What Do You Call ‘Disgusting’?

photo: Sonya (cc)

photo: Sonya (cc)

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]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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  • BobO

    I love Nato. Was love at first taste. The shit is yummy.

  • justagirl

    i feel nauseous like after watching stev-o drink a sweatsuit cocktail.  people eat some nasty stuff..

  • Mamagriff50

    what I find disgusting is I actually read this article. Who cares.Different tastes for different pallates.

    • Jin The Ninja

      i totally agree! it’s basis is in the false dichotomy of east vs west, exotic vs ordinary, we’re not victorian colonialists anymore- let’s move past that outmoded ahistorical paradigm!

  • BGD

    Having traveled the world for a good part of my life, I can honestly say taht the worst food ever and something I’d have to get money to eat again are olives, the only food that makes me want to hurl my guts.

    Might still be some food out there which is worse, but haven’t tried it yet

  • Tedkoop

    natto is the best! though everytime i order a natto roll at a restaurant, i get the “oh really gajin?” look. 

    • Jin The Ninja

      personally i love natto too.

  • Heath

    Durian comes to mind as possibly the most foul thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of projectile vomiting out of my mouth.

    • Jin The Ninja

      ‘Smells like hell, tastes like heaven’

      you really didn’t like the taste? i think it tastes amazing, once you get past the swamp gas smell.

  • Alexninja

    Strangely enough, for years I’ve said that natto is the worst thing I’ve ever had.  It didn’t smell bad, it was just the texture… sticky, slimy, it was like a mix of cum, industrial glue, snot, and some other alien bodily fluid.  I had it in Japan, so I think it was authentic.  My opinion of course.

  • Anarchy Pony

    I find it so strange the way different cultures foster different notions of what is disgusting, you would think that things would repulse humans across the board, but no, some people eat partially rancid nearly mature duck embryos, while others eat the minced remains of undesirable organs of livestock in meat tubes on bread. And one person may find one of those perfectly acceptable and the other nauseating, and vice versa. What a wacky world we live in gang.

    PS “minced remains of undesirable organs of livestock in meat tubes on bread” is a hot dog.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=773433966 Rus Archer

    and i thought natto was a hot japanese girl

  • Monkey See Monkey Do

    Eating flesh from any creature is disgusting. Eating and drinking the discharge from cows and similar animals is equally disgusting. You stop needing milk after the breastfeeding stage, get off the tits! It’s calf’s milk.

  • Mystery Meat

    What’s up with chopped liver?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_N7ALIJGK2R55DAGQ2DIOHB4ZCU Richard

    What do I call disgusting?  Humans, and what they have done to the planet, the life on it, and each other.