// Written by Jessica Zhang //
Given how far removed it is in terms of function and appearance in comparison to more typical forms of media, food tends to be overlooked when it comes to considering different types of mediums. Nonetheless, it fulfills many of the criteria attributed to mediums. Just like speech and print, examples that fit more comfortably with the Oxford English Dictionary or McLuhan-esque definitions of mediums, food also occupies such an everyday role in our lives that it often blends into the background. Its significance as a medium is overwhelmed not only by the smartphones and computer monitors that occupy much of our attention, but also by some of its own characteristics, such as its fleeting, distracting, and most noticeable traits of taste and smell. It is when we consider media from a point of view that aligns more with the logic Kittler ascribes to, however, that food better proves to deserve analysis as a form of media.
One of the definitions that the Oxford English Dictionary ascribes to “medium” is “an intermediate agency, instrument, or channel…a means or channel of communication or expression” (OED). Similarly, one of the definitions that it assigns for “media” is “a physical object (such as a disk, tape cartridge, etc.) used for the storage of data” (OED). In contrast, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “food” in a variety of ways, ranging from an object that offers “nourishment” or “livelihood” to “something warranting discussion or consideration, or serving as acreative stimulus” (OED). At any rate, none of these official definitions of food directly relate to the definitions of medium or media from a broad reading. But while the concept and official definition of food is not quite in congruence with the definition of “medium” or the generally-accepted modes of technological mediums, the last quoted entry from the Oxford English Dictionary that focuses on food as a “creative stimulus” does work to link the two seemingly far-removed concepts of food and medium together, especially when focusing on the definition of medium as “a means or channel of communication or expression” (OED).
The full line that McLuhan offers in his discourse on mediums is that the “personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (McLuhan 7). Food is interesting in that it is physically consumable, which throws our interpretation of it into some confusion. Instead of acting as a physical extension of ourselves, the most basic purpose that food serves is to become absorbed into ourselves as a means of nourishment that we attain through intensive labor and creativity. Interestingly, it is also through this absorption that it reveals its extension characteristics, for our physical and creative labor, along with our preferences and individual identities ultimately manifest themselves in the form of food. Even if we no longer hunt or grow the ingredients that we cook, we sacrifice our time and labor to obtain the money that we then use to buy food. Food, broadly speaking, is one of the most essential aspects of our lives, and thereby addresses McLuhan’s declaration that any medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 9). Because the bodies’ daily demands for calories defy age or time, the nutrients and minerals that food provides is one of the sources around which our lives revolve. It further reflects our own opinions and habits, and serves as a means of community interaction – after all, “national identity is linked to specific foods and drink,” and food is often the starting point for social interactions (Pietrykowski 310). Yet, its original form in our ancestors’ hunter-gatherer days is vastly incomparable to its variety of forms and flavors today. Such an evolution of food, with the explosion of creativity involved in its progress to its modern forms today, mirrors the development of technological mediums – the sleek 2.38-pound, 0.68-inch Macbook Air of today, with its 128GB storage size, is a far cry from man’s first cave paintings (Apple).
While food does fit imperfectly with the McLuhan concept of mediums as “any extension of ourselves,” it finds a better niche with Kittler in his statement on how “the media determine our situation” due to food’s role in not only forming our understanding of the world through our experiences, but also in the manner through which it creates experiences (McLuhan 7, Kittler xxxix). Acting as a medium for the expression of emotions and for the transmission of social and cultural mannerisms, food has spilled into other areas of our lives – literature, art, cinema, etc. – and addresses more than simply our biological need for sustenance. It has become an integrated, inextricable component on the stamp that is our individual, personal lifestyles and cultural subscriptions. The number of various food-related sayings from all corners of the earth clutters our sentences and memories, with one of the most famous being “you are what you eat,” first used by Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach and Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and now referenced on a daily basis. The Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, understanding the implications of food as a medium, unveiled his collections of portrait head paintings in the sixteenth century, most of which are composed with a wide array of foods. The use of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins as substitutes for facial features is jarring, sensational, and “so ingeniously grouped together that they lose their identity altogether as separate items” to ultimately form a “fascinating impression of reality” (Legrand and Sluys 210). While any alteration made to human features is arguably unsettling, the specific use of food elevates Arcimboldo’s paintings beyond being seen as mere “bizarre fancies, but as the expression of the complicated intellectual world of the late sixteenth century” (Kaufmann 275). The fantastical element of his paintings could have been accomplished through the use of a topic other than food, but the “harmony that exists between the various fruits and vegetables” that “join together to form the different heads parallels the harmony that exists under the beneficent rule of the House of Austria and the Emperor Maximilian,” and therefore conveyed the political and cultural atmosphere of the time (Kaufmann 288).
Similar in concept to Arcimboldo’s collection of altered portraits, the picture books created by Joan Steiner use common household items, in which food is a key feature, to recreate scenes that occur in the modern-day world. Steiner’s use of food as a central theme in her re-creations is based on the concept that food is an experience that transcends geographical and cultural differences. Though Steiner’s work is often compared to Arcimboldo’s, Arcimboldo “intended social commentary, irony, and metaphor,” while Steiner’s “intent is aesthetic pleasure, entertainment, and laughter” (Wood 12). By taking food out of its ordinary context and removing its “temporary sensations of taste and smell,” Steiner allows food to “become material to be examined, admired, edified, and even played with,” attributing a different purpose to the medium – one that better resembles other artistic mediums (Wood 12). The contrast between Arcimboldo’s portraits with Steiner’s re-creations demonstrates not only the flexibility of food as a medium in art, but also the range of meanings that food conveys as a medium in itself.
The incident of experiencing food through other mediums and in solidarity simultaneously reflects and enriches our experiences. In this sense, food is an extension of ourselves, but not in the same way that most technology is; food serves a double purpose, for “food nourishes but it also signifies” (Pietrykowski 310). Food is signifier, for the creation and consumption of food inherently signifies our upbringings, our cultural belonging, and even our immediate mood or situation. Much like how media “can ‘connect’ without the presence of others,” food can be enjoyed by a lone diner and still retain its intrinsic signifiers (Zelizer 71). Because each culture has its own cuisine and customs, any dinner setup would allow us to deduce much about both the dinner itself and the preparer behind it, for food and the tools associated with dining “communicates ethnicity, regional affiliation, values, aspirations, gender, and care,” because the “production and consumption of food involves choices that have significant consequences for individuals, communities, and the environment” (Pietrykowski 311). Yet food as a cultural signifier is not limited to just the ingredients in foods or the tools we use to eat it – though certain raw ingredients are associated with specific regions of the world, the techniques and technology used to prepare and consume the dishes are crucial. In this manner, the “transformation of [animal parts] into meat through the process of cooking it” illustrates how the “process of cooking,” of using the medium of food, is a “way of transmitting information” (Rotenberg 124). Authentic Asian, Mediterranean, or other “ethnic” foods undoubtedly are prepared differently from their American bastardizations, and the differentiation is noticeable to those who have tried the authentic and the faux.
The significance of food as a cultural conveyer is clear in the Juzo Itami film Tampopo as a result of the role that food plays in the film in the context of Itami’s portrayal of Japanese society. Based around the central story of a truck driver helping a woman with her small, struggling noodle store, the film touches upon an assortment of key social issues that modern-day Japan faces, spanning from sex and intimate relationships to violence and the challenges set forth by the aging population. While social commentary in films is not especially unusual or unique in itself, Itami’s film is one example of how food could be used for social analysis, because “virtually all important relationships and social issues are expressed in the film through individuals’ relationships to food rather than directly” (Ashkenazi 27). From the choice of noodles as the central food in the film to the fact that there are few scenes involving native Japanese food, we can see that the foods Itami chose to include were meticulously selected and placed in the storyline. Though the film is riddled with striking scenes involving food, one particular scene shows an aging woman in a grocery store that “scurries down the aisles, squeezing the fresh, luscious, ripe foods until they are as careworn and used as she is” (Ashkenazi 37). In this scene, Itami uses food to not only mirror an elderly woman and her distress, but also to bring to our attention the difficulties that face both the increasingly alienated aging population and the younger generations that must bridge the cultural gaps that have arisen from the current transition in Japanese culture. By manipulating the foods into a representation of herself, the woman becomes the food just as much as the food becomes her, allowing food itself to become a powerful social commentator.
In the realm of performance arts, the scene of a belligerent crowd using food as weaponry to “pelt those actors whom they did not like, and whom they literally shouted off the stage” is a feared one (Nehamas 223). In these cases, food becomes a physical manifestation of not only our heated emotions towards the situation, but as a literal extension of our fists. Similarly, as another example of the use of food as a medium for the expression of emotions, people have also long used food as a medium for romantic longing and lust in the form of various aphrodisiacs. Ancient cultures including the Egyptians, the Romans, the Arabs, and the Chinese have all “made use of a considerable quantity of sexual stimulants” (Elferink 25). In regards to the use of these foods as an emotional extension, the pre-Columbians “incorporated the knowledge and achievements of previous or coexisting cultures into their own” and “secretly applied aphrodisiac plant or animal substances to change the mind of the desired person” when faced with unrequited love, using anything ranging from porcupine quills to insect larva (Elferink 25). The fusing of cultures is evident in this form of food use as an externality arising from the medium. Rotenberg gets to the heart of the matter in his study by noting that certain foods such as “udders, penises, and testicles are difficult to separate from the self and hence persistently problematic as foods,” because of “their congruence with their human counterparts” (Rotenberg 127). This “congruence,” he argues, “renders [these foods] as self, instead of as food,” solidifying the validity of their identity as extensions of selves (Rotenberg 127).
Beyond these emotional extensions, however, food “can also form the basis for social and political movements” (Pietrykowski 319). Through its unifying role in communities and interconnectedness with all aspects of life, food is an ideal platform for a variety of causes. In one case, coffee has been used by Paul and Joan Katzeff, the founders of Thanksgiving Coffee, “as a medium for [the company’s] message and for change” under their company motto of “Not just a Cup, but a Just Cup” (De Blasio 54). Other movements are more meta – the Slow Food movement is one that utilizes food to educate communities about food by drawing attention to the “taken-for-granted [food practices] that help us make sense of our word and ourselves” (Pietrykowski 310). Still other movements use food to convey its political, social, and economic ideologies, such as punk cuisine. Because punks use anarchism as the basis for their ideologies, punks view “mainstream food” as “epitomized by corporate-capitalist ‘junk food’” that serves to uphold the patriarchy (Clark 20). For many punks, our current capitalist system of food creation and distribution exemplifies a “disciplinary order in which women are taught to diet and manage their bodies” in order for society to uphold its patriarchal characteristics (Clark 23). The objects that we consume today, from a punk point of view, are no longer foods, because of the “degree to which food is processed, sterilized, brand named, and fetishized is the degree to which it is corrupted, distanced from nature, and ‘cooked’” (Clark 25). A different definition of food and cooking is therefore offered by the punk movement – this unconventional view on food serves as an explanation for the vegan, vegetarian, or other regiments of food that punks consume as an alternative to processed food. An interesting aspect of punk cuisine that should be noted, however, is the tendency for punks to amass and consume food from dumpsters. Although many of the foods that these dumpster-divers collect have been processed or are otherwise not natural food, the “process of passing through a dumpster” has stripped the foods of their capitalism and patriarchy-upholding characteristics, causing them to become “cleansed or rotted” and therefore “made nutritious and attractive to the punk” (Clark 27). The act of dumpster-diving is simply one of many outlets that the food in punk cuisine offers to its followers to fulfill the movement’s ideological assessment of the power relations that exist in the status quo.
Food, despite its physical and figurative differences from other forms of media, has a unique and distinct way of acting as a form of communication between individuals and between cultures through its inherent role as a signifier. Its part in the filtering and creation of our experiences serves to transmit and develop both our conscious emotions and our unconsciously-expressed identities. In this way, food acts as a medium in a basic but integral aspect in our lives.
Originally written for and published by University of Chicago’s Theories of Media class