Opinion: the use of food in political protests illustrates our complicated cultural and historical relationship with what we eat

By Alison VincentCentral Queensland University

Our relationship with food is complicated. In times of crisis and distress, many people find comfort in food, but for the irate, frustrated and dissatisfied food can also offer a vehicle for discomfit.

Demonstrating discontent by pelting politicians with eggs, for example, has a long history. Convenient and readily available, eggs continue to provide a cheap, effective and no doubt satisfying way for the angry and disaffected to make a statement and make their victim look foolish, without causing any serious harm.

Pies have also proved themselves useful when it comes to bringing the pompous and pretentious down to size. Pieing is said to have its origins in slap-stick comedy, dating back to the early years of the 20th century and made famous in movies such as Laurel and Hardy's The Battle of the Century. The Three Stooges were particularly effective in using pies as a means of championing the cause of the common man against the wealthy members of high society.

From Associated Press, News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch is splattered with a white foam pie during 2011 British parliament hearings into the phone-hacking scandal

Pieing took a more political turn in the late 1960s and 1970s with the antics of people like Aron 'The Pieman' Kay, acting on behalf of the counterculture Youth International Party in the United States and Noël Godin and the International Patisserie Brigade in Europe. The exploits of these pioneers inspired other underground activist groups calling themselves the Biotic Baking Brigade in the US and the Entartistes in Canada.

An essentially harmless way of subverting authority, throwing an egg or a pie falls under the general umbrella of a political prank. Pranks are a form of practical joke aimed at undermining and humiliating the target while appealing to our sense of humour, or at least our sense of the ridiculous. As pranks go, egging or pieing require very little interpretation and, as a statement of disapproval, they work across language barriers and national borders.

From RTÉ Archives, Cathy Halloran reports for RTÉ News in 2002 on then Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan getting hit by a custard pie while campaigning in Co Roscommon

The victim ends up with egg on their face or being forced to eat humble pie, but overall the most important characteristic of the egg or pie is the mess they make. However, as the following examples of similar pranks illustrate, the foodstuffs involved can often convey powerful, and rather more subtle, messages and achieve more than just ridicule and embarrassment.

In Russian, the saying which translates as "don't hang noodles over my ears" means "don't pull my leg" or "don’t make a fool of me" or, more specifically, "don’t lie to me". In 2014, a group of protestors in the Ukraine literally hung noodles on the railings outside the Russian embassy to send the message that they were unhappy with the Russian media coverage of the situation in their country at the time. To outsiders, this looked like a messy bit of mischief, but the significance was obvious to the Russians and the meaning unambiguous.

In Russian, the saying which translates as "don't hang noodles over my ears" means "don't pull my leg" or "don’t make a fool of me" or, more specifically, "don’t lie to me". In 2014, a group of protestors in the Ukraine literally hung noodles on the railings outside the Russian embassy to send the message that they were unhappy with the Russian media coverage of the situation in their country at the time. To outsiders, this looked like a messy bit of mischief, but the significance was obvious to the Russians and the meaning unambiguous.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, UK politician Nigel Farage is covered in milkshake while campaigning in the 2019 European elections

More recently, during the elections for the European Parliament in 2019, throwing milkshakes at right wing and far-right political figures became popular in the United Kingdom. Although milkshaking may have begun simply as a spontaneous expression of anger, milk has a long-standing association for protestors, and right-wing extremists with white supremacy and idealised notions of masculinity. What looks to many like just another harmless prank can be interpreted as turning their own symbols against the alt-right and making a fool of not just the individual but also their ideology.

In December 2014 a group of feminists in Belgium threw French fries with a squirt or two of mayonnaise at the then Belgian prime minister to protest against his government’s economic policies. For the protestors, "frites sauce" symbolised the Belgium they believed the government was trying to destroy. By using what many people, Belgian or not, regard as Belgium’s national dish, their protest had added significance, even for those who know little about Belgian politics.

Following the economic crisis of 2008, the Greek government was pressured by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union to move to adopt more neo-liberal economic principles and had to introduce a number of unpopular economic reforms. Unhappy and angry protesters resorted to throwing eggs and tomatoes at government representatives and officials, but the most commonly used foodstuff was yoghurt.

From CBS, an anchorman at a Greek regional television channel is interrupted on-air by protesters throwing eggs and yogurt during an interview with a politician

For the Greeks, yoghurt has strong associations with traditional values and with Greek identity. To many these austerity measures were an attack on those values and on their history and culture. The victims of ‘yaourtoma’ were representatives and implementers of policies and ideologies which the Greeks consider to be fundamentally non-Greek.

Because of these deep-seated cultural connections, being covered in yogurt goes beyond merely embarrassing: it is a form of punishment, an act of public shaming which targets officials who protestors see as having dishonoured their Greekness. While egging, pieing, or milkshaking are acts that many consider irresponsible, inappropriate and at worst irrelevant, some Greek authority figures and many members of the public recognise ‘yaourtoma’ as a legitimate, and perhaps even respectable, form of expression.

Using food to ridicule and embarrass is contrary to our associations of food with nourishment and comfort 

All these uses of food are confronting. Using food to ridicule and embarrass is contrary to our associations of food with nourishment and comfort and challenges all the positive values we associate with sharing food and eating together. But the fact that protestors do sometimes turn to food, and the foodstuffs they use, serve to illustrate the complicated cultural and historical relationship we have with the food we eat and highlight how fundamental food is to what matters to us in our lives.

This piece is based on It's Never Just About the Food: Food as Disruption, a paper delivered by the author at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium 2020

Dr Alison Vincent is a cultural historian whose research focuses on food and food studies.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ