Symbol, Food as

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SYMBOL, FOOD AS. A symbol is an object, image, or action that is conventionally understood to represent something else. Food is particularly powerful as a symbol because it is so deeply embedded in everyday as well as celebratory life, and can therefore be read in many ways. Because it fulfills physical as well as emotional and psychological needs, it may be intentionally utilized as a symbol in some instances but not in others. And because food engages all the senses, it tends to evoke strong sensory and emotive as well as cognitive associations. This range of association adds to the potential symbolic power of food.

Three properties of symbols as defined by anthropologist Victor Turner are clearly demonstrated in food. The first is condensation: many ideas or actions are represented in a single formation. For example, turkey represents the American holiday of Thanksgiving, standing for the family gatherings, feasts, specific menus, and football games that commonly occur with the celebration. A second property is unification: symbols link disparate references. The turkey as symbol evokes abundance of natural resources, a romanticized New England heritage, patriotism, family harmony, and the fall season. The final property of symbols is polarization of meaning: they contain both ideological meanings (representing values, ethos, social norms) and sensory meanings (related to the objective properties of the symbol and representing physical aspects of life), merging these two poles and grounding conceptual references in felt experience. For example, apple pie is an American symbol of both patriotism and maternal nurturing, strengthening the referential power of each yet also lending the emotional associations of each to the other.

Foods become symbolic either through the presence of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought with a particular reference. Analogous, or like, qualities include the physical structure or appearance of the item, its texture, color, flavor, and even its nutritional components. For example, bananas are commonly used to represent a phallus; apples used to represent wholesomeness and innocence, as in "apple-cheeked children"; peaches to represent female attributes; caffeinated drinks to represent energetic and fun-filled personalities or activities.

Symbolic references for foods are also developed by association in fact or thought. Cherry blossoms bloom in early spring and are therefore used as a symbol to celebrate the change in season. Similarly, other crops ripen in the fall and become associated with that season. In the United States, pumpkins, corn, and apples are used to celebrate both autumn and the harvest-based holidays falling within that season.

Symbolic foods that develop their meanings through use and practice over time are "organic" symbols; they emerge from everyday usage, and their meanings are seemingly logical and inevitable within that cultural context. Symbols can also be created and imposed upon a culture. For these "invented symbols," individuals or institutions intentionally attach particular meanings to a food and attempt to control the interpretation given to that food.

As communicative tools, symbols can be manipulated for a multitude of purposes, on a personal as well as a cultural level. Food symbols are commonly exploited in marketing and advertising. Restaurant chains frequently attempt to associate themselves with a particular food item, for example, Red Lobster and Long John Silver with seafood, Wendy's with chili and square hamburgers, MacDonald's or Burger King with hamburgers and french fries. Similarly, advertising symbols can become attached to particular foods: the Jolly Green Giant with vegetables, Aunt Jemima with pancakes, the dignified Quaker with oatmeal.

Food's symbolic potential is also utilized for national, ethnic, and regional identity and pride. Americans rally around hot dogs, Spaniards around ham, Koreans around kimchi. Conversely, specific foods may be held up as distinguishing one group from another and as demonstrating that group's lesser worth.

Food symbolism occurs in all the activities surrounding the procurement, preservation, preparation, presentation, and performance of food as well as the food product itself. "Foodways" refers to this network of activities.

Procurement refers to the processes of obtaining food. Hunting, for example, can function as a symbol of manhood, of family tradition, of regional heritage. Purchasing groceries from specialty shops or catalogs rather than a local supermarket can signify economic status. Similarly, procurement can affect the referential meanings of a food item. Even though the food items are structurally identical, a bagel bought from the local corner deli can carry completely different emotional associations from one bought from the frozen bread aisle of a chain supermarket.

Preservation includes the means by which food is stored and kept for later use, the material forms used, the types of foods selected for specific types of preservation, and the physical arrangement of preserved goods. Smokehouses used for curing hams can reference a southern U.S. heritage; similar structures for smoking fish represent a Midwestern background.

The size and design of refrigerators can symbolize social status (custom-designed to fit kitchen decor represents up-scale wealth), ethnicity (Americans tend to use large refrigerators and frequently possess an additional freezer to allow for the weekly or monthly shopping habits in the United States), or even occupation (university students use half-size ones to fit their smaller dorm rooms).

Preparation refers to the actual processes of turning the raw ingredients into a cultured and edible food. This involves methods of cutting, cooking, mixing of ingredients, selecting of ingredients, and adapting of the recipe. The process may be as simple as picking an apple from a tree or taking a handful of raisins from a box to complex and sophisticated techniques requiring refined skills and extensive experience.

Presentation refers to how food is physically arranged and presented for consumption. Presentation can frame the act of eating as a social event and as a meal genre and can also communicate the emotional responses intended to occur. Candlelight implies romance; fine china a formal, celebratory event; paper plates an informal and casual occasion.

Performance includes two aspects. First is the manner in which the food is consumed, the utensils used, and the immediate context: the time and place of consumption and other people present. Performance also refers to the cultural use of food, to the meanings intentionally attached and elicited to the food item or meal, and the occasion for consumption.

Foodways can be performed as symbol in any number of arenascookbooks, festivals, restaurants, cooking competitions, family holiday meals. Each of these offer sites for the articulation and manipulation of the meanings of the foodways. Similarly, food symbols occur in a variety of forms: as objects, activities, relationships, events, gestures, and spatial units within a ritual.

Food as a symbol can refer to any aspect of a culture's or individual's history and identity. Commonly recognized and articulated referential domains include ethnicity, region, gender, religion, ethos, social status, and social relationships

Ethnicity is one of the most common references for food. These foods become symbolic frequently because they stand in contrast to host foods and mark the ethnic group as different and separate. This marking is frequently, though not always, negative, emphasizing the strangeness of the ethnic group, and the particular foods functioning as symbols depend on the specific cultural context of that group.

Foods may also become symbolic of ethnicity because of their ubiquitousness in the cuisine of that ethnic grouprice in Asian cultures, beans and tortillas in Mexican cuisine, curry spices in Indian cuisine. Through their consistent use, these foods become associated with that identity; however, they may or may not be felt by members of that ethnic group to symbolize their heritage. Symbols of ethnicity are frequently ascribed by primary cultures or institutions.

Food can be used to refer to another ethnic group, frequently in a derogatory mannerFrench are called "frogs," Germans "krauts." Again, the food used as symbol represents the difference between two cultures and is often an item considered inedible, or at least, unpalatable to one culture, stigmatizing the other as less civilized or even less human.

Region is another major referential domain of food. As with ethnicity, regional foods are frequently those that stand in contrast to foods found in other regions, therefore marking differences rather than representing the culture. American regional food symbols include grits for the South, lobsters for Maine, cheese for Wisconsin, meat and potatoes for the Midwest. Region and ethnicity can be closely connected. For example, much historical Southern cooking is derived from African American traditions; the upper Midwest is closely associated with Scandinavian foods.

Religion and ethos are emotionally powerful references for food, representing individuals' and cultures' worldviews and value systems. Some food symbols invoke an entire foodways system and its underlying ethos: Kosher foods embody Judaism; meatless meals reference vegetarianism; diet foods may represent a status-quo valuing of physical appearance and traditional gender roles. Specific foods may also symbolize ritual acts or occasions within a belief system: bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ and the ritual of communion in Christianity.

Gender is another referential domain, with some cultures designating particular foods as symbolizing specific genders and maintaining strict taboos to ensure social and psychological distance between genders. Other cultures demonstrate less formalized perspectives; having stereo-types rather than taboos. In the United States, large portions of any food, thick slabs of meat, beer, and "hearty" foods are associated with masculinity, while foods thought to be lightsalads, quiche, poultry, and fishare associated with femaleness.

Food as symbolic of social relationships includes status and place within a social group as well as relationships between individuals. Food can be used to mark one's socioeconomic standing, since certain items are associated with particular classes: for example, caviar, fine wine, and gourmet cooking with upper classes; beer, white bread, and junk food with lower classes. Some foods, such as hot dogs, apple pie, chili, and barbecue, cut across class divisions and are sometimes used to intentionally signify a democratic and "all-American" event or institution.

Individuals can also use food as social capital, in that by demonstrating competence with a particular food, they demonstrate a mastery of knowledge needed to belong to a particular social group. For example, being able to discern quality of wine can signify membership in an upper class; being able to ingest extremely spicy peppers can signify masculinity. Food can also be used to signify relationships between individuals. The referential meaning, however, is situational and frequently tied to celebrations or rituals. A box of chocolates often represents romance, particularly on Valentine's Day; however, it can also be a gesture of thanks for hospitality.

Overall, food is a rich resource for symbolic communication, expression, and action.

See also Art, Food in ; Gender and Food ; Humor, Food in ; Icon Foods ; Language about Food ; Literature, Food in ; Metaphor, Food as ; Presentation of Food ; Proverbs and Riddles ; Sacrifice ; Sex and Food ; Sin and Food ; Taboos ; Thanksgiving .


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Douglas, Mary. Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Jakobson, Roman. Language in Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. "The Culinary Triangle." Partisan Review 33, no. 4 (1966):586595.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. London: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Lucy M. Long