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'That's disgusting!': food and the moral imagination

I'm working now on a longer piece that examines disgust.

More specifially, I'm looking at some research in the social sciences that draws a correlation between disgust and ideological orientation. The title of one article states clearly what some of the research suggests: “Conservatives are More Easily Disgusted than Liberals” (Inbar et al., in Cognition and Emotion Vol 23, Issue 4. See also http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090604163620.htm). I don’t want to get into particulars here, but suffice it to say here that there are deep flaws in this research that I plan to explore quite soon. Poring over this work has inspired some questions, however, and I wanted to explore one of them now.

Is there a connection between an expansive palate and moral imagination? In cultures and subcultures that care about food, children are exposed to a wide variety of tastes relatively early on: not just salty and sweet, but sour, bitter, spicy, and the ever-elusive umami. Parents pride themselves on the fact that their young sons and daughters have developed a liking for complex and challenging flavors, and (here’s the important point) not just because the food in question is “good for you.” More often than not, it’s a question of enculturation. Why “enculturation?” Well, because almost every culture’s most delectable specialties require a bit of adjustment: they are foods that are not straighforwardly delicious. On a first taste, they are “disgusting.” Their flavors are structured and difficult to appreciate at first; more often than not, they arise out of processes of fermentation. Which is to say, controlled rot.

Working through one’s initial reaction to food with powerful and strong smells and flavors – think of kimchi or fish sauce, aged cheese or sour pickles – means overcoming disgust. I’m starting to think that there’s an affinity between this process of overcoming, and the cultivation of moral imagination. Parents who are proud of children whose palates have developed “beyond their years,” so to speak, treat the issue as if it were a moral one. And why not? Are they wrong to do this? This leads to a further question, however, which is sure to raise the hackles of some readers. If a well-developed palate is akin to an expansive moral imagination, can we reverse the equation and ask if those with relatively confined tastes – those who are “picky eaters” who cannot find pleasure at table, or who retain a taste for nothing but mac and cheese and hot dogs even into adulthood – are akin to the morally rigid and inflexible? Is mealtime a laboratory for moral (and political) development?

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Lima beans disgust me.

And the smell of gin makes me a little nauseous (I drank too much of it once when I was teenager many years ago).

I'm good with just about everything else. 

Jeffrey Steingarten in his fabulous book of essays "The Man Who Ate Everything" talks in the introduction of a Six Step Program he put together to liberate his palate from any food aversions. (He hated kimchi).  He said food aversion is learned and can be unlearned.

But maybe people with narrow tastes are just poor and can't afford to buy diverse and exotic foods. 

I have learned an enormous amount from the blog "Experimental Theology" maintained by Richard Beck, who is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University and a very committed protestant.  He has written about how sexual sins by men are typically described in performance terms ("stumbled", "pick yourself up") while sexual sins by women are described in terms that evoke feelings of contamination and disgust ("loss of purity", "used chewing gum").  This places a heavy burden on women who have ever been unchaste that men do not have to carry.   This burden even is directed at rape survivors-  Elizabeth Smart has said that one of the reasons she did not return home after being kidnapped and raped was that she had been taught the "used chewing gum" metaphor for a woman who was not physically a virgin.  Thus, after being raped, she did not think she was worthy of going home.  Awful.

Of course, sexual acts in a same-sex context are also often described by religious conservatives using contamination/disgust metaphors.

Dr. Beck has also written that one of the most amazing thing about Jesus' ministry is that He did not avoid contact with "unclean" individuals- but instead of the unclean people contaminating Him, the energy flowed the other way and He "un-contaminated" them (for example, the woman with the issue of blood).

So yes, I think there is a huge connection between mastering our disgust reflex and following Christ.

I have learned an enormous amount from the blog "Experimental Theology" maintained by Richard Beck, who is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University and a very committed protestant.  He has written about how sexual sins by men are typically described in performance terms ("stumbled", "pick yourself up") while sexual sins by women are described in terms that evoke feelings of contamination and disgust ("loss of purity", "used chewing gum").  This places a heavy burden on women who have ever been unchaste that men do not have to carry.   This burden even is directed at rape survivors-  Elizabeth Smart has said that one of the reasons she did not return home after being kidnapped and raped was that she had been taught the "used chewing gum" metaphor for a woman who was not physically a virgin.  Thus, after being raped, she did not think she was worthy of going home.  Awful.

Of course, sexual acts in a same-sex context are also often described by religious conservatives using contamination/disgust metaphors.

Dr. Beck has also written that one of the most amazing thing about Jesus' ministry is that He did not avoid contact with "unclean" individuals- but instead of the unclean people contaminating Him, the energy flowed the other way and He "un-contaminated" them (for example, the woman with the issue of blood).

So yes, I think there is a huge connection between mastering our disgust reflex and following Christ.

Sorry about the double post- it wasn't intentional, and I can't figure out a way to delete it!

Anne - as it happens, I'm preaching this weekend and am going to explore this contaminating / uncontaminating dynamic (the Gospel this weekend is pretty good in that respect).

It's because of disgust that women are not allowed to "confect" the most important Meal of all.

 

 

http://books.google.com/books?id=OouI3LRAI1cC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Hid...

 

That's a link to Gary Macy's The Hidden History of Women's Ordination:  Female Clergy in the Medieval West.

 

Search for terms like "disgusting", "unclean", "filthy", "blood", etc. to see how women are regarded by churchmen.  See, e.g., "St." Peter Damian's attack on "bitches, sows, screech-owls, night owls," etc. on p. 113.

ISTM that people who eat only hot dogs and hamburgers and other fatty, starchy foods are much more likely to be overweight than those who eat a wide variety of foods, and the former might be looking for satisfaction that never comes.  Consider that the French are known for eating delicious food in small portions and for not being over weight compared to others who eat less adventurously.  I don't know if this is holding up with the advent of fast food in France, however, but they invented French fries, and they don't OD on them the way Americans do. 

Here in New Orleans eating whatever tastes good is a way of life for practically everyone (the French influence, no doubt), and there are loads of conservatives here, so I doubt  there is any strict correlation between disgust and politics.  Or maybe people who would otherwise turn up their noses at crawfish and crab roe, etc., have their disgust overidden by our mores.  Maybe the key is just not to tell your kids what they're eating :-) 

Agree that there is a strong strain of the madonna/whore complex in much of the Christian tradition. This, however, is an abberation from the New Testament where it is clear that Jesus had intimate female followers and disciples. The role of Mary Magdalen and her significance has been insufficiently developed, IMO, in the Catholic tradition. Additionally, it is clear that women participated fully in the eucharistic meal which created polemics against the early Christians suggesting that these were orgies.

Not sure why Paul harboured such negativity towards women but unfortunealty we are left with that legacy.

As for food, well, we have a hazardous relationship with food. Moderation, as always, is the key. I have a hard time getting past the "food as fuel" concept so was never really able to get into being a "foodie" but I enjoy experimenting with different types but generally, now, eat greens, lean meats, and fruits and where possible by at local farmers market. Also, maybe I am just too political, but food can become political. I see the slow, whole food movement as an important political movement.

The cost of eating healthy is difficult for many low income people and this is something that needs to be remedied. I believe, and this is supported by research from Health Canada, that this is the reason that so many lower income people have significant and preventable health care issues. In fact, income, is one of the strongest social determinant of health. As it falls, acute and sometimes chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, etc. increase. This puts a strain on the health care system. If we could help people with diet, and make it affordable, we would go a long way in reducing overall health care costs.

Why not be disgusted by what is, after all, rotted cabbage? In fact, this uber-spicy "delicacy" (kimchi) has been implicated in the development of stomach cancers, which are relatively common among Asians.

Whether or not food pickiness has anything to do with the development of character or philosophical standards, it's usually rooted in a simple physiological reaction.  Do we really want to believe we are what we won't eat?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope you are reading Leon Kass in preparation for this article. (And Martha Nussbaum.)