The Feast of Bacchus
And a short obituary for the sweetest boy.
Hello, wonderful witches!
My deepest apologies — I meant for this issue to go out already, but there’s been a sad occurrence in the head witch household. Many of you know about my beloved Boston terrier Ollie, the Kitchen Witch Curmudgeon, who always tried to eat the flames from my spell candles and grumbled every time I woke him up during the day to go outside. Sadly while I was in Colorado, my little pup moved on to the next phase of his existence. I’ve been too devastated to do much since then, but I’m now coming to terms that it’s better for him this way. So this issue is in honor of Ollie, 15 years young, whose favorite hobbies were fetch (as long as you ran after the ball with him), eating (mostly anything I dropped on the kitchen floor), sleeping (as long as you didn’t wake him up, move him, or pet him), and being fiercely stubborn, loyal, caring, and adorable. We’ll love you forever, my Monster.
Here’s my favorite photo of him, in our old apartment in Milwaukee when he got into the garbage and got a Chinese food box stuck on his head while we weren’t home.
Today’s issue is about indulgence and includes recipes for the Feast of Bacchus.
Feasting With Bacchus
By Siobhan Ball
The feast of Bacchus was first celebrated in Rome after the worship of Dionysus made its way there via the Greek settlements in Southern Italy. With Bacchus as his Romanized name, and conflated with the Plebeian patron god Liber, who held sway over manhood, virility, wine, and male fertility, these festivals were wild and raucous affairs — though so secretive we know very little about what actually went on during them.
Like Persephone and Demeter, Bacchus was both an important god to mainstream civic life in Greece and the subject of a mystery cult. It was this cult that brought him and his festival to Rome. Mystery cults were a group of egalitarian religions, mostly Greek in origin, that promised their adherents a better life in the hereafter while demanding absolute secrecy in this one. Already popular among the disenfranchised in Greece, a group that included the poor, women, non-citizens and the enslaved, the cult and feast of Bacchus rapidly gained similar popularity in Rome, leading to immense paranoia and then persecution from the Roman authorities.
Despite a ravenous policy of cultural appropriation wherever they went, the Roman elite were also extremely suspicious of anything that seemed foreign influencing Roman culture. Add in the secrecy, prominence of women in the cult, and its popularity among the lower classes, not to mention the implications of sex and drunkenness that naturally resulted from anything involving Liber and Bacchus, and you had the perfect storm for moral panic. Convinced that upper-class women were using the festivals as a cover to have extramarital sex, and that upper-class men might be allowing other men — possibly even non-citizens! — to penetrate them (something that completely undermined the concept of Roman masculinity), the senate eventually found, or manufactured, the evidence they needed to shut it down.
A non-citizen priestess was produced and induced to testify, confirming all their worst fears about the society-destroying sexual free-for-all allegedly going on during the annual feast. Despite the murderous crackdown, with a significant number of executions that followed, this didn’t spell the end of the Feast of Bacchus. It’s hard to kill a religion, at least overnight, and the senate was wary too. Already loath to offend any god and risk their displeasure, Bacchus/Dionysus had a reputation of being particularly ruthless, not to mention thorough, in seeking vengeance against those who wronged him or tried to suppress his cult. In an attempt to avoid the fate of mythical Thebes, which was utterly destroyed (and its royal house with it), the Roman senate created strict new rules for celebrating the festival. With priests chosen by the senate, only five participants allowed at a time, and special permission required from the senate to hold the festival in the first place, these new Feasts of Bacchus were a much more toned down affair. At least officially.
While the senatorially sanctioned Feasts likely did conform to their guidelines, unofficial celebrations continued, especially in rural areas. Nothing quite as spicy as the orgies vividly imagined by the senate would have been happening at the majority of these festivals — rural men also had a vested interest in maintaining their wives’ chastity and upholding Roman masculinity — but they were certainly more lively, and a lot more fun. We still don’t know what kinds of ritual practices went on, but given what we do know, wine, grain and fertility, both human and agricultural, were almost certainly involved.
Charcuterie of the Gods
This is barely a recipe. Alright, it’s not even a recipe. However, it is exactly, in my unauthoritative opinion, the right collection of things to eat in honor of Bacchus/Dionysus and Liber. It’s rustic, like the gods of wine themselves, and their most enthusiastic adherents. It features sausage, honey, and figs, all symbols of fertility and exactly the sort of innuendo the two of them would appreciate (if Roman art is anything to go by). There are grapes, which is thematic! And most importantly, it all goes very well with wine. If the weather hasn’t turned where you live, you can eat this outside with a glass of wine in the evening, taking the opportunity to connect to the changing seasons as well as being thankful for everything they, as well as Dionysus and Liber, have brought.
Wholegrain crackers, preferably containing barley
Arrange all the ingredients attractively on a cheese board. Remember that presentation is part of the ritual/offering here. Spread the crackers into a fan shape and drizzle the honey. Dolmades also make a nice, optional addition, both as a nod to the festival’s Greek origins and wine production, but if you can’t find them where you are, don’t worry too much about it.
Fennel, Sausage, and Wine Pan Roast
In addition to the obvious sausage and wine connections, the fennel in this recipe also has a tie to Dionysus/Bacchus. Maenads, the women who followed the god in an ecstatic trance state, carried staffs known as thyrsi. These obvious phallic metaphors were made of giant fennel, topped with either an artichoke or pine cone, and woven around with vine leaves. You can use Italian sausage or ordinary beef or pork sausages for this depending on what’s available and your own taste preferences. Make sure you check the cooking directions for how long the type of sausage you’re using needs to be cooked and divide up the timing based on that. This recipe should serve four but you can always up the quantities if you want.
1 large onion, preferably red
2 bulbs of fennel with the fronds attached
Salt and pepper
8 to 10 sausages
1 to 2 tablespoons of red wine
Slice the onion and fennel bulbs, toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and lay them in a lined baking/roasting tray. Prick the sausages and then lay them over the vegetables. Add a final drizzle of oil over the sausages to keep them from drying out and then place in an oven preheated to 400°F. Roast for around 20 to 30 minutes and then take the tray out. Turn the sausages over, add the green fronds from the fennel, and cover with the red wine, using your judgement as to how much is needed. Return to the oven for another 10 to 20 minutes, keeping an eye on the sausages to make sure they brown but don’t burn. Give it a final crack of black pepper and it’s ready to serve.
In honor of the thyrsus, a whole artichoke, steamed or boiled and served with melted salted butter, makes a great hors d'oeuvre centerpiece. It’s very simple to prepare and a fun, communal eating experience.
To steam, place artichokes stem-end up in a steamer basket over two inches of water. If boiling, place them stem-end up and fully cover with salted water. Set the water to a rolling boil and cook until you can pierce the stem easily with a knife. This should take around 25 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the artichoke. You can add lemon juice or white wine to the water for additional flavor.
Siobhan Ball is a journalist, medieval historian and jeweler who lives in Scotland with her wife, their cat, and too many plants. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SiobhanFedelm.
In the next issue…
The next newsletter will have… well, I’m not sure yet. We’ll find out together!
See you then!