studied and admired, rather to satisfy one’s appetite. The scrolls are manuals of instruction regarding the correct sequence and progression of trays, with the required number of dishes per tray, etc. The three trays per meal usually consisted of a formation of seven-five-three dishes per tray, served at the same time and were carefully related. All the ingredients, preparations, and presentations had meanings, based on auspicious symbols.

The first scroll begins with shikisankon (trans.: “ceremony of the three rounds of drinks”) which included snacks served to enhance guests’ aesthetic appreciation of the dishes and to provoke contemplation of their symbolic qualities. These snacks were intended not to be eaten but each had important symbolic meanings and were considered lucky talismans. Sake is served in ceremonial vessels with folded paper origata. Three trays, each with explanatory manuscript text explaining the symbolism of each facet of the tray and its contents, are depicted. The detail is remarkable.

This is followed by another set of “three rounds for drinking” and then three trays with a series of auspicious dishes, including preserved plums, jelly fish, salted roe, elaborately carved carp, dried fish, and luxurious shellfish, along with small containers holding salt and ginger.

Many of the dishes are served piled in high-serving style (takamori), “pinecone serving” style (matsukasa mori), and “cypress serving” style (sugimori). The next sequence consists of five trays to celebrate the New Year, a seasonal version of main-tray-style banqueting. Pine branches are tied to the trays with mizuhiki ribbons. Cranes and turtles — symbols of long life — are served, along with spiny lobsters, octopus, potatoes, etc. There is a main tray (honzen) and two auxiliary trays. This style of presentation became customary in the late 14th century and set the pattern for Japanese meals until the Second World War.

The next tray shows five kinds of sweets displayed in a sextagonal dish (a reference to the shape of a turtle’s shell). The sweets include Japanese nutmeg, chestnuts, sweet seaweed, Mandarin oranges, and another we cannot not identify.

Now we see a new sequence of three trays, all snacks to accompany rounds of drinks. Cut-up sea bream, carp, dried squid, octopus, shark, etc. are all served.

Next, we see a luxurious set of dishes displayed under the draperies of an altar with candle stands and decorative platters (shimadai) holding auspicious objects including pine branches, Mandarin oranges, turtles, beautiful rocks, and plum blossoms. The dishes served are of the required five colors (goshiki) of red, white, black, yellow, and green, each correctly placed on the tray. The five color combination has great significance in Japan and appears frequently in artistic motifs.

Some of these banquets lasted three days and next we see a sequence of three trays for this final day. Kelp, dried seafood, toasted chestnuts, dumplings, octopus, salted herring roe are all shown.

Next is a close-up of the decorative folded origata. There follows close-ups of birds, turtles, and cranes to be placed on top of decorative platters. Another complex ornament — horai paired with a crane — is shown and is to be placed on a turtle which would appear on a decorative platter.

At the end there are a series of nine instructions about what we have seen. This is followed by the date “February 1632, written by Hirase and presented to Kimura.” As Rath points out (p. 54), “the colophons in manuscripts usually provide the date and author, and sometimes the intended reader, but these offer little help in contextualizing the culinary texts.” Typically, little is known about the people mentioned as authors. “For that reason, modern scholarship on these texts considers these works to be anonymous and has focused on their contents, not their authorship” (Rath, p. 55).

The second scroll again presents a series of trays in the seven-five-three sequence. There are three honzen dining trays, followed by a tray of seven sweets. There are close-up images of objects underneath the altar, magnified images of decorative trays — one is pine, one is plum. At the end are five explanations of the contents of the scroll and ends with “February 1632, written by Hirase and presented to Kimura.”

Both scrolls are in fine condition. Scrolls on this subject are most uncommon on the market.

Much of this description is based on the wonderful chapter “Ceremonial Banquets” in Eric Rath’s Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (2010), pp. 52-84.

Price: $29,500.00

Item ID: 6249

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