Mythologies- Barthes on… Ornamental Cookery

Modern depictions of food are concerned more with artifice and ideology than with genuine potential as food to be eaten. Food in our magazines and on television isn’t ‘real’ food. This is what Barthes concerns himself with in Ornamental Cookery. He explains how food in contemporary culture as been given an artificial reality to repackage it as a dream of smartness and sophistication.

If you open up a magazine with recipes, the picture will be of a ‘visual category’ rather than a culinary one. We find food which is meant to be seen, not eaten. We think of the famous chain restaurant burger and the adage ‘it never looks like it does in the picture in real life’. Barthes says that magazine food is meant “for the eye alone since sight is a genteel sense”.

Good_housekeeping_1908_08_aIn the modern realm of magazine culture, everything portrayed must contain an element of ornamentation. Everything must be beautified if it is depicted. “The brutality of meat” is masked by sauces and clever photography. Food is glossed, smooth, beautiful. We know that at home food doesn’t really look like this, but we buy into the magic, we love the fantasy of the pomp, the elegance, the inventiveness; the exotic element is that which is beyond us, the fantastical.

The photographer and chef abstract us from the natural (symbolically elevating it above the realm of ‘mere food’). They produce something which contravenes the natural sense of cookery, then they return us to the natural by reconstructing it. An example of this is a lobster thermidor; they remove the lobster from the shell, use many processes to cook it, then place it back in the shell, covered in sauce. The shell grants us the mythology of the natural.

The plate is a testament- nature elevated. Barthes uses the example of a yule log covered in fake holly. The dish must be ‘dish PLUS ideology’. The only exception is that of the humble stew or casserole. Here, however, the dish is masked by the idea of ‘homeliness’. The humble dish is presented as it is, but prefaced and covered by the ideology of the rustic.

In this year’s Masterchef, one of the finalists presented a dish containing dry ice and a bucket, spade, and watering can. The Great British Bake Off shows contestants baking cakes which require technical skill beyond that of almost any household. Even Jamie Oliver’s shows about cooking quickly or on a budget are novel because the food is dressed like magazine cooking; it is also inspired by modern food trends, and marketed with the idea that everyday food can be exotic (and by negation, implying that our usual food isn’t), as with the ideology of the rustic.

The cooking we intake through television and magazine, then, is “idea-cookery”. We won’t cook the food we see on television, but we can draw inspiration from it. The reality of food is the food we produce in the kitchen ourselves. It contains traces of the food we are shown, but we ‘translate’ it into ‘real’ food.

fine diningArtifice of food is found exclusively in magazines of the lower-classed, he said. In a higher-class magazine, normal affordable food was depicted. Why? Because you can only sell dreams to people who can’t afford them. It is a question of what you deserve. The magazines of the poor insinuated that high-class food was only a fantasy because fantasy was all they deserved. The semiology of this is readily apparent- the photographs of the food are almost always taken from an aerial point, eluding to the fact that the dishes in the picture – and therefore the lifestyle and wealth – were both “near and inaccessible”.

It is interesting that Barthes says a picture hides the “brutality of meat”. In his essay Steak and Chips, he sells us a very different mythology of meat.

“steak shares its mythology with wine. They are both the heart of being, filling the consumer with a “bull-like strength”. They are both products which are wholly indulgent, they are rich, they have character. In consuming these products of indulgence and character, we become indulgent, we become rich, we embody character… France has adopted steak as its national cuisine. It is national before it is social. To share in steak is to share in the national identity. It becomes the symbol of home, of greatness.” (Wolfe, L. 2017).

Meat can be given a mythology of rough brutality, or of indulgent sophistication. This depends on how it is represented. The aerial shot provides a metaphor that it is unattainable, but a different shot could portray otherwise. The ‘language’ of the symbol is contingent on how it is manipulated.

Representation transforms myth. The same piece of food can be transformed to cater for two different reader bases, just by altering the mythology behind the picture. Mythology can divide people, just as how a piece of food can be a dream for one audience, and a reality for another. People are all the same until they lose a common footing. But they can also be united in a mythology, just like the French do in sharing steak and chips as a national cuisine.

steak yum

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Works Cited:

Barthes, R. (1972) ‘Ornamental Cookery’, translated by Annette Lavers, in Lavers, A (ed.) Mythologies. Reprint, Vintage: London, 2009

Wolfe, L (2017), ‘Barthes on… Steak and Chips’, The Wolfe Review. Available at: (accessed 8th May 2018)

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