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Why some people see a hero in a simple cheese sandwich

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, USA
Nov. 24, 2004
Robert Nolin, Staff Writer • Wednesday November 24, 2004

It’s an unlikely marriage of the sacred and the profane: a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich bearing the purported image of the Virgin Mary, sold to a gambling house that wants to tour the petrified snack around the country for charity.

For Diana Duyser, the Dania Beach woman who peddled the sandwich half with a bite missing for $28,000 in an eBay auction, the partially-consumed breakfast meant a miraculous windfall. For, the online gambling concern based in Antigua that purchased the sandwich, it’s a heavensent promotional opportunity. For believers expected to view the crusty relic as it crosses the country under guard, it’s a chance to brush up against the divine.

But things may not be so cut and dried.

The sandwich’s Virgin, experts say, could simply represent a common human phenomenon of perception called pareidolia — the capacity for people to recognize familiar patterns in random images, such as sailing ships in the clouds.

“People see what they want to see,” said Sylvia Grider, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University. “It’s a manifestation of human creativity.”

Duyser, 52, says she skillet-fried the white bread and American cheese sandwich for breakfast 10 years ago. After taking a bite, she noticed a small face on its charred surface that she identified as the Virgin Mary. Though not particularly religious, Duyser kept the curiosity nestled in cotton balls in a plastic box on a shelf. It did not mold or decompose, she said.

Earlier this month, the jewelry designer offered the sandwich for sale on eBay, an Internet auction site. After being temporarily removed by eBay officials, she was allowed to post it again., a company that has seen its name displayed by streakers at various sporting events, as well as tattooed on the backs of overweight boxers, bought it for $28,000.

“We’re the toast of the town,” company spokesman Drew Black said from his office outside Montreal. “It’s just going crazy, crazy, crazy.”

Black said the company will hand Duyser a check and display the sandwich this afternoon at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. will also announce plans for a national tour, complete in a bus painted like the grilled cheese sandwich. Duyser and her sandwich will go to Las Vegas, Hollywood, Calif., New York and Atlantic City, stopping at malls and radio and TV stations in small towns along the way.

Black said the pairing of a purported holy item with a business based on vice makes sense, given Duyser’s affinity for games of chance.

But Rhett Rushing, a folklorist with the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, said perceived images such as Duyser’s are a product of pareidolia and religious conditioning. People who believe deeply are “trained” by their culture to detect religious images in anything, he said.

The phenomenon of pattern recognition developed from a survival instinct. It enabled early humans to associate the shadow of bamboo, for example, with a dangerous tiger’s stripes, or an infant to recognize its mother’s face among others.

James Randi, a former magician who now debunks paranormal claims from the James Randi Educational Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, said he once discovered the image of Donald Duck in a hotel’s plywood door.

He was in high skeptic mode over Duyser’s sandwich. “Is that a miracle? It’s just ridiculous,” Randi said. “She sure knows how to raise money.”

Read the Sun-Sentinel online

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