Language of food

Why do we choose to eat some foods and not others? Is it just about taste and genetics? Or are we getting our cues from societal messages?

These are questions that have fascinated Nick Vagnoni, a senior instructor in the English Department.

A few years ago, Vagnoni – who once freelanced as a food writer – created a course at FIU for students to learn about the rhetoric of food, analyzing the messages society sends about food and the ways we are taught to think about eating.

“We look at a number of different contexts, including advertising, menus and restaurant designs,” says Vagnoni, who is teaching the course this semester. “The class is meant to help people decide their relationship with food. A lot of our conditioning and the rhetoric we see are grounded in deep personal connections related to family, emotion and comfort food. We see a lot of different rhetorical strategies that try to exploit that.”

For example, products that are labeled as “organic” are often perceived as being healthier – an assumption dubbed the Health Halo effect – even if the product itself is not actually as healthy as one might assume, possibly because it is made with ingredients that are high in sugars or other unrecognizable ingredients.

Likewise, a menu item at a restaurant might be called “Great Grandma Gertrude’s Apple Pie.” This, Vagnoni explains, brings up a sort of family connection in our minds with the menu item. It makes us think the food has more credibility and is part of a legacy – and something we might want to taste.  

“You can’t eat a story, but the story changes the experience of it, how we regard that food,” Vagnoni says. “Food is connective tissue in a lot of families. It’s communicative in a way. It’s a way of expressing something, showing affection. In that sense it can be rhetorical, it can be a form of communication. Preparing food, serving food, the way it is served, it’s all definitely communicative.”

Vagnoni knows firsthand how cooking can be a communal act and has used food to communicate in his own life. When he moved away from home to attend college, he would cook for his roommates as a way to get to know them; he’d order pizza and sit outside his room to see if he could make new friends; and he’d cook foods from his childhood to remember home.

John Noble Masi – a faculty member at the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management – can relate.

For as long as he can remember, Masi was surrounded by the culinary industry.

“Since I was knee-high I’ve been in the food service business, particularly restaurants and bakeries. My dad owned a bakery. There are pictures of me with pastry bags in my hand as a kid. For me, food is just very personal. It’s very experiential. Food delivers awesome experiences.”

Food allowed him to bond with his mentor and inspiration – his dad.

“I always enjoyed talking about food with my dad,” Masi says. “Our favorite times were cooking together or sitting in front of a football game having some Italian salami, sharp provolone cheese and pepper biscuits. Whenever I try those foods, they bring back lots of nice memories.”

Masi’s father passed away several years ago, but through cooking – and teaching about food – Masi has found a way to honor his dad’s legacy of love and good food.  

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Masi (left) and his dad were happiest when cooking together. 

“Food is an emotional and passionate experience,” Masi explains. “It’s very emotional when I teach. I try to teach with a lot of passion. My father always kept things really simple. And I think that translates really well to students today. I tell them it’s about doing everything with passion. That’s the key to anything in life, but mostly in food.”

So, why do we regard notebooks filled with yellow, moth-eaten paper as prized possessions just because they are Abuela’s recipes? Why do we beg Dad to make his family-famous barbecue wings to celebrate the Super Bowl?

Why do we eagerly gulp down our cafecito at 3:05 p.m., whether at home or at the office? And why do parents bake cookies with their kids and let them shower the dough with loads of pink and yellow sprinkles (even when it doesn’t look that great)?

It’s simple, says Masi. Food transmits culture and captures memories.

Maybe it even spreads a little bit of love.

How can we honor the special place food holds in our hearts while trying to live a healthy lifestyle?

Check out the third and final part of this series on the psychology of food to get some practical tips about finding balance in your own relationship with food.

And if you missed the first story in the series, learn more here: There are four kinds of eaters. Which are you? 

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Baking cookies is a food tradition adults often share with children. Memories of baking –or the cookies– can become associated with this special quality time.  

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