In 2008, Rachel Herz, an expert in the psychology of smell, judged a rotten sneakers contest in Vermont. She told her friends the research was for a sequel to her book The Scent of Desire. She wasn’t joking. Her new book is called That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion. Now, what does it have to do with food? Well, for one thing, the same bacteria responsible for smelly feet shows up in expensive cheeses.
That’s not all. Herz devotes an entire chapter to maggot-infested cheese, fermented shark meat, and entomophagy (insect-eating). Why do we eat shrimp when they so closely resemble the wood louse? Why did we once think food pickled in vinegar would lead to idolatry? Or why is consuming cats off-limits in the West? Why don’t more Americans eat sticky fermented natto (Japanese soybeans) when we think Taleggio cheese is delicious? Many foods that evoke disgust are made through controlled rot—“or,” she says, “to put it more politely, ‘fermented.’”
One of the more interesting ideas Herz mentions (which comes out of a paper called “Cultures and Cultures”) is that the learned associations turning food from delightful to disgusting reflect a kind of terroir. As Hertz wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
We learn which foods are disgusting and which are not through cultural inheritance, which is very much tied to geography. One reason that certain foods carry so much local meaning is that they capture something essential about a region’s flora and fauna. The same is true of the microbes that make fermented foods possible; they vary markedly from one part of the world to another. The bacteria involved in making kimchee are not the same as those used to make Roquefort.
While disgust originally protected us from potential poisons, it eventually gave rise to cultures with defining flavors and odors, all perhaps tied back to local microbes. Moreover, among what some psychologists identify as the six basic emotions (fear, anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise)—only disgust has to be learned. As such, Herz writes, disgusting foods can be a powerful reminder of place and also a sign of luxury. After all, we’ll forgo this emotion in the most desperate of times—and eat (almost) anything.