Food Choice, Symbolism, and Identity: Bread and Butter Issues for Folkloristics and Nutrition Studies (American Folklore Society Presidential Address, October 2005)
Abstract

Research on food abounds, from the history of differing types of fare to the relationship between provisioning and culture, gender roles, and eating disorders. In disciplines concerned with health and nutrition, few studies focus on the metaphorical aspects of alimentation; while many ethnographic works do deal with the symbolic nature of gastronomy, they tend to emphasize eating as commensality and food as an expression of identity in ethnic, regional, and religious groups. Symbolic discourse involving cuisine is pervasive and complex, however, manifesting itself in a wide variety of contexts and exhibiting multiple meanings that may be ambiguous, conflicting, or pernicious. Understanding how messages are conveyed through culinary behavior requires an examination not only of victuals but also of the preparation, service, and consumption of food—for all are grist for the mill of symbolization. Here, I bring together a number of ideas about the iconic nature of cooking and eating: what is fodder for symbol creation, how and why meanings are generated, and what some of the effects of food-related representations are. I also problematize identity as it relates to food. My goal is to suggest directions for future research on foodways as well as applications in fields concerned with nutrition education, counseling, and dietary change.