Eat your Words: Food as a System of Communication, by Sarah Hyndman

eat your words cover

Eat your Words: Food as a System of Communication and its role in a Post-culinary Society, by Sarah Hyndman

Sarah Hyndman, MA Typo/graphic Studies Thesis, February 2001 (Distinction). London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

Author’s note on the ‘post-culinary society’ of 2000/2001: At the time of writing there were concerns about the rise in popularity of convenience food and a generation who had not been taught how to cook. However, Jamie Oliver had just published The Naked Chef and Britain was soon to fall in love with cooking again.

Eat Your Words illustration of iced biscuits

“The ideal celebratory meal had a structure that started off with an appetising hot and messy dish of gravy over meat and potatoes (without which a meal is not a dinner), and became more of an architectural achievement as it went on through pudding (on a smaller plate), and tea with an optional small coloured biscuit (on a still smaller plate).” Michael Nicod

final piece


The intention of this project is to investigate food as a system of communication. It is an idea that began when a friend who had been away for a number of months saw a photograph of his fridge; he began a narrative of the recent events and visitors apparent to him from its contents. In storing the food and drink that played a central part in the communal events taking place in the apartment, the fridge was also a recorder of the social itinerary of the household. Our choice of food and the way we eat it betrays a great deal about us—from our background, culture, and social status to morals and lifestyle. We easily interpret it as surrogate emotion, and when shared with others it signifies the relationship we have with them.

The aim is to investigate this in greater depth, using semiotics to create a methodology for the interpretation of patterned behaviour that will help to create a deeper understanding of connotative codes and ultimately be applied to other areas of design. A questionnaire has been used to gather data to explore to explore some of the theories presented by the academic research—these include the trend towards eating alone, how knowledge of food convention is acquired, and the effect formality and intimacy have on a meal.

Today we purchase most of our food in a retail environment, we encounter it in pre-packaged form enveloped in the language of advertising which assigns further significance to the contents. Our knowledge of the conventions of food are no longer acquired solely through the family unit, instead it is gained from wide ranging exposure via the design and media industries, travel and eating outside the home. However, although interest in cooking is currently undergoing a renaissance, it is accompanied by greater consumption of ready-made, or convenience, food than ever before—indicative of a trend towards an increasingly post-culinary society.

The outcome of this project is formed from extrapolation of the gathered information, to produce a simple formula: food combined with ritual (categorised in terms of tribe, intimacy, formality and seduction) becomes communication.

The visual piece will present this in a static format using the range of symbols and codes that have evolved into a graphic visual style over the course of the project. The viewer effectively becomes involved in the discovery process by reading the equation and then investigating the supporting visual evidence, in this way the viewer is introduced to the concept of food as a system of communication in such a way that the process is revealed. This can be related to other areas of social intercourse including language and visual communication, and since these are fundamental to design this understanding will ultimately create a deeper understanding of the design process.

“Words issue from the lips as food enters them—though one can always take words back by eating them.”Terry Eagleton, Consuming Passions p203.



The aim of this project is to demonstrate that food is a system of communication and to use semiotics as a method of defining the categories into which its messages fall. It has been formed from a series of personal investigations into ritual and packaging as well as drawing upon established social and anthropological research. The focus is on ready-prepared main meals in what is rapidly becoming a post-culinary society*.

Human actions can be divided into two groups: those following pre-defined patterns and those that are spontaneous. Patterned behaviour can be read in terms of ‘connotative’ codes that, according to Stuart Hall are “particularly important as they cover the face of social life and render it classifiable, intelligible, and meaningful.”(1) These codes map out social and cultural meaning, defining the way we should behave to conform to or rebel against the conventions of the society we live in. These are absorbed by every member of a society from an early age and are so embedded in our behaviour through universal acceptance and repetition that they become almost invisible.

diagram 1

One patterned form of human behaviour is food preparation and consumption. For most species food fulfils a basic biological need and is generally consumed as and where it is found. However, for humans it also has a social function. We acquire, prepare and consume it according to a complex system of pre-defined rules, and it is this system of ritual that forms the basis for this project.

Claude Lévi-Strauss applied linguistic analysis to South American Indian food systems in the 1960s and a decade later anthropologist Mary Douglas became a “pioneer of the study of food within the social sciences.”(2) In her essay Coded messages(3) she explains that “the idea that food is a system of communication was much touted in the early 1970s, but no one tried to work out exactly how food communicates.”

At the time she was teaching in the anthropology department in University College, London and suggested that one of her students, Michael Nicod, study the “rules governing food in working-class London families”(3) for his masters thesis. Nicod intended to investigate the grammar of food rather than the meaning of individual elements, a methodology used by others such as Roland Barthes’ whose 1967 book Le Système du la mode was a linguistics approach to dress as a system of communication. Douglas illustrates this approach with the example:

“if a person I hardly know invites me to dinner at his house, what does it mean when baked beans on toast appear on my plate? It might mean that I am counted as an intimate friend entitled to homely food, or it might mean that I am a despised guest, unworthy of a decent dinner. It depends on the convention.”(4)

The main objective of Michael Nicod’s 1974 research project was “to test empirically the thesis that food is a medium of communication.” He explains that food is shared and exchanged and, like a language, “it affords a general set of possibilities for sending particular messages.”(5) Some forms of communication occur on a more overt level than others, food is a subtler form, the coding and decoding of the message occur on a more instinctive level. A practical example would be that different levels of meaning could be communicated through the delivery of the message: “I love you”. In choosing between spoken words, a gift of red roses or a candle-lit dinner for two.

As designers we produce visual work that conveys a message or idea to an audience. Since this requires a certain understanding of human behaviour, or anthropology, it could be suggested that one of our roles is therefore that of a visual anthropologist. This project is useful to the designer because it investigates the language of social behaviour. Analysing and shearing away the layers, examining each of the components that combine to create the overall message, will help to create a deeper understanding of the communication process and the different levels on which a message can be transmitted. This can then be applied to other areas of design.

There is no longer any need for food consumption to fit the pattern of three large meals a day, which originates with primitive man’s hunting routines. Since food is now constantly available in our society we could eat smaller and more frequent amounts which would be less stressful on the digestive system.(6)

We could also save a great deal of time* by removing the elaborate practice of conventional meals. They could be replaced by liquid-meal substitutes that are sipped through a straw whenever necessary, or taken as science-fiction style pills containing a balance of nourishment tailored to the needs of the individual.

We are, however, reluctant to change our eating patterns because the social function of food is vitally important to us. The rituals surrounding its consumption bind communities, establish and maintain bonds within them and remove a person from the rituals symbolically separating them from society. Instead, savings in time are made in the preparation of the meal and this has led to the rapid expansion of the convenience food market in recent years. The resulting hegemony of the ready-dinner within our food environment has accompanied a transition in society. We have moved away from the kitchen-centred traditions of our grandparents and towards an increasingly post-culinary state.

The ritual of eating remains important—even if it is experienced in solitude —but physical experience of cooking is rapidly being forgotten and replaced by a working knowledge of the functions of a microwave. According to Datamonitor analyst Daniel Lord “while consumers may enjoy watching cookery programmes, they are more likely to have the effect of making consumers more adventurous when they eat out than in their own kitchens. Lifestyle pressures dictate that the ready-meal has become a normal part of many people’s diets, and the market is certainly set to grow further.”(8)

Packaging, brands and cookery books are current topics in design, highlighted through comprehensive publications such as issue 17 of the AIGA journal of graphic design and Food edited by Claire Catterall. Martin Parr’s photographic observations of cultural eating stereotypes are widely published and the contradiction of the massive popularity of television chefs and cookery books at a time when more convenience food is eaten than ever before is a subject of discussion in many circles. There have been books of essays published recently covering a wide range of food issues, these include Consuming passions, food in the age of anxiety edited by Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace and Sociology on the menu by Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil.

diagram 2

However, despite the work pioneered by Mary Douglas in this field in the early 1970s, it is a subject that has remained relatively undocumented. In her 1998 essay Coded Messages she observes that “volumes have been written about cultural theory that explains why people eat what they eat, it is partly to signal that they are not like other people.” She continues that she is “sadly aware that the comparison of food rituals and lifestyles is still a conversation that not gone far beyond the descriptive stage.”(10) The recent increase in interest in cookery, evident through the increase of books and television shows, has accompanied a growing realisation of the importance of the social function of food sharing. This is something increasingly highlighted by the exclusion felt by the growing number of people now dining alone. With the increasing awareness of categorising and marketing lifestyles by the advertising industry this is, as Mary Douglas suggests, a conversation that should continue.

*We live in a culture obsessed by the passing of time. It has become “a measure of quality, speed has become equated with excellence.” The invention of the mechanical clock is described by Lord Munford as having had a more significant effect on society than the Industrial Revolution.(7)

serve hot

Figure C: Serve hot. A typeface based on the shapes of ready-made dinner trays.



(1) D. Hebdige, Subculture, the meaning of style p 14. (2) S. Griffiths & J. Wallace, Consuming passions p vi. (3) M. Douglas, Consuming passions p 104. (4) M. Douglas, Consuming passions p 104. (5) M. Nicod, A method of eliciting the social meaning of food p 1. (6) D. Morris, The Naked Ape p 130. (7) L. Kreitzman, The 24 hour society p 65. (8), (9), (10) M. Douglas, Consuming passions p 190


1. The signifier is eaten

The study of food and eating patterns has traditionally fallen into the following three areas: Functionalism (a society is considered to be an organic system, similar to a living body, however the system remains static and does not allow for change), developmentalism (it is change and therefore the presence of conflicts and contra­dictions that are given emphasis) and structuralism. The latter viewpoint “looks beneath the surface linkages to the structures underpinning them,”(1) or it is not the food itself but the structure and rituals of a meal that are significant. This has an analogy with linguistics since “the cultural surface features are seen as generated in the same way that everyday speech is produced by an underlying system of rules.”(2)

Lévi-Strauss suggested that human cooking behaviour is expressive, that we cook our food to “demonstrate that we are civilised men and not wild animals,” and discriminate types of cooking and food preparation as “markers of social occasions.”(3) His structuralist theories were formed from the basic premise that elements gain meaning only when encountered in contrast with other elements. However he is criticised by Mary Douglas for his lack of attention to the “small-scale social relations.” In her opinion it is these that are significant because they “generate the codification and are sustained by it” and in doing so search for universal meanings common to all mankind is too general to provide appropriate results.(3)

Roland Barthes also falls under the structuralist heading according to these classifications,(4) although he was actually one of the key figures of the post-structuralist movement. He equates an item of food with an item of information or a sign, and these are all signs in a system of communication. “The conceptual units for describing food can be used to construct ‘syntaxes’ (or ‘menus’) and ‘styles’ (or ‘diets’) in a semantic rather than an empirical fashion,” in terms of significance rather than appearance, it therefore becomes possible to ask what these signify. Looking at food advertising as an example, Barthes identifies a theme in which specific foods are used to signify continuity with tradition and the past.(5) To apply these theories: roast beef is both physical meat (the signifier) and the idea (the signified) which, depending on the context could be, for example, ‘British’, ‘Sunday’ or ‘Family’.

If viewed individually the elements have a certain amount of significance, but it is once they are combined (Gestalt) that the sum of the meal’s parts create a totality.(6)

Barthes demonstrates the rule-bound structures of both a meal and a piece of literature through this model of a menu: “a diner selects one item from the ‘paradigmatic axes’ of starters, entrées and desserts. These are then combined along a ‘syntagmatic axis’ in the actual process of eating in the same way that a literary work chooses items from various repertoires (genres, formal devices, narrative forms) and then goes on to string them together.”(7) Ultimately, Barthes is criticised by Mennell (1965) for his lack of historical view and his tendency to draw upon his own experience,(8) although his theories have become the basis for the research of others.

Authors Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil describe Mary Douglas as being “more clearly rooted in the familiar, everyday world than Lévi-Strauss. She bases her analysis on the structuralist idea that food can be treated as a code, and the messages it encodes are about social events and about social relations.”(9) She states that “communication is made through food in terms of different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries.”(10)

If this statement is broken down and the elements are separated out, then the messages encoded by food fall into three distinct categories: the first is of tribe, the social group to which the subject belongs. The second relates to the relationship between those sharing food—a scale of intimacy, boundaries and the transactions across them according to social convention. The third relates to the formality of the meal, which falls into distinct patterns throughout the week and year culminating in, for example, the gastronomic extravagance of Christmas.

A fourth category, seduction, is added for products (such as ready-made dinners) that have been absorbed into consumer culture—this is the significance the product is given with the aim of seducing you to purchase it.

food tree

Figure D: A framework of categories of grammar for the description of eating. A visual interpretation of M. Halliday’s analogy of the daily menu with that of linguistic form. The illustrated example is of the following meal: first course of hors d’oevres, second course of chicken, potatoes, peas and carrots, followed by dessert.



(1) F. Saussure, Sociology on the menu p 61. (2) A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on menu p 57.
(3) E. Leach, Culture & communication p 60. (3) M. Douglas, Implicit meanings p 232. (4) & (5) A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on the menu p 63. (6) Adapted from J. Williamson, Decoding Advertisements p 79. (7) T. Eagleton, Consuming passions p 203. (8) A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on menu p 64. (9) A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on menu p 63. (10) M. Douglas, Implicit meanings p 231.



2. Tribe

Inclusion or exclusion from a social group.

We are all joined in the tribe ‘human’, the only species to involve such elaborate social ritual in the preparation and consumption of its food, a practice common to every civilisation in every country in the world.(1)

According to Lévi-Strauss, cooking is a celebration of the superiority of our species and of technology over the natural world.(2) He uses the term ‘cook’ to describe the process of transformation that food undergoes from raw nature to its tamed essence. This includes removing the inedible parts of an animal and presenting it cleaned and prepared as a joint of meat, removing the mud and stalks from the potato or actually cooking it—after which it is no longer nature but ‘natural’ which is a clean, ordered cultural representation of nature.(3) This is the myth of nature—we seldom encounter raw natural produce in our metropolitan environment, and what we consider to be images of raw ingredients portrayed on packaging juxtaposed with the image of the heated, waiting meal in fact refer to this tamed version of nature (see figure E).

Philosopher Anthelme Brillat Savarin said “tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.”(4) While it is food that unites us as a species, it also differen­tiates us from one another—so within our sub-groups it enables us to simultaneously retain both a sense of belonging whilst maintaining our own individuality. It represents our humanity and defines us—it describes who and what we are and how we should like to be, our society, culture, the age we live in, political and economic standpoints. Food articulates our hopes, dreams and aspirations.(5)

Food and its preparation have always been harnessed to Britain’s class system; the 1950s were a decade that was “especially alert to the intricate symbolism of social graduation.” This was a time of post-war affluence, rationing was not long over and there was a reluctance to return to the austere conventions and culinary xenophobia of the past. This was a time of food liberation, which was a change “pioneered by the middle classes, with America setting the pace.”(6)

We use the rituals that surround food to keep or reject the traditions of older generations, pledge allegiance to social groups and demonstrate our knowledge of other cultures. Culinary tradition is handed down by generations of families via the mealtime scenario through experience and demonstration. These oral traditions encompass the mundane and the celebratory, and as result each community has its own customs which ultimately mark out that group’s identity.(7)

Literate culture differs from the community experience of oral culture in that it requires separation. The spoken word is translated into written text, the reading of which is a solitary activity requiring mental concentration. Information is no longer gained through interaction with the community.(8) The invention of printing replaced the community experience of communication in terms of the spoken word by committing it to print and enabled the individual to separate from a certain amount of social intercourse.(9) Have similar advances in food technology (especially the freezer, microwave and ready-meal) facilitated the same transition in culinary society?

Misinterpretations or violations of the food rules can result in gastronomic faux pas and provoke emotive reactions. Since the distinction between edible and not is a cultural one then, in the words of John Fiske, the “significance of this distinction is evidenced by the frequency with which the alieness of a society is identified by its designation of something as edible that we consider inedible.”(10) Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, considered that nations were actually a product of the food that they consumed.(11)

Michael Nicod’s 1974 thesis entitled A method of eliciting the social meaning of food was criticised at the time because, as anthropologist Mary Douglas explains, “it looked like research into food.” At the time this was not considered to be an academic field of study since it fell into the domain of ‘women’s interest.’ It was therefore not taken seriously by academics, but Douglas refutes that viewpoint and explains that it was a valid project since it was actually “research into the philosophical subject of classification.”(12)

raw vs cooked

People are the “sum of their own consumer goods. They recreate themselves every day in accordance with an ideology based on property, where they are defined by their relationship to things, possessions, rather than each other… Real objects are lifted out of our physical reality and absorbed into a closed system of symbols, a substitute for reality and real emotions. Feelings become bound up with products… You choose a brand by recognising yourself as the kind of person that would buy a specific brand.”(13) This is something that is done long before a person reaches the shop.

Since we register social status by means of consumption, certain products can therefore offer membership into alternative social groups. Some tastes are more prestigious than others, and members of different social classes systematically pick some items in preference to others(14)—so by selecting these items and physically consuming them can you eat your way into a more desirable social group?



(1) P. Leith, Consuming passions p 59. (2) A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on the menu p 61, (3) J. Williamson, Decoding advertisements p 135. (4) A. Brillat Savarin, Physiologie du Gout: Collins thesaurus p385, (5) C. Catterall, Food design and culture p 23. (6) B. Harrison, Consuming passions p142. (7) R. Finnegan, Oral tradition & the verbal arts p 7. (8) F. Butler, Design discourse p 159. (9) Adapted from M. Mcluhan, The Medium is the Massage p 48. (10) J. Fiske, Intro. to communication studies p 121. (11) S. Peckham, Consuming Passions p 172. (12) M. Douglas, Consuming Passions p 106. (13) J. Williamson, Decoding advertisements p179. (14) A. Warde & L. Martens, Consuming passions p 119.



3. Intimacy

Social boundaries and transactions across them.

“Food has always played a vital role in life’s rituals”(1)

Intimacy is measured in terms of both the serving location and style of the food. If the location is the family home, then the convention is that “drinks are for strangers and acquaintances” while meals are for “family, close friends and honoured guests.”(2) A guest can feel welcomed or rejected depending on how the reality corresponds with their expectations. Michael Nicod explains that “the exchange of food reinforces convention through the pattern of social relations which it both establishes and maintains.”(3)

The tools required to deliver the food to the mouth indicate the intimacy of the food. A meal that can be eaten with fingers and requires no cutlery is casual, for example in the case of potato chips. Greater intimacy is marked by the need for mouth-entering utensils such as forks and spoons, this relates to the most intimate relationship in human development—that of a mother feeding a child. This is also reflected in food temperature; hot food reflects intimacy while cold food is considered appropriate for more casual situations.

Since intimacy is measured in terms of both location and menu, then an appropriate balance is achieved through adjusting these. For example more casual acquaintances can be entertained inside the family home if a self-service finger buffet of cold food is served, while a hot, involved meal can be served to the same guests in the form of a barbecue where they remain outside the threshold of the family home.

The ritual of dinner has become the framework for social intercourse; it is an exchange between the in-going mouthfuls and the exiting words. Families, in particular, “fight and express their love through food” which has the potential to be “gift, threat, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation, treat, health or control.”(4)

We have experienced food as an expression of love, nurturing and emotion from birth. As a result we easily accept it as “just as much a materialised emotion as a love lyric, both can be a substitute for the genuine article.”(5) Take the examples of chicken soup, chocolate or the ubiquitous cup of tea which, “for the English, is the ultimate floating signifier—appropriate for the most diverse occasions.”(6)

If food is an embodiment of emotion, then the ultimate way to convey your feelings is to have them consumed by the recipient; to be physically incorporated, crossing the barrier from the outside world into the body.(7)

Food is a medium of relationship and therefore the refusal of food can be interpreted as a rejection of the relationship. A hunger strike is not just a refusal to eat food; it is a rejection of the society providing the food. This is a dialogue that occurs on an instinctive rather than intellectual level; as a result it can provoke emotive responses. For example if a child chooses to become a vegetarian or a vegan it is sometimes difficult for the family not to interpret this as a self-imposed exile from the family unit.

A meal becomes more intimate as fewer people share the experience until the diner is alone. At this point all intimacy is removed by the absence of eating companions. Traditional family dining habits are changing, and although there is still a trend of eating “together but with individual meals, maybe all around the same theme, bought to the table”(9) a great number of people now dine alone. Approximately 40% of the subjects of the Dinner time questionnaire answered that they ate alone regularly,(10) and this is trend that is widely reported in the press.

But even when we eat alone we are reluctant to lose the structure of a meal, as this would be an admission of our exclusion from the social group. However the dramatic growth in the meal-for-one market that has taken place over the last twenty years has established solo dining as a conventional, rather than exceptional behaviour. As a result the solo-diner is now included in a greater social group of other solo-diners.

The sharing of food defines the intimacy of the relationship between those eating together. There is a system of social boundaries, which are established through convention and movement across these marks change. When you are invited to dinner for the first time in somebody’s home, or first offered a mouthful from a fellow diners’ fork, indicates an increase in the intimacy of the relationship.



(1) R. O’Brien, Rocky horror picture show. (2) M. Douglas, Implicit meanings p236. (3) M. Nicod, A method of eliciting the social meaning of food p79. (4) T. Eagleton, Consuming passions p 204. (5) T. Eagleton, Consuming passions p 203. (6) T. Eagleton, Consuming passions p 204. ?(7) A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on the menu p 53. (8) C. Watson, Design week 19 March p 22. (9) M. Visser, The rituals of dinner p 85 (10) Appendix, “who do you usually share this meal with?” p 33. (11) A. Clark, the Guardian 30 Jan 2001.



4. Formality

The hierarchy and structure of a meal.

“the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” anon

The hierarchy and structure of a meal. Food is consumed as part of an unstructured event, such as a snack, or a structured meal such as dinner.(1) The structured event is a social one. It is described by Michael Nicod as being “organised according to rules prescribing time, place and sequence of action” and fits into a hierarchy of dinners with differing levels of formality throughout the week and the year, from the every day to celebrations and feast days.(2) The structure of a meal remains the same; it repeats itself over a wide range of occasions from the mundane to the most festive.(3)

Dinner has a tripartite structure. If formal it generally comprises of three courses—each of which is again composed of three elements: the centrepiece (e.g. meat), a staple (e.g. potato) and the trimmings (e.g. vegetables). In a ready-meal this structure is clearly revealed by the shape of the compartmentalised tray which separates the elements.(4)

different trays

Whilst the grammar of a meal offers the potential for numerous subtle variations, a ready-dinner follows a pre-defined formula. What used to be the structure of an individual family tradition, has now been appropriated and homogenated so that it is applicable on a national scale. For example, the traditional Sunday dinner purchasable in ready-prepared form from a supermarket is reduced to a generic formula of roast beef + Yorkshire puddings + vegetables + roast potatoes. In a time of global access, to a wider range of cooking flavours, styles and influences than ever before the ready-meal is reduced to a predictable formula. Even in the case of ‘luxury’ meals it is still the popular rather than the unusual ones that maintain their position on supermarket shelves. If food is gastronomic communication, then is a ready-meal not just a culinary cliché?

The time that defines when dinner is eaten is determined by factors such as geography, background and whether it is a working day or a holiday. During his research of eating routines in working-class families in the early 1970s Michael Nicod found a “strongly rule bound system,” for example a meal was “not a dinner unless it featured potatoes.”(5)

He described the ideal celebratory meal as having a structure that “started off with an appetising hot and messy dish of gravy over meat and potatoes (on one big plate). This became more of an architectural achievement as it went on through pudding (on a smaller plate) and tea with an optional small coloured biscuit (on a still smaller plate).”(5)

The centrepiece is the focal point of a formal meal; it will be brought to the table whole where it will be ceremonially carved in the presence of the waiting diners, often by the person nominated as the head of the social group.(6) For the most formal dinners more than one course may have a centrepiece that takes centre-stage in this way. For example both the turkey and the pudding are objects of ceremony at Christmas, and for birthdays and weddings there are elaborate traditions of cake cutting.

As formality increases the staple becomes more sculptural, for example roast potatoes are more formal than mashed. The number of trimmings will be increased, as will the number of courses, the quality of the ingredients and the preparation time. The setting also changes, from an informal meal eaten while sitting on the sofa to a dinner eaten at an elaborately set dining table.

Etiquette is directly linked to formality. The more formal a meal becomes, the more elaborate the protocol required and the more specialised the cutlery becomes. The knives, for example, form a lexicon that relates to the contents of each course. Formal food is more sculptural and convention requires that it be cut with a knife before a single mouthful is balanced on the fork and raised to the mouth. Less formal food, such as stew or Shepherd’s pie, can be eaten with a fork alone. The style of cutlery we use today originates from Louis XV of France’s ban on the making of sharp-pointed table knives, which previously had the dual function of cutting and lifting the speared food. It is a prohibition that remained voluntarily and necessitated the invention of the fork to perform the food-lifting function in place of the blunted knives.(7)

Every social group has its own rituals. These retain a collective group memory of events that have gone before that mark times of celebration or transitions into new eras. These customs still refer to the event even when viewed in isolation of the event. For example the carving of turkey and drinking champagne, followed by plum pudding with brandy butter are references both to memories of past Christmas days and the anticipation of future ones. There is little deviation from the strict rule-bound structure of a meal. Mary Douglas explains that parts of a meal “may reflect new economies or daring experiment” but its entirety must retain the familiarity and structure of a meal of a known kind.(8) In the case of a formal meal the constituents of the main course, the centrepiece in particular, are often specific to the occasion and substitution is likely to cause disappointment.


In his book Le Système du la mode, Roland Barthes discusses the way different styles change the associations linked to an element; for example he describes a cardigan as “either sporty or dressy depending on whether the collar is open or closed.”(9) In his theories on the language of fashion, he aims to replace the grammatical relations of words with pseudo-syntax in the aim of “freeing the articulations from grammar.” This allows a sentence to be converted into semiological code by removing the descriptive words and replacing them with the following symbols: (•) represents ‘equivalence’ and (=) represents ‘combination’.(10)

Semiotic equations can now be written and the above example can be translated into the following:
Cardigan • collar • open = sporty
Cardigan • collar • closed = dressy

This system of notation can easily be applied to food, for example
Beef • roast = traditional
Beef • burger = convenience

Or, to illustrate ideas discussed in this and the previous chapter:
Chicken • roast potatoes = formal
Chicken • mashed potatoes = informal
Fish • dinner • home = intimate
Fish • dinner • cafe = not intimate

While the basic structure of a dinner remains the same—a tripartite one of centrepiece, staple and trimmings—the formality is demonstrated by simplicity or complexity of its execution. It becomes more formal throughout the week and year, culminating in feast days and celebrations, this is signified by the sculptural quality of the food and the convolution of the ritual surrounding its preparation and consumption. Participation in the performance of a grand meal not only celebrates the specific occasion, but it also reminds of previous similar ones and it serves to reassert our membership of a social group.
food symbolism

Figure I: Food symbolism.



(1) Appendix,“What elements constitute dinner?” p 33. (2) Appendix, “How do the components of dinner alter if the circumstances change?” p 33. (3) A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on the menu p63. (4) M. Nicod, A method of eliciting the social meaning of food p 84. (5) M. Douglas, Consuming passions p105. ?(6) M. Visser, The rituals of dinner p 231. (7) D. Morris, Manwatching p 304. ?(8) M. Douglas, In the active voice p 102. (9) R. Barthes, Le Système du la mode p 61. (10) R. Barthes, Le Système du la mode p 47.



5. Seduction

From physical to mental consumption.

food packaging examples
In an urban metropolis such as London we rarely grow or hunt for our food but instead find it readily available in cleaned, prepared and packaged form. Food has become the ultimate consumer product. Today’s climate of consumer culture emerged in the 1980’s out of an “unacknowledged social decision to invest in greater quantities of goods instead of increased leisure time.” (1) We now need things “consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”(2)

The advertising industry has fuelled this trend and uses marketing tactics that use the packaging as an advertisement for the product. The aim is for the customer to select it over its competitors through “infiltration into the consumer’s psyche by appealing to the shopper’s lifestyle.”(3) Today we define ourselves more by the way we live and what we own than what we do, all products are infused with universal and individual lifestyle statements—signifiers of status, aspiration and economic success.(4)

Food has become a lifestyle statement The extra values assigned to it through advertising have superseded the traditional nutritional values inherent in the food itself. These values are consumed mentally, at point-of-sale and as a result the consumption of food is becoming more of an intellectual and less of a physical experience.

The packaging contains, protects, informs and advertises the product. It must stimulate a craving or hunger by “seducing our most primal urges,” this is a process called “sense transference” by Primo Angeli, head of a San Francisco food packaging firm, explaining that “the drama of the package will always give you a better appreciation of the product.”(5)

When shopping for dinner, a customer encounters hundreds of products on the supermarket shelves. The initial impression is of meal category, which the packaging reflects in terms of colour, presentation and typeface. This is the first impression of the product, which is formed at a distance; it is the first decision made by the shopper so it must be instantly obvious (see figure K).

Each category is associated with a lifestyle option such as healthy, convenience or prestige. Although we operate a system of menu pluralism, some people are more likely to select certain options over others. One of the tools of advertising is to classify us into the social groups most likely to select a particular category so that its appeal can be targeted more directly at that group. “From sophisticated choices to culinary camp, your choice of food proclaims your attitude towards life.” Catharine Weese.(6)

Prestige foods consist of generally higher quality items, which are pre-prepared to a certain point but also require some cooking. Since “the target audience already cooks and they know their ingredients, you don’t have to educate them so much”.(7) This packaging is in more muted colours, often incorporating craft-influenced materials such as glass, greaseproof paper and uncoated card. The type is more understated, often in traditional roman serifs and italics or combined with handwriting to signify ‘hand-made’. The imagery will be either a stylish photograph in soft focus, reflecting current fashions in editorial photography, or will illustrate the ‘natural’ ingredients (see figure L).

In contrast, convenience foods are designed to be fast, highly flavoured and instantly gratifying. They are generally packaged in bright, primary and secondary colours using high gloss, synthetic materials. The type is bold and often in the shape of the food inside. The image is of a sharp focus; brightly-lit cooked meal poised on a plate waiting to be consumed replaces any view of the actual contents. An example of an iconically North American convenience meal is the Kraft dinner which, in the words of Douglas Coupland is “idiot-proof to make, provides a rich hit of fat, salt and processed cheese (note the word ‘processed’—it’s important), as well as a significant dose of orange”.(8)

The meal can now be selected from the information displayed on the packaging; each one is represented in terms of both actual, physical contents and the ideological experience of consuming it. By applying theoretical models based on those of Roland Barthes in his book Le Système du la mode the language used can be broken down into ‘written food’ and ‘image food.’(9) The two following sections are based on the ideas he proposed in this book. Written food In this case the contents are converted into words. These have the function of specifying meaning and remove any ambiguity of understanding possible from viewing the image in isolation. They also give extra information, such as added vitamins or reduced fat content, and create hierarchy and emphasis—highlighting the most important elements, such as the ‘roast beef’ in a traditional dinner.

There is a recognisable vocabulary and structure, even if the words are taken in isolation of the food. The description: “tender pieces of ___ with sliced ___ and roasted whole baby ___ in a rich___”(10) still forms the language of food. However, rather than being specific to an actual meal it instead refers to cuisine itself.

In its written form, language becomes objectified and therefore has a physical manifestation as well as an ideological one. The physical embodiment is never transparent and written language therefore becomes a compound of both signifier (its physical form) and signified (the idea this form represents).

Different typefaces are associated with different categories of food. An old style roman face easily suggests ‘traditional’ through its links with printing traditions of the past, a bold sans serif references the functionality and modernism and so is used to signify ‘economy’ or ‘instant.’ While calligraphic script, its links with the skilled handwriting of trained scribes indicates ‘luxury’. Then, the ultimate loaded type is ‘food type’ because it is simultaneously signifier and signified—it does not just say ‘cheese,’ it is cheese (see figure M).

Image food
The photograph of the food provides a ‘serving suggestion’, it shows you how to serve and eat the meal, and it “performs a function equivalent to fashion plates that show you how to wear a little black dress.”(11) There are never people in the photographs, with the exception of disembodied hands dishing the food onto the waiting plate or images of the ‘person’ who prepared it for you such as the traditional butcher or a generic grey-haired aunt.

serving suggestion

The food is placed in a spatial relationship to the gaze of the observer, see figure N. Everything is proportional, the food is steaming but none has yet been eaten and often the fork is raised with the first mouthful poised and waiting for him to fill the absence. The observer then becomes an active participant, imagining the experience of taking the proffered mouthful, the sensation of consuming the sumptuously presented meal.

Food imagery has become increasingly salacious, a food editorial-led style, which soon began to appear on packaging, with full-bleed, soft focus photographs of food, piled up and spilling over plates in beautifully styled surroundings. The low depth of field encourages the viewer to focus in on one part of the image, inducing a similar reaction to the one Desmond Morris calls “the concentrated food-stare.” This is an instinctive memory of the ancient hunter spotting his prey and usually occurs at the moment the plate arrives. Morris describes as “the diner’s food approaches and, even if he is deep in conversation, his eyes are glued to the heaped dish being placed in front of him.”(12) Art director Geoff Waring comments on the food-as-lifestyle trend by saying that “Australian Vogue Entertaining kicked it off, they used photographers like Geoff Lung who were pioneers of the soft focus, informal approach”(13) (see figure O).

Food provides protection from the pace and the changes in the outside world. It is a link to our past and to a time when as children we felt safe and protected by our parents, and so during times of stress eating ‘comfort food’ provides a retreat to this emotional sanctuary. Evoking a romanticised idea of nostalgia is therefore a marketing tool that is widely used but it must provoke a generic emotion rather than a specific memory, one that is vague enough for everybody to identify with. This has sometimes become an exaggerated ideal of a perfect past that does not necessarily match the reality and as consumers we encounter this so often that, to an extent, our memories are being shaped by these myths created by advertising.

An example is that of Christmas dinner, turkey and all the trimmings have become signifiers of a notion of a perfect, utopian, snow-covered ‘happy family Christmas’. It is difficult to separate the nostalgic ideal from the actuality of a regular family Christmas and the more disparate the myth and the reality become, the greater the sense of dissatisfaction with reality. The generic memory of an event has become hyper-real in the same way that synthetic strawberry flavour tastes more like strawberry than the natural fruit.

To adopt Marshall Mcluhan’s idea that “the technology of the railway created the myth of a green pastured world of innocence”(15), the ‘traditional’ ready-meal creates a myth of a perfect, home-cooked family dinner, the mass-produced references a nostalgic memory of a romantically idealised past.

In our post-culinary society the ritual of eating maintains a high degree of social importance because it provides a feeling of stability and community, yet the time spent in preparation has been reduced to a minimum. “Food is increasingly a leisure thing, it is seen as stylishly and fashionable” according to David Mackay of Crabtree Hall.(16) However we increasingly practice passive cooking: this is to experience cooking second-hand by watching someone else do it maybe in an expansive professional kitchen, or an exotic foreign location. They prepare dishes that you would never realistically cook yourself, or it is reading a sumptuously photographed cookery book with rare meats and fantastically shaped vegetables spilling over and almost out of the pages. This is a mental, rather than physical, experience of culinary voyeurism in which the TV shows and books are simply gastroporn.(17) At the end of the recipe, appetite aroused, we either go out to a restaurant or we remove a ready-dinner from the fridge and a few microwave-minutes later there is an instantly gratifying food fix without the effort of preparation or any messy washing-up.

chart of packaging



(1) L. Kreitzman, The 24 Hour society P 25. (2) V. Lebow, Emigre 53 p 4. (3) S. heller, AIGA Journal vol 17 p 14. (4) L. Kreitzman, 24 Hour society P 53. (5) E. Shapiro, AIGA Journal vol 17 p 22. ?(6) C. Weese, AIGA Journal vol 17 p 13. (7) K. Anderson, AIGA Journal vol 17 P 23. (8) D. Coupland, Wallpaper. (9) R. Barthes, Le Système du la mode p 3. ?(10) Tesco, Beef & ale casserole. (11) D. Heathcote, Eye 36 p 39. ?(12) D. Morris, Manwatching p 303. (13) C. Foges, Graphics International 61 p 52. (14) (15) M. Mcluhan, The medium is the massage p 72. ?(16) D. Mackay, Design week 24 March 2000. (17) C. Catteral, Food design and culture p 24.



It is not the actual food, but the system of rituals surrounding its preparation and consumption that provide the basis for communication. There is an overall structure which is recognisable to all members of a culture or society, with a more complex set of rules within this that relate to a specific family or social unit. Once these conventions are known then, like a language, the execution of a meal can be interpreted in terms of the ideas that it communicates.

A meal of roast beef, roast potatoes with multiple trimmings is generally recognisable as a traditional English Sunday dinner. However, for a particular family this could be an unusually elaborate meal that, in fact, only happens once or twice a year to celebrate the occasional reunion of the entire family. Once this association is established, then each time it is repeated it not only celebrates the present, but its performance also retains a memory of past celebrations and anticipates future ones.

There is a widening gap between the physical and ideological components of food as we experience it today. The physical is rapidly been reduced to a functional, instant ready-meal format, which retains only the essential elements of ritual in terms of its structure. Even the physical experience of cooking has now been replaced by the passive act of watching it on television.

The ideological is becoming exaggerated as packaging increasingly offers the product as surrogate emotion, statement of personal identity and lifestyle. Its promise of a pre-packaged ‘perfect meal experience’ is a myth that reflects the utopian world of advertising and is unlikely to be found in the reality of experience. As the imbalance increases and the consumption of food becomes more of an intellectual activity, the more potential there is for the real situation to cause disappointment—it cannot live up to the ideal.

It is significant that, in a time when more people than ever are eating alone, interest in gastronomy is increasing dramatically—we consider that our membership of a social group is gauged by our inclusion in these shared rituals.

The outcome of the project breaks down the messages encoded by these rituals to form a simple formula: food combined with ritual (categorised in terms of tribe, intimacy, formality and seduction) becomes communication. Over the course of the investigation a range of symbols and codes have evolved into a graphic visual style. The initial intention had been to utilise these in an animated ‘visual’ essay. However, this was in danger of incorporating all of the research and over-complicating the outcome. Instead it was decided that the findings should be presented in a clear, simple and static format.

The formula forms a central axis out of which panels radiate, expanding visually on each of the categories so that the viewer effectively becomes involved in the discovery process by reading the equation and then following through with their own exploration of the supporting visual evidence. In this way the viewer is introduced to the concept that food is a system of communication in such a way that the process is revealed. This can then be related to other areas of social intercourse and ultimately create a deeper understanding of the design process.

The project was a process of learning which areas were appropriate to focus on and to then disregard the rest—therefore reducing it to a simple concept rather than attempting to include everything. The activity of writing and editing is still one that needs refinement, although awareness of it as a weakness is a positive step.

It was rewarding dedicating so much energy to one topic and investigating it to such great depth. This is a dramatic contrast to the superficiality of the everyday commercial working environment. It would be interesting to continue with the project, firstly by gaining feedback from academics in the field, and secondly by applying the methodology to a specific meal with the intention of building up a lexicon of meaning through its interpretation by different social groups.

To celebrate the end of this assignment I will go out to dinner with three of my fellow students at a restaurant we regularly visit together. We will, as usual, start with ‘crispy duck’, which is taken from a communal platter and eaten, rolled-up in hand-held pancakes. This reaffirms the bond between us, demonstrates the intimacy of our friendship and is an event that becomes part of our group history. That it is a celebration will be indicated by the increased ceremony in the form of more courses and the replacement of the usual wine with champagne.





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Big Night directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci 1996.

Eat drink man woman directed by Ang Lee. Samuel Goldwyn Co. 1996.

Rocky Horror Picture Show directed by Richard O’Brien 1967.



All illustrations, including text, are produced by the author unless otherwise specified.

Figure A: Types of communication.
1. Poem in traditional Chinese characters with English translation. C-L. Chen & C. Vermaas, p 10. Eye 28
2. Guitar exercise. F. Noad, p 79. Solo Guitar Playing.
3. Table d’hôte cover. G. Brown, K. Hepner & A. Deegan, p 33. Introduction to food and beverage service.

Figure B: Ready in 10:00 minutes.
Birds Eye, Traditional Roast Turkey Dinner.

Figure C: ‘Serve hot.’
A typeface based on the shapes of ready-made dinner trays.

Figure D: A framework of categories of grammar for the description of eating.
A visual interpretation of M. Halliday’s analogy of the daily menu with linguistic form.
M. Douglas, Implicit Meanings p 233, referring to M. Halliday, Categories of the theory of grammar p 277–9

Figure E: ‘Raw’ versus cooked.
Sainsbury’s, Taste the Difference Meat Lasagna.

Figure F: Territory/communal space.

Figure G: boundaries of intimacy.
Interpretation of an individual’s social universe; the different categories that their acquaintances fall into in terms of food intimacy.
After M. Douglas, Deciphering a meal p 237.

Figure H: Paxo means love.
Paxo for lamb, designed by WTS.

Figure I: Food symbolism.

Figure J: Structure of ready-dinners.

Figure K: Menu categories of ready-prepared dinners..
Visual interpretation of categories defined by A. Beardsworth & T. Keil, Sociology on the menu p 55 & 64.

Figure L: Convenience versus prestige food packaging.

Figure M: Loaded type.

Figure N: The spatial relationship between the food image and viewer.
Birds Eye, Traditional Roast Turkey Dinner.

Figure O: Food photography.

Spread from Red magazine, Tesco Finest beef & ale casserole.

Figure P: Serving suggestions.

Figure Q: Edible type.

I would like to thank Teal Triggs, Nick Bell and Norman Hathaway. Patrick, Lisa, Rick and the rest of the class and special thanks to Sara and Pat. So, who’s booking the table?


© Sarah Hyndman 2014