Icon Foods (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
ICON FOODS. The term "icon" was first used during the Middle Ages as a religious word suggesting images, figures, signs, or objects representing sacred elements. They were fabricated items meant to recreate or suggest something or someone consecrated or divine. Icons themselves are pictures, signs, or resemblances of seemingly more significant things or people. They are slightly different from symbols or indexes in that they have meanings of their own; however, they develop elaborate meanings when used in reference to something more significant. Icons, tangible signs of something larger, are displayed as pictures, objects, and even food, whereas indexes and symbols have meaning only in relationship to another object. It is through the icon that people gain access and learn about the object. Icons are signs that stand for or define something else (Parmentier, 1994; Peirce, 1931).
In the twenty-first century the term "icon" often implies an object representing something else, but even this definition has evolved. Within popular culture, icons are not necessarily just representative of something else but also may be something that receives an extraordinary amount of attention, praise, and idolization. "Iconic" can also mean formulaic or repetitive, as is seen in logos and other illustrative representations. And icons themselves change meanings over time.
The word "icon" today has largely lost its religious and spiritual attachment. Rather, icons are used in secular settings. Examples of icons are found throughout popular culture in movies, books, stories, clothing, music, celebrities, and food. Specific icon foods, when consumed or even just imagined, immediately suggest links to specific places, culturally bound groups, or communities.
Personal Identity, Group Identity, National Identity
Icon foods help define individual, group, and national identity. The difficulty here is determining whether inside members of a group deem the food iconic or outsiders consider it representative of the group.
Specific foods or food practices may serve as icons for individual people's beliefs or values, as seen in the example of vegetarianism. Corporate identity may also be defined by food icons, as in crediting producers on restaurant menus or the use of fast-food logos. Ethnic groups are often defined by specific foods, considered quintessential to their cultures. National, regional, racial, religious, and ethnic identities are often dictated by specific icon foods. Sometimes these foods are selected by the group itself, as with the state-created Israeli cuisine; southern American grits; Louisiana "crawfish"; Maryland blue crab; Maine lobster; Florida orange juice; Massachusetts cranberries; Vermont maple syrup; Texas chili; New York bagels; Alsatian choucroute garnie; French croissants, cassoulet, and ratatouille; Japanese sushi, Scottish haggis; German wursts; Austrian Sacher torte; and Antiguan pepper pot. Sometimes outsiders choose foods they judge iconic for groups they are not members of, often with negative references.
Iconic Food Logos and People
Throughout the world, but predominantly in the United States, food logos for famous food companies represent the whole of American culture and the values of capitalism and enterprise. Around the world America is synonymous with McDonald's. The commonly recognized McDonald's "golden arches" are a representation of modern corporate worship. Other large-scale food company logos are known worldwide also. It is not the foods themselves that suggest the country but in these cases the food businesses that symbolize entire nations. For example, Heineken, Fosters Lager, and Guinness Stout are all brands of beer, but each conjures up specific images of its home country and people, Holland, Australia, and Ireland, respectively. Similarly food clip art emphasizes the visual aspects of food over its taste. It is not the actual food but the image of the food or of the food company and what that image represents. For example, Ronald McDonald is an icon, but he is not a food, a restaurant, or even a person.
The famous Andy Warhol Campbell's soup artwork is an example of a pedestrian food product elevated to iconic proportions. The labels and branding of many other established and popular packaged food products, including Heinz ketchup, Tabasco sauce, Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink, and Oreo cookies, are iconic. In these examples, iconic seems to mean "has been that way for a long time." It is recognizable. People may also serve as food or culinary icons, symbolizing the highest levels of culinary prowess (Julia Child, George-Auguste Escoffier, and Marie Antoine Carême) or representing food values (Alice Waters) or food commercialism (Emeril Lagasse).
See also Metaphor, Food as; Religion and Food; United States.
Belasco, Warren, and Philip Scranton, eds. Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Parmentier, Richard J. Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Advances in Semiotics series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931.
Shortridge, Barbara G., and James R. Shortridge, eds. The Taste of American Place: A Reader on Regional and Ethnic Foods. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.