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Identity, Food and Communication

2012 May 16
by Paul Mabrey
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I believe the cliche runs something akin to human identity is like an onion. Similar to the different layers of an onion, humans are layered in our different character traits, influences, identity components, cultures etc. Some think we stink, others we make cry…no, just kidding; sort of. I am fairly certain this is a cliched heuristic we have all heard or used to help us explain or understand how our respective identities.

Certainly this figure of speech is heard in a different light given our reflection on language and food. We read and wrote about how our discursive choices frame food in certain tropes, like food as a fuel for the body renders our bodies as machines. Identity as an onion seems to change the direction, now food is deployed to better understand our own character, relationships and being. What might be some of the implications of understanding identity through the lens of an onion? Or through food period?

Greene and Parasecoli offer examples of how one might go about asking questions, analyzing and drawing conclusions about the relationships between food, identity and communication. For both Greene and Parasecoli, identity is best understood as performative. Reading identity as performance relies on many of the communication theories and concepts that we have read and reviewed. The performance of identity happens in the everyday; each action, decision, speech act, act of signification and whatever it is that we do, with intent or not, communicates or says something about who we are. Or at least, who we think ourselves to be, want ourselves to be or think we want ourselves to be etc. And of course, our identity performance is constituted not just by what we do but also importantly what we do not do, say, signify, communicate etc. And it is here where food becomes such a critical piece of our performance.

The beauty of the performative is that our identities are not static or given. Our identities are not determined ahead of time for us but are constantly in the act of being performed. And maybe this is where the onion figure of speech disintegrates. Yes, we are constituted by layers, even very complicated layers. But those layers change, disappear, new layers emerge, maybe we even are no longer layered. The onion itself is a performance and like peeling back an onion, once all of the layers have been peeled, you are left with nothing. No-thing.

But this lack of an essence or core to our identity should not scare or haunt us, on the contrary it should activate us, invigorate us. It means that identities can be changed, altered, transformed or performed differently. Barthes and Greene’s commentary on taste demonstrates this. Taste, like any of the characteristics of our identity, is not natural. Taste does not come from our genes or biology. Taste is taught, learned and performed. Tastes change. Think back to some of the foods or tastes you loved as a child but no longer enjoy. For me, I used to love our Saturday morning homemade pizzas. I would slather mine with bologna, pepperoni and sliced hot dogs, a boys dream. Now, I can’t even imagine touching that pizza slice with a ten foot pole. Of course, reflecting back on that pizza – it was not just pizza but an experience, I enjoyed spending that time with my family. Or think about some of the foods/tastes you used to hate, even just a few years ago that you now enjoy. This is Greene’s argument about the Slow Food Movement and the re-education and re-training of our tasted buds. Like our tastes, our identities can be transformed.

Screenshot from movie RatatouilleIdentity cannot be thought of or performed alone or in isolation. We must think and understand identity through our relationships, our communicative practices and interactions with others. Here, both Greene and Parasecoli present good explanations of how this relationship between individually performed identity and others. For Greene, our identities are constituted through a murky combination of our own self-styling and our incorporation of outside ideologies, characteristics, values, traits etc. This negotiation constitutes our individual identities. Parasecoli advances a similar understanding but warns that it is necessary to keep the distinction between our cultural representations or ideologies and our everyday individual realities. Just because we watch American blockbuster movies does not necessarily mean that we will identify with and perform hegemonic masculinities.

Food For Thought

Greene and Parasecoli represent our first research focused pieces. What did you think about their methods? The selection of their respective texts? Did their method justify their usages of their texts?

What was the significance for each piece? What is the pay-off for the reader? What is the author hoping to accomplish?

Greene re-introduces the food as commodity trope. Does the food as commodity, in this case an emphasis on slow, local and aestheticallypleasurable experience, trope in this case function destructively as Jacobsen indicated? Positively?

Greene juxtaposes the utopia and gourmand as competing identities at the slow food table? Did she make that case? Do you agree?

What do you think of Parasecoli’s claim that movies are a performance of a performance? What does that do for our understanding of identity? Does his claim change how we should watch movies?

Parasecoli claims that the relationship between food and masculinity play a largely background role in the U.S. blockbusters he analyzed, how does this effect his study? His argument?

6 Responses leave one →
  1. brubakra permalink
    May 18, 2012

    I thought these two articles that focused on the research into a certain movement or hypothesis, were intriguing, because of their similarities and the valid points that both made. Each author fleshed out his/her idea without sounding biased or elitist, which makes the readings more relatable and informative. I thought Greene’s whole essay was set up in a way where we could really understand the Slow Food Movement and the idea behind social style before she dove into breaking down the identities produced by the two. Parasecoli was smart to not simply pick random movies to analyze for food scenes, but ones that possible have the most impact on society, world wide, which added to the credibility in his research. Yet, choosing only Blockbusters might have hindered Parasecoli’s study as well. I think if he did another study, he could look at movies that are seen only as masculine movies, such as Fight Club or The Hangover, and see how those movies, meant for more male audiences, match up to his categories. I latched onto one of Parasecoli’s points about how people ‘borrow’ identities and attitudes they see in the movies into everyday life. It’s almost a little scary how much we let the movies that are fantastical or have even realistic stories play so much influence in our lives. It’s hard to maintain an identity that isn’t influenced by media nowadays… I also loved Parasecoli’s focus on the importance of the dinner table, and how this setting carries over in different cultures, eras, and individual memories. In this quote, Parasecoli reminds us that sharing in a meal together can be a very powerful thing: “meals unite and divide […] they connect those who share them, confirm their identities as individuals and a s a collectivity, and reinforce their mutual bond” (169). Thinking about my past, the dinner table was a ritual time of the day when the families sat down together and enjoyed each other’s presence and were grateful for the meal. Or well, that was what was supposed to be the case. Many times, yelling or crying would ensue, the meal was wasted or critiqued, or the conversation was anything but enjoyable. This reminds me how much out rituals for eating are influential in our lives and how strange it is that something that holds so much power, food, is so often overlooked when it comes to illustrating identities. Like with the whole onion idea above! Food, and our interactions with it, can show multiple layers of who we are, what effects us, and how we interact with others based on their interactions with food. It’s as if the initial layer of the onion was the performance that we give, that might not always show what’s really on the inside but that is how people will perceive and understand you in everyday life.
    Lastly, Greene presented well-rounded views of the two personas she found in the Slow Food movement. I thought she addressed their strengths and weaknesses well in regards to their support of the movement, differing positions, and actions desired. She notes how idealized the Utopian Foodie is, elitist the Grand Gourmand is, but with research and descriptions that aren’t derogatory or condescending, but observative and thoughtful. I found that her article about the Slow Food movement made me want to learn more about it and it asked me to pay attention on how food leads us to perform, especially how that performance changes situationally!

    • Josie permalink
      May 21, 2012

      In response to brubakra, the two quotes you “latched” on to from Parasecoli were my favorite as well. His idea that people “burrow identities” and attitudes they see in the media (movies, tv shows, magazines, etc.) is priceless. I can’t tell you how many times my friends tell me I need to stop basing my life decisions on what a character from F.R.I.E.N.D.S., the tv show, would do. F.R.I.E.N.D.S. has always been my favorite tv show and since I watch it so much it always comes to mind. When I was debating whether or not to date my best guy friend, I thought well it worked out for Chandler and Monica dating a best friend so why wouldn’t it work for Adam and I? It’s funny to think about how much F.R.I.E.N.D.S. has influenced me, but also a little “scary” like you said. I can see why you think it’s scary because almost everyone I know quotes movies all the time and has a role model from a movie or TV show. It’s a little pathetic actually.

      The other quote that you “latched” onto of Parasecoli’s was the one about how important family dinners are in forming and “confirm[ing]” your identity. I also really liked this quote and how it reminded you of dinners with your family. It did the same for me. I cannot imagine where I’d be without growing up with the nightly family dinners, where we’d talk out issues and laugh together, “uniting” as Parasecoli put it. I like how he says it “confirms” your identity too. I don’t see myself as being a self-conscious person probably because I had my family there at the dinner table to tell what is and isn’t okay all my life. My friend growing up didn’t have nightly family dinners and that could have something to do with why she’s so self-conscious now. In fact, I found an interesting quote in my psychology book that talks of this study called The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health of more than 12,000 adolescents and it showed that “those who did not eat dinner with a parent five or more days a week had dramatically higher rates of smoking, drinking, marijuana use, getting into fights, and initiation of sexual activity.” So, Parasecoli brings up a great point about how “powerful” these family dinners really are. Without them and this identity confirmation from family, adolescents are more likely to resort to drugs and go down a bad path in life.


      (The psychology book I mentioned)

      Feldman, Robert S. (2011). LIFE SPAN DEVELOPMENT A Topical Approach. Boston: Prentice Hall

  2. gilliakl permalink
    May 18, 2012

    I agree with you that Greene presented well-rounded views of the two personas she found in the Slow Food Movement. This article really made me think about our society and culture. We are so fast paced and we value the ability to grab and go. As a college student that really hit home for me. I do not take the time out to make home cooked meals because it takes more time and effort than just going to a dining hall or ordering a pizza. This article made me want to research the Slow Food movement even more.

  3. gilliakl permalink
    May 18, 2012

    What do you think of Parasecoli’s claim that movies are a performance of a performance? What does that do for our understanding of identity? Does his claim change how we should watch movies?

    I agree with Parasecoli’s claim that movies are a performance of a performance. I believe that movies and most forms of entertainment are mirrors of society. At times the may be over the top at times but they depict what they see in our own society. This does not have to be a bad thing though. I think that because movies sometimes mirror reality that movies sometimes can shape our perceptions about reality. If we think that what we see is real then we are more likely to try to portray those things in our day to day lives.

  4. May 21, 2012

    What do you think of Parasecoli’s claim that movies are a performance of a performance? What does that do for our understanding of identity? Does his claim change how we should watch movies?

  5. Katie Love permalink
    June 8, 2012

    I must say that I absolutely love the onion analogy to our identities and us. While at first it frightened me to consider that once each layer is peeling away we are left with nothing of our identity’s- your challenge to not let this scare us greatly intrigued me. It provoked me to think that we should maybe think of onions as times in our lives, stages or ages. Getting a new onion with each few years and experiencing new layers, all the way down to a new core or self but remembering our old layers from onions past.
    It was also nice to be reminded that taste is a very unnatural thing yet I believe it is one of the most natural phenomena to experience and enjoy different things, have different tastes.
    Greene’s article on the Slow Food Table was incredibly interesting to me! I thought she presented it in an incredibly fair way and I find my opinion to be a fairly good judge of this because I had never heard of the Slow Food Table (ironically after writing this I was perusing the net and saw a website advertising this). She was fair in her analysis of the two kinds of audiences, Utopian Foodie and Grand Gourmand – giving the reader a better understanding of her point and objectives of Slow Food Table instead of biased, one-sided sub par explanations.

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