Identity of food: Part 2

You are what you eat, is the famous saying and I can say it in four languages. But you are also what you buy. The food we buy and the way food ‘talks’ to us has become a facet of our identity, a way for us to perform a certain identity.

Dominant discourses about food and animals naturalize the mass production and consumption of meat in part by offering coherent, ethically plausible identities to their participants and in part by keeping animals outside the category of beings who have social identity. At the moment I am working on a small research project examining the animal welfare discourse on websites of two leading retailers in the UK. My project’s premise is that food retailers have acquired power and authority beyond simply selling food: offering insurance, many have pharmacies and are dispensing health advice, and are involved in education (for example, Jamie Oliver).

In Alison Moore’s paper I discussed in part 1: That could be me: Identity and identification in discourses about food, meat, and animal welfare, she attempts to answer:

How do successful campaigns expose the problems in animal-product representations?

Moore analysed four texts: a mock recipe, a ‘real’ meat recipe, and a children’s story book. The focus text is this mock recipe card, produced by Animals Australia animal welfare campaign:


This is fascinating linguistically. What is the aim of using this pseudo-recipe? According to Moore, this is genre-bending (using the genre of recipes but in a different way) and its purpose is to bypass reader defenses as she says:

Unlike real recipes, which instruct readers in how to perform an activity, the primary function of this mock recipe is to inform readers about the conditions under which animals who are farmed for meat live, prompting readers to change their purchasing behaviour and avoid supporting cruel farming practices. Four ‘recipes’ were produced on approximately 12 u 10 cm cards, and these were made available at supermarkets and in magazines such as “Australian Women’s Weekly. Each card contained a glossy food-styled image of a pork-based dish, designed to look appetizing to a ‘foodie’ audience, until the reader got up close and read the full names of the dishes – e.g. ‘Emotionally stressed pork sausage in red wine jus’ or ‘Lame and Pained Pork Pie’.


Identity is an abstract concept, which is reinforced in interaction. It is not something we are born with, but rather enact it in conversation over time resulting in the term “gender performativity”, which was first coined in American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler‘s 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Rather than having a biologically assigned gender, we negotiate it in interaction, we walk and talk ‘like a man or like a woman’.  Much like gender identity, any kind of identity is not static but actively and interactively negotiated.

Language does not just reflect personal and social identity but also actively makes categories for enacting and recognizing identity (Butler, 1990). Repeated enactments are necessary for maintaining identity.

(My best friend Tim’s raw vegan chocolate banoffee pecan pie – recipe from This Rawsome Vegan Life)dscf5183

Food is a universal phenomenon around which humans (and other animals) gather and negotiate an identity.

Supposedly we’ve all heard of foodies, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, it is “a person having an avid interest in the latest food fads”.

Lakoff (2006) suggests that ‘knowing how to engage knowledgeably in food discourse marks one as a serious person in early 21st Century America’. For instance, restaurant menus often name the farm from which fresh ingredients derive. This is a ‘code for the cognoscenti’ – projecting an identity for their customers as persons who care and know about sustainability as well as having a discerning palate. Moore points out, however, that as Lakoff’s research stops at the socio- part, it does not extend into the eco-aspect of animal identity and does not engage with the concept of the absent referent we discussed above.

In dominant discourses, animals are not given a social identity. Therefore, the second aim in Moore’s paper is to examine how dominant discourses perpetuate this exclusion, and how counter-discourses use these linguistic features to try and destabilize the idea that factory farming is natural.

Moore compared the mock recipe to a pork recipe using cohesive harmony analysis (Halliday and Hasan, 1976):

“Analysing cohesion in the Animals Australia campaign is a way of visualizing the textual effects of restoring pigs as sentient individuals into discourse about food, with its subsequent disruption to dominant discourse patterns and challenges to reader identity.”

What is cohesive harmony analysis?

Cohesive harmony is made up of two types of cohesive chains: identity chains and similarity chains. Identity chains use grammatical items such as pronominals (it, her, their) to refer to participants already mentioned or that will be mentioned. For example, in the mock recipe we can see an identity chain: sow–she–her. Moore signals that identity chains can also “point outside the text to shared culture or the physical environment, which is essentially what the imperative forms above rely on”, as in the example in the mock recipe ‘Force pregnant sow to stand’. This makes the reader question who the ellipted ‘you’ is. Who is doing the forcing, who is the actor?

Similarity chains are “strings of words that are related by class membership, part-whole relations, and oppositeness, hyponymy, meronymy, and synonymy/antonymy”. Examples in the text include pork–bacon–ham (meronymy – ‘cuts’ of a whole pig meat carcass) or alternatively hyponomy –  ‘types’ of pigmeat.

In the text, these chains intermingle and form meanings: the interaction between a sentient participant and a process such as cut or force makes a semantic structure (Halliday, 2002, in Moore, p. 16) consistent only with cruelty or violence, not with normal food preparation.

This analysis serves to break the perceived normality of factory farming and draws attention to the fact the dominant discourses do not give animals agency and identity, except in children’s stories, but if an adult personifies animals seriously, they risk being perceived as immature.

Mmmm.. chili

If this made you hungry, one of my favourite channels on Youtube is the Vegan Zombie and I also have their cookbook, which I highly recommend.



Moore, A.R. (2014) ‘That could be me: Identity and identification in discourses about food, meat, and animal welfare’, Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 9(1). doi: 10.1558/lhs.v9i1.59.

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

5 thoughts on “Identity of food: Part 2

  1. Marvelous post! Identity is the inalienable right of *all* sentient beings — not a label deemed convenient for homo sapiens and their presumptions on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Veganism demands that you think critically about your own unethical behaviors, such as complicity in the construction of death camps for creatures deemed “wholesome meat products.”
    BTW, my particular favorite for “you are what you eat” is the German “man ist was man isst”, if only for the great economy of just one additional “s” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. An interesting thing that results from veganism, particularly for those who make the change rather later in life, is the idea that a murderer can change and better themselves. When I first went vegan I wanted to imprison myself as a way to repent. I now understand that as a former murderer, I managed to do what most prisons fail to.

      Wow- the German version is perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That prison parallel is striking. The prison portion of the US economy is enormous — inmates are resources endlessly exploited, so it’s amazingly akin to the family friendly factory farms that they hide from consumer view.
        And, yes indeed, the German version is superb. I was a student in Germany during the early 70’s and heard the following exchange.
        Question: “Wer isst meine Suppe?”
        Reply: “Ich bin nicht deine Suppe!” Everything is lost in the, at least English, translation.
        Wishing you an amazingly vegan holiday 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. On a related note: VVD in the Netherlands has pleaded to stop using ‘meat names’ for vega(n) products, like schnitzels, sausages, because it is ‘too confusing for the consumer’ (like was also the case in germany couple of weeks ago). (real reason might of course be being the meat lobby feeling threatened by rising sales of vegan products).
    Hashtag #schnitzelgate on twitter !

    Liked by 1 person

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