meaning and origin of the phrase ‘Barmecide feast’

The phrase Barmecide feast denotes any pretended or illusory generosity or hospitality.

It refers to a story in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, in which a prince named Barmecide invites a poor, starving man to a sumptuous feast, at which all the dishes are imaginary. The poor man plays his host’s game, pretends to get drunk on the imaginary wine, and strikes the prince.

The English author and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719) retold that story to illustrate the virtues of complaisance in The Guardian (London, England) of Wednesday 16th September 1713:

(as reprinted in 1806 by Luke Hansard, London, England:)
I know nothing so effectual to raise a man’s fortune as complaisance; which recommends more to the favour of the great, than wit, knowledge, or any other talent whatsoever. I find this consideration very prettily illustrated by a little wild Arabian tale, which I shall here abridge, for the sake of my reader, after having again warned him, that I do not recommend to him such an impertinent or vicious complaisance as is not consistent with honour and integrity.
‘Schacabac, being reduced to great poverty, and having eat nothing for two days together, made a visit to a noble Barmecide in Persia, who was very hospitable, but withal a great humourist. The Barmecide was sitting at his table that seemed ready covered for an entertainment. Upon hearing Schacabac’s complaint, he desired him to sit down and fall on. He then gave him an empty plate, and asked him how he liked his rice-soup. Schacabac, who was a man of wit, and resolved to comply with the Barmecide in all his humours, told him it was admirable, and at the same time, in imitation of the other, lifted up the empty spoon to his mouth with great pleasure. The Barmecide then asked him if he ever saw whiter bread? Schacabac, who saw neither bread nor meat, “if I did not like it, you may be sure,” says he, “I should not eat so heartily of it.” “You oblige me mightily,” replied the Barmecide, “pray let me help you to this leg of a goose.” Schacabac reached out his plate, and received nothing on it with great cheerfulness. As he was eating very heartily on this imaginary goose, and crying up the sauce to the skies, the Barmecide desired him to keep a corner of his stomach for a roasted lamb fed with pistacho nuts, and after having called for it, as though it had really been served up, “here is a dish,” says he, “that you will see at nobody’s table but my own.” Schacabac was wonderfully delighted with the taste of it, “which is like nothing,” says he, “I ever eat before.” Several other nice dishes were served up in idea, which both of them commended, and feasted on after the same manner. This was followed by an invisible dessert, no part of which delighted Schacabac so much as a certain lozenge, which the Barmecide told him was a sweetmeat of his own invention. Schacabac at length being courteously reproached by the Barmecide, that he had no stomach, and that he eat nothing, and at the same time being tired with moving his jaws up and down to no purpose, desired to be excused, for that really he was so full he could not eat a bit more. “Come then,” says the Barmecide, “the cloth shall be removed, and you shall taste of my wines, which I may say, without vanity, are the best in Persia.” He then filled both their glasses out of an empty decanter. Schacabac would have excused himself from drinking so much at once, because he said he was a little quarrelsome in his liquor; however being prest to it, he pretended to take it off, having beforehand praised the colour, and afterwards the flavour. Being plied with two or three other imaginary bumpers of different wines, equally delicious, and a little vexed with his fantastic treat, he pretended to grow flustered, and gave the Barmecide a good box on the ear, but immediately recovering himself, “Sir,” says he, “I beg ten thousand pardons, but I told you before, that it was my misfortune to be quarrelsome in my drink.” The Barmecide could not but smile at the humour of his guest, and, instead of being angry at him, “I find,” says he, “thou art a complaisant fellow, and deservest to be entertained in my house. Since thou canst accommodate thyself to my humour, we will now eat together in good earnest.” Upon which calling for his supper, the rice soup, the goose, the pistacho lamb, the several other nice dishes, with the dessert, the lozenges, and all the variety of Persian wines were served up successively, one after another; and Schacabac was feasted in reality with those very things which he had before been entertained with in imagination.’

The earliest occurrence of Barmecide feast that I have found is from Twelfth Night, or What you will, a story published in The London Magazine (London, England) of January 1823:

Of all the feasts and gay doings which I have known, none were like that one “Twelfth Night” which I passed at L——’s house, some five or six years ago. […]
[…] We had a supper, where joke and hospitality reigned. And there were cold meats, and sallads [sic], and pies, and jellies, and wines of all colours, mocking with their lustre the topaz and the ruby; and there were pyramids of fruit, and mountains of rich cake […]. This was no meagre shadowy banquet,—no Barmecide feast.

The second-earliest instance of Barmecide feast that I have found is from Essays for Cold Weather, by ‘Scrutator’, published in The Morning Post (London, England) of Tuesday 24th April 1827:

The English are sensible of the manifold blessings which they enjoy under their excellent Government, but there is an un-English faction, consisting merely of the dupers and the duped, of the persons who literally eat and drink by evil speaking, and pay their tailors’ bills by lying and slandering, and the persons who from ignorauce [sic], or fellow-feeling, aid them in their unhallowed work—who are continually crying aloud for more Liberty. That un-English faction, who prostitute talent in their own persons, and hate and abuse it when in the possession of their betters; that discontented and insatiable party consider everything short of absolute uncontroul [sic]1, moral and physical, as an odious imposition; a set of fetters polished and gilt; a Barmecide feast; a basin of turtle redolent of green fat2 presented to them—in a dream; a promise unperformed; a blank in the Lottery; a nihilipilification3; a scheme to kill and pickle them; a cheat; an abomination; a mere “show of Liberty of which they ne’er must taste.”

1 Incidentally, this occurrence of the noun uncontrol predates by thirty-four years the first and only recorded use of this word in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989).
2 The term green fat denotes the green gelatinous part of a turtle, considered a delicacy.
3 This appears to be the only occurrence of the noun nihilipilification, meaning the reduction of something to nothing.

The earliest occurrence of the variant Barmecidal feast that I have found is from Ode to Mr. Owen, published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (London, England) of July 1834—Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer, and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement:

               Oh, Mr. Owen, oh!
Madman methodical, proser ecstatic!
Enthusiast hard and parallellogrammatic!
     When shall thy moonish course a boundary know?
Bœotian bigot of the best intentions,
Prolix Professor of the worst inventions,
     Folly’s Philosopher, Absurdity’s High Priest,
Preparer of well-meaning nonsense,
(Fit food for all who cannot con sense),
     Windy purveyor of a Barmecidal feast!
When will thy useless projects of utility,
     Thy barren anti-non-productive schemes,
               And barbarous dreams,
          Murd’ring poor possibility,
               Lose in thine eyes
               Hope’s flattering dyes,
          And semblance of facility?

The following photograph, caption and text are from Take an art trip and selfies, by Carolina A. Miranda, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA) of Sunday 7th May 2017:

'The Barmecide Feast' Simon Birch - Los Angeles Times - 7 May 2017

A popular installation is “The Barmecide Feast,” a “2001” set reconstruction.

In the final scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s mysterious space masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” astronaut David Bowman, having just been sucked through a turbulent wormhole, ends up in a brightly lighted bedroom where he appears as himself through various ages and times.
That eerie set — a neo-classical-meets-sci-fi site of death and rebirth — is the perfect place for an Instagram.
Which is exactly what’s been going down at the 14th Factory, an art installation created by British-born, Hong Kong-based artist Simon Birch, along with a crew of international collaborators.
The exhibition, in an old warehouse in Los Angeles’ Lincoln Heights neighborhood, features a series of room-sized experiences chock full of slo-mo video installations.

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