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

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').

It follows that answers to questions about food behaviour will give us valuable information about the specific interests and beliefs of, and divisions within, any society. Who produces food? Where, how and by whom is it grown, distributed, stored and prepared? What potential food sources are rejected, and why? My concern here is predominantly with ancient Greek society, and with one of the last stages of the food process, that of consumption. The process of consumption links food as a biological need to food as a social fact.

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