Food and Social Identity

21 Apr

From celebrity chefs to specialty stores, the last decade has witnessed an explosion of food consciousness in modern culture. It’s a staple of popular media, resulting in the creation of omnimedia brands like Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay; while even inspiring entire networks devoted to around-the-clock programming. The hegemony of food in daily modern life means it’s been the recent subject of discussion and deconstruction from countless angles of serious academia to lighthearted social commentary. Of course food is more than sustenance, but I assert that it is even much more than a cultural, social or political phenomenon. It functions symbolically as a communicative and rhetorical practice by which we interact with others, forge relationships, and most importantly, it is a means through which we deliver rhetorical performances of selfhood in the creation of our social identities.

Clothing, hairstyles, and even zip codes are familiar to us as markers of social identity and self-expression. but food surpasses their non-edible counterparts in symbolic potential partly because it can be literally consumed and absorbed into the physical body. As an ingestible synecdoche of whatever social values and status we wish to embody, it’s distinguishable from an Audemars Piguet on his wrist or the vintage Lanvin on the crook of her arm. In the hyper-modern world of food, what we eat is personal—and in more ways than Savarin probably envisaged when he penned the words, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”

In fact, if sex is the instrument of species-reproduction, then eating is probably the means of self-reproduction. To exist can be boiled down to an activity of daily self-reproduction, and the material resource by which one performs this act is through food, both literally and rhetorically. For example, Recall Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s fantastical setting is rife with food objects, from tea cakes and potions to the infamous mock turtle soup. It’s fitting that Alice’s most significant interactions with Wonderland seem to involve acts of eating and dining with its locals. Her journey of transformation is both literal and metaphorical—while the cakes and potions cause her to shrink and grow, the literal consumption of food objects that Wonderland is furnished with occurs simultaneously with Alice’s development as a person and her eventual appropriation of Wonderland’s values of curiosity and absurdity. It seems as if even as early as the Victorian age, those like Carroll have been able to appreciate the rhetorical power of food as a symbol of self-transformation. Fast forward to the present age of the Self, it is no wonder that we have consciously or subconsciously unleashed the latent potential of food as a powerful tool for identity creation and attainment of social status.

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Alice at the Mad Tea Party

So how does food operate as a means by which we create and manage meaning in our lives? Historically, food was a powerful symbol of Britain’s identity as a colonial empire. Imported food like tea and citrus is compelling as a status symbol of Britain’s imperial reach because the evidence could be widely displayed upon virtually every dinner table in the nation, and reproduced every time those items are consumed by Britons. Today in practical terms, all you’d need to do is imagine the deliberation that goes into each time you labour over the question of where to take your date for dinner. What food you choose to place between you and your date is ultimately a decision to communicate to them what you believe they represent and what you can offer as a partner. The food that you share together is an act of simultaneous self-reproduction. What you eat together therefore symbolizes how you desire to grow together as a duo. I personally have difficulty accepting coffee dates while dinner plans will tend to signal to me that a man sees me as serious potential for forging a meaningful relationship together. To me, a dinner table can be read like a text, and what someone chooses to communicate through the text is a reflection of what they expect you to accept into both your literal, physical body, but also your sense of self. To me, anything short of a complete and meaningful meal is an interesting rhetorical signal to me that they value me as something short of a complete and meaningful person.

Lost in the upper-middle class fantasy of health consciousness and clean-eating, we are perhaps unable or unwilling to recognize the subtler reasons why we stand behind things like organic food movements and restaurants that inexplicably demand the most ancient and un-hybridized grains for a simple dish. These are perhaps better viewed as performances that help us actualize modern, desirable values of individuality and counter-culture.

But I digress, my point isn’t really to assert what exactly food symbolizes for us as social individuals—that would require an enormous amount of spilt ink. There’s a lot to think and talk about when it comes to food; the possibilities for food to affect self-transformation is potentially limitless. And since food is so intimately tied to production of self-identity, it is perhaps a personal experience of introspection that is worth at least some consideration. Chew on that thought the next time you eat.

 

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