Symbols of gratitude and danger living in perfect harmony. Image: NYPL digital library.
My boss asked me to track down a traditional "thank you" food.
He wanted to give that unknown thing as a gift of appreciation to our best customers. It seemed like a good idea. I'd just do some research, discover that flash-frozen steaks were a universally acknowledged symbol of goodwill and esteem, and out they'd go. Boss happy. Customers happy. Easy-peasy, right?
On the ensuing search for consumables as symbols of appreciation, I discovered... well, it's not so easy. I should have known. Symbolic meaning is relative. More than that, it's local. So there's not a lot in the way of universally recognizable representations. Particularly not in the way of food items, which have traditionally tended to be very local.
Oh sure, you'll find quite a few quasi-universal symbols out there. There are flags to represent nations, the white cross, which generally symbolizes medical help, the golden arches, which symbolize heart failure and the swoosh, which means I'm about to pay a surcharge for a piece of clothing. But the great efforts used to make those symbols into something globally recognizable was intentional. And, generally, well financed.
The more organically occurring symbolic representations tend to be "readable" only by those in certain groups, or regions.
When I grew up in the Dakotas, I attended pow wows, sweats and other events at which tobacco was a gift that demonstrated respect and appreciation. Presenting someone in Manhattan with a nice pouch of fresh tobacco probably wouldn't read the same way. Particularly in this "tobacco as symbol of death and/or decadence" era.
So back in the frustrating realm of my food symbol quest, it seems that a pineapple might say "hospitality" to me (this fellow has a nice rundown of why the pineapple has historically been recognized in that capacity... I love the bit about how pineapples used to be rented short-term for parties in order to demonstrate one's status and taste), but it might just suggest "Hawaiian cocktails" (or even worse, "Williams-Sonoma") to our customers.
The slaughtered lamb was once pretty widely used as a dramatic "thanks a lot" gesture, but again... it's all about location, location, location. And context. Symbols are language, meaning, of course, that the recipient of the symbol has to speak your language.
I submitted my findings. He ended up sending out boxes of chocolate.
But now that I think about it, considering our best customers are high-spending NYC food buyers, maybe a box of steaks wasn't such a bad idea as a symbol of appreciation after all. It's extravagant and not really not that far afield from the slaughtered lamb. And isn't extravagance nearly always recognized as symbolic of appreciation?
In no particular order, some of my findings on food symbols and their meanings:
Apple = appreciation (generally of teachers), temptation, New York
Peach = longevity, marriage
Pear = affection
Olive = peace, healing
Garlic = strength
Gourds = good health, longevity
Chocolate = devotion, love
Fish = faith (Christian faith in particular)
Rabbit = fertility
Lotus Root = unconditional love
Lamb = faith (again, it's about Jesus)
Maple Syrup = Canada, eh
Pineapple = hospitality, welcome
Pumpkin = prosperity, festivity, harvest
Pomelo, basket/cornucopia, sheaf of wheat = bounty
Slaughtered lamb, tobacco = appreciation, gratitude
Rosemary = fidelity, remembrance
Pomegranate = fertility
Lavender = good luck
Salt = wealth, loyalty, incorruptibility, immortality
Honey = wealth, happiness
Turnips = charity
Pepper = lust, spice
Fig, bamboo, pig = prosperity
Banana = hey... sometimes a banana is just a banana, okay?