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Signata 15 / Nurturing Meaning: Food, Myth and Signification

Deadline: December 15, 2022
Simona Stano

Editor's notes

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 795025.

In his famous essay Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption, Roland Barthes (1961) suggested that food “is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior” (ET 1997: 21). Already in the 1950s, in fact, he pointed out the ideological connotation of food, insisting on various examples taken from the food universe in his analysis of modern-day “mythologies” (Barthes 1957). In Barthes’s view, myth is a second-order semiological system, namely a meta-language that is able to naturalize specific worldviews by converting signs into signifiers to be associated with new meanings. And food is evidently one of the most emblematic domains traversed by such dynamics, either as regards its national (or exotic) connotations (such as in the case of wine, fries and other “alimentary signs of Frenchness” [ibid.: 64]) or the ideological implications of its aesthetics (such as in the case of ornamental cuisine) and practices. Along with Barthes, a number of scholars have pointed out the crucial role of food in reflecting, and at the same time modelling, particular systems of values and meanings, either according to totemic relations (Lévi-Strauss 1962), sacrificial mechanisms (Détienne & Vernant 1979), aesthetic principles (cf. Sweeney 2017), or other types of symbolic logics.

Such dynamics have become even more evident and important in present-day “gastromania” (Marrone 2014). Not only do we eat food, but also and above all we talk about it, we describe it, we comment on it, we share its pictures on social networks, etc., investing it with multiple meanings and values that in turn mediate our gastronomic experiences. What is more, in contemporary societies the process of industrialization of agro-food systems has eroded the sociocultural constraints that used to regulate the gastronomic universe (see in particular Lévi-Strauss 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965; Douglas 1966, 1972, 1973; Bourdieu 1979), allowing for more autonomy and freedom in food choices, but at the same time creating insecurity and “gastro-anomy” (Fischler 1979). Food has thus increasingly become the object of an individual decision, which has further increased the role of contemporary mythologies in (re)establishing an “order”, that is to say, a logic or system of reference, in everyday eating. Concurrently, digital technology has made it easier to produce and share such mythologies, improving access to information and knowledge, but also resulting in the spread of alternative narratives and unverified information. Hence, studies have flourished on both the languages of food (especially as related to the meaning-making dynamics related to taste and gastronomic experiencessee in particular Boutaud 2005; Fontanille 2004: chap. 4; Volli 2015; Marrone 2016; Perullo 2016, as well as to the processes of hybridisation, “translation” and politicization affecting food systems in contemporary societiessee Stano 2015; Greco 2016; Parasecoli 2022; Sedda & Stano 2022, and the emergence of new trends and habits, such as the so-called “nutritionalization” of foodsee Scrinis 2013; Contreras Hernández & Ribas Serra 2016, which has resulted in the appearance of new categories such as “free-from” products and “super” or “functional foods”) and the languages on food (that is to say, the variety of texts and discourses that represent food, conferring multiple values on it, from the arts—see, for instance, Appiano 2012; Stupples 2014—to design—see Mangano 2014; La Fortuna 2016; Parasecoli & Halawa 2021—and the mass and new media—see Bianciardi 2011; Marrone 2014; LeBesco & Naccarato 2018; Lupton & Feldman 2020).

Drawing on these premises, this issue of Signata intends to foster reflection upon the communicative and semiocultural processes underlying present and past mythologies concerning food, with specific reference to the following topics:

Food, Identity and Ideology

As effectively remarked by Barthes (1961), food represents a system of communication through and through, since it allows us to create, share and transform meaning with other people. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1965) further stressed this idea, pointing to the relation between food systems and sociocultural identity. Hence the indissoluble link between food and ideology emerges: selecting, cooking, buying, as well as sharing and representing food are acts through which the systems of values, ideas, principles and expectations involved by specific ideas of one’s own and others’ identity are circulated, enforced or transgressed (cf. Eckstein 1980; LeBesco & Naccarato 2008). This originates a process of continuous translation and stratification of codes, which, however, tends to remain unperceived, neglected, unseen. In other terms, if the foodsphere is made of virtual potentialities, ideology can be understood as the discursive choices that actualize only part of such potentialities, while hiding the fact that these pertinentisations are not the only possible ones (cf. Eco 1990; Lorusso 2017). In order to better understand how food-related institutions, marketing agencies, art systems, media companies, and other public and private actors interact constitutively in the negotiation of food meanings and practices, we invite contributions that engage with the study of the sociocultural and meaning-making processes associated with such dynamics, particularly focusing on the strategies and criteria of pertinentisation underlying them. Theoretical reflections on the particular approaches and models required by such an analysis, especially in light of recent developments in semiotics, are also particularly encouraged.

Food Myths Between the Past and the Present

The concept of myth has radically changed over time. In ancient societies it was regarded as a “sacred story”, and hence a “true history” (Eliade 1963), that is to say, a form of knowledge rooted in the divine world “revealing” the exemplary models for all human rites and significant human activities (from diet to marriage, from work to education, etc.). Since modern times, this idea has been replaced first by a conception of the myth as a primitive and “pre-logic” form of thought contrasting science (see, for instance, Tylor 1920; Frazer 1890; Lévy-Bruhl 1935), and then by its understanding in terms of a cognitive operation that is different from, but as valid as, and complementary to the scientific logic (see, for instance, Malinowski 1926; Lévi-Strauss 1978; Popper 1994; Niola 2012; Ortoleva 2019). However, a negative connotation of the mythical discourse persists in contemporary culture, where the word “myth” itself has become a synonym for “lie” or “illusion” (in Greimassian terms) that needs to be unveiled or—to use a more popular term—“debunked” (cf. Stano 2021). In order to shed new light on such dynamics, we welcome papers dealing with the study of food mythologies between the past and the present in a transdisciplinary perspective, stimulating interconnections with disciplines such as anthropology, philosophy and media studies. From the specific point of view of meaning-making processes, moreover, particular attention is driven to the ideological characterisation of myth, interpreted—as suggested by Barthes (1957)—as a meta-language that naturalizes certain views, belief, and convictions. Following the French semiotician’s invitation to decipher contemporary myths, we warmly encourage contributors to focus on the functioning mechanisms and effects of meaning of relevant case studies, in the aim to develop a critical approach to food able to point out the semiotic strategies through which particular connotative systems end up being perceived as denotative meanings, “natural” implications, indisputable representations—either they are stigmatized as “food myths” or rather celebrated as “unveiled truths”.

(Post-)Truth and Trust in the Foodsphere

Digital technology has had a big impact on communication, providing easier access to information and effective tools for content sharing and interaction, but also making it harder to distinguish between reliable information and low-quality or false content. Thus, in contemporary mediascapes, emotions and personal beliefs have become increasingly influential, with relations among users playing a crucial role in making people adhere to specific ideas and trust particular sources, regardless of their recognition and reliability. This has fomented a lively debate on crucial issues such as (post-)truth and trust in digital environments, both in general terms and with specific reference to food and food mythologies. As remarked by Alissa Overend, “in an age of increasingly polarized debates about what to eat (and not to eat), the search for and maintenance of singular food truths […] fails to account for the situational, relational, systemic, and structural contexts [of food]” (2020: 2). However, providing such “truths” is the promise underlying most messages circulating throughout online forums, weblogs, social networks, newspapers, magazines, TV programmes, etc. We welcome submissions exploring such dynamics and their effects on the perception, understanding and management of food-related issues—from health discourses to political measures, from production regulations to institutional provisions—, inviting contributors to focus on truth as a discursive and cultural construct and to consider the role of the mass and especially the new media in “modelling” our reality (cf. Lorusso 2018) and “nurturing” trust.


Appiano Ave (2012), Bello da mangiare. Il cibo dall’arte al food design, Torino, Cartman.

Barthes Roland (1957), Mythologies, Paris, Éditions du Seuil; Eng. trans. Mythologies, London, Paladin, 1972.

Barthes Roland (1961), “Pour une psychosociologie de l’alimentation contemporaine”, Annales ESC, vol. XVI, no. 5, pp. 977-986; Eng. trans. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption”, in C. Counihan & P. Van Esterik (eds.), Food and Culture: A Reader, New York and London, Routledge, 1997, pp. 20-27.

Bianciardi Lorenzo (2011), Il Sapore di un film: cinema, sensi e gusto, Siena, Protagon.

Bourdieu Pierre (1979), La Distinction, Paris, Éditions de Minuit; Eng. trans. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London and New York: Routledge, 1984.

Boutaud Jean-Jacques (2005), Le Sens gourmand. De la commensalité – du goût – des aliments, Paris, Jean-Paul Rocher Éditeur.

Contreras Hernández Jesús & Ribas Serra Joan (2016), “Are nutrients also good to think?”, Semiotica, no. 211, pp. 139-163.

Détienne Marcel & Vernant Jean-Pierre (1979), La Cuisine du sacrifice au pays grec, Paris, Gallimard.

Douglas Mary (1966), Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Douglas Mary (1972), “Deciphering a meal”, Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 61-81.

Douglas Mary (1973), Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.

Eckstein Eleanor F. (1980), Food, People and Nutrition, West-Port, AVI Publishing Company.

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Fischler Claude (1988), “Food, Self and Identity”, Social Science Information, no. 27, pp. 275-292.

Fontanille Jacques (2004), Soma et Séma : figures du corps, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose.

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Greco Sara (2016), “The semiotics of migrants’ food: between codes and experience”, Semiotica, no. 211, pp. 59-80.

La Fortuna Loredana (2016), La cucina di design. Cibo, tendenze, moda, Bari, Progedit.

LeBesco Kathleen & Naccarato Peter (eds.) (2008), Edible Ideologies: Representing Food and Meaning, Albany, State University of New York Press.

LeBesco Kathleen & Naccarato Peter (eds.) (2018), The Bloomsbury Handbook of Food and Popular Culture, London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Lévy-Bruhl Lucien (1935), La Mythologie primitive, Paris, Alcan.

Lévi-Strauss Claude (1958), Anthropologie structurale, Paris, Plon; Eng. trans. Structural Anthropology, New York, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1963.

Lévi-Strauss Claude (1962), Le Totémisme aujourd’hui, Paris, PUF; Eng. trans. Totemism, Boston, Beacon Press, 1963.

Lévi-Strauss Claude (1964), Mythologiques I. Le cru et le cuit, Paris, Plon; Eng. trans. The Raw and the Cooked, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Lévi-Strauss Claude (1965), “Le triangle culinaire”, L’Arc, no. 26, pp. 19-29.

Lévi-Strauss Claude (1978), Myth and Meaning, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lorusso Anna Maria (2017), “Looking at Culture Through Ideological Discourse”, in T. Thellefsen & B. Sørensen (eds.), Umberto Eco in his own words, Boston/Berlin, De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 48-56.

Lorusso Anna Maria (2018), Postverità. Fra reality tv, social media e storytelling, Roma-Bari, Laterza.

Lupton Deborah & Feldman Zeena (eds.) (2020), Digital Food Cultures, London, Routledge.

Malinowski Bronislaw (1926), Myth in Primitive Psychology, New York, Norton.

Mangano Dario (2014), Che cos’è il food design, Roma, Carocci.

Marrone Gianfranco (2014), Gastromania, Milano, Bompiani.

Marrone Gianfranco (2016), Semiotica del gusto. Linguaggi della cucina, del cibo, della tavola, Milano-Udine, Mimesis.

Niola Marino (2012), Miti d’oggi, Milano, Bompiani.

Ortoleva Peppino (2019), Miti a bassa intensità, Torino, Einaudi.

Overend Alissa (2020), Shifting Food Facts: Dietary Discourse in a Post-Truth Culture, London, Routledge.

Parasecoli Fabio (2022), Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics, New York, Columbia University Press.

Parasecoli Fabio & Halawa Mateusz (eds.) (2021), Global Brooklyn: Designing Food Experiences in World Cities, London, Bloomsbury.

Perullo Nicola (2016), Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food, New York, Columbia University Press.

Popper Karl (1994), The Myth of the Framework: In Defence of Science and Rationality, London, Routledge.

Scrinis Gyorgy (2013), Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, New York, Columbia University Press.

Sedda Franciscu & Stano Simona (2022), “Food and Glocalization”, in U. Dessi & V. Roudometof (eds.), Handbook of Culture and Glocalization, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, pp. 105-121.

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Stano Simona (2021), “Beyond Nutrition: Meanings, Narratives, Myths”, in S. Stano & A. Bentley (eds.), Food for Thought. Nourishment, Culture, Meaning, Cham, Springer, pp. 147-158.

Stupples Peter (ed.) (2014), Art and Food, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Sweeney Kevin W. (2017), The Aesthetics of Food: The Philosophical Debate About What We Eat and Drink, London, Rowman & Littlefield International.

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Volli Ugo (2015), “Du goût alimentaire au goût esthétique... et retour”, Lexia, nos. 19-20, pp. 37-47.

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