February 10th, 2017
The Yuck Factor
Disgust arrives with such a visceral and instinctive punch that we should be forgiven for assuming that it’s hardwired. To be clear, disgust is a universal human emotion with an equally universal facial expression, which means that it’s intrinsic to the human animal. But exactly what triggers that response is highly flexible and culturally conditioned. In other words, we have to learn just what counts as disgusting, which is why different cultures have very different ideas of what you should and shouldn’t put in your mouth.
Though something may look, feel or smell disgusting, disgust is a survival mechanism, which that what really counts is contact. Taste is the heart of disgust and consequently the universal facial expression is centered on the mouth. The nose wrinkles, the lips curl and retract from the oral cavity, the tongue protrudes, the throat closes — basically every muscle group around the mouth is trying to get the hell away from the mouth and it’s one small step from all that to actually retching. Even if you’ve never seen someone respond in this way — say, because you were born blind — you’ll still have the same facial expression when experiencing disgust. It’s that intrinsic.
Scientists interpret this as a kind of behavioral immune system, that is, a behavior which causes the entire organism to recoil from things which signal that they are, in some way, hazardous to life. Think, for instance, about the moldy take-out container in your fridge and the distinct sense of saving one’s life that accompanies its disposal.
Disgust is powerful, and it’s contagious, too; simply seeing someone else respond that way is enough to lodge disgust for that particular object in your own senses. But taking our disgust cues from others is also where the universal hands off to the cultural.
I’m reminded of a story a Tibetan monk told upon his return from traveling in France. He found the people charming and they welcomed him into their houses and shared their food with him. The only problem was that the food they served was completely rotten, shot through with veins of mold and stinking to high heaven. Only through supreme effort of will was he able to choke down the meal and not insult the hospitality of his hosts. You or I, however, could probably experience the self-same food by going down to the market and spending a pretty penny on a wedge of Roquefort or Stilton. One person’s toxic waste is another person’s delicacy, and nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than in the zone of aged seafood.
There are a variety to choose from, such as traditional Icelandic kæstur hákarl, which is shark fermented in the ground for 1-3 months before being dried; Anthony Bourdain called it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever encountered. Or perhaps Sweden’s surströmming, a kind of sour herring which comes in cans that literally bulge from the gas pressure within and which emit such an appalling smell that (a) a Japanese study found it more putrid smelling that other fermented fish dishes (b) a German court ruled that opening a can of surströmming in an apartment house was grounds for eviction and (c) food critic Wolfgang Fassbender was moved to comment that “the biggest challenge when eating surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”
But if disgust is rooted in things we’d rather not eat, that’s not where it stops. It also works to protect against what you might think of as less obvious pathogens. Sexual disgust defends the gene pool by enforcing the incest taboo and moral disgust protects society as a whole by raising a behavioral boundary beyond which anyone venturing risks becoming outcast. It’s a mechanism that is both essential and treacherous, something that feels fixed and timeless but which is actually highly mutable. Perhaps no better proof can be had that the recent discovery that performing brain scans of people viewing disgusting imagery can predict their right-left political leanings with near-total accuracy. It seems that the right wing is significantly more susceptible to interpreting “othering” people and behaviors as disgusting while I, for instance, find that behavior morally disgusting. Oh, the irony.
But we’re here to talk about food and culture so let’s turn our lens of disgust on the practice of entomophagy, which, if your Greek roots are rusty, decodes as insect eating. Chances are that your disgust receptors are, like mine, now firing, but stick with me a moment or two. Cultures derived from Western Europe treat bugs as taboo and not food, but eighty percent the rest of the world’s cultures disagree. Chances are that it’s a fluke of geography that prevented the Western diet from including insects; the nature of insect physiology means that cooler climate bugs are smaller, and less worth pursuing. But even so, in every continent besides the bug-free Antarctica, insects are food for someone, including those who don’t partake. Turns out that FDA has an “allowable” limit of insect parts in various foods, and it adds up to a not-insignificant weight over the course of a year.
The reason for thinking about the West’s aversion with entomophagy is that more and more research comparing the environmental cost of traditional livestock with the insect equivalent (microlivestock, they call it) keeps saying the exact same thing — if we want to keep our meat-heavy diet, that meat is going to have to come from somewhere new.
In terms of land used, energy required, water needed, greenhouse gasses created and efficiency of feed-to-protein conversion, there’s really no comparison at all — insects win every time, and you don’t need to feel guilty about sending them to the slaughterhouse. Even the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is pushing entomophagy as an essential mainstream response. And yet… I’m not seeing grasshopper snacks in the grocery store.
It’s disgust at work, of course, doing its job of safely walling us off from behavior that would threaten our well-being. Except of course, in this case, it’s the opposite. Our industrialized farm animal operations are a significant contributor to every avenue of climate change, thus counting as a global pathogen that everyone is susceptible to.
So a variety of enterprising micro-ranchers are working hard to sidestep the yuck factor, mostly by disguising insect protein in the form of things such as “cricket flour.” Now, as I sit here and consider what I might be able to do with cricket flour in my household, I am inevitably drawn to the aftermath. A blind taste-test is certainly the most likely way to earn a positive response, but what happens when the blinders are removed? I suggest trying the thought experiment for yourself, because my run of it instantly revealed that this is unknown territory. “You fed me fake meat?” is subterfuge. “You fed me bugs?!” will absolutely be a betrayal for some, a disastrous collision of nurture and taboo.
What’s needed is a fundamental reset of our cultural meter of disgust, and that is a tall order for something that’s been inculcated into us since childhood. Yes, we could habituate toddlers to entomophagy, and eventually raise generations without the revulsion we have, but to do so would require, at best, hiding it. What would grandma or the lunch lady say when junior popped open a tupperware of locusts?
No, it seems to me that the only way to outflank something as reflexive as pathogen disgust, is with moral disgust. And for that, I turn to the estimable Vaclav Smil, formidable environmental scientist, and the man who did the math on biomass.
Biomass is a measurement of the totality of various kinds of living things. Imagine putting all the people on earth on a single bathroom scale and you’d have the biomass of humanity. Of course, you can’t do that, so you need smart guys like Smil to figure it out for you, and what’s he’s figured is this: by the year 2000, there were 55 million tons of human, supported by 200 million tons of domesticated mammals, living on continents with a grand total of 5 million tons of wildlife. No mistake, there. All the elephants, the lions, the tigers, the bears, the bison, deer, mountain goats, moose, otters, whales, horses, prairie dogs, sloths, all the wild anything that feeds its infants milk, all of that now adds up to one-fortieth of the weight of ourselves and the creatures we farm. Animal Planet be damned, that’s what remains of nature on this finite world, because we ate the rest of it, directly or not. And that, quite simply, is disgusting.
Adult Disgust by Jamie B
Baby Disgust by Morgan Schmorgan
Swedish Fish Disgust by Bo Nielsen
Fried Scorpion Disgust by Josephine Lim
Grasshopper on a Stick Disgust by Babak Fakhamzadeh
Gum Wall Disgust by Joselito Tagarao