When I was a boy, all the weddings at our church were community affairs: the "receptions," as they called them, always took place in the basement of the church, and the women of the church did all the cooking, baking, and cleaning up. I never thought much about it then, but I have come to learn that in many cultures of the world weddings have similarly been community affairs. In these places--like Russia, for instance--weddings were celebrated not so much for the bride and groom as they were for their parents, all their kin, and neighbors. A wedding meant that sometime soon the community might expect new additions, and this prospect was important for everyone. Consequently, Russian weddings might stretch out over three days, and featured numerous feasts with the bride's and groom's families. And, as with all feasts, someone had to prepare all the food! I thought about all these things as I observed preparations for the wedding of Xian Na and Andrew.
When we arrived at Xian Na's house the day before the wedding, preparations were already well underway. I can't remember all the preparations, but the photos here will point to a few moments in the process. You will notice that here, too, women did most of the work--some trimming and chopping the meats, some the bamboo shoots and vegetables, some preparing the rice. Men were present although, except for setting up the dozen or so tables (where they soon situated themselves to play cards or mahjong), men did not do much of the actual preparation--at least so far as I could see.
Each of the dozen tables accommodated about eight persons, so each "shift" fed almost 100 people. On the day of the wedding, the first "shift" went to those who had attended the ceremony, and the tables groaned with a variety of foods, generally richer and "meatier" than the previous day's meal. For instance, each table received a fish that had been fried whole, then basted with spicy sauce; there were roasted pork thighs, plates of marinated beef and sliced sausage, a special bamboo shoot soup and another in which a kind of turnip was boiled along with leafy greens (and of course, rice). During the meal, men and women brought a seemingly endless line of dishes out to the tables where women were posted to make sure that every table received the full menu.
While all this was going on, additional guests were arriving, waiting by the gate for the next shift to be fed. And before long, the first guests finished their meals, arose and departed; immediately someone arrived to clean off the dishes, remove the old plastic table covering, and get ready for yet another sitting. Meanwhile, a detachment of helpers set up shop outside the gate: one would scrape the remains of dirty dishes into buckets; another would wash the dishes; yet another would wash the chopsticks, etc. Soon more guests were being fed, more arrivals were waiting at the gate, and so on. At least three full "shifts" were fed before the wedding party sat down for its dinner. A circle of those who remained gathered around, doubtless curious to see the foreigners up close and see how they dealt with their chopsticks!
So, in addition to the festive wedding, in addition to the civic act by which the state recognized the marriage, a generous community meal helped celebrate and make official the community's recognition of yet another married couple.