Making Meaning Out of Snacks

Robert Ito, eBay News Team

Sellers are spotting everything from pop culture icons to U.S. states in their food — and putting their finds on eBay for profit.

Look on eBay, and you’ll find a diverse selection of snack items for sale, many of them shaped like figures from popular culture. Cheetos that resemble Alf, the ‘80s TV character, and Groot, the sentient tree creature from Guardians of the Galaxy. French fries that look like the Nike swoosh, and corn flakes shaped like the state of Illinois. Over the years, eagle-eyed snackers have spotted everything from the Loch Ness monster to Sasquatch in their favorite junk foods. And when they do — they promptly list the misshapen snacks for sale on our marketplace.

One of the most famous sales dates back to 2017, when a California man was eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and he came upon one that looked a lot like Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who’d made the news months earlier after a three-year-old boy climbed into his enclosure. Excited by his find, the man posted a snapshot of the Cheeto on eBay, alongside a photo of the actual Harambe. The final bid on the item was $99,900. 

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A Flamin’ Hot Cheeto shaped like Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, that sold on eBay in 2017. 

People have eagerly made meaning out of ordinary objects for millennia. We see trees with outstretched branches and imagine giants; we look at strange rock formations and excitedly see goblins or turtles. There’s even a name for it: Pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon in which people see famous faces or shapes of animals in inanimate items. But people get really excited when they find a food item that looks like something else, particularly food items we might eat every day without otherwise looking at them twice. 

“It’s a way of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary,” said Fabio Parasecoli, a professor of food studies at New York University and author of the forthcoming book Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics. Seeing Elvis or Alf, in any form, is pretty extraordinary. And what could be more ordinary, says Parasecoli, than a Cheeto, or a chicken nugget? “It’s a mass-produced, processed food. They’re made in a factory. So the fact that you can see baby Yoda in one makes it that much more extraordinary, because they’re all supposed to be the same.”

making meaning out of snacks 2Recent finds on eBay include Cheetos shaped like the sentient tree character Groot from Marvel movies; the body builder, actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Sesame Street’s Big Bird; and Squidward Q. Tentacles from SpongeBob SquarePants.

We’re also more connected to food than we are to just about anything else, said Parasecoli, so finding these strange objects in our lunches touches us in very visceral ways. “Food is something we ingest,” he said. “It’s something that becomes us. And because of that, it has an emotional and psychological relevance that other aspects of human life don’t. We all have basic needs as humans: to eat, to have a roof over our heads, to have clothes. But roofs and clothes don’t become part of you.” 

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A potato chip shaped like a heart recently listed on eBay.

Would anyone really ever eat something as miraculous and rare as a Dorito shaped like a boat, say, or a chicken nugget that looks like a character from the multiplayer video game Among Us? Both items found their way onto eBay, and yet neither item ever found their way into anybody’s digestive tract, as far as we can tell. “It’s the idea that you could,” said Parasecoli. “I think part of the fascination is that it’s connected to the possibility of ingesting it.”

Other snack food finds on eBay include a cornflake shaped like the state of Illinois, and a chicken nugget shaped like a character from the video game Among Us.

Jimmy Kimmel played on this notion in a skit where he appeared to visit the buyer of the Harambe Cheeto, supposedly a Los Angeles-based attorney named Greg Boucai — then punched Boucai in the face and ate the prize Cheeto himself.

Parasecoli also believes that the reason folks are seeing so many figures from movies and pop culture in our snack items is because of the very ubiquity of pop culture itself. Pop culture icons are everywhere: on our TVs and phones, on billboards and social media. Given that ubiquity, people looking at a chicken nugget or a misshapen clump of corn might be more apt to see a character from the movies than something more generic, like a giraffe, or a historical figure they haven’t thought about much since high school, like Abraham Lincoln. As for their popularity on eBay, that might simply be a case of giving the customer what they want. Let’s face it: There’s probably a greater interest in a Cheeto that looks like Groot — a cute and loveable character in a blockbuster movie — than one that looks like, say, our 16th U.S. president.

If we tend to put these items on a metaphorical pedestal, John Oliver recently went one better, placing a potato shaped like Mickey Mouse, perfectly rounded ears and all, on an actual pedestal. After purchasing the world’s cutest tuber off of eBay for $50, Oliver revealed his prize on national TV, complete with light show and musical accompaniment, to the cheers of his live audience.

making meaning out of snacks 5John Oliver bought the Mickey Mouse-shaped potato – then shared it on his show, placed on a literal pedestal.

These oddly shaped food items have become part of an intriguing pop culture circle, one that we all, in various ways, participate in: someone discovers a Cheeto — the most popular “shaped-like” item for sale on the marketplace — or other snack food that looks like a pop culture icon. They post the snack on eBay, where people see it, and either bid on it, or maybe post images of it on social media. The rest of us click on the Instagram post or news item to see this wondrous thing, and now it’s not just Groot that’s a part of popular culture, but also the “Cheeto Shaped Like Groot.” And then that Cheeto goes on our Instagram. 

“It’s something you want to look at, to talk about,” said Parasecoli. “You want to tweet about it, you want to make a meme out of it. So it comes from pop culture, and then it keeps creating pop culture.” And we keep consuming all those weirdly shaped snacks, metaphorically speaking — even if none of them ever actually gets eaten.