Beyond mere sustenance

lood as communication,
Communication as íood
Cartvita P. Creeve ava ]avet M. Craver
Now the íirst and greatest oí necessities is íood, which is the condition oí liíe and
existence-Plato ,1be Re¡vbtic,
\hen \illiams ,1958, identiíied culture as ordinary,` he was elucidating the
potentially transparent nature oí those e·eryday elements that íorm the ·ery
backbone oí our existence ,p. 4,. One example oí this taken íor granted`
culture oí e·eryday liíe is íood, which while consumed on a daily basis, oíten is
considered as mere sustenance. It is, at once, associated with both a common
and an ordinary enterprise. lowe·er, íood is much more than just a means oí
sur·i·al. It permeates all other aspects oí our li·es írom the most intimate to
the most proíessional practices. It also is a key íactor in how we ·iew oursel·es
and others, is at the center oí social and political issues, and is a mainstay oí
popular media.
lrom high-tech kitchen gadgets to magazines to the íooa ^etror/, o·er the
last íew decades, we ha·e witnessed a rise in íood-íocused consumption, media,
and culture, such that there has been what we could label a íood explosion.` It
seems as ií íood, and the discourses surrounding it, are all o·er the place írom
Jaime Oli·er`s ·entures into American school lunchrooms to news stories about
urban gardening or buying organic products at the local íarmer`s market. 1here
is a heightened awareness oí íood`s signiíicance within contemporary society
and culture and, as such, there is a íurther need to explore it.
x lood as Communication,Communication as lood

Although the subject oí íood has been widely studied within the íields oí
anthropology, sociology, and cultural history, it has not been addressed ·ery
oíten within the íield oí communication. In her 19¯0 essay, lenderson asserted
how and why íood, and our practices associated with its production and
consumption, should be ·iewed as a íorm oí communication and called íor
scholars within the íield to take up íood as a serious íorm oí study ,pp. 3-8,.
lew scholars ha·e answered this call, and while other disciplines ha·e made
íood a íocus, communication largely still lags behind. lowe·er, as Lindeníeld
and Langellier ,2009, suggest, o·er the last íew years there has been a rise in
íood-related coníerence panels and presentations within the discipline thus,
marking the growing interest in íood studies` ,p. 1,. \et, in addition to being
an emerging area oí study, there are se·eral major reasons why we can ·iew
íood írom the perspecti·e oí communication and,or use íood as a means íor
íurther understanding communication theories and practices.
Broadly deíined, communication is the process by which we understand the
world and our attempts to con·ey that understanding to others through both
·erbal and non·erbal language. In this way, we can ·iew íood as a íorm oí
communication because it is a non·erbal means by which we share meanings
with others. As Roland Barthes has written, íood is
a system oí communication, a body oí images, a protocol oí usages, situations, and
beha·ior. Iníormation about íood must be gathered where·er it can be íound: by direct
obser·ation in the economy, in techniques, usages and ad·ertising, and by indirect
obser·ation in the mental liíe oí a gi·en society. ,cited in Counihan and Van Lsterik,
2008, p. 29,
Paralleling Barthes, scholars such as Claude Le·i-Strauss ,1983, and Mary
Douglas ha·e asserted that we can ·iew íood as adhering to the same practices
as language because íood is a code that can be seen to express patterns about
social relationships ,cited in Counihan and Van Lsterik, 2008, p. 44,. Spurlock
,2009,, in Períorming and Sustaining ,Agri,Culture and Place: 1he Culti·ation
oí Ln·ironmental Subjecti·ity on the Piedmont larm 1our` also proposes that:
Because oí their ability to signiíy, mediate, contest, and represent nature` and
culture,` íoodways are deeply rhetorical and períormati·e` ,p. 6,.
A primary reason that we should ·iew íood as a íorm oí communication is
because it is directly linked to both ritual and culture, where ritual is deíined as
the ·oluntary períormance oí appropriately patterned beha·ior to symbolically
eííect or participate in the serious liíe` ,Rothenbuhler, 1998, p. 2¯,. Nowhere
can this serious liíe be ·iewed more closely than in rituals in·ol·ing íood. It is at
Beyond mere sustenance xi

the center oí our most important e·ents such as birthdays, weddings, íunerals,
and holidays. lood not only is a part oí rituals, but also there are se·eral
íesti·als solely íocused on particular íood items such as the Gilroy Garlic
lesti·al or the lilton Apple lest. \ithin ritual contexts, íood oíten acts
symbolically by representing or standing in` íor expressions such as liíe, lo·e,
grieí, or happiness. L·en within our daily experiences, the ways that we eat and
dine with others can be categorized as ritualistic because they in·ol·e repetition,
expected beha·iors, and roles íor both the participants and the íood
,Rothenbuhler, 1998,. 1hereíore, ií íood is used ritually, it also can be ·iewed as
a íorm oí culture e·en in its ordinary` state.
lollowing \illiams` ,1958, work, ií we ·iew íood as a common íacet oí our
daily li·es, and we see culture as ordinary,` then certainly íood is a means by
which we create cultures. In íooa i. Cvttvre, Montanari ,2006, asserts this
perspecti·e by claiming: lood is culture rbev it i. ¡roavcea.rbev it i.
¡re¡area.rbev it i. eatev.` ,pp. xi-xii, italics in original,. 1hat is to say,
throughout e·ery step oí our encounters with íood, we shape it in one way or
another whether it is through selections oí certain íoods ·ersus others, cooking
processes, and,or the ways in which we consume it. Spurlock ,2009, also
maintains: 1hrough its absences and presences in e·eryday liíe, íood and
íoodways highlight the moral, aesthetic, and ethical concerns oí a gi·en cultural
milieu` ,p. ¯,. Moreo·er, íood acts as a con·eyor oí culture ¡, becav.e we
use it as means oí communication.
In his íoundational work, Covvvvicatiov a. Cvttvre: í..a,. ov Meaia ava
´ociet,, Carey ,1992, argues: communication is a symbolic process whereby
reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transíormed` ,p. 23,. Ií we íollow
Carey`s ,1992, argument, then surely íood is one oí the most readily-a·ailable
symbols that we ha·e at our disposal, which can be ·iewed írom both the
perspecti·es oí communication and culture. In other words, we oíten use íood
to communicate with others and as a means oí demonstrating personal identity,
group aííiliation and disassociation, and other social categories, such as
socioeconomic class. In this sense, íood is a product and mirror oí the
organization oí society., a prism that absorbs and reílects a host oí cultural
phenomena` ,Counihan, 1999, p. 6,. lood íunctions symbolically as a
communicati·e practice by which we create, manage, and share meanings with
Perhaps one oí the most common ways that we utilize íood is in the
construction oí our personal identities. As Brillat-Sa·arin ,2000, claims in 1be
Pb,.iotog, of 1a.te, 1ell me what kind oí íood you eat, and I will tell you what
xii lood as Communication,Communication as lood

kind oí man you are` ,p. 3,. In other words, we regularly deíine who we are`
according to both the íoods that we eat and those that we reírain írom
consuming. lor example, a person may identiíy as a ·egan,` a carni·ore,` an
omni·ore,` or simply as a íoodie.` \e ha·e a direct, ·isceral connection to
íood, and it is oíten linked to emotion and memory or ser·es as a source oí
comíort íor some people.
Besides our indi·idual connections to íood, we also use it as a means oí
communicating our identities to others through our processes oí preparation
and eating. 1his relationship is situational because we may use íood or
associated beha·iors in diííerent ways depending upon the social situations in
which we íind oursel·es. lor example, consider how a person might present his
or her identity on a íirst date, a business luncheon, or at a íamily gathering. 1his
person may purchase certain íoods rather than others in order to reílect a class
status or position oí authority. Moreo·er, a person may also abstain írom eating
too much or may utilize íormalized etiquette on the date and at the luncheon,
whereas at the íamily gathering, she or he may not íeel the need to prescribe to
the rules oí etiquette at all.
As well as constituting our own identities, we use íood as a means oí
identiíying with others. lood connects people, both physically and symbolically,
when we sit down to dine together ,Visser, 1991,. Similarly speaking, rhetorical
scholar Burke ,1969, argues that you persuade a person only so íar as you align
your identity with hers through the use oí language ,p. 55,. Lxtending this
rationale to íood, we also identiíy with others based upon the types oí íood that
we eat such that we may íeel a common bond with people who ha·e similar
eating habits to ours. lollowing the pre·ious example, a person may identiíy
himselí as a meat-eater` or ·egetarian` and thereíore associate with people
who ha·e the same interests and,or ·iews about íood consumption. As a result,
our selections oí íood are more complex than simply whether we order wine
with dinner or eat a salad instead oí a hamburger.
It is through our processes oí sharing or discussing íood that we can ·iew it
as a íorm oí discourse. Much oí our notions about íood, and its relationship to
the natural world, are con·eyed and learned through the sharing oí narrati·es
and stories. In this sense, we could argue that íood ser·es as a socializing
mechanism by which we come to understand our cultures, our societies, and the
groups to which we belong. \hile this aspect occurs on a small scale,
discourses about íood also are pre·alent within larger social structures such as
go·ernment, media, and popular culture. Oíten, these discourses come into
Beyond mere sustenance xiii

conílict with each other because they oííer myriad perspecti·es about íood and
issues related to it.
As discourses, all oí these dialogues about íood, and its associated practices,
operate as sites oí struggle` with signiíicant social and political implications
,liske, 199¯, pp. 5-6,. \hile we consider politics as ha·ing an institutionalized
center that expounds power, our e·eryday practices also ha·e political
dimensions ,De Certeau, as cited in lighmore, 2002, pp. 68-¯3,. In other
words, we need to conceptualize politics as located beyond the realms oí
political campaigns and ·oting. As Cooks ,2009, argues in \ou are \hat \ou
,Don`t, Lat· lood, Identity, and Resistance: lor those oí us interested in
embracing our identities as political and in seeking openings in the tactical
moments and períormances oí e·eryday liíe, eating and cooking oííer
important sites oí preser·ation and imagination` ,p. 108,. Political struggles also
occur o·er how we make sense oí our e·eryday experiences by using ·arious
discourses to describe them ,liske, 1994,.
\ithin contemporary society, much oí the political work that occurs takes
place in the practices oí our daily li·es such as discourses about our
relationships with íood. lor example, in Unhappy Meals,` Pollan ,200¯,
suggests that our relationship to íood is simple because all we really need to do
is Lat íood. Not too much. Mostly plants,` and we will be healthy ,p. 38,.
Similarly, while he parallels Pollan on many íood-related issues, Glassner ,200¯,
takes an alternati·e ·iew oí the recent backlash against íast íood by claiming: I
come to neither praise íast íood nor to bury it, only to question its easy
portrayal as the root oí all e·il` ,p. 146,.
Aside írom conílicting ·iews about our own eating habits, there are also
discursi·e struggles o·er local ·ersus global íood production and consumption.
In 1he Pride and Prejudice oí Local,`` \ardley ,2010, explains that recently
cheís in Portland, Oregon íigurati·ely and literally came to blows` o·er a local
cooking competition in which one oí them used pig írom Iowa as the main
ingredient íor his menu while the other pri·ileged local products only ,p. A11,.
Additionally, while debates continue o·er the question oí genetically-modiíied
íoods, the Luropean Commission will íormally propose gi·ing back to
national and local go·ernments the íreedom to decide whether to grow such
crops. which many Luropeans derisi·ely call lrankeníoods` ,Kanter, 2010, p.
B4,. 1hereíore, it is through these multiple discourses that political decisions
are made whether they are on indi·idual, local, or global scales. \e strongly
need to consider the political potential oí íood because íood has the power to
xi· lood as Communication,Communication as lood

iníluence us and can condense in themsel·es a wealth oí ideological meanings`
,\eismantel, 1988, pp. ¯-8,.
Ií íood has become increasingly important within our processes oí
communication as a means oí expression, maniíestation oí identities, íorm oí
discourse and ritual, hallmark oí social relationships, ava ií íood is ubiquitous,
then it is íor these rer, reasons that we need to more closely consider how íood
and its practices operate as a means oí communication. lurthermore, there is a
need íor communication scholars to apply our unique methodological and
theoretical approaches to the study oí íood. In this sense, we belie·e
communication studies can oííer new insights into how íood pro·ides much
more than nourishment, or mere sustenance, because íood demonstrates a
whole host oí social, cultural, and political phenomena.
In this edited ·olume we bring together scholars with di·erse research íoci
and an array oí perspecti·es on íood and communication to examine and
explore this emerging area oí study. Gi·en the ·arious ways that íood acts as a
íorm oí communication, we propose in the chapters oí this book to pro·ide
deíiniti·e and íoundational examples oí how íood operates as a system oí
communication and how communication theories can be understood when
·iewed through the lens oí íood. In this sense, this book is not only about íood
but also about communication theories, practices, and eííects.
Readers will note that selections in this reader encompass traditional
approaches to communication including rhetorical, interpersonal,
phenomenological ,ethnographic,, media and popular culture, en·ironmental,
organizational, intercultural, and critical,cultural perspecti·es. 1he selections,
howe·er, are organized according to an o·erall consideration oí bor íood
communicates messages, then íocus on rbat those messages communicate
related to identities, ·alues, en·ironmental concerns, and o·erall contexts. 1his
communication íocus is traditionally understood as communicator,
message,relationships,culture and society. International and intercultural
perspecti·es are integrated throughout, rather than treated as separate
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Using a ·ariety oí approaches including marketing,strategic communication,
critical media studies, rhetorical analysis, and cultural,historical studies, the
essays in this íirst section explore how íood íunctions symbolically as a
Beyond mere sustenance x·

communicati·e practice. 1hey also address how íood, and its surrounding
aspects, oíten íunction as sites oí struggle` within popular media and wider
cultural discourses. By analyzing the ways in which íood íilms engage with and
,re,produce discourse while simultaneously erasing the complexities oí that
discourse, Lindeníeld examines the role oí íood íilms in communication studies
and oííers a rationale íor why scholars need to íurther pursue this course oí
study. 1homson`s essay explores how breakíast cereal companies market
themsel·es to children and the relationship between kids` períormati·ity online
to these products. In Chapter 3, Karaosmanoglu addresses cooking and eating
practices by way oí Istanbul`s nostalgic culinary books in relation to the
memories oí the city. Using the example oí home-building practices in an
Australian monastery, \essell and Jones` chapter suggests the ways íood can
operate as a system oí communication and how it can be used to understand
diííerent theories and approaches to communication.
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Increasingly, íood has become a means by which we create and manage our
identities and how we ·iew the identities oí others. 1he chapters in section two
analyze the ways in which íood communicates notions oí selí and the ·arious
social categories to which we belong, ranging írom socioeconomic class to
nationality. It begins with Greene`s essay in which she analyzes how the Slow
lood Mo·ement uses social style to construct both an identity íor the
organization and its members. Lucas and Buzzanell, in Chapter 6, consider the
role oí collecti·e memory oí hard times in Irontown,` a small mining
community in the U.S. Rust Belt. 1hrough the analysis oí six íocus groups,
Cosgriíí-lernandez, Martinez, Sharí, and Sharkey, in Chapter ¯, examine
con·ersations about nutritional belieís and choices, as well as diííerences
between liíe in Mexico and the United States. In her essay, German argues that
a cookbook created by Mina Pachter and other anonymous women during their
camp internment in \orld \ar II rhetorically can be ·iewed as an act oí
resistance. Parasecoli`s essay ends this section by examining how
representations oí men around íood in íilms can establish, question, reiníorce,
reproduce or destroy cultural assumptions about masculinity and gender

x·i lood as Communication,Communication as lood

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lood and our interactions with it communicate, create, and reílect a multiplicity
oí meanings across a wide spectrum oí societies and cultures. As such, the
chapters in this section examine the ways in which íood oíten is imbued with
social and cultural ·alues as well as how these ideals are established through the
use oí íood and its associated practices. 1hompson, in Chapter 10, rhetorically
examines how íast íood` and slow íood` operate as tropes in a globalizing
world. 1hrough an examination írom a cross-cultural,inter-cultural
communication perspecti·e oí both rbat and bor people eat at Chinese
restaurants in New \ork City, Cheng`s essay demonstrates that, contrary to
what many U.S. citizens might belie·e, Chinese restaurant culture in the United
States is actually quintessentially American.` Drawing on 18 months oí
ethnographic research, McCullen, in Chapter 12, explains the process through
which an attempt to deíetishize íood production íails by excluding the story oí
labor relations on íarms and, through market interactions and narrati·es, makes
Latino íarm workers in·isible. In Chapter 13, Mudry describes how discourses
oí science and quantiíication were integrated into American nutrition policy,
how this integration was abetted by technologies, and how these discourses
aligned the USDA nutrition policy with the goals oí Progressi·e reíormers.
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lood is nature`s bounty in peril. In this period oí abundant íood, especially in
the United States, millions oí people still star·e, suííering hunger and
depri·ation that some may think is experienced only in de·eloping nations. 1he
chapters in section íour regard human action and impact on íood in the
en·ironment by considering the relationships among humans, íood, and the
natural world, including íood acti·ism, en·ironmental justice, and media
discourses about íood. In the opening chapter, Brummett uses a homological
analysis to make some obser·ations and suggestions about the current state oí
political discourse using the examples oí hunting and gardening. In Chapter 15,
Bruner and Meek explore contemporary public discourse surrounding seaíood
with a íocus on the complicated en·ironmental-demands and nutrition-
Beyond mere sustenance x·ii

demands íaced by seaíood consumers. 1odd`s essay uses rhetorical analysis to
re·eal why the Lat the View` campaign successíully persuaded the Obamas to
plant a ·egetable garden on the \hite louse lawn. Cramer, in Chapter 1¯,
analyzes discourses oí íood on the lood Network írom a íramework that
assumes that human relationships with íood and, especially, the process oí
producing and preparing one`s own íood, is key to understanding or
reconceptualizing a relationship between humans and the earth that is more
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\e communicate about íood and íood choices in ·arious personal and societal
contexts, such as íamily relationships, educational institutions, and
organizations. 1he chapters in this íinal section emphasize that while
interpersonal iníluences on íood choices are oíten initiated within the íamily,
they also de·elop in the context oí societal ·alues and market structure.
1hrough the use oí a íocus-group study, Kaplan, James, Alloway, and Kiernan
explore how a íramework íor understanding child in·ol·ement and
empowerment can be used to de·elop two íamily-based nutrition education
programs. LeGreco, in Chapter 19, demonstrates how a ·ariety oí school meal
stakeholders in Arizona use íood as a means to communicate agency through
three dominant discourses that organize eating. Schuwerk`s essay employs
qualitati·e research, conducted in the Southwestern United States, to pro·ide
·aluable iníormation in relation to organizational culture and its implications on
íood banking and the community. Singer oííers a case study on Monsanto, the
U.S.-based multinational íirm, to detail some oí the ways by which corporate
agriscience strategically positions itselí in relation to stakeholders on issues oí
hunger and agricultural de·elopment. linally, in Chapter 22, \alters uses an
interpreti·e approach to examine how high school students construct meaning
through interaction with íood and the en·ironment to íurther understand
iníluences on the dietary patterns oí youth.
As stated earlier, íood pro·ides a rich ·ehicle by and through which
communication occurs. lood is both constituted by a people or culture and it is
constituti·e oí people and cultures. It transcends nation, race, class, and gender,
e·en as it deíines them. 1he possibilities íor communication scholars seem
endless when íood is conceptualized in this way. One íruitíul area to consider is
the ·ery deíinition oí communication itselí. lor some, communication is a
x·iii lood as Communication,Communication as lood

process that attempts to create-and sometimes, perhaps írequently,
achie·es-shared meaning, a process that is iníluenced by myriad íactors such
as social and cultural context, participants, moti·ations, purposes, and goals ,or
the lack thereoí,. But as other communication scholars ha·e rightly obser·ed,
communication is also the process by which a society or culture comes into
being. In this sense, communication has constituti·e power and is not merely a
process oí creating something external-or ancillary to-the makeup oí a
society or culture. Considered semiotically, communication could also be
construed as the process by which objects are iníused with meaning or the
arena in and through which symbols íunction. And, íor some, communication
is its technology-the media through which the process occurs and through
which we connect with others. linally, communication may be understood in its
simplest expression, as a con·ersation. 1he chapters in this book ha·e
considered both íood and communication in ·aried ways, leading us to
conclude that whate·er deíinition or perspecti·e oí communication is
pri·ileged, íood remains one oí its most ílexible and useíul models.
It is hoped that this edited ·olume not only will contribute to studies oí
íood in communication but also will ser·e as a means íor spurring íuture
dialogues on this subject due to its ·ast array oí ideas about íood and its
relationship to our communication practices. \e hope, too, that scholars will
reconsider models oí communication based on the insights that íood and its
discourses pro·ide.
Barthes, R. ,2008,. 1oward a psychosociology oí contemporary íood consumption. In C.
Counihan & P. Van Lsterik ,Lds.,, íooa ava cvttvre: a reaaer ,2
ed., ,pp. 28-35,. New \ork:
Brillat-Sa·arin, J. ,2000,. 1be ¡b,.iotog, of ta.te: Or, veaitatiov. ov trav.cevaevtat ga.trovov,. ,M.l.K.
lisher, 1rans.,. \ashington, DC: Counterpoint.
Burke, K. ,1969,. . rbetoric of votire.. Berkeley, CA: 1he Uni·ersity oí Caliíornia Press.
Carey, J. ,1992,. Covvvvicatiov a. cvttvre: í..a,. ov veaia ava .ociet,. New \ork: Routledge.
Cooks, L. ,2009,. \ou are what you ,don`t, eat· lood, identity, and resistance. 1e·t ava Perforvavce
Qvartert,, 2·, 1, 94-110.
Counihan, C. ,1999,. 1be avtbro¡otog, of fooa ava boa,: Cevaer, veavivg, ava ¡orer. New \ork,
DeCerteau, M. ,2002,. General introduction to the practice oí e·eryday liíe. In B. lighmore
,Ld.,. 1be erer,aa, tife reaaer ,pp. 63-¯5,. London: Routledge.
Douglas, M. ,2008,. Deciphering a meal. In C. Counihan & P. Van Lsterik ,Lds.,, íooa ava cvttvre:
a reaaer ,2
ed., ,pp. 44-53,. New \ork: Routledge.