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Grilled-Cheese Madonna

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 18.3, September 2008

Since it came to light in 2004, it has become the quintessential holy image to appear on an item of food: the face, many say, of the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich. While it has sparked little piety—the Catholic church has not sanctioned it as divine—it has become the subject of controversy and ridicule and has even suffered insinuations of fakery. I once had custody of the curious item, and I was actually able to photograph and examine the image under magnification (figures 1–2). Here are my findings.

Background

The image reportedly appeared ten years earlier in the Hollywood, Florida, home of Gregg and Diana Duyser. Mrs. Duyser, fifty-two, said she had grilled the sandwich without butter or oil and had just taken a bite when she noticed—staring back at her—the image of a woman’s face in the toasting pattern. She perceived it as the face of “The Virgin Mary, Mother of God” and, placing it in a plastic box with cotton balls, kept it enshrined on her night stand.

Duyser was impressed that the sandwich never molded. However, toast and hardened cheese that are kept dry naturally resist molding.

The Duysers received $28,000 when they auctioned the sandwich on the Internet site eBay. The site had initially pulled the item—which supposedly broke its policy of not allowing “Listings that are intended as jokes”—but the couple insisted that the item was neither a joke nor a hoax. Soon the “‘Virgin Mary’ sandwich” was back, attracting bids. It was purchased by an online casino—GoldenPalace.com—whose CEO, Richard Rowe, stated that he intended to use the sandwich to raise funds for charity (“Virgin Mary” 2004).

Simulacra

The image-bearing sandwich received—possibly outdistanced—the notoriety accorded other sacred food icons. They include Maria Rubio’s famous 1977 tortilla that bore the face of Jesus, also in the pattern of skillet burns; a giant forkful of spaghetti pictured on a billboard in which some perceived the likeness of Christ; and the image of Mother Teresa discovered on a cinnamon bun (see Nickell 2004).

Queried by the Asso­ciated Press during the holy-grilled-cheese brouhaha, I explained that such images are nothing more than evidence of the human ability—termed pareidolia—to interpret essentially random patterns, such as ink blots or pictures in clouds, as recognizable images. The most famous example is the face of the Man in the Moon.

Perceived pictures of this type are called simulacra, and many are interpreted as religious images (a female face becoming “Mary,” for example). These are perhaps most often associated with Catholic or Orthodox traditions, wherein there is a special emphasis on icons or other holy images (Nickell 2004; Thompson 2004).

In the wake of the grilled-cheese image came others, one on a fish stick hailed as “the son of Cod” (“It’s” 2004), another a pair of images on a pancake. A woman interpreted the latter duo as Jesus and Mary, while her mother, the actual flapjack flipper, thought it resembled a bedouin and Santa Claus (Nohlgren 2004). The grilled-cheese icon even helped inspire an entire book: called Madonna of the Toast (Poole 2007), it treats both “Secular Sightings” (e.g., Myrtle Young’s famous collection of pictorial potato chips) and “Forms of Faith” (including the previously mentioned Mother Teresa “Nun Bun”—missing since it was stolen in 2005).

A Hoax?

The Duysers’ grilled-cheese Madonna was lampooned on Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! series on the Showtime Network (2006) and elsewhere by other debunkers (Stollznow 2006). Some of them found clever ways to make fake images on toast. One method involved a custom cast-iron skillet molded with Jesus’ face, another a yeast extract used to paint pictures on bread before toasting (Poole 2007, 88–89). A Holy Toast!™ “miracle bread stamper” was even marketed in 2006.

But was the image due to possible trickery, as some implied? The rush to suggest fakery antecedent to inquiry is a most unfortunate approach. It is certainly not the method of a serious, intellectually honest investigation.

Figure 2. Close-up photograph reveals spotty, accidental nature of image: a simulacrum. (Click to view larger image; photo by Joe Nickell)

Figure 2. Close-up photograph reveals spotty, accidental nature of image: a simulacrum. (Click to view larger image; photo by Joe Nickell)

As it happens, I was able to examine the grilled cheese in question in 2005. I had custody of it for the better part of a day, January 14, courtesy of its Las Vegas-based owners who loaned it to the Penn and Teller show’s producer who in turn entrusted it to me. I was in Las Vegas to tape segments for that popular program, the timing of which coincided with the James Randi Educational Foundation’s annual conference, The Amaz!ng Meeting 3 (held at the Stardust Resort & Casino). There, I shared the framed pop icon with other skeptics who eagerly posed with it, including Michael Shermer and Steve Shaw (aka the mentalist Bannacek). No one thought the image looked like the Virgin Mary (as her visage is imagined in art); instead some suggested it resembled Gretta Garbo, Marlena Dietrich, or other celebrities.

Eventually I retired to a suite where I could study the controversial sandwich. It was in what appeared to be its original plastic box, surrounded with cotton balls, and set in a deep frame. I placed a forensic centimeter scale thereon and photographed the sandwich using a 35mm camera and close-up lenses (again, see figures 1–2). I also examined it macroscopically, using a 10x Bausch & Lomb illuminated coddington magnifier.

I observed that the surface had a spotty, heat-blistered appearance (again, see figure 2). The spots making up “eyes,” “nose,” and “mouth” are similar to those elsewhere on the toasted bread. There was no apparent difference or incongruity with regard to hue, sheen, form, or indeed other characteristic. That is to say, there were no facial areas that seemed more linear or in any way drawn or added (as by, say, use of a woodburning tool or by any of various other means I considered). Therefore, it is consistent with a genuine (accidentally produced) simulacrum rather than a faked one.

Moreover, a careful close-up look at the “face” reveals it to be far less perfect than it may at first sight appear. (Those who suggest that hoaxing may have been involved, please take notice.) The features really consist only of some squiggles, a fact perhaps best appreciated by turning the picture ninety-degrees. The nostrils are missing, yet the mind—“recognizing” a face—fills them in. Again, there is a pronounced extraneous, curved mark on the lady’s right cheek, yet the mind tends helpfully to filter it out (or perhaps interpret it as, say, a curl of hair). In short, the image seems a rather typical simulacrum.

Nevertheless, Diana Duyser certainly acts as if she believes that the “Virgin Mary” image on the grilled cheese is, as she says, “a miracle.” No longer owning the sandwich, she has had its image tattooed onto one of her ample breasts (pictured in Poole 2007, 86). She thus demonstrates that with simulacra, belief—as well as beauty—is often in the eye of the beholder.

References:

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.