Food, Fictional and Non-Fictional

Thinking as I wrote my last post about how disturbing it was to look at versions of the exact same characters in different poses in two different salt and pepper shaker sets, about how the impression that they could move and take different positions seemed to suggest a life they were leading outside and beyond their hard ceramic shaker-set lives, and how suggesting that seemed to break the contract they imply about being safely shakable because they are hard, are ceramic, are not really the things they represent, not really alive, not really all that damageable, I became aware of another oddity: salt and pepper shaker sets that represent food.  Like these:

I mean, think about it for a moment or two.  You are serving a real meal consisting of real food–food you can eat.  Like maybe a hamburger, even.  And yet, there on the table is a hard, ceramic, entirely inedible object that represent something edible.  Like maybe a hamburger, even.  I get that there’s an obvious connection between salt-and-pepper shakers and food, that they are implements to be used in the process of serving and eating food.  And I suspect it’s for that reason that I have so many shaker sets that represent food, from carrots to bananas to milk and cookies But for all the logic of that, it still seems more than a little strange that you’d want representations of food on the table where you are serving real food.  It’s a weird confusions of categories:  real and fake, hard and soft, edible and inedible, etc.  It seems inevitably to raise the question of just how representative these objects are–how they are fictional food with their fictionality made obvious by their presence in the midst of non-fictional food.  Why put things that look like food but that you can’t eat on the table along with the actual food?  Is it the creation of some sort of puzzle–figure out what you’re supposed to put in your mouth and what you’re supposed to keep out of it?

Beyond that, I’m not quite sure about what to make of the act of shaking a fake hamburger over a real hamburger in order to get salt and pepper on it.  Or for that matter, shaking a fake hamburger over a vegetarian meal of beans and rice to get salt and pepper on it.  For there is a sort of actual food being provided by the shakers–the salt and pepper that you will shake on the real food and then eat.  They are not food but they can make the food taste better–just give them a shake and, perhaps, some of their magical unreal pretending will fall into the real food and make it more magical?  Are these shakers some sort of strange transitional object, then, not quite real and not entirely pretend?

One other aspect of these hamburger shakers also freaks me out a little: their shininess.  They are surprisingly lifelike, except for that shininess.  They look like real hamburgers, albeit miniature ones, that have been shellacked or varnished.  Hamburger preserved for posterity, perhaps, or in their sparkling shininess, the purified essence of hamburgitude, smaller than but better than the real things they represent.  Perhaps, then, they share the diminishing utopianism of all miniatures, all dolls and dollhouses and such: more perfect but infinitely smaller, infinitely more cramped, and more easily managed worlds than the real one.  Having a miniaturized and therefore both cuter and more controllable hamburger on your table along with the real ones–is it a sort of fetish object, a representation of the wish that the real hamburgers be just as safe and in control as the fake one, just as free from taint and bacteria and deathly additives and all the other potential harmful aspects of actual meat?

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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