The bacon matters: Food in non-food TV

Curator's Note

There is an increasing and exciting academic literature about food on TV (e.g. TV chefs, cooking shows) and food on film (especially the "food film" genre). But what about the use of food in not explicitly food-centered TV shows? („non-food TV“)

What does Leslie Knope's waffle passion say about her, for instance? And why would it be unthinkable for Ron Swanson to love those same waffles as much as he loves his bacon and eggs? Which gender roles does that allude to? The more you think about it, the more significant the food representations in almost all kinds of TV fiction become - in a way other props or settings rarely are. Representations of food is "a perfect conveyor of subtext; messages which are often implicit rather than explicit, but surprisingly varied, strong, and sometimes violent or subversive.”

Take another, quite different example: Breaking Bad. Gilligan jokingly asked about the show, when it was first picked up by the then not yet rebranded AMC, „Why not just send it to the food channel? It’s a show about cooking, after all.“ Of course, no one thinks first about food when they think about Breaking Bad. But in fact, it is in deed a show about ‚cooking‘ - about an insatiable appetite. (Not to mention the symbolically loaded parallel between mass-produced meth and Gus’ fast food chain Los Pollos Hermanos). And it’s about a family completely crushed under the weight of that same heavy appetite. - Illustrated best in a series of breakfast scenes with the core family (until there is just Walt left, alone in a public place), and dinner scenes including Hank and Marie (until the concept of tableside guacamole becomes a sad joke and a hash tag (#AwkwardGuacamole)). What demonstrates Walter’s transformation more clearly than his three birthday morning breakfasts? His appetite rendered him, in the end, incapable of „bringing home the bacon“. 

The slideshow offers examples from these two different TV shows of just how many (para)texts revolve around food as semiotic potentials. What might we gain in our understanding of any number of TV shows by looking at their use of food systematically?


Thank you for the post Helle. The examples you give of representations of food in non-food based TV shows both effectively highlight the ways that food might operate as supplemental semiotic markers and texts within media texts. I haven't seen much of "Breaking Bad" (a potentially embarrassing admission these days) but I've seen enough "Parks and Recreation" to follow the references. While food is not at the center of the show, you're right that it is used extensively in the show to express a variety of meanings. In addition to the waffle vs. bacon and eggs (or steak) dichotomy that you mention, there are several other food references in the show that come to define different actors in the show. For example, there is the recurrent bogeyman of Sweetum's candy. What does it mean that so many of the "villains" in the show are connected to a candy company? There is also the problem with obesity that seems to haunt the entire town, with fast food restaurants like Paunch Burger standing in as not only as a marker of the city's weight problems, but also a secondary "villain" that attempts to move in on prized park land. Yet Sweetums and Paunch Burger are both much celebrated by the town itself. The only food that is not celebrated by the town is salad, an explicit enemy of Leslie Knope. As you point out, if Leslie's appreciation for waffles and whipped cream places her in an explicitly gendered relationship to Ron Swanson's preference for bacon and eggs (and meat of all kinds), then Leslie's rejection of salad would seem to complicate that same gendering. Clearly there is additional meaning embedded in the way food plays out in non-food based TV shows, and charting that, as Helle suggests, might give us further insights into not only the characters/narratives of the shows, but also the values and meanings we invest in food.

Helle’s insightful post not only demonstrates how ubiquitous food has become within media today, but also suggests how much we have become more attuned to, and aware of, food’s role within our societies and cultures. Although food would have been an aspect of a character’s life on television in the past, a key question is whether it would have been as central to the character, or his/her development, as Walter White’s breakfasts, Leslie Knope’s waffles, or Ron Swanson’s meat-centric diet? In other words, perhaps the fact that we are paying attention to what characters on television are eating, and that it is a key focus of their representations, indicates that food has surpassed its former status simply as a means of nourishment and is definitely a central way that we consider our identities and representations in media today. This use of food within television shows also illustrates Brillat-Savarin’s famous phrase in The Physiology of Taste, “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.” In this sense, the association of particular foods with characters on television serves as a mental shortcut to help audiences determine the kind of person he/she is supposed to be, the types of groups to which she/he belongs, and helps to establish a connection with the audience. However, as Aaron stated, this use of food can potentially operate as a means of stereotyping through representations and food as well. For example, because Ron is supposed to be “a man’s man,” his masculinity often is linked back to his consumption of meat and disdain of salads. Therefore, this post raises some fascinating questions about the relationship between food and representations within media because as Helle states, the bacon matters.

Thanks, Helle, for this post. I'm glad to have a chance to respond to it in this reprise. You rightly note how food is functioning as a metonym for character in so many shows that aren't ostensibly about food. As Carinita nicely points out, food gives us "a mental shortcut to help audiences determine the kind of person [a character] is supposed to be, the types of groups to which she/he belongs, and helps to establish a connection with the audience." In this sense, it strikes me that food is functioning here the very way brands do. Does a character like Apple or apples? PCs or peanuts? ("Tell me what kinds of brands you buy, and I'll tell you who you are.") The useful thing about using food in this sense, at least as far as television producers are concerned, is that foods don't carry the copyright hassles of brands. So perhaps one more reason to add to all the reasons as to why food is becoming so prevalent on non-food TV is that you don't have to get the rights for bacon.

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