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Sticky: Identity, Food and Communication 2

2012 May 17
by Paul Mabrey

Yesterday we introduced and discussed how food intersects our understanding of identity. Food provides one way in which we construct, shape, negotiate, act, reflect on and ultimately perform our identities. This identity performance is necessarily communicative, meaning that in our acts of producing, preparing and consuming food; we are letting ourselves and others know something about ourselves. Again, this something may be characteristics we intend on communicating or our communicative acts may be sharing aspects of our identities that we are not even aware that we perform.

Our previous discussion on identity and food communication focused on the characteristics, styles or performances that exist within popular or mediated representations, how these performances are communicated and the potential implications of these representations. The pieces on the slow food movement and masculinties emphasized identifying and understanding the representations but spoke little to how we actually go about negotiating the relationship between these representation and our own identities. Our reading for today, Cosgriff-Hernández et al, offers us a slightly different emphasis. While still maintaining the attention to food communication and identity, they highlight the very real individual, family and community struggles faced in negotiating how one responds to the pressures from food representations.

An interesting difference in food communication emphasis was on the role of food. Instead of food and our food relationships changing our identities. I got the sense from Cosgriff-Hernández et al that many of the individuals participating (and thus arguably ourselves), alter food for or to serve the purposes of our identity. Not only do we consume different foods but the foods that we already have relationships with, we literally change their meaning for our identities. We transform the very same food through different communicative and ritualistic practices; like preparation or in the production.

The process of transforming food relationships is an integral aspect for what seems to be a way of negotiating the demands on our identities by different cultures. It should be no surprise that the question of agency is an important one for Cosgriff-Hernández et al. Within the narratives, individuals explain how they are able to reclaim their identity through the re-articulation of a food, by cooking and preparing it differently. Or in some cases, cooking it differently by cooking it the same; returning to a tradition or old culture style of preparation and consumption.

Especially interesting and something this piece adds to our conversation on food, communication and identity are the internal tensions we experience. It is not as if we occupy singular identities. The tensions we experience are not just among different cultural, ideological representations making demands on us as individuals. Often times, the contradictions and anxieties are driven by our own differing identities. For example, recall the study participants feeling the pull from the part of themselves recalling childhood food memories versus the part of them that is currently diabetic and needing to inhabit a different food identity relationship.

But how is it that individuals are able to navigate the demands of their identities in their food practices? Cosgriff-Hernández et al argue that by identifying the limits being imposed on one-self is a crucial initial step. These limits or challenges may be cultural, economic, resource, familiar, relational or even one-self can be a limit to change. Once known, the limits should be experimented with and resisted.

Food For Thought

Cosgriff-Hernández et al make the claim that communication scholars are uniquely positioned to analyze the tensions between agency and individuality on the one hand and ethnicity and culture on the other. Why is this the case? What is it about communication studies or communication scholars makes us positioned to do so?

Clearly the performance of gender matters. Gender was discussed as a culturally performed performance in Parasecoli’s piece on movie masculinities and in Cosgriff-Hernández et al piece gender was only briefly mentioned despite being a central theme throughout the narratives. Women were the primary cooks and mothers the storytellers of food. How is gender’s relationship to food different in these two pieces, if at all? What are the implications?

What stories might you tell about how food shapes and reshapes your identity? Is there a time in which you transformed or altered food for the purposes of maintaining or changing your identity?




5 Responses leave one →
  1. Danielle Tamulis permalink
    May 17, 2012

    Communication scholars have an advantage in understanding the identity and messages portrayed through the use of food communication. We are able to pick apart the meanings and inferences of our messages to better understand what we are portraying, what others are portraying and help bridge the gap for those who don’t intuitively grasp the intended message. As noted in the reading, ” Not only do we consume different foods but the foods that we already have relationships with, we literally change their meaning for our identities.” As communication majors we are better poised to understand the messages and meanings of our food which helps us to analyze their outcomes.

    I’ve grown up lucky enough to have parents who have introduced me to some great foods and dishes that many do not get to experience. When I came to JMU I did not have the time or financial means to create the lavish spreads I was fortunate enough to have at home. My food identity when coming to school up until I met my current boyfriend. Together we like to prepare dishes and experience new foods that I used to have in the past and new recipes we have never tried. He enjoys some of the foods I have introduced him to and vice verse. I initially wanted to change my identity away from pb&j’s back to the quality food I used to have to impress him and the trend continues as we both enjoy the mashing of our two food identities!

  2. mccrodsm permalink
    May 17, 2012

    I agree with Danielle, I also believe that communication scholars have an advantage over the average individual in analyzing the relationship between agency and individuality, and ethnicity and culture. They are trained to be able to pull apart these relationships, while also being able to effectively explain them.

    The time that stands out to me of when food reshaped my identity was in high school when I decided to try out vegetarianism. I lasted only six months, but in the process I put a strain on many family dinners and lunches out with friends. You don’t think about it before you make the decision, but when you are used to eating a certain way for seventeen years of your life to suddenly not being able to eat some of your favorite meals, I found it extremely challenging and I felt like a burden to the people I was eating with many times. But on a positive note, not being able to eat meat made me much more aware of what I was consuming on a daily basis- I had to make sure I knew all of the ingredients in recipes and also make sure that I planned ahead so I had other options available for me when my family fixed predominantly-meaty meals. I am not a vegetarian anymore, but the experience made me try a ton of new foods, and I still love eating things like veggie burgers, portobello mushroom wraps and stir fry with tofu instead of chicken.

  3. Maya Smith permalink
    May 18, 2012

    I agree with Danielle as well. Communication majors are trained to examine what is under the surface. We do not see food as food, but as a means of sharing and integrating different customs and cultures. Food is an extremely personal thing to many people because it gives individuals to take something that most people eat and reinvent it into a dish that they can call theirs. Cooking, though it does not come naturally for some, is a learned custom that many families pass down. It is not something that we are taught to question. As communication scholars, we are able to take a step back from the intimate family settings and evaluate what symbols and discourse add to the ritual of cooking and eating.

    When I was young, I was a very picky eater. I did not like the taste of meat at all, so from a young age I was a vegetarian. I would give my parents a hard time if they tried to make me eat chicken or hamburgers, but when I was at friends houses and their parents made a meat dish, I would always eat it. I think I felt bad turning down their food since they were kind enough to cook for me, so I would put my preconceived notions of meat aside and I would indulge in whatever dish was in front of me. From trying different dishes out of guilt, I learned to be a less picky eater at home too. Now I eat a turkey sandwich or chicken everyday!

  4. Josie permalink
    May 22, 2012

    Communication scholars have been trained to not only analyze individual food behavior, but also to observe the behavior of a group or “the norms and expectations of the group (ethnicity)” p.119. Communication scholars have a special skill that other scholars don’t because other scholars fail to analyze the “group dynamic of food.” This actually seemed true to me when reading a sociology student’s thesis on this website:

    Though communication scholars have a keen skill to analyze the group, the individual, and then explore the “tension” between the two, this student does a great job in doing that as well. So, maybe sociology scholars acquire this skill too? The student speaks of vegetarian identity and analyzes what the cultural norm is for a specific group of vegetarians then compares it to interviews she has with several different vegetarians and discovers that “real-life interactions often do not seem to fit vegetarian ideals.”

    My food identity always remains the same when I go to restaurants that I like. I always get the same thing: Victoria’s Filet at Outback, Shrimp Alfredo at Olive Garden, and Filet and Shrimp at Otanis. This probably communicates to the people I go out with that I am not open to trying new things, which is some what true. However, it’s more that I like what I like and if I’m going to those specific places, I am going to get those meals (stubborn, I know).

    Another time my food identity remains the same is for family traditions. Like I have told you guys, my family is Italian and on my mom’s side of the family, we make pasta from scratch every year the day after Christmas. Traditions are important for family bonding, so it’s crucial to have the same meal with the same people at the same time or it won’t feel right. We do the same for other holidays like Thanksgiving, where like most Americans, we eat turkey and stuffing. Thanksgiving food is more of a national norm as opposed to an ethnical norm. Pretty much everyone in American eats turkey, stuffing, and mash potatoes for Thanksgiving, but someone from say Canada wouldn’t understand the national tradition.

    My food identity tends to change when I go to my best friend, Jessica’s, house and spend time with her family. There they are extremely healthy almost to the point of being health-nuts. So, every time I leave their house, I pick up some new book, tape, or piece of advice that I didn’t previously know. I’ll follow the advice for a little, then slowly end up back to my normal food identity. For example, one time they told me how bad high fructose corn syrup was and for weeks I wouldn’t drink soda. However, then when I realized I missed soda and the caffeine it gives me, I started drinking it again. My food identity may change for a little, but always goes back to the way it was before in no time.

    The fact that I at least attempt to change aspects of my health based on what my best friend’s family tells me communicates to people that I am trusting of people’s advice. (Or maybe gullable? Haha)

    My food identity also changed when I came to college, where I began to eat less home cooked meals and more canned food. I try to still cook “family dinners” with my roommates, but some times there’s just no time. In college, you’re life is to study, so some traditions may fall down the drain temporarily, but once I graduate I will bring them all back. =)

  5. Katie Love permalink
    June 8, 2012

    I believe that communication scholars do, in fact have an advantage over those not in the field in understanding the identity and messages portrayed through the use of food communication. As one studies something repeatedly and passionately they are able to pick up clues within communication that well, communicate things about the world in mediums that seem abstract to the non scholar such as food. With our advanced understanding of identity and messages in basic mediums, it allows us to find them all around us while others aren’t looking for these minute details. These skills allow us to not only look at how people interact with one another in basic social settings but other messages such as what it means when a mother is teaching her daughter how to cook or why some people are vegetarian versus those who are not. Through this advanced understanding we are able to, happily, see that food choices mean so much more than things we are eating.
    Food has always played a huge role in my life, my love for it has remained unchanged and at a very young age I already understood the power it had over people (cooking something delicious versus awful) and social settings (Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday). However as I have grown up, my identity has changed, like most peoples and my relationship with food remains positive but regulated. Recently it has become more important for me to be able to fit into small sizes on the clothing rack thus limiting my burger intake at Jack Browns. I would say that this is me altering food for the purposes of maintaining a changed identity, when I was younger I didn’t have to worry about weight gain but now I do.

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