Rachel Herz discusses the merits of eating the rotted bodily fluid of an ungulate as part of an excerpt from her new book, That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion in the Wall Street Journal:
Nattō is a stringy, sticky, slimy, chunky fermented soybean dish that Japanese regularly eat for breakfast. It can be eaten straight up, but it is usually served cold over rice and seasoned with soy sauce, mustard or wasabi.
Aside from its alien texture, nattō suffers from another problem, at least for Westerners—odor. Nattō smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire. Though this might not be the worst smell combination ever, it has zero food connotation for me, and I’ve never met a Westerner who can take a bite of nattō on the first attempt. What Japanese love, we find disgusting.
In the last several years there has been an explosion of research on disgust. Disgust is one of the six basic emotions—along with joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear—but it is the only one that has to be learned, which suggests something about its complexity.
Most children get their first lessons in disgust around the time that they are potty trained. After that, the triggers of disgust are quickly acquired from the responses and rules of parents, peers and, most importantly, the wider culture. One of the best places to look for the vast differences in what is or is not considered disgusting in different parts of the globe is food, especially distinctive foods, like every culture’s favorite fermented dish.
Take cheese, considered by Westerners to be anything from a comfort food to a luxurious delicacy. A good taleggio, Gorgonzola or Brie might be described as sweaty or slimy. Cheese also has its fair share of aromatic obstacles and, depending on the circumstances, may be confused with vomit, stinky feet or a garbage spill. Many Asians regard all cheese, from processed American slices to Stilton, as utterly disgusting—the equivalent of cow excrement.
Given that cheese can be described as the rotted bodily fluid of an ungulate, that’s not far off…
[continues in the Wall Street Journal]