'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?
About the Author
Robert Geroux is a political theorist.