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Sticky: Welcome to SCOM 313 Food Communication: Intro to Food Communication 1

2012 May 14
by Paul Mabrey

Welcome to SCOM 313 Food Communication

Hi everyone! Welcome back to school, James Madison University (JMU) and our class, School of Communication Studies (SCOM) 313: Food Communication. SCOM 313 is a special topics class and I have the pleasure of, again, offering this course with a focus on food communication.

My interest in food, like many, has been a natural (even necessary) lifelong interest and driven by diverse forces. On the one hand, I have always struggled with my relationship to food. From diverging opinions with my parents about what I should be eating for dinner to diet for weight loss regimes and the intentional act of cutting animals and most of their by-products from my diet. On the other hand, I became interested in food as an object of study in graduate school as I was trying to think of a way to concretize or better understand biopower, a sometimes difficult theoretical concept.

After moving to Harrisonburg, JMU and the Shenandoah Valley; my interest in food communication almost seemed inevitable. So many great people, initiatives, projects and communities were, are or are in the process of emerging around the issue of food in the Shenandoah Valley; itself strong evidence about the importance of place and space for one’s identity, politics and so much more. Even since the Summer of 2011, so much has happened and changed. The Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market has grown, the Friendly City Food Co-op has opened, more  relationships and dialogue has happened between Valley farmers and interested parties, local institutions are making changes regarding important food choices and even more external pressure (both good and bad) is being felt to change current practices. It seems like around every corner, someone is talking about, advertising, transporting or JUST eating food.

Intro to Food Communication 1

What is food communication? How do we understand food communication? And importantly, how are we to create and share meaning centered around food and communication? In our course description we say that we will propose, consider and analyze the different relationships between communication and food and how these relationships negotiate our identities, cultures and environments. But what does it mean when we refer to food, communication or for our purposes, food communication?

Food communication or the study of food communication intersects two different disciplines, communication studies and food studies. Each discipline, as is suggested by Greene and Cramer, LeBesco and Naccarato and Miller and Deutsch, has its own working definitions, methods, disciplinary arguments, disabling blindspots, richness, ideologies, opportunities for freedom and the list could go on.

Greene and Cramer cite numerous scholars to help create their understanding of communication. They frame communication in several places:
– Communication as the process by which we understand the world and share that understanding with others.
– Communication as the symbolic process where reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed.
– Communicative practices by which we create, manage and share meanings with others.
For them, and this should resonate with how you have come to understand communication in your classes, communication is a process whereby we largely understand the world (including ourselves) and share those worlds with one another.

LeBesco and Naccarato build on this working definition of communication through their use of Roland Barthes and his work on myths. Myths are one of those ways, a dominant way even, in which we build and share meaning. LeBesco and Naccarato argue that myths are a useful tool for understanding our communicative practices because myths help reveal what we normally taken for granted as natural or given is in fact socially created and the richness of our myths. Further, Barthes introduces ideology into myths. Here ideology is a system of values, ideas, actions and practices that are privileged while simultaneously other values, ideas, actions, practices etc are foreclosed. And so it is with our myths that particular ideologies are circulated. LeBesco and Naccarato’s contribution to our working understanding of communication is that within and throughout our process of sharing meaning, that meaning is never neutral.

While communicating, we are always circulating a particular (or many) way(s) of viewing and understanding the world. For them, this does not necessarily have to be oppressive or destructive. We always here about how an ideology is making us want to do things and these things are typically bad; whether the ideologies at play encourage us to consume more, eat meat, litter, be patriarchal, go to war etc. Well, for LeBesco and Naccarato, ideologies also enable us to do good, productive things; like resist oppression, find and experiment with pleasure, enjoy freedoms etc.

Finally, a common thread through all of our readings on communication to this point is the emphasis on the everyday. The everyday is meant to convey all of the different acts and practices of communication that we might take for granted. So, in saying hello to the mailperson, buying a jug of milk, going to the movie theater, driving a car – all of these seemingly small inconspicuous communicative acts constitute important components of our meaning sharing with ourselves and with others.

Food studies, as Miller and Deutsch introduce to us, is concerned NOT with food per se but with the relationships between food and human experiences. So, the full range of experiences and relationships that we have with food is taken as the object of food studies. These relationships may concern human identity and culture or the production and consumption processes for cultivating food and much else. Because the range of food relationships is so large, so too are those disciplines expressing interest in food studies.

Really, Miller and Deutsch argue, food studies is an interdisciplinary field. Scholars from disciplines such as anthropology, history, philosophy, economics, biology and geography research, write and think about food relationships. But the discipline is unique in that it actively extends beyond traditional academic scholarship. Chefs, culinary critics, policymakers, farmers and others have also published, attended conferences and generated support for the study of food relationships. And recently, the field of people interested in food studies has reached the popular mainstream. From the television shows and cooking clubs to food cooperatives, foodies, farmer’s markets and food documentaries aimed at food industries, it seems everyone has taken aim at food relationships.

Food Communication
Hopefully now the affinities between the study of how we share meaning and the study of food relationships in becoming more clear. From the perspective of communication studies, food has and continues to be an important symbol in our creation of meaning. Greene and Cramer refer to food as a nonverbal way we create, share and transform meaning with others. Food is a site for not just sharing meaning but it is also a place where we struggle over meaning. For example, the traditional political struggle over food meanings might happen in discussions and congressional debate over the food pyramid. Or in the non-traditional but everyday struggle over meaning, the burger king ad placed above, “It’ll Blow Your Mind Away,” offers opportunities to analyze or even protest the meaning of that particular food relationship and the ideologies that might be communicated.

Of course, though it might seem more obvious now that communication scholars would be interested in the role food has in creating and sharing meaning, the readings suggest this has not always been the case. Both pieces situated within communication studies suggest the discipline is behind other disciplines in thinking the role of food on creating meaning and relationships. Even the piece on food studies does not list communication as one of the fields making up its interdisciplinary interest.

Food Unhappy Child


Do you think communication studies as a field has largely ignored the role of food?
What reasons can you think of for why food has not been researched very much from a communication perspective?
How can the field of food studies benefit from a communication perspective?
Why has there been a recent explosion in the popularity of food, studying food and food relationships?
How can food contribute or alter the ways we think about communication?

14 Responses leave one →
  1. mccrodsm permalink
    May 14, 2012

    These three readings gave me a lot of insight to the neglect of communications studies in the food industry that I had never really gave much thought to before. Until just recently, the role of food in everyday life was more of a means of necessity than of observation and interest. As LeBesco and Naccarato said in their work, the twentieth century has been a monumental era of expansion in the food industry. Society’s new-found interest and fascination with food has created a whole new meaning to food culture. Celebrity chefs, extreme food challenges, thousands and thousands of published food magazines and cookbooks, all of these things have completely changed what food means to our society. What I not sure of is whether or not food communication studies would have flourished quite as much without the influence of these huge commercial operations?
    I don’t think the topic of food in relation to communication was simply overlooked; it is very ambiguous and a very challenging thing to put a definition on (as seen by the numerous definitions given in this week’s readings). The very definitions of ‘food,’ ‘communication,’ and ‘culture’ are so diverse, coupled with the diversity of the cultures and people who create these definitions, it is an extremely difficult field to master and explain. Because food communication can be covered from such a wide variety of angles, like the four examples in Miller’s “Food Studies,” I am excited to read the different essays we will be covering in this class to get a good overview of the field and all of the areas it researches.

  2. brubakra permalink
    May 14, 2012

    I am surprised that I have never heard of, or even thought about a food communication class through my college career. Now that I am aware of it, it seems hard to believe that I didn’t have a class in this subject in high school, nonetheless as a GenEd possibly in college. Food communication has so much to say, so much to teach, and especially in this day and age, is really important to understand. That is the main reason why I am taking this class! I want to know about this field of communication that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.

    In all honesty, I think food communication hasn’t been studied as much because of its false simplicity: we eat to survive. What else is there to food, other than its substantial need? There is so much more, and I like what you said above that food leads to the creation of meaning for others and ourselves. In all four of the abstracts in the Miller and Deutsch article, there are levels of memories, definitions, and identities people have that create them, and they all have to do with food communication. I think that’s incredible that we can learn so much about a person, simply by their food habits, choices, and understandings. I think in America, with the bad habits of fast food, huge portions, and unhealthy dieting, among other things, the study of food communication has reason to grow and can help us better understand each other, feel better about ourselves, and possibly have a better ideal of beauty.

    • Josie permalink
      May 22, 2012

      In response to brubakra, I like your reasoning for why communication studies tend to overlook food as a topic of study. I didn’t think of it this way when I was answering the question. You’re right; people tend to think of food as a means to survive and that’s it. It’s a simplistic term that tends to only be thought of for exactly what it is.
      Also, I agree with you on how incredible it is how much we can tell about a person just by what they eat and how they view food. I like in the Miller and Deutsch article with they talk about women cooking in a kitchen coming up with conversation topic that they wouldn’t have thought of had they not been cooking together. It reminds me of when my roommates and I had our families at our place for dinner and we all cooked together. Toni, one of my roommates, and her family were preparing pasta, salad, and bread: the typical Italian meal. Then my mom comes in with canolis and that’s where the conversation started: “Oh! Are you all Italian,” Toni’s mom said to my mom. “Same!” And thus started the longest, most enjoyable conversation ever and our two families instantly bonded. If Toni’s family didn’t cook pasta and my family didn’t make canolis, that instant bonding between our two families may have never existed. So, you’re right to point out how incredible it is how much you can tell about a person by what they eat. In this case, both of our family’s culture was revealed through the food we had prepared. Miller and Duetsch were right in saying that a conversation about food in the kitchen brings up topics of conversation that might not have been brought up otherwise.

    • Josie permalink
      May 22, 2012

      My bad. Ignore the “pen” in the middle of the two paragraphs.

  3. Danielle Tamulis permalink
    May 14, 2012

    I didn’t realize what food communication entailed until I read the readings. There are so many meanings of food communication that I wasn’t aware of. For instance, in Jacobsen’s reading “The Rhetoric of Food,” Jacobsen classifies food as three different things; nature, a commodity, and culture. I was not aware of all the different types of food communication or the fact that you could even research food communication until I heard about this course from one of my friends. After reading the articles posted on Blackboard, I have a new perspective on food communication. Food can define us as a person. You can learn so much about a person by what they eat. For instance, my sister is on this new crazy health kick and started “juicing” for five days to cleanse her body. Some people are very self conscious and are always concerned how others perceive them. Most of the time those types of people are known to be healthy eaters, they watch what they eat and exercise all the time. Others, choose fast food restaurants and are less likley to spend there free time exercising at the gym. I agree with brubakra’s post above that it is amazing how we can learn about a person simply by noticing their choice in foods. The topic of food communication is so diverse. I am looking forward to learning all the different types of food communication and how it can apply to our everyday lives.

  4. Emma Hubbard permalink
    May 17, 2012

    Food communication involves both communication studies and food studies. I agree with Greene and Cramer who say that food is an example of “taken for granted” culture of everyday life. The authors say food is much more than just a means of survival, which immediately led me to think about what else food means and how it can shape cultures and identities. LeBesco and Naccarato refer to the work of Roland Barthes and his definition of myths which is, “a system of communication.” Myths can help reveal or discover what we usually take for granted. Miller and Deutsch discuss how food studies is the study of the relationship between food and the human experience. Some people may not connect food with experience, but rather think of food as a mere way for survival. All of these articles have given me insight about how communication studies as a field has overlooked the role of food, rather than largely ignored it. Food communication is a subject that I had not heard of before taking this class. I have learned about signs and symbols, whether they are verbal or nonverbal, that can shape cultures and identities, but I have not learned about food and communication. I don’t think people are aware of how food and communication can relate to each other. I believe that people simply view food as a way to survive, and as something that is necessary. Food has not been researched very much from a communication perspective because people do not know that food and communication can be associated with one another. People may view food as a way to survive, and also as traditional experience. Many different cultures use different types of food and meals as part of tradition, which can create a bonding experience for those involved. However, I do not believe that people think of communication when they think of food.

    The field of food studies can benefit from a communication perspective. If people start to look at food through a communication perspective, they can learn about how food shapes their culture and identity. They can learn that what type of food they eat is communicating something about themselves to the public. For example, if someone only eats organic food, then they are communicating to the public that sustainable practices are important to them, and that they are not willing to eat food that contains chemicals. People who eat organic food may think that this is simply a choice for them, but it is also saying something about their identity. This can lead to a person discovering things about themselves, such as being concerned about their health and what kinds of foods they are consuming and how this will affect them.

    There has been a recent explosion in the popularity of food, studying food, and food relationships. LeBesco and Naccarato say that the twentieth century has seen a boom in the industry of representing food and foodways, celebrity chef worship, culinary boot camps, lush food magazine spreads, and much more. I believe that there has been much more attention on food due to the growing percentage of obesity in the United States, and also due to the growing number of unhealthy eating habits we see in Americans.

    Food can contribute or alter the ways we think about communication. It can allow people to see that what kinds of food they produce, purchase, or consume is saying something about themselves. For example, if a company uses very sustainable practices, this is communicating to the public that the company truly cares about where the food comes from and how it is made. Food can also teach people that we are constantly communicating, whether it is verbally or nonverbally. If someone is grocery shopping and only choosing foods that a vegetarian would eat, that is communicating part of that person’s identity to the public. People can start to think about the food that they eat, and how it builds experiences with family and friends, and also how it can create traditions. People may begin to think more about the food they eat, and what they want it to say about themselves. Parents may also begin to choose more healthy foods to eat, because this will communicate to their children what kind of food is good for their bodies and will lead to a healthy lifestyle.

    • scalesaj permalink
      May 17, 2012

      In responce to Emma Hubbard,
      I think that you hit the nail on the head about food being part of a taken for granted culture. It is so visible that we feel as if there’s nothing left to find out even though that’s not the case. This taken for granted culture is questioned when issues of food are raised and it quickly becomes evident that there is much more than biological reactions going on. In my opinion America has been moving away from a relationship with food and more to convenience but that seems to have begun to change. As you pointed out, there is a much greater popularity with food and cooking of late which seems to be spilling over into diverse fields as bioengineering, television, agriculture, and luckily for us, Scom! This is eroding the taken for granted culture but it is still a prevalent mind set.

      • kikomr permalink
        May 17, 2012

        In response to both of you,

        I also believe that food is being taken for granted. In Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint, he states that 10,000 years ago, our ancestors lived for food. They would go days without it as well, if there was a bad season for a certain plant or herd of animals. I believe that because of the mass production and globalization of this profit-driven food market, food is not a necessity anymore; it is a mere accessory to our busy lives that we live while having phones glued to our ears and thumbs.

  5. Emma Hubbard permalink
    May 17, 2012

    In response to brubakra’s comment:

    I completely agree with you about being surprised about not hearing of a food communication class throughout college. I have taken many different communications courses and have learned about what can shape cultures and identities, but I am very surprised that food has never come up in any of my previous classes. I also agree with you that food communication has so much to teach and is very important to understand. I believe that people can benefit from learning about food communication.

    I also have the same thoughts as to why food communication hasn’t been studied much. Many people simply think of food as something we need to survive. I liked how you said, “What else is there to food, other than its substantial need?” because I think that is how many people view food. They don’t give much thought about how food can shape our identities. I also liked how you mentioned that in Miller and Deutsch’s article, the authors said that there are levels of memories, definitions, and identities people have that create them, which all have to deal with food communication.

    I had the same idea as you that the reason food communication needs to grow is because of America’s poor eating habits. Our country offers huge portions and you can find a fast food chain just about anywhere you go. This is communicating to our society that it is acceptable to eat such large amounts of food and such unhealthy foods.

    So, I guess the question is, will people or society as a whole start looking at food through a communication perspective and will this help us understand how food is communicating something about our identities? Can we escape from large portions and unhealthy food choices, which may be considered societal norms?

  6. mccrodsm permalink
    May 17, 2012

    In response to brubakra’s and Emma Hubbard’s comments-

    I was surprised as well about never having previously been taught anything about food communication. Even though discussion on the topic is a recently new development, “recent” means years now, and I would think it could fit somewhere into the curriculum of a high school biology, psychology or sociology class.

    My thoughts as to why food communication has not been a popular subject to study is a bit different though. I do agree with both of you that yes, it is partly because food is first and foremost a means of survival. But I do also think that when food comes to mind, many people think about things more than just necessity. Whether it be food in relation to their favorite celebrity chef, the restaurant their family likes to eat at on weekends, or traditional home-cooked meals, everyone has so many other ties toward what they eat than its basic form of nutrition.

    That being said, I don’t think many people having taken the next step from thinking about food in ways related to their own life to thinking about food in ways related to an entire culture. There is a big difference between studying something on an individual level, to studying how it relates to masses of people. Now that more books are being published and articles are being written on the subject of food communication, I think it will raise awareness and thought. Without these publications, I don’t think large-scale is something most people think about in their day to day food decisions, for example, if one day they decide to buy more expensive, local honey at the store instead of the honey inside the plastic, squeezable bear.

    • brubakra permalink
      May 18, 2012

      Mccrodsm, your other thoughts on why food comm isn’t that popular in schools brought up a side to the subject that I wasn’t even thinking about! Culture is so important to our identities it only makes sense that something with as much cultural influence as food be studied more. Here’s my concern: when I think about studying American food, I am conflicted because of the melting pot of a culture that we have here. True, yes, we have the quintessential American hamburger, corn dog, and fried pickles, but what about the other Americans who are Mexican, Italian, or Northern European? If someone from another country asked me what I identified with as an American, it wouldn’t be anything fried or fast food…

  7. scalesaj permalink
    May 17, 2012

    After reading these articles I realized how small a focus the communication field has on food, and that food still manages to sneak its way into my classes because it is just so encompassing. In my mediation class, there is no focus on food but they also recommend that when you’re working with people of different cultures, you should start your mediation with a meal, to symbolically break bread between these two different parties. In my persuasion class, again not focused on food at all, but they talked about how giving a cookie could help to entice someone to help you. This fits into what Miller and Deutsch argued, about how interdisciplinary the study of food can be, as well as what they said about how it focused on the mundane every day aspects of food.
    I also understand how this can lead to a disregard of food studies as well. We see food every day, I don’t think I have gone a day without eating in years and it makes us blind to the forest because of all the trees. We just don’t think about it because what’s there to think about? Well apparently a whole lot. I particularly liked the abstract which talked about how public school cafeterias played a roll in the life of young Latinos.
    In spite of this I think that communication studies is a great field to dive into food studies. Other fields of study can tell us about food but I feel that only communication studies can get to the interrelated systems in the American food market and tease them out to show the real broader significant which will bring other field into the mix.

  8. kikomr permalink
    May 17, 2012

    I agree with Miller and Deutsch in that food studies are concerned with the relationships, and not specifically food itself. Food is connected to both ritual and culture, as Cramer and Greene state, and food should be treated not as an object, but as a symbolic piece that connects us to others and the environment around us.
    When studying two somewhat unrelated topics, it is always interesting in how both topics are intertwined together, and how they differ. For my senior seminar class two semesters ago, I focused on environmental policy and how religious affiliation might affect politicians’ final votes on legislation. Now that I look back, going through essay after essay attempting to find a match between the two topics seems much more different than what the authors in the food communication realm are doing. The connection is already there, but it is almost subtle because we do not notice it all the time.
    Once it becomes common knowledge to view food through the communication realm I believe that it will benefit the consumer of the food, their friends, and people around them.

  9. Josie permalink
    May 21, 2012

    Yes, I do think communications studies as a field has largely ignored the role of food. These readings made me realize how significant food is not only for our survival, but also for the way we communicate. Though, I am not currently a Communications major, I was at one point and from what I remember, the classes I took in the major did not mention food once. This shocked me especially after all of our readings. It has become clear to me now how significant food is in the way we communicate. I like how Greene and Cramer put it: “In this way, we can view food as a form of communication because it is a nonverbal means by which we share meaning with others (p. x).” This was what first helped me understand the connection between food and communication because it points out the “nonverbal” aspect food has in communication. Just how someone’s looks and gestures can communicate something to us without actually saying anything, the way we eat, what we eat, and whom we eat with does the same by “nonverbally” communicating with others. Communication studies as a field should find a way to better incorporate the role of food in their curriculum because clearly it’s more significant than we realize.

    Food probably hasn’t been researched very much from a communication perspective because it “functions symbolically as a communicative practice,” as Cramer and Greene put it (page xi). It tends to get overlooked as a means by which we communicate because it isn’t directly how we tend to communicate with others. Studies in communication tend to be more general and direct about the means by which we communicate. Meaning, we think in more practical terms. Means by which we communicate to us are the basics (email, phone, in-person, skype, etc.).

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