At some point I realized I was beyond full and found myself pleasantly surprised at my own capacity to continue eating. It was almost my responsibility to do so. My body observed me place another cracker with cream cheese and caviar in my mouth in a state of utter confusion. One thing was perfectly clear to my poor body, though, this was not an occasion where its protest would be of any relevance.
I collapsed into bed a couple of hours later, full of serrano ham, deep-fried chicken livers, hot dogs with parmesan cheese and truffle butter, cake, wine, cocktails... I'd been home in Puerto Rico for less than 12 hours and that was only the first of several parties being held in honor of my homecoming. I vaguely recall calling my boyfriend, who was safely in New York losing weight in my absence, and groaning, "Oh my god, I haven't eaten this much since lunch." Several hours before this first cocktail party my family had celebrated my arrival with a two hour lunch at Al Dente restaurant complete with bacon wrapped escargot and pumpkin ravioli. This pace did not let up for the next two days.
Each and every visit I make to Puerto Rico is a homecoming, the fatted calf is slaughtered, cakes are baked, and champagne bottles pop, figuratively and literally (maybe not the calf part). But this isn't something unique to me. Homecoming, graduations, holidays, weddings, any joyous celebration, and even sad ones like funerals, require an obscene amount of food to make them complete. It's what I'm going to call Thanksgiving Syndrome: a cross-cultural need to celebrate by eating and drinking in large groups to the point of collapse.
Evidence of this tedency can be found as far back as the cave drawings. What did prehistory humans like to draw and tell stories about? Hunting the big bison that would become the weekly dinner feast (the metabolism stayed, the eating habits changed, what's happening evolution?).
In Homer's Odyssey, every time Odysseus set foot on a new land, some sort of cattle was slaughtered and he and his new friends, who never asked what his name was until the tenth course, would feast all night.
In the Bible, Jesus feeds a throng of people with two fish, a loaf of bread, and a skin of wine... all of which conveniently never ran out despite the hundreds of people devouring seconds and thirds.
Food is a common offering to the gods, from bowls of milk to cakes left at the feet of statues then distributed among worshippers.
Times of fasting usually culminate in feasts, from the breaking of the Yom Kippur fast at Katz's Deli for the Jews (or at least the Jews I know) to streets flowing with the blood of slaughtered animals at the last sundown of Ramadan (true story).
I don't think I need to go into Thanksgiving, except to reiterate the 5000 calories generally consumed on that day and the inexplicable abundance of leftovers after the gorging.
It's culture, it's tradition, it's human nature.
We could just as easily do something else and omit the food part, play music all night, dance, go somewhere special like a beach or church (maybe not church). And, we do. But without the giant meal throughout those festivities it would feel like something is missing. These special, large, no-holds-barred meals are what make the event. On a practical level, you need tons of food, if you're going to feed tons of people. But that much?
Your stomach hurts, you get tired, you can barely move, you've gained at least two pounds in two hours, but somewhere deep inside you are at ease. You feel warm, your mind calms down (food coma), you feel, um, satiated, to say the least. There is something comforting, grounding about being able to eat as much as you can and then eating more. And being able to stop and go back to your normal eating habits once the party is over. Overeating in the context of a party, something that happens occassionally and with many people, is more than OK, it's the whole point. In a way it reminds you how good it feels to not do that all the time. What elevates binging to celebrating, though, is that celebrating is collective binging. It's social deconstruction of you body and brain (if you're drinking).
Food is important to people for reasons of survival, comfort, energy, nutrition, but what makes food special is eating it with other people. It's one of the most complete sensory experiences you can have as a group. Memories are triggered, places and events are relived collectively through the palate. And somewhere around this point, there is an understanding. A line is crossed usually after the first set of appetizers, lubricated with booze, and once you reach that point, there is no turning back, there is only pressing forward. You know that by continuing to eat and drink you will cause harm to yourself and you know it's going to be awesome.
That's why desserts exist.