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Jonathan Day

Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting

31 posts in this topic

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.


Janet A. Zimmerman, aka "JAZ"
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Author, The Healthy Pressure Cooker Cookbook and All About Cooking for Two

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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.


Janet A. Zimmerman, aka "JAZ"
Manager
jzimmerman@eGullet.org
eG Ethics signatory
Author, The Healthy Pressure Cooker Cookbook and All About Cooking for Two

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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.

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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.

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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.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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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.

Almost. The tail feather thing is derived from some people suggesting that the pheasant is hung by it's tail feathers. As the tissues breakdown the weight of the bird makes it drop to the floor. The more feathers you tie up, the longer it will take for the bird to drop, but it need not be rotten.

I once read of an anthropologists account of living with a group of Inuit, one of their food items was derived from placing any scraps of meat, birds with feathers, fish bones etc into the top of a seal skin bag, when full a portion woul be removed from the bottom of the bag, by which time it had composted into a blackish paste. The fearless anthropologist was given some of this paste to eat, which he did and then immediately threw it up, to his shame. He need not have worried, as it was brushed off and he ate it on the second attempt. At this point he was congratulated by the family and one of the men told him not to worry about throwing up the paste as the first time he had eaten a grilled steak in a whitemans home he also threw this up.

The point of all this was that the anthropologist realised that what we found repelant was mostly cultural. The Inuit found the charred tough bloody piece of steak disgusting (similar to many latter day urbanites), until this point the Anthropologist had never questioned that what other people ate was suspect and what he ate was obviously all beyond all good and correct.

Regarding fish sauce: I think that most people will taste it with pleasure once cooked, while it may have a strong amoma when 'raw' it has rather a mellow flavour when cooked (much like fermented prawn paste). The problem arises when people smell the raw product and are told "It's the juice of fermented anchovies, don't you know".

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