As consumers, we are used to lives full of subtle instruction. Most, like "Shake before using," "This side up" and "Close cover before striking" are sensible. Some are inexplicably loony: The instructions for blowing up my guest air mattress caution me, with an international sign of a circle and a slash, not to insert a banana into the inflation port.

There is one very common direction that seems preposterous. Why, on any box of crackers, next to the little picture of the cracker with a piece of cheese and perhaps a snippet of dill on top, are there always the words "Serving Suggestion"? Is it possible that manufacturers think we might be at a loss when we open the box? Does somebody think we might spread our biscuits with Vaseline? I think that anyone not savvy enough to figure out what to put on a cracker should probably not be handling money in the first place.

"Serving Suggestion" is not limited to crackers. You can find it on lots of products -- cereals, canned beans, soups and stews. There might be a berry in a spoonful of cereal, or a ruffle of lettuce peeking out at the edge of a plate of beans. The inclusion of these two words is obviously a marketing artifact, put there for a reason. I decided to find out why.

My assumption was that the food industry was most likely acting in compliance with a federal regulation. Laurie Guzzinati is senior manager of corporate affairs at Kraft Foods Inc., which holds an umbrella over Nabisco crackers, Post cereals, Planter's nuts, Maxwell House and other coffees, and Stella D'Oro biscuits (among dozens of other products). She said that the words are not mandated; rather, they appear, through company policy, whenever the illustration incorporates a food other than what's in the package, like milk in cereal or cheese on a cracker. Guzzinati spoke directly, but seemed unwilling to stray from a standard script. I wanted to chat about the phrase. Didn't they think it was a little . . . absurd? "Serving Suggestion" has struck a certain Dada nerve in other people. A Google search brought up a punk band in South Africa, a rock band somewhere, a line of cartoons in England and a neo-Celtic folk ensemble in Wales -- all named . . . you guessed it.

When I called the Barbara's Bakery headquarters in Petaluma, Calif., I got someone who was willing to giggle. Lorraine Hood, vice president for sales and marketing, didn't know if "Serving Suggestion" was required by regulations. But, she said: "We have had people call and say, 'There are no strawberries in the box!' " So if there are strawberries in the beauty shot on the front of a Barbara's Bakery box, the company puts "Serving Suggestion" as a preemptive measure. That's something I can understand with cereal, a product that frequently comes mixed with dried fruit, nuts and seeds. Of course, most manufacturers go out of their way to be explicit when naming cereals; what you read is usually what you get. Hood did not say it, but I think she was gently insinuating that there are some customers who take the food photos literally.

Lisa Cherkasky, a Washington food stylist whose work is often featured in The Washington Post, knows the ins and outs of presenting food to the public -- and she had somewhat more to say. "There are tricks," she begins. "Well, let's call them techniques." That is to say, before a food is photographed, it is "styled." It may not, by law, be altered to misrepresent its contents, but it may be enhanced. For example, a lamb stew might be photographed cold, the better to keep its gravy gelatinous so the meat and vegetables remain buoyant. The largest pieces of meat might be tweezed to the top to be more prominent. But she could not understand the point of labeling Swiss on a cracker a "Serving Suggestion." "How about, 'Cheese Not Included?' " she wondered.

I still wanted to settle the compliance issue. Laurie Gorton, executive editor of Baking & Snack, suggested I contact Ben Miyares who, as publisher of Ben Miyares' Packaging Management Update and vice president for industry relations of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, is as close to an authority on the packaging industry as I could find.

Miyares is one of those people I would like to put on a personal retainer. Chipper and generous with his time, he is a Nile River of information. Our conversation spilled its banks to include a seminar on consumer legislation and a short course in the history and psychology of snack packaging, none of it dull for an instant. Miyares thinks "Serving Suggestion" has its roots in the nascent consumer movement of the late 1960s, which produced the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 to protect the public from misleading and fraudulent claims. But perhaps consumers were not the only parties being protected. Miyares thinks the law demanded the "Serving Suggestion" label to preempt the possibility of consumer protests.

Michael Herndon disagrees. A press officer at the Food and Drug Administration, Herndon assured me that no law mandates "Serving Suggestion" on a label, as long as the label does not grossly misrepresent the contents in the container. Manufacturers, he says, choose to print "Serving Suggestion" on a label next to a picture of chili that has a dollop of sour cream on top, or a cracker topped with smoked salmon and dill, to make it clear to the customer that "all the pictured items are not in the package." Richard F. Mann, an attorney at Keller and Heckman LLP, a firm that specializes in matters of food and labeling, backs him up. While it is not a law, doing so has become "a general practice throughout the food industry," he said.

Can that be true? Are there people who expect to find smoked salmon in a box of crackers? Just how stoopit do these guys think we are?

I ran a contest to find a smart "Serving Suggestion" and a dumb one. My smart winner is Bisca Water Crackers, manufactured in Denmark and purchased at Whole Foods Market. They do offer serving suggestions, but they give them thought and attention. Three very pretty -- and original -- hors d'oeuvres are pictured, with recipes for two more. My loser was Trader Joe's Northwest Territory Premium Beef Stew Made With Chunks of Beef, Ground Beef and Vegetables. The label shows a plate of beef stew, unadorned, with a spoon full of stew raised above it, plain as toast. "Serving Suggestion" is nestled near the spoon.

When I reached Jon Basalone, Trader Joe's vice president for marketing, by phone, he knew exactly what I meant when I asked why it was there. "If it's not there, people are disappointed," he said. But he agreed that it seemed pointless. He had tried to persuade the company to change the wording. "I thought maybe 'Serving Expectation' might be better," he offered.

But it's just a plate and a spoonful of stew.

"How else would I eat that, Jon?" I asked. "Out of my shoe?"

"Oh," he answered, "we would never suggest that!"