Who gets to decide which foods are disgusting?

If you ever watched Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, you probably saw the erstwhile chef eating foods that to most Western palates would be deemed ‘disgusting’, items such as warthog anus and fermented shark fin. However, to the peoples where these foods originated, they are thought of as delicacies, or at least national symbols to be proud of. This notion of who gets to control which foods are considered disgusting is explored by Jiayang Fan in a fascinating (and lengthy) article in The New Yorker.

Yan explains the concept by first introducing us to Sweden’s Disgusting Food Museum and then contrasting the items on display there with her own experience of being an immigrant to a new country, where items cherished by the majority are completely foreign and off-putting to those newly landed on the nation’s shores. “To be a new immigrant is to be trapped in a disgusting-food museum, confused by the unfamiliar and unsettled by the familiar-looking,” she writes, adding that “The firm, crumbly white blocks that you mistake for tofu are called feta. The vanilla icing that tastes spoiled is served on top of potatoes and is called sour cream. At a certain point, the trickery of food starts to become mundane. Disgusting foods become regulars in the cafeteria, and at the dinner table.”

When I read the article, I immediately thought of comments made on the recent post about insects being part of the future of food. The comments were along the lines of “thanks but no thanks.” But is the concept of eating bugs really that revolting? I once ate chocolate covered crickets because the idea intrigued me. I was hesitant at first, but after a few bites I realized that the crickets added a nice crunch and savory counterpoint to the sweet milk chocolate. My husband had a similar experience on a trip to Mexico. He was in a restaurant and was enticed by the aroma of a dish that a waiter was carrying to another table. My husband flagged down the waiter and ordered the dish. After he ate it – and enjoyed it immensely – he asked what it was and discovered that it was ant larvae and pupae (escamoles). Had he known in advance there is no doubt that he would not have ordered the food.

In her deep dive, Yan also explores the role of natural selection in the formation of the disgust response, and how community and culture reinforce the notion of which foods – and other items – are disgusting. She also weaves in how COVID-19 has affected people’s sense of smell, rendering some foods extremely off-putting. The article is an engrossing examination of the concept of disgust.

Photo of Roast haggis from The Telegraph by Carolyn Hart

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  • Jane  on  May 12, 2021

    It’s a fascinating article – I highly recommend it.

  • sir_ken_g  on  May 13, 2021

    Well I have eaten both hákarl, and durian. Add dog and guineapig to that.

  • TrishaCP  on  May 13, 2021

    I agree this was a really interesting article.

  • mcvl  on  May 14, 2021

    A Malaysian friend of mine recalled his first supper at the English boarding school he attended as a teenager. The main dish was thick, cheesy pizza, and all he could think was “I’m not gonna make it, I just can’t get that */stuff/* down”

  • Foodycat  on  May 15, 2021

    I’ve become very wary of saying foods are disgusting – it’s so often used to “other” people from ethnic minorities. I’ve had friends from East & South East Asia get abuse for “eating bats” since Covid started, and with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes it’s not just a matter of personal tastes for food. I might not want to eat something, but I am not going to say it revolts me.

  • gamulholland  on  May 15, 2021

    Maybe because I’m a physician and have had to dissect a human cadaver, but I can’t do recognizable pieces of meat. I immigrated to the US as a kid, from Belfast, Ireland, and both cultures eat recognizable pieces of meat— you know, on the bone, with skin, with gristle— but I never enjoyed them (too real), and then med school did me in. My sister says that qualifies as picky, but I cook food from lots of different cultures with spices and sauces and veggies that require shopping at the various local Asian groceries or Indian grocery— I don’t think I’m picky. I can manage ground meat, I should add. So there’s an example of finding food disgusting that is not cultural or related to novelty. 🙂

  • Foodycat  on  May 16, 2021

    @gamulholland – I understand that! My mother is a renal nurse. Kidneys were NEVER on our table!

  • Fyretigger  on  May 16, 2021

    An interesting example of something with an “ick factor” eaten culturally, that is not based on ethnicity is the so-called Rocky Mountain Oyster or Prarie Oyster. They are bull calf testicles, removed in turning bull calfs into steers. They are eaten all over the Americas and in parts of Europe where cattle are raised, but largely known and available only within the ranching culture.

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