If Cheese Could Talk: Food Narratives in Antiquity and Today (Marja Graham, 2019)

If someone were to offer you a fresh plate of grilled cicadas, more likely than not, you would have a similar reaction to most North Americans and Europeans and vehemently pass on the dish. The food and the cultures associated with it may be considered uncivilized for participating in this taboo, when 113 nations reportedly practice entomophagy. Those who do so are justified in their practice; there is a large amount of nutritional value found in these meals; also, the critters are not on an endangered animal list, nor do they require the vast environmental resources for traditional livestock (Raloff and Menzel 20). Why do we shy away from this potential food source? We create a narrative of the unclean and disease-ridden pests that we want far away from our food. We created regulations through the FDA to limit the number of bug fragments in foods like chocolate and peanut butter (Raloff and Menzel 17). North America and Europe are, in fact, a minority; they are a part of the 20% who do not practice entomophagy (Roberts 8).

We create stories about our food. These stories are sometimes used to entertain and give cultural relevance, while others work to fit our relative position about what civilized and accepted eating habits encompass. Food narratives are present in both our current cultural discussions, as well as those found in antiquity. In modern western culture, they draw lines between the exotic and people belonging to the current dominant culture. Similarly, in antiquity lines were drawn, but these went beyond labeling the other as exotic.

The narrative created by the gourmet food industry in America is that of excluding the other and emphasizing the presence of the white middle-class. American identity is tied with the idea of classic dishes, such as those present in holidays like Thanksgiving and Independence Day. These events highlight the importance of food in conjunction with the idea of the white American ideal. Additionally, those foods that are considered ethnic are considered to be exotic experiences. The idea of emphasizing exotic others as a separate, in a sense, unamerican experience, is in contrast to the narrative of the American Dream and glorification of diversity. One such story is that of cuisine brought by “Chinese railroad workers,” which “is presented as a happy story of shared cultural traditions, while the brutal exploitation of these immigrant workers is left unmentioned” (Baumman, Cairns, and Johnston 176). Another popular American food narrative is that of the Thanksgiving feast.

The Thanksgiving story is one that is shown through rose-colored glasses and taught to children from a young age as the celebration of the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together for a delicious and peaceful feast. Yes, there were relations between the starving English settlers and the Wampanoag, but the narrative ignores the violent past and the imperialist trauma cause to the Native American people (Gibson). Additionally, the use of the term “savage” in the context of othering the Native American people is parallel to the Greek and Roman label of “barbarian.” The label of “savage,” as assigned to Native American people, can be seen in outdated textbooks that use the term “to erase Indian consciousness” (Garcia 15). Both share narratives based around what is deemed civilized by those who control the cultural story. Manifest Destiny and the dominance of the negative side of the idealistic melting pot of America where, in these cases, the majority is engulfing the aspects of the minority which they desire and integrating as they wish, which distorts the truth of the original food narrative.

Common definitions of barbaric eating habits in antiquity were displayed through the Homeric terms “eaters of flesh” and “drinkers of milk” (Shaw 21). These phrases are directly linked to the distinctly negative view of pastoralism. The diet of meat and dairy products was a consequence of the reliance on herding animals. Beyond the assumption that some nomadic people ate “raw human flesh,” pastoralism was linked to the assumption that those who practiced it were lazy and unable to put effort into their own survival; in actuality, it can be seen that environmental factors play a significant role as to why people would adopt a pastoral lifestyle (Shaw 13). According to Aristotle, pastoralism as a way of survival was the least civilized route of survival, falling beneath banditry (Shaw 18). Nomadic pastoralism and its associated diet are elements that are distinctly shown in the assignment of the designation of “barbarian” to groups such as the Scythians, Gauls, and Ethiopians, and is even a substantial factor in barbarizing near-humans in mythology.

The Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey exemplifies all factors of what was classified as a barbaric diet. The Cyclops occupied a piece of land that had the potential to be successfully worked to produce a bounty: “Everything grows there but unsown and unplowed. There is wheat and barley and vines that produce a wine from fine red grapes” (Homer 9.105-139, Kennedy et al. 6). There is a specific emphasis on the possibility of wine production and the lack of respect that the Cyclops has for the gift of wine that Odysseus provides as a show of hospitality, thus showing barbarism in diet and lack of hospitable customs. He lives a pastoral lifestyle in contrast to the land which he occupies using his sheep as sustenance in the forms of milk, meat, and cheese. The cheese mentioned was described as “crude,” entailing an absence of skill with the limited dietary aspects that were present. To round off the barbaric pastoral stereotype, the Cyclops is also a cannibal who tries to eat Odysseus and his men. The view of the Cyclopes as “an arrogant and lawless race” which is exemplified through Homer’s depiction this archetypal view of barbarism is also presented in the cases of non-mythical groups, who are in some instances mythologized through similar actions (Homer 9.105-139, Kennedy et al. 6). The Cyclops displays all of the aspects of the stereotypical pastoral barbarian, and can be viewed as a point for comparison for descriptions of real pastoral people.

One such group encountered by classical historians were the Scythians, who were a distinctly nomadic people who used pastoralism as their avenue of sustenance. In his Histories, Herodotus states, “The Scythians blind all their slaves because of the milk they drink” (Herodotus 4.2, Kennedy et al. 306). He continues by stating the process of how they work to produce the milk, but a direct explanation for why milk drinking is the reason that they blind their captives is missing. It is because “they are nomads not workers of the land” (Herodotus 4.2, Kennedy et al. 306). This practice appears to be considered uncivilized in the eyes of Herodotus and a byproduct of those barbaric tendencies that are rooted in a pastoral lifestyle. Later in the Histories, a racial distinction is made purely on the difference of diet between the Callipidae, Greek Scythians, and the Scythians. The Callipidae share aspects with the Scythians, but are classified as separate due to the fact that they farm and consume the foods that they produce (Herodotus 4.17, Kennedy et al. 309). The focus of the Greeks on this difference of means of production and the claiming of the Callipidae as Greek Scythians display the importance of the hierarchy of production in relation to the Greeks’ own narrative of cultural superiority.

Another group that the Greeks othered through food narratives is the Ethiopians. They are pictured as having a more varied diet by Strabo in his Geography that has the additions of millet, barley, butter, vegetable shortening, date palms, and the grasses and roots that come from the harsh environment in addition to the meat and milk (Strabo 17.2.2, Kennedy et al. 192). Herodotus depicts the diet as follows: “Their food was cooked meat and their drink milk” (Herodotus 3.22, Kennedy et al. 181-182). The difference could possibly be attributed to the fact that the label “Ethiopian” included a large range of people. Within Greek dining culture, the use of Janiform vessels in symposia was another layer of othering of the Ethiopians, and those whose physical appearance differed from the men who participated. These vessels consisted of two faces of figures like women, mythical creatures, and those like the Ethiopians who were ethnically other based on their physical appearance. According to Gruen, there was no direct insult meant to Ethiopians by the use of these vessels, but there is a distinct social separation with the consideration that the symposium was only welcoming to Greek men of high status (Gruen 219). The symposium and the use of Janiform vessels did not directly target one group in particular, but it did play into the idea of us vs. the other in which the Ethiopians were certainly categorized as other.

The Greeks and Romans perpetuated ignorant ideas of pastoral people and the diets that were associated with them. The Greek idea that these nomadic people simply did not have a willingness to work and control the earth around them is flawed when in reality as Shaw states, “quite the reverse: they are driven hither and thither by natural forces” (Shaw 19). Unlike Homer’s description of the Cyclops’ island, nomadic people do not have constant access to a bounty of grapes and grains just waiting to be harvested used to establish a farming society. As a solution for arid landscapes, pastoralism allows for the use of secondary sources for consumption as the primary sources, land vegetation, are converted into productive resources such as meat and milk (Honeychurch 279). Another misnomer is that all groups who integrated milk into their diets were pastoral and barbaric. The Celts had a fundamental understanding of agricultural practices and grew corn, but due to their dairy consumption, they were labeled as barbaric in the same sense as purely pastoral groups (Alcock 178). The connection to milk and flesh diets was a great generalizer and allowed for a standard for assigning groups to the realm of barbarian without much else cause.

One may come to the conclusion that because of the barbaric relation to milk no dairy products were used in Greek or Roman societies, but there is evidence that contradicts this intuition. The Greeks did, in fact, eat soft cheeses, and held an affinity for different types that came from specific regions (Alcock 83-84). Romans also ate cheese; there are descriptions of herbed cheeses within Roman poetry, as seen in the anonymous poem Moretum from the first century A.D. (Gowers 46-47). There was a distaste for milk and butter as they were assigned to be barbaric. Additionally, there was a general assumption that barbarians did not eat high quality cheese, but it can be seen in an Irish poem from the twelfth century A.D. that the Celts had a history of having a wide variety of dairy products in their diets, including cheese, showing a contradiction it the idea that cheese production was exclusive to those classified by the Greeks and Romans as non-barbarians (Alcock 178). This limitation on dairy consumption did likely lead to a vitamin C deficiency that would have impacted bone strength. Additionally, from consumption of dairy products, writers Pliny and Hippocrates had intuitions on lactose intolerance and its side effects. Joan Alcock paraphrases Hippocrates’ words by saying that “some people could eat as much cheese as they liked without any problem, whereas others suffered acutely if they ate even the smallest amount” (Alcock 84). This integration and understanding of cheese show that it was classified as separate from the barbarian and something that was quite common to consume.

Additionally, Greeks saw cheese as something that was important to religious practices and part of their commerce. These contribute to the reasoning that cheese was integrated as separate from the “barbarian” in society because of its roles as bloodless sacrifice and valuable trade commodity. Beyond a basic bloodless sacrifice, cheese held a part as integral to certain religious traditions. In Sparta cheese left at the temple of Artemis was both a sacrifice and a training tool for young soldiers to learn how to stealthily commandeer food (Kindstedt 69). According to poet Hermippus in the fifth century B.C., cheese was comparable to goods like “books from Egypt, frankincense from Syria, cypress from Crete, and carpets and cushions of many colors from Carthage” (Kindstedt 78). These show that not did cheese have a tradition and sacred use, but also was valued as a culinary luxury, thus showing why it was seen as separate from the barbaric.

In contrast to the views of cheese in antiquity, America’s cheese culture is that of taking from other cultures and adopting as its own with a continued sense of elitism. American cheese itself, ranging from the spray cheese, which may or may not even be considered cheese, to individual slices and industrialized blocks, is outside the refined view of cheese culture in America. Writer Stella Capek characterizes American cheeses as “shiny, symmetrical, wrapped in plastic,” and “more akin to building materials than food” (Capek 413). The American cheese would likely be more akin to the barbaric, crude, Cyclops cheese mentioned in the Odyssey than the herbed cheeses found in Roman poetry. Instead, cheese traditions, like other food narratives, come from immigrants and those searching for exotic influences. In her work, “Fine Line,” Stella Capek contributes to the necessity to experience other cultures as a part of American food narratives by creating a story of the cheese lover instead of the elitist cheese snob, but in an attempt to explain the high accessibility of being part of exquisite cheese culture. Her antidote is one of cycling through France and experiencing local food and wine recommended by the locals of the region without a high cost (Capek 418). This is not a cultural phenomenon readily available to the average American and seems to work in favor of creating an exotic or foreign narrative around cheese.

European cheeses are surrounded by an air of tradition and structure, while modern attempts to create a purely American cheese tradition can be seen as the “tradition of invention” (Paxson 42). Cheesemaking has grown in status from a mundane skill to something that is elevated and aligns with high class tastes. American cheese makers are making their claim as part of being a legitimate source of high-quality cheese to those who seek out European-style cheeses as a source of luxury dining. They are walking the fine line between the assumption that “the technical part of cheese making… [is] stealing, grabbing, and borrowing” (Paxson 40) from the European traditions that they use to learn from and the processed, capitalistic American standard. Cheese artisans are having success in creating a name for themselves by catering to foreign-born communities and retailers that sell their products alongside European counterparts, as seen in reputable markets such as Whole Foods (Paxson 45). This shows a shift in the American cheese narrative from simply stealing and mimicking other cultures to growing into its own corner of the cheese market.

No matter if the stories and stigmas come from antiquity or today, the narratives that are ingrained into dominant cultures take on a powerful role in defining what is civilized or taboo within societies. The foods we eat, the traditions that they create, and the stories linked to them are intertwined within everyday existence due to our reliance on sustenance. These narratives can and have caused us to disregard the entire scope of the stories that we tell. As seen in the American tales spun in favor of those who occupy the dominant demographic, it can be seen that horrific truths are buried and left unacknowledged. Throughout antiquity, constant enforcement of cultural superiority and an increased acceptance of those who have a sense of sameness is explicitly present throughout the discussion of pastoral people not considering realistic factors that impact a group’s chosen route of survival. As seen through the examination and comparison of cheese in antiquity and today, it can be observed that food can create an exclusionary narrative of the other or one that creates the other as something that is exotic and elitist. The characteristics of the other are attributed arbitrarily as a side effect of demonizing the taboo instead of adopting a lens of cultural relativity.





Works Cited


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Strabo, Geography 17.2.2 (1st century BCE/1st century CE)