Humor, Food in

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Author: Mahadev Apte
Editor: Solomon H. Katz
Date: 2003
Encyclopedia of Food and Culture
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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HUMOR, FOOD IN. Humor and laughter are unique to humans and separate them from other animals. While all social and cultural aspects of human existence are subject to humor, food and sex are the most widespread topics because they are the fundamental biological bases of human existence. Food habits and sexual practices show considerable cross-cultural variations.
Food is a handy weapon for humor on the stage. Actor Bert Lahr is seen here cooking (with a pinch of Old Dutch Cleanser) on stage during a performance of George White's Scandals at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York. © JOHN SPRINGER COLLECTION/CORBIS. Food is a handy weapon for humor on the stage. Actor Bert Lahr is seen here cooking (with a pinch of Old Dutch Cleanser) on stage during a performance of George White's Scandals at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York. © JOHN SPRINGER COLLECTION/CORBIS. People in different cultures have definite views not only of the foods they eat but also of what constitutes a potential food. Ethnocentrism reigns supreme in matters of food and food habits.

Humor in individual societies targets food and eating habits while humor at the universal level focuses on cross-cultural differences in food habits, food values, and ideologies. No single comprehensive, cross-cultural treatment of food-related humor exists, although there is an extensive literature on the foods and food habits of people in specific societies. This essay discusses the humor of food, primarily in the United States.

Forms, Techniques, and Topics of Food-Related Humor

Verbal and nonverbal humor is primarily based on incongruity and takes various forms: jokes, puns, riddles, funny stories, parodies, ludicrous definitions, malapropisms, one-liners, caricatures, cartoons, pranks, and practical jokes. Cartoons and caricature generally use visual humor while pranks and practical jokes exploit social situations. However, almost all types of humor depend on language. The techniques used in humor are exaggeration, ludicrous imitation, reversal and contrariness, and Page 216  |  Top of Article
Food has always been an easy target for humor. This spoof on cookery and dining manners was sold at New York newsstands as a Christmas joke book in 1890. It contains several chapters on various branches of cookery, including recipes. ROUGHWOOD COLLECTION. Food has always been an easy target for humor. This spoof on cookery and dining manners was sold at New York newsstands as a Christmas joke book in 1890. It contains several chapters on various branches of cookery, including recipes. ROUGHWOOD COLLECTION. trivializing everyday life events. Topics include genuine and fictional recipes; fast-food and other restaurants; chefs and fast-food cooks; butchers, housewives, waiters, and customers; cooking processes; eating habits of various ethnic groups; food ingredients; and eating utensils.


Jokes are the most popular type of food humor. Jokes take many forms and include other types of humor. They include riddles, one-liners, word play, ethnic jokes, and so on. A major characteristic of jokes is the surprise punch line. Over the last fifty years, many collections of all types of jokes have been published. The introduction of the Internet has helped disseminate thousands of jokes all over the world. There exist Internet "The A-Z Jokes Collections" and new jokes are added daily.

Jokes either exaggerate or overturn common cultural practices, and target cultural roles and professions related to cooking and eating, making them incongruous. Jokes focus on the contradictions between cultural perceptions of ideal recipes, appropriate food habits, and roles, on the one hand, and social reality on the other. Among jokes relating to food professions, those relating to waiters are especially popular, and the question-answer format is most common. Generally, waiters provide the punch line by their culturally inappropriate and incongruous answers to customers' complaints.

Pranks and Practical Jokes

Pranks and practical jokes are an important aspect of all informal and formal social interactions. Generally, individuals, but occasionally groups, are the butt of these jokes, especially at parties, weddings, and other similar social gatherings. The aim is to surprise and embarrass the chosen target, and this is accomplished through unexpected actions such as a pie in the face, removal of some clothing thereby revealing "private" body parts, pouring water or liquor on a person or a group of people, or throwing smelly foods at the victim(s). Some pranks are so well established in the United States that the victims expect them, thereby canceling the element of surprise. A popular ritual in the United States is a "roast," a banquet in honor of a celebrity who is subjected to humorous tongue-in-cheek jibes and insults by friends. The target is figuratively roasted until he or she is totally embarrassed, to the amusement of the participants.


Cartoons are a very widespread and popular form of humor. In the United States, daily newspapers are full of cartoon strips, many of which focus on food. The two best known are "Blondie" and "Beetle Bailey." Blondie's husband Dagwood is famous for his appetite and huge sandwiches. The waiter and the cook at the diner where Dagwood eats his lunch are also humorous characters. The catering business started by Blondie has led to several hilarious episodes. While "Sarge" in the Beetle Bailey cartoon strip is known for his gluttony, the army cook is notorious for his awful cooking, and his food is disliked and made fun of by the soldiers. The "Far Side" cartoon series by Gary Larson has had several food-related cartoons, especially episodes which depict anthropologists being boiled in the cauldron by wild tribes. Jack Ziegler's cartoon collection "Hamburger Madness" demonstrates the zany aspects of fast food. The cartoons on the front and back covers portray the ubiquity of hamburger in the world.

Caricatures and Parodies

Caricature and parody involve creatively ludicrous imitations of aspects of food, emphasizing the contrast between its serious and trivial aspects. Humorous cookbooks (to be discussed below) caricature diners, chefs, utensils, gadgets, and cooking itself. While caricature emphasizes the visual attributes of its subject, parody focuses on language and style. It is the incongruity between the Page 217  |  Top of Article serious and trivial that is amusing. Asian cultures that emphasize food rituals are often subjected to such parodies. Television has occasionally emphasized caricature in regularly featured cooking shows. In the United States there is now a twenty-four-hour channel devoted to cooking shows, some of which tend to lean toward caricature.

Sitcoms have their share of the humor of cooking, involving episodes where inept men and woman take a stab at cooking and end up in total chaos. Fun is also made of exaggerated rituals connected with selling and buying ready-made food. The episodes of the "Soup Nazi" in the popular sitcom Seinfeld are worth noting here. Customers have to stand in line, politely ask for the kind of soup they want, pay the right change, and move to the side in a drill-like fashion. The cook and proprietor named the "Soup Nazi" by the main four characters in the show can, and does, refuse his soup to anyone who does not obey this ritualistic etiquette or displeases him in any way. Yet, people line up outside his joint to taste his soup. The Seinfeld episodes devoted to this theme and involving the four major characters are hilarious.

Well-known food dishes and their names are subject to parody that works both ways. Known foods and recipes, and other food-related events, actions, states, and so forth are manipulated to sound like famous book or movie titles and these, in turn, are altered to remind the readers of famous recipes, as illustrated in To Grill a Mockingbird And Other Tasty Titles, concocted and illustrated by Ruth Young and Mitchell Rose. A few examples from it are "The World According to Carp," which is described Page 218  |  Top of Article as "Smash nationwide bestseller by a writer's writer! Meet T. S. (Terribly Salable) Carp, porpoiseful young novelist, and discover the best love story New England has produced since "Ethan Fromage"; "Lady Chatterley's Liver"; "Moby Duck"; and "The Soufflé Also Rises." The illustrations accompanying each tasty title are exaggerated and amusing.

Imaginary food recipes focusing on the personality traits of famous people are favorite areas of food humor. This kind of humor is difficult to categorize, although it probably comes under the heading of parody. Freud's Own Cookbook by James Hillman and Charles Boer (1984) and Jean-Paul Sartre's Cooking Diary (author unknown) are two such examples. The first describes such dishes as "Slips of the Tongue in Madeira Sauce" (p. 48)," "Erogenous Scones" (p. 75), and "Incredible Oedipal Pie" (p. 76), that are reminiscent of concepts developed by Freud and his friends and colleagues. The Sartre book consists of philosophical musing about cooking and recipes.

One-Liners, Puns, Riddles, and Word Play

These closely related and occasionally overlapping genres of humor are devoted to comments about commonsense rules of eating, dieting, low-calorie foods, overeating, obesity, food fads, and favorite, and addictive, foods of individuals and groups. Incongruity is the result of such techniques as reversal, exaggeration, and double meaning. Note the following: "Eating should never make you sad, unless it is a mourning meal"; "Visibly upset from the whole ordeal, the grape juice started to whine"; "I used to work at the sugar packaging factory. Then my position was dissolved"; "The upper crust of society is composed of a lot of crumbs held together by dough"; "If you eat something, but no one else sees you eat it, it has no calories."

Consumption humor is contrary to the commonsense constraints concerning what to eat and how much. Everyone has particular food addictions and many believe in the dictum of living to eat rather than eating to live! Humor focuses on such shortcomings. Note these oneliners: "If we are what we eat, then I am easy, fast, and cheap"; "A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand"; "No one thinks of any 'rules' associated with the when, where, and how chocolate should be eaten." We have the riddle: "Q.: Why is there no such organization as Chocaholics Anonymous? A: Because no one wants to quit eating chocolate."

Humor associating food with various aspects of human anatomy and sexual activities is widespread and popular. For example: "Q: What did one strawberry say to the other strawberry? A: If we hadn't been found in the same bed together we wouldn't be in this jam!" Note "The Life Story of An Egg": "So you think your life is bad, then just think how bad the life of an egg is. . . . You only get laid once. You only get eaten once. It takes four minutes to get hard and two minutes to get soft. You have to share a box with eleven other guys. And the only chick that ever sat on your face was your mother!"

Dictionaries of food items and related terms with creatively outrageous or absurd meanings are another type of humor, as illustrated by A Cook's Dictionary by Henry Beard and Roy McKie. They "bring new meaning to matters of taste." The very definition of the word "cooking" on the cover page is given as "1.n. the art of using appliances and utensils to convert ingredients and seasonings into excuses and apologies." A "chef" is defined as "any cook who swears in French," while "health food" is defined as "any food whose flavor is indistinguishable from that of the package in which it is sold." This dictionary also includes cartoon-style humorous sketches of food-related activities.


Apte, Mahadev L. Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

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Fieldhouse, Paul. Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture, 2d ed. London: Chapman & Hall, 1995.

Barr, Ann, and Paul Levy. The Official F*O*O*D*I*E Handbook. London: Ebury Press, National Magazine House, 1984.

Beard, Henry, and Roy McKie. A Cook's Dictionary. New York: Workman Publishing, 1985.

Hillman, James, and Charles Boer. eds. Freud's Own Cookbook. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Young, Ruth, and Mitchell Rose. To Grill a Mockingbird and Other Tasty Titles. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Ziegler, Jack. Hamburger Madness: Cartoons by Jack Ziegler. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

Mahadev Apte

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Americans have always had a strong negative reaction to members of some Asian societies who eat dog meat. This has much to do with the American cultural belief that one does not eat pet animals. Yet one of the most popular fast foods in the United States is named the "hot dog." How did this come about? Why do Americans call the food in question by this name when they intensely dislike the idea of eating dogs? And why is this name readily accepted? One could say, after all, "what's in a name?" But we all believe that names are important. People have a general belief in the magical ability of words. Even many Americans who do not believe in the power of words want to know when they visit a physician what they are suffering from, and they are satisfied only when the physician actually names their illness. Hence the puzzle and the irony of the name "hot dog." It is true that hot dogs do not contain dog meat. But it is interesting to contemplate how the name originated and how it became widespread. Hot dogs are also known as frankfurters and wieners. They are a type of sausage. J. J. Schnebel (at "hot dog" in "Who Cooked that up?" ) provides a brief history of this food from the time of the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages to modern America. The names "frankfurter" and "wiener" are derived from the names of the two European cities, in which sausages were manufactured and were a popular food item: Frankfurt in Germany and Vienna (Wien) in Austria. This food was also called "dachshund sausage" because of the similarity of its shape to the German dog used in hunting badgers; thus the word is a combination of two German words, hund meaning hound and dachs meaning badger. The name continued to be used by German immigrants who began to sell these sausages in New York City in the 1860s. These sausages gradually became popular as fast foods to be served at picnics, and to be consumed for a quick lunch on the street, in restaurants, and at baseball games.

Schnebel credits the sports cartoonist Thomas Dorgan of the New York Journal for inventing the name "hot dog." Dorgan wanted draw a cartoon of a "barking" sausage steaming in its roll—which was until then known as dachshund sausage—being eaten at baseball games in New York. He did not know the spelling of the word "dachshund" so instead he used "hot dog" and the name caught on.

The joke below titled "Americans Eating Dogs" illustrates how ethnic stereotypes are mutual, with an added twist emphasizing the similarity of a hot dog to the male organ of procreation in humans and many other animals.

Two foreign nuns have just arrived in the United States by boat and one says to the other, "I hear that the people of this country actually eat dogs."

"Odd," her companion replies, "but if we shall live in America, we might as well do as the Americans do."

Nodding emphatically, the Mother Superior points to a hot dog vendor and they both walk toward the cart.

"Two dogs, please," says one.

The vendor is only too pleased to oblige and wraps both hot dogs in foil and hands them over the counter. Excited, the nuns hurry over to a bench and begin to unwrap their "dogs."

The Mother Superior is first to open hers. She begins to blush and then, staring at it for a moment, leans over to the other nun and whispers cautiously, "What part did you get?"

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Among all food jokes, the most popular seem to be those making fun of waiters. Such jokes portray waiters as rude and not interested in the orders and complaints of the customer; in other words, waiters are not seen as true professionals. However, these jokes also focus on the presumed ability of waiters to answer any customer complaints with witty and unexpected oneupmanship, thereby creating an incongruous situation. The preferred format of waiter jokes is question and answer. The following are a few examples.

  1. Customer: Waiter, there is a dead spider in my soup! Waiter: Yes, Sir, they can't stand the boiling water!
  2. Customer: Waiter, waiter, there is a fly in my soup! Waiter: Not so loud, Sir, everyone will want one!
  3. Customer: There is a small slug in my salad ! Waiter: Sorry, Sir, I'll get you a bigger one!
  4. Question: Why do waiters prefer elephants to flies? Answer: Have you ever heard anyone complaining of an elephant in their soup?
  5. Customer: Waiter, waiter, there is a spider in my soup! Send for the manager! Waiter: It's no good, Sir, he's frightened of them too.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3403400327