Icons worth a thousand words (plus original sin)

It began with an apple; skin taut over glistening flesh, tangy juice running over a trembling lip, drying in sweet stickiness at the corners of a puckered mouth.

Or was it a pomegranate? The true identity of the forbidden fruit, unspecified in Genesis, is hotly debated. Some suggest that the apple — non-native to the land of milk and honey — catered to the fruit vocabulary of European readers. Judaism identifies the fruit as either grape, fig, wheat or citron, but stops there. In spite of the ongoing quest to identify the fruit that lured Eve into sin, the apple remains the symbolic representation of man’s weakness, appearing everywhere from art to pop culture (Snow White couldn’t resist either), epitomizing iconic food.

As the vermilion sphere portrayed in Medieval art, Eve’s apple could have been a Cortland, or maybe a McIntosh. In some depictions, such as the fresco by Victor Vasnetsov at the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev, the forbidden fruit is even green, perhaps because the artist himself might have foregone eternal paradise for the tooth-tingling sourness and robust bite of a sassy Granny Smith. The iconic apple is at once all apples and no apple — an Edenic amalgamation of the best apples you’ve ever eaten, with a dash of divinity and the tartness of a fall from grace.

Eve’s apple is echoed by the curvaceous bananas and flawless strawberries of today’s food advertisements. But unfortunately modern iconic representations of food are rarely applied to organic produce. Somehow, Wendy’s has a way of making a double bacon cheeseburger look orgasmic, even to me, one of those people who if given the choice between a Big Mac and a still-beating cobra heart (thank you, Anthony Bourdain) would probably choose the latter.

The TV Burger is everything meat means in your deepest carnivorous consciousness: savory juices, buttery texture and browned crust. And OH, the bacon. There’s a reason Iron Chef America judge Ted Allen giggles audibly when a contestant incorporates this divine incarnation of swine into his dishes. The smart ones have figured it out, slyly tucking cured pork into every course like pig-lover’s opiate. There are even glistening slices of lettuce, onions and tomato that my brother, countering my admonishments following one of his multi-burger binges, would call “some vegetables.”

The iconic burger, like Eve’s apple, is at once all burgers and no burger. The TV Burger is assembled from ingredients selected after hours of bun-sorting and patty-pruning (perhaps this is why the perfect bun is called the “hero” by food stylists). “Extras” wait offstage to replace wilted lettuce or a cracked bun. While the use of inedible ingredients in food photo shoots is increasingly rare, the food stylist’s “tool kit” still contains instruments more at home in an ER.

The fundamental question is: would you pry your lazy bum from the couch at midnight to drive to Wendy’s for a “junior bacon chee’“ if the commercial depicted the gray, asymmetrical lump of mystery meat, flabby vegetables and anemic bun that actually issues from your local drive-through window?

To quote Jeffrey Alexander, Yale professor of Sociology who teaches Material Culture and Iconic Consciousness, food icons are “crystallizations of meaning.” When you gaze upon the TV burger, you taste everything you imagine a burger should be. When you gaze upon the greasy mound reposing in your take-out wrapper, you decide you’d better close your eyes.

Building on the work of sociologist Rom Harré, Alexander argues that iconic meaning is a social connection. While the apple’s shiny surface ensnares the eater, its interior packs more than pulp; by biting, we ingest its social meaning, connecting ourselves to an imagined community. The TV Burger, too, is a vehicle of shared consciousness — its meanings of freedom (“Have it your way”), youth (“I’m lovin’ it”) and quality (“It’s waaaaay better than fast food”) form the unifying discourse of our Fast Food Nation.

The best burger I’ve ever eaten was not pretty; it squatted on the grill like a lumpy, grumpy old man as my dad and I sipped Pinot Noir on our back patio. As it browned, juices licked free by hungry flames, Roquefort cheese peeked out, etching blue veins in the glistening meat. Assembled on the kitchen table, the burger was about as far from its iconic cousin as possible — a rotund patty perched atop a comically small whole wheat bun, homemade chipotle barbeque sauce dripping from beneath a crown of caramelized onions. Yet as unmarketable as this burger would have been, its taste was transcendent.

The most iconic experience of food is in the ephemeral moment of shared consumption. Enveloped in the flavors, we fall into each other, tasting with a single tongue. Whether the food’s appearance is iconic matters little. After its initial enticement, the surface is, after all, eaten. Eve’s apple may seem more than a fruit now, so invested is it with religious significance. But we can imagine that, for Eve, the apple’s iconic surface was only a veil for the luscious sensuality of flesh beneath, a barrier from an ecstasy of flavor. Why are we preoccupied by the identity of the forbidden fruit? Perhaps we yearn to share in the taste of original sin, be it Cortland, McIntosh, or yes, even pomegranate.

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