The hidden meaning of food

Food is a language. We pass on messages with the food we give and the food we share. A box of chocolates to a teacher at the end of the year says ‘thank you,’ while a meal cooked by a grandmother for her family says ‘I love you,’ even when those words may never leave her lips. Food is laden with hidden language and messages. From different cultures and different eras, here are a few messages embedded in foods, from everyday to the exotic.

The hot cross bun has been eaten well before Christian times. Spiced buns marked with a cross were eaten in ancient Greece. The English revival happened in the 14th century. The cross represented the crucifix and the spices stood in for the aromatics used to embalm Jesus’ body. A hot cross bun sent to sea was said to protect the crew from drowning and one hung by a kitchen fireplace would prevent the house from burning down.

The language of the wedding cake goes back to a similar ancient time when Romans would throw wheat at newlyweds, the seeds representing the possibility of a new life and fertility. Those grains became loaves of bread and then, over years, cake. While Italians celebrate nuptials with sponge cake, northern Europeans prefer fruit cake. They all, however, pass on the message that marriage is about bringing to the family the next generation.

While a deep red lobster served at Lunar New Year  brings good luck, the same lobster served in America’s New England at New Year would bring bad luck. For the Chinese, the lobster is the ‘dragon of the sea’ with a lucky red colour and is served at celebrations. For Americans, a lobster moves backwards – not a good omen on the night you’re celebrating moving forward. For the same reason, prawns and crabs are off the menu. On the other hand, for the Chinese, white food means death – so you won’t see tofu served during Lunar New Year.

In the 18th century placing a pineapple on the table was a sign of hospitality, that everyone was welcome. In Europe, they were imported, rare and expensive. Jewellers and potters made replica pineapples in gilded metal and porcelain, and pineapple statuettes were placed on buildings as a sign of welcome. To serve a pineapple was to
show the guest they were an extremely welcome, honoured guest. With canning, pineapple is now cheap and used every day in the fast food business to transform burgers and pizzas from ordinary dishes into a ‘Hawaiian’ treat.

The giving of honey means different things in different cultures. In Australian Indigenous culture, bush honey from native bees is considered a medicine and given to the elders and the ill. Gathering honey was a time consuming process and, in ancient European culture, giving honey showed the intention of love. In Northern European culture, newly married couples were given a month to get to know each other and were given honey to keep up their stamina. Even today, honey carries an encoded message of love and sensual longing. In Italy, Nordic countries and parts of Northern Asia, we still use the term honeymoon from ‘honey month’.

Today, in the modern dining scene, food conveys stories about identity. People wanting to share their good fortune and give an obvious display of wealthy consumption will order or serve expensive caviar for all their guests. People wishing to signal their eco-credentials to others will order a ‘good for the environment’ vegetarian option, while those wishing to flag their high levels of testosterone will opt for the big manly, meat-on-the-bone, primal steak.

While much of the language of food is silent and remains layered deep in tradition, it can be a very real thing for some people. So next time you serve up a dish laden with basil, you may think you’re delivering a great Italian-inspired feed. But, remember that to some people from the Indian subcontinent, basil is considered an aphrodisiac and a food that is full of meaning around love and lust. It’s not something to plan a menu by, but maybe something to keep in the back of your mind.

As seen in autumn 2023

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