Metaphor, Food as

views updated


METAPHOR, FOOD AS. "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (Lakoff and Johnson, p. 5). Many aspects of social and cultural life are talked about and experienced in terms of food. This kind of comparison occurs easily because of the systematic organization of food and food habits within each culture. Through language and through daily practices, food is ordered in terms of the categorization of foods, the organization of food production and consumption, and the linguistic expressions about food and eating. Cultural systems of food and food habits form conceptual frameworks that are metaphorical in nature. In other words, food, as anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss tells us, is good to think with.

Food can serve as a metaphor for family, religion, sex, gender, social position, and group identity, among other things. These principal metaphors appear across cultures, but are organized locally as different peoples speak of different foods and equate them with specific elements of their lives. The following overview of food as metaphor provides explanations of the different metaphorical constructs with a variety of specific local examples.

Food as a Metaphor for Religion

Food is a powerful metaphor for sacrifice, order, obedience, self-discipline, purity, generosity, and other key values in religious and ritual life around the world. Special rules and practices concerning dietary standards and ceremonial behavior distinguish and make concrete complex values and belief systems.

For example, Jewish food practices revolve around kashruth, the dietary laws outlined in the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Kashruth prohibits the consumption of pork, shellfish, reptiles, and amphibians and calls for the strict separation of dairy and meat foods. Anthropologist Mary Douglas interprets this regulation of food as part of a larger process of ordering the natural world according to social and moral precepts. By systematizing everyday experience into categories of clean and unclean, kashruth provides a practical foundation for understanding theological classifications and the proper relationship to God. The value of order is reiterated in the Passover seder, a ritual meal that metaphorically reenacts the Jews' flight from slavery in Egypt.

In the Hindu belief system, food is a metaphor for body, mind, and spirit. Daily and ceremonial rituals of food-giving demonstrate the values of generosity and selfless service. Fasting and dietary self-control are metaphors for mental clarity and religious authority, while prohibited or improperly prepared foods are believed to cause spiritual unrest and poor health. Anthropologist R. S. Khare notes that Hindu holy people are highly sensitive to individual foods and must strictly monitor their diets in order to maintain physical, mental, and spiritual balance.

Food as a Metaphor for Sex and Gender

Ideas about "Man the Hunter" and "Woman the Gatherer" permeate understandings of gender in contemporary Western societies. The man who "brings home the bacon" is a competent provider for his family; "he's a meat and potatoes man" connotes a hearty appetite and robust character. These and other sayings connect masculine qualities such virility and strength with the provisioning and consumption of meat. After all, "real men don't eat quiche."

Among the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, food production, gender relations, and human reproduction are intertwined in a metaphorical cycle of energy exchange. Men are credited with cultivating staple crops to meet the nutritional needs of the community, while women's task is to raise children, supplying the next generation of "manpower." In this context, men's agricultural practices are understood in terms of feminine procreative abilities. Watering the crops is likened to breast-feeding, and men who are actively cultivating their gardens are subject to the same food taboos as pregnant and nursing women (Meigs).

Food is not only used to communicate ideas about gender roles; it can also express overtly sexual qualities. Food acts as a visual metaphor for sex in many art forms. It can convey voluptuousness and sensuality (a lingering shot of ripe fruit), temptation and the arousal of desire (oysters as aphrodisiacs), and consummation and fulfillment (sharing food as an exchange of bodily juices). Food is also used in linguistic metaphors when food items are compared to body parts in scatological references to sexual activity, and, more generally, as terminology for sexual "appetite," "hunger," and pleasure is common also for food and eating.

Food as Metaphor for Family

Food can be used metaphorically to talk about and enact various elements of social interaction and organization, one of which is the family. Cross-culturally, the family represents many things. It is a basic form of social organization, an economic unit, and a structure for social and cultural reproduction.

In some societies, growing certain crops, distributing food, and preparing food are the responsibility of one side or another of the familyof the woman's side of the family in some societies (Richards), of the man's side in others (Weiner). Food production and preparation represent and enact the extended family networks that structure kinship-based models of social organization.

In many contemporary Western societies, the nuclear family is often the basic economic unit, in which money for food provisioning and then food preparation are centered. The way people organize their food and meal-related activities also helps define the roles of individuals in the household. These roles may be gendered or age-dependent. The pleasure of eating and serving food becomes a metaphor for the structure and emotion of family relationships (Ochs et al.). A family discussion about food preparation tasks, or about who eats what and why, may also actually be a more concrete means of addressing issues of household division of labor, family power structures, and family dynamics.

When family commensality takes place around a table, or around a cooking hearth, the place for the meal is a metaphor for family solidarity. Indeed, in many cultures the hearth is thought of as the center of the homehome in the sense of family space.

The affective and sensory aspects of food, as well as shared experiences of foods, can help cement the family unit via associations of certain foods with specific people and events. For example, the smell of a roast turkey may evoke fond memories of a time when family comes together. In this way, tasting and reminiscing about food items metaphorically bring up family members and family bonds without explicitly mentioning them. Recipes and food-related stories also provide links between generations and help ensure the transmission and reproduction of cultural practices and family, ethnic, local, and national identities.

Food as Metaphor for Social Hierarchy

Regulation of food and food habits is a persistent metaphor for social stratification. Such varied systems as class, caste, and status can all be thought of in terms of food. For example, food as class positioning arises in discussions of people and their consumption patterns. In the consumer societies of North America and Europe, eating caviar and foie gras and drinking expensive Champagne are seen as consuming luxury goods and are associated with the wealth of the upper classes. In certain Andean countries, the kind of starch eaten most frequently marks overlapping boundaries of class and ethnicity, with potatoes consumed by poor, rural farmers of Native American descent and white flour and bread consumed mainly by the more wealthy urbanites of European descent (Weismantel).

Food as Group Identity: Local and National Identities

The idea of food as metaphor for the eater's identity comes across clearly in popular parlance. For example, the expression "You are what you eat" goes beyond the physical realities of the human digestive process and nutrient absorption. It compares one's existence to one's eating habits and can extend to others' existencesand, hence, to people's perceptions of others and their ways of labeling others.

National identity. People's nationalities are sometimes spoken of in terms of the foods they eat. Not always positive, food stereotyping can be pejorative, as in the case of the French being called "frogs" by the British and the British being referred to as "roastbeefs" by the French. While food metaphors can deconstruct identities, they also construct them.

Anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney analyzes Japan's elaborate mythic histories, rituals, and public debates about rice as attempts to define the essence of a distinctive national identity. As a central metaphor in Japanese culture, rice is surrounded by a complex system of beliefs: each grain of rice is a living being with its own soul; "the Deity of the Rice Paddies" is a benevolent, peaceful figure embedded in the agrarian landscape; the soul of the deity is manifested in the perfection of rice grains; eating rice is a religious act as the consumer ingests the spiritual energy of rice and the rice god. Rice is also a focus of artistic and literary production: writers extol the beauty of rice, and painters idealize agrarian society. In daily life, a meal is not complete without rice, women are judged by their ability to cook it, and family cohesiveness is expressed by serving rice from a communal bowl. Efforts to restrict the importation of "foreign" rice reveal the extent to which Japanese notions of self-and national-identity are intertwined with this staple food.

Local identity. Preserving local food habits both practically and metaphorically promotes the survival of a variety of local and ethnic groups because community members experience and transmit their local identity in terms of food-related experiences. For example, in some minority cultures of the southeastern United States, such as the Gullah of South Carolina and Georgia, community-centered storytelling, recipe-sharing, cooking instruction, everyday food preparation techniques, and festival rituals maintain cultural identity by preserving the specificities of rice-based foodways (Beoku-Betts).

Sometimes local identities are constructed or maintained in the face of more encompassing identities. In this sense, food is a metaphor not only for the specific local identity in question, but also for political and cultural resistance. Some French farmers promote local, artisanally produced foods against the pressures of globalization in the food industry. For example, José Bové has made headlines in the United States and in Europe by leading demonstrations against international food companies, such as McDonald's, and by promoting his locally produced Roquefort cheese outside the doors of international trade meetings.


Not just figures of speech, metaphors express relationships of ideas, using the terms of one conceptual system to achieve understanding of another. As frameworks for thinking about the world, metaphors are shaped by their cultural context. Yet food-based metaphors crop up around the globe. Food and food systems are "good to think," often serving as a metaphor for complex issues such as family, religion, sex and gender, social position, and group identity.

See also Gender and Food ; Religion and Food ; Sex and Food ; Women and Food .


Beoku-Betts, Josefine. "We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and the Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah." Gender and Society 9, no. 5 (1995): 535555.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Feeley-Harnik, Gillian. The Lord's Table: The Meaning of Food in Early Judaism and Christianity. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Khare, R. S. The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. SUNY Series in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Meigs, Anna S. Food, Sex, and Pollution: A New Guinea Religion. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984.

Ochs, Elinor, C. Pontecorvo, and A. Fasulo. "Socializing Taste." Ethnos 61 (1996): 746.

Richards, Audrey I. Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Weiner, Annette B. Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.

Weismantel, Mary J. Food, Gender and Poverty in the Ecuadorean Andes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Wendy Hunnewell Leynse Ramona Lee Pérez