Food as a Symbol in Classical Greece

'You are what you eat' was as relevant an observation for the ancients as for more modern thinkers, argues Helen King

Fresh fish, one of the favourite dishes of the Greeks; platter with red figures, c. 350–325 BC, Louvre.
Fresh fish, one of the favourite dishes of the Greeks; platter with red figures, c. 350–325 BC, Louvre.

There are a number of things you can do with food apart from eating it. Human beings do not simply eat everything which can be made edible, while rejecting foods which are poisonous; on the contrary, out of the range of potential foods available to any given social group, only some will be classed as 'edible'. The accepted pattern of food use will both reflect and support a range of social and cultural factors. Parts of this pattern may be highly resistant to change, and carry a strong emotional charge. The proposal to move an item from the 'non-food' category to that of 'food' will evoke strong reactions bearing little relation to its nutrient value; think of our own horror at the thought of rat-burgers, or our characterisation of other national groups according to what seem to us to be exceptional choices of food ('the Frogs').

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