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Meatballs and spaghetti, and pareidolia in food

October 24, 2010

On the menu in this post: pasta and psychology!

This is a recipe I shamelessly nicked from Jamie Oliver. The original is here.

Serves 4-6


4 sprigs of fresh or 2 teaspoons of dried rosemary
12 cream crackers
2 heaped teaspoons Dijon mustard
500g good-quality minced beef, pork, or a mixture of the two
1 heaped tablespoon dried oregano
1 large egg, preferably free-range or organic
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil

The fun part first: put the crackers in a towel or plastic bag and smash them up until fine. Chop up the fresh herbs and mix everything in a bowl. Divide into 24 little balls, roll with wet hands and finally drizzle with olive oil. Fry in a pan for about 7-8 minutes.

Pasta sauce

a bunch of fresh basil

1 medium onion
2 cloves of garlic
½ a fresh or dried red chilli
2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Chop up onions, grate garlic and deseed and finely chop the chilli. Coarsely chop or tear up the basil leaves. Be careful when opening the first tin of tomatoes.

Give second tin to boyfriend and make him open the damn thing.

Fry the onion until it’s soft and lightly golden. Then add the remaining ingredients and cook for a few minutes.

Cook 400-ish grams of pasta. Drain, and return to the pot. Add the sauce and the meatballs. Serve on a plate, and…




AAAAAH, It’s the Flying Spaghetti Monster! On my plate! Right there! Whoah! Wow… just… wow.


That’s the Flying Spaghetti Monster right there. I’ve been touched by his noodly appendage. Wow. WOOOH!


That’s so intense. Flying Spaghetti Monster. So intense.


What does this mean?


Oh my god. Oh my god. It’s so beautiful.




This is too much!


*manic laughter* Tell me what this means! I don’t know what it means. (Going WTF? right now?)


I… I… I’ll tell you what it means:

What is pareidolia?

Pareidolia comes from Greek para – “faulty” or “wrong” and eidōlon – “image” or “shape”.

In short, pareidolia is the perception of distinct images in random patterns. It can be anything from a cloud giving you the finger:

a face on Mars:

and ghostly shapes created by shadows and light

(from Richard Wiseman’s Science of Ghosts project)

The well-known Rorschach tests are an example of the deliberate use of pareidolia by psychologists.

Pareidolia is a universal human tendency, and being gullible certainly has nothing to do with it (however, believing that your piece of toast is trying to tell you something does).

Exactly why the human brain does this is still debated, but most likely there is an evolutionary explanation. The ability to recognize faces quickly is a large advantage to any individual growing up in a social environment that may contain both friends and foes. Pareidolia would also contribute to the ability to recognize what may be a lurking predator. In any case, recognizing dangers quickly is a crucial ability if you want to survive.

Pareidolia is the cause of a lot of ghost photographs, religious apparitions, UFO sightings, Nessie, Bigfoot, and a lot more. Since this is a blog about food and science, I thought I’d look into what sort of images people have found in their meals. (click on the images to go to the original page)


Faces are probably the most common type of pareidolia, also in food. There are the really simple ones:

I like this one, because it demonstrates really well just how easily our brains see faces. Those are two and a half circles, nothing very human about it – yet we immediately recognize it as a sad face.


Then there’s happy coffee:

I want coffee like that every morning.


A …very special sandwich


A laughing pepper:

…I’d never be able to put that in my salad.


This pepper is scared:


And an old lady apple:

Granny Smith, is that you?


Hardly surprising, there are a lot of religious, and particularly Christian imagery.  Jesus appear on food a lot.

Here he is on a burrito:


On a fishstick:


On a potato chip:


On a piece of toast:


A cheeto:


The Virgin Mary has also appeared on a piece of toast: (and was sold for a crunchy $28 000)


Here she’s a patch on a grape:


A Virgin Mary peanut:

…doesn’t this look more like the Venus figurines?


And a cheeto:


And on a lemon:

(hard to see, but the bottom brown stain resembles a face… kinda)


The pope’s profile has appeared in some frozen chicken:


And mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun:


Other religions have food apparitions too. Here’s the name of Allah on a fish:


This fruit is called Buddha’s hand.

Clearly though: it’s Cthulhu.

Naughty bits

…I actually think there are more images in this category than in the religious one. Not quite sure what that means. This was also the category where I found it most difficult to separate the fakes from the real ones (I swear, people have way too much time on their hands).

A nice, plump fruit of some sort:

I love how it looks like it’s staring philosophically into the distance.


Some extra spicy chilies:


A nudist and topless (hah!) carrot couple:


Another nudist carrot, being a bit shy.


Another apple pun coming right up: I don’t know if this is the Pink Lady or Golden Delicious variety:


Ice cream boobs:


And last: a demotivational poster:

Hm? See what?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2010 1:03 pm

    That cloud-giving-the-finger picture is a photoshop. It’s an entirely plausible image though, which says something about how used we are to seeing things in clouds. Why we don’t apply the same scrutiny to our imaginations when it comes to food as clouds, I don’t know.

    Now off to buy meatballs for tonight…

    • October 25, 2010 1:11 pm

      Hm, now that you mention it, that does look a wee bit photoshopped. Or am I seeing that because you said it? Gah!
      Anyways: good point! 🙂

  2. October 29, 2010 8:35 pm

    Just discovered you’re fantastic blog! I too right a blog (about science stuff) and you have inspired me to do my own food science experiments! Thank you!
    I just did one on the science of dunking biscuits… I’d love to know what you think 🙂
    It’s on
    Looking forward to your next post…

    • October 29, 2010 9:20 pm

      Thank you for that, Stuart!

      Biscuit dunking is not very common here in Norway, for some sad reason. …wonder why that is?

      • November 12, 2010 6:37 am

        Interesting, I presumed most cultures had a form of biscuit dunking… Apparently, Americans do milk and cookies, South Africans use rusk biscuits and Australians do something strange with sucking hot drinks up chocolate biscuits!!
        I looked again at your pictures and particularly liked the carrots – we grow our own veg… I wonder if it is possible to train vegetables to grow in funny shapes?!?

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