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Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 01:24 PM

Our first thread on Symposium started with a passage from Carolyn Korsmeyer's Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. It provoked a lively debate.

Professor Korsmeyer has recently published an article, "Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting: Eating Sublime and Terrible", in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Because of copyright restrictions, it is not possible to make an online copy available, so Prof. Korsmeyer very kindly prepared a shorter abstract for this forum.

As a matter of background, Carolyn Korsmeyer is professor of philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, where her chief research areas are aesthetics and emotion theory. She is presently at work on a study of disgust as an aesthetic response. Her book Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999) explores the neglected gustatory sense of taste and its claims for aesthetic status. She also works in the area of feminist philosophy and has recently completed a book, Gender in Aesthetics: A Guide to Feminism and Philosophy of Art.

She is now working on a new book, Encounters with Disgust: Essays on Difficult Emotions and Aesthetic Pleasures.

Over to you for comments and reactions.

* * *

Carolyn Korsmeyer, "Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting"
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60:3 (Summer, 2002)
Abstract

How did something like a snail, a clot of fish eggs, a leech, or an animal's brain ever end up on a dinner plate? What induces someone to overcome the rotting smell of decay and cultivate a taste for "high" meat? Those who attempt to understand sophisticated eating and culinary artistry usually approach these subjects by considering the pleasures of taste, but it seems there is more than simple sense pleasure at work here.

One might assume that we can distinguish that which pleases because it tastes good by looking for the opposite of that which disgusts, for disgust is usually understood as an aversion reaction to that which is foul and toxic. (Many emotion theorists surmise that the function of disgust and other aversions is to protect an organism by inducing recoil and revulsion.) Paradoxically, however, that which disgusts can also appeal -- a phenomenon we find in art. Moreover, a good deal of recondite and sophisticated eating actually seems to be built upon that which disgusts, endangers, or repels on first exposure, offering not invitation but repulsion.

Of course, what counts as disgusting varies considerably according to cultural norms. But even within a single, familiar culture, one can find examples of highly cultivated eating that seem to be based on testing the limits of the edible. A taste for "high" meat just this side of rotten, for example, which arguably heightens the taste pleasure even as it verges on the toxic; or for creatures that are still living on the plate, whose lives are finished off with the diner’s teeth; or for items with complicated textures and flavors that demand studied cultivation to enjoy. Many people won't go near such things; to others, they are the pinnacle of gastronomic experience.

This suggests that certain kinds of food preparation and eating originate not only in the search for pleasure but also in the meaning of extreme and difficult emotions as they are exemplified in foods.

An attraction to the disgusting element in eating echoes other paradoxical pleasures that have been explored in the philosophical literature, most notably the experience of the sublime -- traditionally understood to be founded on terror that is transfigured into thrill and awe. This essay explores the extent to which "terrible eating" can be compared to the experience of the sublime, arguing that both serve to call attention to death and mortality. If terrible eating is grounded on disgust and its transformation into gustatory depth and pleasure, then it would seem that segments of the borderline between the disgusting and the delicious can be slim indeed.
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#2 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 01 February 2003 - 02:22 PM

In any examination of disgust, a good question to begin with is; why is there commonality amongst the items that provoke this reaction?

Disgust is rarely aleatory; rather, it has been suggested, it is a hard-wired safety mechanism much the same as vertigo in response to heights, or the drawback response when faced with fire. Granted, much of what we are disgusted by is learned, but that too would seem to be a result of hard-wiring; part of the success of our species is our ability to learn from secondary sources. This means that learnt aversions to foodstuffs are as powerful as instinctive aversions. The reaction engendered by putrefying game, I would suggest, is instinctive. On the other hand, the reaction by the British to horsemeat is not. Rather it is cultural; but either way the effect is the same: the very contemplation of consumption effectively makes this eventuality impossible. It is also interesting to note that the hard-wired reactions are often to particular foodstuffs. Harold McGee writes persuasively about the pragmatics of revulsion toward cheese; and many cannot bring themselves to eat tomato even in tomato eating cultures. This, as a strategy for survival, is quite reasonable as tomato screams a vivid red warning, and is closely related to Atropa Belladonna. Interestingly, it is considered poisonous by Chinese Medicine and as a result is absent from Chinese cuisine.

Perhaps an appreciation of Disgusting food can be likened to meeting the challenges of survival. Fear is, in itself, challenging, and a recurrent feature of becoming an adult is the continued confrontation with fear. So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that whilst some choose to throw themselves out of aeroplanes, drive fast or take crack, others choose to eat things that are disgusting, and learn to love them.

#3 Nick

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Posted 01 February 2003 - 09:12 PM

I don't know if this can be answered. There is something in all of us that will find something that is disgusting, that is another's sublime treat. It may begin with the olafactory for much of it and sight for the rest of it. Before one can actually get to tasting something, one must move through the sight and smell of the thing if it seems to be verging on disgusting in either way.

I think to move beyond that it usually involves a trusted friend who says, "This is great! Try some." Or something similar - and describes the particular taste and pleasure to be found in eating such a thing. Without that help how many of us would have ever ventured to try that otherwise "disgusting" piece of whatever?

#4 Jonathan Day

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 02:34 AM

We have discussed the adaptive value of disgust -- to "high" foods, for example, or to aubergines (eggplants) or tomatoes, plants that have toxic relatives.

But I am equally curious about learned disgust, distaste for foods or parts of the beast that go beyond our cultural norms. Three examples:

(1) Many years ago I bought a piece of horsemeat at a French boucherie chevaline, a specialist horsemeat butcher. I sliced it thin, pan-fried it and finished it with a red wine reduction, shallots and some brown sauce that I had made previously. The family gobbled it up. Delicious, they said, let's have that again. Then I told them what it was. Cries of disgust. Consumption of horsemeat in France, by the way, has remained steady since 1996, despite an outbreak of human Trichinellosis in 1998.

(2) Even longer ago, a group of work colleagues at a conference had a dinner at Harbour City, a restaurant in London's Chinatown. The menu had been selected by our guest speaker, who was a friend of the restaurant's chef. The first course was a dish of red-cooked duck's tongues. Delicious, people said, but what are they? When they found out, there was general upset: why had we not been told we were being served duck's tongue? Similar reactions will occur with things like chicken feet or fish maws.

(3) Many cooks will be familiar with this one: bring home a duck or chicken with head and feet attached. Instant reactions of disgust, especially to the head. My wife says, "I don't want to know what the meat looked like when it was alive".

In all three cases, the tastes are good, but learning what the thing is provokes a disgust reaction. It is hard to see this as having survival value. Nor are the disgust reactions taught as such. Yet they are very strong. Why? And why do some of us either overcome or never experience similar reactions?
Jonathan Day
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#5 Tonyfinch

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 03:36 AM

Nor are the disgust reactions taught as such. Yet they are very strong. Why?

When you say they are "very strong" do you mean deep and visceral? If so I don't agree. They are knee jerk reactions that would evaporate quickly if those people were living with different culinary norms. People who go "ugh" at the thought of eating horse or rabbit or frogs legs would be tucking in to all three happily after a couple of weeks of being exposed to these foods.

So I don't count those reactions as "disgust". More it is to do with a sentimental perception of animals learned from nursery rhymes and anthropomorphism which is more prevalent in Britain than, say, France because a far smaller percentage of the population is brought up with animals in rural settings on a day to day basis.

#6 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 04:34 AM

In all three cases, the tastes are good, but learning what the thing is provokes a disgust reaction. It is hard to see this as having survival value. Nor are the disgust reactions taught as such. Yet they are very strong. Why? And why do some of us either overcome or never experience similar reactions?

All fair points, yet I don't think incompatible with the suggestions I made earlier.

The reactions you describe in points 2 & 3 can be ascribed to caution. It is a sensible measure to mistrust the unfamiliar. Although one hasn't learned to dislike something, the benefit of the doubt is still allied with the disgust response. This seems to me to be a survial strategy.

Interestingly, this would also suggest that all preferences are acquired, or at the very least based on trust. It would be hard not to be disgusted by even a favourite dish, if one had previously seen the cook scratching himself.

#7 Jonathan Day

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 05:11 AM

Yes, the element of trust is very strong. We put ourselves in the hands of others when we sit at their table as a guest.

Children, for example, get very nervous about food on the stove and often demand to know what is in a dish before they will taste it. Their palates are very sensitive, especially to bitter flavours. I still remember the day when our youngest child first tasted puréed green beans. He was hungry, and he gave a big smile as the spoon approached his mouth. Then there was a look of disgust and betrayal, probably because he expected a sweet flavour and received a bitter one instead. His attitude to green things changed from that day on.

Some adults ask probing questions about dishes that don't look familiar. I am not referring to allergy sufferers, where these questions could be a matter of life and death and are would therefore not be considered rude, but guests who want to know whether a particular dish contains, let's say, celery, because that is a flavour they don't like. I am guessing that most people would consider such behaviour eccentric at best, rude at worst.
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#8 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 05:48 AM

I still remember the day when our youngest child first tasted puréed green beans. He was hungry, and he gave a big smile as the spoon approached his mouth. Then there was a look of disgust and betrayal, probably because he expected a sweet flavour and received a bitter one instead. His attitude to green things changed from that day on.

Some adults ask probing questions about dishes that don't look familiar. I am not referring to allergy sufferers, where these questions could be a matter of life and death and are would therefore not be considered rude, but guests who want to know whether a particular dish contains, let's say, celery, because that is a flavour they don't like. I am guessing that most people would consider such behaviour eccentric at best, rude at worst.

Regarding green vegatables and children's dislike of them, I have read that, once again, there are strong evolutionary reasons why this should be so. Green vegetables are loaded with compounds that serve to protect them from insect damage. Cabbage and Broccoli are prohibited to children in their first year as the infant liver is unable to deal with these substances and which are, to them, effectively toxic. Indeed, many people only acquire a taste for green vegatables in adulthood despite the former admonishments to "eat up your greens" of their (trusted) parents. 'Morning Sickness' too, is thought to be part of this same auto-defence mechanism as it coincides with the period in which the foetus is devolping its own internal organs and is consequently most vunerable to toxins. Interestingly, mothers who experience extreme 'morning sickness' have a substaintially lower incidence of delivering defective babies.

#9 Jonathan Day

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 06:41 AM

I have seen many of the same assertions regarding green vegetables.

Given changes in the evolutionary landscape, our "natural" tastes are not always in our best interests and must therefore be overcome through culture. At least according to some evolutionary biologists, fats and sugars taste as good as they do because we have become wired to accumulate fats as a defence against periodic famine. In an environment where (for some countries, at least) famines or fasts are non-existent, the "natural" inclinations that would lead people to shun green vegetables for crisps and sweets are, perversely, adaptively dysfunctional. In the same way, fears of spiders, snakes and quickly moving small animals (e.g. mice), which some biologists believe are innate rather than learned, may once have been highly adaptive but may no longer be so, given changes both in the creatures themselves and in the ways we live.

But I'd like to go back to LML's original assertion that "terrible" eating (sea urchin sashimi, pheasant that has been hung for a long time, blood sausage, brains) is pleasurable because of the fear element, rather like abseiling or fast driving. I can see this for something like Japanese fugu, the blowfish that kills several diners every year. But most of the other foods -- for me, at least -- have no risk element at all: they are just very tasty. In fact, for the first 10 years I lived in Britain, any beef, no matter how well cooked, had more of this fear element, because of BSE.

It would be interesting to see whether we can develop a view on which foods are most "terrible", and where the line between sublime and forbidden is crossed. Korsmeyer provides the example of creatures whose lives are terminated by the diner's teeth. These, for me, would fall on the forbidden side, even though I am otherwise an adventurous eater. Yet at least one of our members is eager to eat such foods.
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#10 Tonyfinch

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 06:45 AM

Well are we talking about dislike or disgust? They are not the same thing. If you choose to take the line that your child will eat what it's given then they'll eat green vegetables if they're hungry enough. It's just that they'd prefer to eat something else and so PRETEND disgust in order to get you to give them what they want.

To me disgust implies a deep seated revulsion to the point where you'd almost rather starve than eat that particular foodstuff . I'm told that this is how many Eastern Asians feel about cheese. To them it is non-food. I have felt that way about some of the dried and fermented fish sauces and pastes that are used in aspects of East Asian cookery. These can only be cuturally induced reactions but both foodstuffs depend upon attaining a degree of "rottenness", whether you call it "maturity" or anything else, before they're considered ready to eat and it's those types of foodatuffs which are taken to the edge of decay which are most likely to engender widespread disgust.

Having said that there's a thread somewhere where people posted foodstuffs that revolted them. I remember clearly someone posting that the mere smell of honey made them want to vomit. HONEY for goodness sake! Maybe for every food that exists there is somebody somewhere revolted by it.

#11 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 07:07 AM

But I'd like to go back to LML's original assertion that "terrible" eating (sea urchin sashimi, pheasant that has been hung for a long time, blood sausage, brains) is pleasurable because of the fear element, rather like abseiling or fast driving. I can see this for something like Japanese fugu, the blowfish that kills several diners every year. But most of the other foods -- for me, at least -- have no risk element at all: they are just very tasty.  In fact, for the first 10 years I lived in Britain, any beef, no matter how well cooked, had more of this fear element, because of BSE.

I'm not sure that this is what I asserted. Rather, I was suggesting that on a psychological level bungee jumping and overcoming disgust are similar processes because they both involve cedeing security. That does not mean to say disgust is felt only towards dangerous foods, but rather towards foods that could be dangerous; bearing in mind that when making this evaluation we err on the side of caution, so included in this group is also the unfamiliar.

To expand on what exactly these 'dangerous' foods might be, the common factor appears that they are ones that could be highly toxic or mortal. This would explain why we don't generally feel revusion towards to foods that are 'bad for us' in the long term.

Edited by Lord Michael Lewis, 02 February 2003 - 07:23 AM.


#12 Jonathan Day

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 07:15 AM

Tony, I think the thread you are referring to is here.

It's interesting to consider the origins of many of these dislikes. Some stem from childhood incidents (I know, for example, that I was forced to eat softboiled eggs as a child, and had a strong dislike for them for many years). Others seem to stem more from mental associations, e.g. Klink's refusal to eat chicken feet because of "the idea of sucking the skin off a chicken's toes". Others because they tasted a dish once, disliked the texture or flavour, and were unable to return.

Isn't the difference between disgust and dislike just a matter of degree? The Concise Oxford defines disgust as "loathing, nausea, repugnance, strong aversion", and dislike simply as "aversion".
Jonathan Day
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#13 Jonathan Day

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 07:24 AM

I remember clearly someone posting that the mere smell of honey made them want to vomit. HONEY for goodness sake! Maybe for every food that exists there is somebody somewhere revolted by it.

Doctors generally advise parents not to give honey to infants because it can cause infant botulism. Click here for one national health department's take on this.

Another support for LML's link between "disgust" and "danger".
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#14 mags

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Posted 03 February 2003 - 06:14 PM

In all three cases, the tastes are good, but learning what the thing is provokes a disgust reaction. It is hard to see this as having survival value. Nor are the disgust reactions taught as such. Yet they are very strong. Why? And why do some of us either overcome or never experience similar reactions?

One thing that occurs to me is that some disgust-reactions are rooted in class: designating entire categories of food as "disgusting" and therefore inedible is a way of reaffirming the fact that one has the luxury of choice.

Interestingly, I think this equation has been turned on its head over the past 30 years or so -- at least in this country -- such that it has become a mark of status to accept a broad array of foods as edible. The middle class congratulates itself on chowing down on sushi and chilies and stir-fried sea slugs as a way of differentiating itself from the Big Mac-gobbling folks lower down on the scale.

I also think it's interesting that one of the things the middle class (again, I'm talking U.S. only) has embraced is the whole panoply of what used to be regarded as "poverty foods" -- everything from whole-meal bread to oxtail stew, all the stuff that our ancestors worked so hard to avoid having to feed their families. And I wonder how this appropriation of poverty food ties in to the discussion -- elsewhere on these boards -- about the "decadence" of the $50 hamburger at db moderne.

It seems to me that Bouloud's appropriation of poverty food, and the designation of entire categories of stuff as fit only for the poor, and therefore inedible....are two sides of the same coin.

#15 John Whiting

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Posted 04 February 2003 - 07:59 AM

Re the tomato as a poisonous fruit: Several centuries ago, vessels for keeping and serving food were often of pewter. A strongly acidic food such as the tomato would gradually absorb the lead from pewter and could ultimately lead to lead poisoning.

As to the motivation for eating "disgusting" food, "epater les bourgeois" is a common cause of all sorts of behavior. And once the gauntlet is thrown down (to thoroughly mix metaphors), it is difficult not to pick it up. In the end, a thoroughly unpleasant taste, such as burning tobacco, can become acceptable and then irresistible.
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#16 JAZ

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Posted 04 February 2003 - 02:18 PM

In On Food and Cooking, McGee mentions a theory put forth by Paul Rozin about why some people seek out the burn of chiles. He thinks it may be the same drive that makes some people seek out other activities that provide a sense of controlled danger, such as sky diving, bungee jumping and the like. In other words, you get the jolt of adrenaline that comes from facing danger, but the “real” danger is minimized. Perhaps the appeal of “dangerous” foods is the same? Any time once faces up to a fear, whether real or imagined, one feels, at least, a sense of pleasure merely from overcoming the fear.

I think it’s certainly true that many people have a fascination for foods they find disgusting – I think that’s part of the appeal of Cook’s Tour for many people, and it’s probably why the theme of eating disgusting things (either knowingly or unknowingly) features so often in literature and movies (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover comes to mind here; and even that stupid 70’s song Timothy). Is it the same combination of attraction and repulsion that makes some people stop to look at car accidents? Or watch that Fear Factor show? It seems perfectly plausible to me that there is some connection to our feelings of mortality in such fascination.

One unrelated point: As for Jonathan’s suggestion that disgust is simply a stronger form of dislike, I have to disagree. Personally, I can think of a couple of foods that I dislike very strongly, and how I feel about eating them is entirely different from the way I feel when even contemplating eating foods that disgust me. For example, I really dislike raisins in any foods, sweet or savory, but if I’m served something with them, I can eat them. If it’s possible without insulting the cook, I try my hardest to eat around them, but it’s not really awful when I have to eat them. Stinky cheeses present a different example, because the smell of some of those literally makes me sick to my stomach. But even with them, contemplating eating them doesn’t make me sick or squeamish, it’s the smell (in fact, if I have a bad cold, I can eat them). But insects are another story. All those scenes of Tony Bourdain eating bugs on Cook’s Tour literally make my flesh crawl (I covered my eyes during those scenes, actually). I can’t even stand to watch my cats eat them. I think I’d be willing to try most things – duck tongues, brains, sea urchins – but not insects.

#17 Jonathan Day

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 03:47 AM

Janet, perhaps my reaction comes from not being disgusted by many foods.

I remember a documentary about giant (dinner-plate sized) spiders, which tribes in the Amazon capture and roast; they use the spider's fangs as toothpicks and especially enjoy the female's eggs, which they prepare as a sort of omelette.

I don't particularly like either spiders or jungles, and would never go seek these out. But if I found myself around a cooking fire in the Amazon jungle, I would probably give them at least a taste. ("You've come so far, you must be hungry. Have a little spider cutlet...").

Can I raise, again, my earlier question about why people will happily eat, say, veal, but get upset about tasting the tongue, the brains or the kidneys? Or why many people are OK eating chicken breasts, but don't want to be shown the chicken from which they are taken? What is the origin of these dislike/disgust reactions, i.e. where the part is acceptable but the whole is not, or one part of the beast is considered tasty and another disgusting?
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#18 oraklet

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 04:14 AM

i don't know if this is naive, but

"What is the origin of these dislike/disgust reactions, i.e. where the part is acceptable but the whole is not, or one part of the beast is considered tasty and another disgusting?"

seems pretty easy:

the whole reminds one that there was killing involved in the meal. to many this is at least tabooish.

and some parts are connected with "the unclean", like kidneys and urine.
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#19 John Whiting

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 05:10 AM

What is the origin of these dislike/disgust reactions, i.e. where the part is acceptable but the whole is not, or one part of the beast is considered tasty and another disgusting?

One answer -- by no means original -- is simply that we have become so divorced from the original sources of our food that we are happiest with those cuts of meat that are the most anonymous; i.e. those which both look and taste more or less like each other and do not readily reveal what part of the animal's body they came from. Organ meats are very distinctive in both these respects and are an inescapable reminder that a creature has been killed in order to feed us.

Roast birds are one obvious exception -- only the head and the feet are really bothersome.
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#20 Tonyfinch

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 07:02 AM

In On Food and Cooking, McGee mentions a theory put forth by Paul Rozin about why some people seek out the burn of chiles. He thinks it may be the same drive that makes some people seek out other activities that provide a sense of controlled danger, such as sky diving, bungee jumping and the like

My theory is different. Fire may be dangerous but it is also purgative and purifying and cleansing. When I eat chilli hot food I feel that my insides are being cleansed by the spice, that it is burning up all the poisons in my system and rendering me fresher and healthier. I know other people who feel this way.

Of course I don't have any scientific basis for this theory, but then there isn't one for the other theory either.

#21 John Whiting

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 07:22 AM

When I eat chilli hot food I feel that my insides are being cleansed by the spice, that it is burning up all the poisons in my system and rendering me fresher and healthier.

"Pain is gain" in its various forms has a wide currency. I don't subscribe to it -- the line beteen purgative suffering and the further reaches of S&M sex is difficult to draw with any certainty.
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#22 Tonyfinch

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 08:02 AM

Well I wasn't talking about it being painfully hot. Most properly cooked spicy food has a gentle pleasant heat. The practice of setting yourself alight with food is a peculiar ritual enacted by males who live north of the M25 after twelve pints of lager on a Saturday night.

#23 =Mark

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 08:08 AM

In my chilehead existance eating chiles is often described as culinary bungee jumping. There have been several theories for developing a taste for hot chile peppers. One thought notes the propensity for cultures that enjoy chile peppers to most often reside in warm, tropical areas. It is theorized that the sweating induced by eating hot, spicy foods helps cool the body, and was a learned adaptive response. Others have noted that the sensations induced by the exposure of heat recepters to capsaicin, the chemical that gives chiles their "heat," causes the brain to release endorphins. These are the bodies pain relievers which have a chemical structure similar to morphine. The result of the release of these chemicals as a response to percieved bodily injury is a sense of euphoria similar to that described by the "Runners High" experienced by long distance runners.

Conversely, it is theorized that chiles evolved the heat producing chemicals to repel mammals, whose more robust digestive systems destroy the chile seeds. Birds, on the other hand are not sensitive to capsaicin, and eagerly munch down on the chile peppers. Not only do the birds not damage the chile seeds, but in fact scatter them widely complete with their own little dab of natural fertilizer... :hmmm:
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#24 Jonathan Day

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 04:39 PM

Reflecting on this thread, I started to compile an "anatomy of disgust", a taxonomy of reasons why people might find foods distasteful.

The list that follows is far from complete, and many of the categories overlap. But I found it interesting to write down -- it is a sort of catalogue of things to avoid.

I omitted obvious impossibilities, e.g. iron filings, gravel, sulfuric acid. Presumably everything listed below would apply to some food that you might someday be offered, albeit some in strange circumstances.

FOOD CHARACTERISTICS

Flavour

Excesses

Too sweet
Too sour
Too salty
Too bitter
Blends too intense (e.g. overly reduced sauce)

Insufficiency (bland)

Texture

Too crunchy/hard
Too soft (cottony)
Squidgy (jellyfish)

Temperature

Too hot
Too cold

Chemical characteristics

Too spicy
Too alkaline
Too acid (cf. sour flavours)

FOOD ORIGINS

Species

Insects
Reptiles
Amphibians
Spiders, scorpions, etc.
Worms, grubs, larvae
Vermin (rats, mice)
Household pets (dog, cat)
Carrion birds
Horses
Human beings (cannibalism)
Plants normally classed as weeds (thistles, etc.)

Parts of the animal

Organs (liver, kidneys, etc.)
Heads, feet, tails, ears
Reproductive organs, e.g. testicles

TOXICITY

Poisonous mushrooms
Spoilt or putrefying meats, eggs, etc.
Raw or undercooked pork, chicken, eggs
Fugu (Japanese poisonous blowfish)

PREPARATION METHODS

Unhygienic
Undercooking
Overcooking
Food still living when presented
Poor butchering (e.g. scent gland left in duck)

... the list could go on a long way from here.
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#25 John Whiting

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 05:12 PM

My wife, in researching children's dislikes of food, found that "slimy" seemed to head the list; e.g., overcooked okra (ladies' fingers).
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#26 JAZ

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 06:54 PM

In my chilehead existance eating chiles is often described as culinary bungee jumping.  There have been several theories for developing a taste for hot chile peppers.  One thought notes the propensity for cultures that enjoy chile peppers to most often reside in warm, tropical areas.  It is theorized that the sweating induced by eating hot, spicy foods helps cool the body, and was a learned adaptive response.  Others have noted that the sensations induced by the exposure of heat recepters to capsaicin, the chemical that gives chiles their "heat," causes the brain to release endorphins ...

Conversely, it is theorized that chiles evolved the heat producing chemicals to repel mammals, whose more robust digestive systems destroy the chile seeds.

Mark, I was merely reporting the theory of one scientist; I'm not saying I think he's got the whole story. While the theories you've outlined probably have some basis in reality, the best evolutionary explanation I've yet heard for the appeal of spices, including chile peppers, involves the "antimicrobial" properties of these plants. The thoery, which was explained in an article in American Scientist (March-April 2001 issue), is borne out by both the ability of most spices to kill the microorganisms that attack our foods and by the scrutiny of spice use throughout various culinary traditions. Although onions, oregano and allspice are more potent against microbes like bacteria, chiles are right up there, killing about 75% of the little pests.

Interestingly, the very toxins that destroy the microbes can also act to induce mutations in cells and even miscarriages, which may explain the fact that many pregnant women lose their taste for spices in the early months of pregnancy. It would also explain why very young children don't tend to like spicy foods -- their bodily systems are still developing, and could still be susceptible to damage from these plants. (Understand that I'm not saying that this is what goes through the minds of children and pregnant women, just that it may be an evolutionary explanation for the behavior.)

All of this is definitley in line with your point about the capsaicin in peppers having developed to deter predators -- that's exactly why the plants that give us our spices contain such toxins. It's just that we capitalize on their natural protection systems.

#27 JAZ

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 07:30 PM

Reflecting on this thread, I started to compile an "anatomy of disgust", a taxonomy of reasons why people might find foods distasteful.

Interesting list, Jonathan. Some of the categories seem more innately disgusting than others (rotting food, I'd imagine, is probably universally disgusting, whereas eating dogs or insects is not). And some of your categories I wouldn't say are commonly thought of as disgusting but are rather just unappealing -- for instance, I'd say that uncooked or undercooked foods are often thought to be disgusting, but I don't think overcooked foods are.

There are theories out there that we find some foods disgusting for valid reasons (or at least they were valid back when our ancestors were evolving with their feelings of disgust), such as rotting foods, or some of the internal organs of animals, which tend to harbor more harmful bacteria and other toxins than the muscle tissue. And it seems reasonable to lump in some textures in this category, such as your "squidgy" or, as John points out, "slimy," -- textures that are often found in rotting foods.

But others on your list seem to lack any features that would make them instinctively disgusting (not that I'm denying that they are disgusting for many people).

Certainly, animal flesh does seem to carry the biggest potential for causing disgust, and maybe that's due to the fact that meat is much more prone to bacterial contamination than plant food. Maybe, as a species, our attitude toward meat is ambivalent -- yes, it's a great source of calories, protein, minerals and vitamins that we need, but it can also be host to harmful and even lethal bacteria. How any one particular person reacts to meat products might be an individual response to the ambivalent tendancies we all share. One friend of mine can't even stand to eat any meat with bones -- loves bacon, won't eat a bone-in pork chop; will eat a hamburger but not a T-bone steak. (I asked her why she's not a vegetarian, and she replied "because I really like the taste of meat.")

Which may actually bring us full circle, back to Dr. Korsmeyer's original point that delicious and disgusting might be different sides of the same coin.

#28 vmilor

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 08:04 PM

Can there be a gender dimension to this issue of disgust irrespective of historical/cultural context? Bugs and spiders for example. Mine is an unrepresentative sample, but ladies I have met from differents parts of the globe, irrespective of where they come from, seem to have a visceral reaction against them. Our baby Einstein VCR is trying its best to endear bugs to our 11 months old daughter, cleverly introducing bugs in between bunnies and kittens. I doubt it will succeed.

#29 mags

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 10:14 PM

rotting food, I'd imagine, is probably universally disgusting,

Which may actually bring us full circle, back to Dr. Korsmeyer's original point that delicious and disgusting might be different sides of the same coin.

Actually, my former fiance, who's something of a maven on the subject of Native American tribes, tells me that "buffalo you can eat with a spoon" was regarded as an enormous delicacy by at least one of the plains tribes. Members of the tribe would kill a buffalo and leave the body on a frozen river. Over the next few months, the tribe would move downstream, and the spring thaw would eventually liberate the (now thoroughly rotted) buffalo from the ice, and carry it down to the tribe's dinner plates. I probably have quite a lot of these details wrong, but I am sure of the apparent allure of the rotten buffalo. And isn't pheasant traditionally considered unfit to eat until it has been so thoroughly "hung" (read: rotted) that its tailfeathers fall off?

On the disgusting/delicious point -- which I think is a really good one -- I think Calvin Trillin and either John Thorne or M.F.K. Fisher have written about the heady, intoxicating appeal of straddling that line.

#30 John Whiting

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Posted 06 February 2003 - 12:22 AM

I still think that the most interesting example of highly prized decayed food -- because it is the most widespread example, both geographically and chronologically -- is dessicated fish, both the garum of the ancient Romans and the fish sauce of various South Pacific cuisines. It is truly potent and produces an instant revulsion in most people who are unfamiliar with it. It's even beyond (I think) the ripest cheeses that have gone well past their sell-by date. I find the flavor intriguing in small quantities, but my wife can't bear to have it in the room.
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