2012.07.25 In the nose of the beholder

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

When European settlers were becoming established in the Massachusetts Colony, a law was passed to regulate the feeding of lobsters to slaves and prisoners.  For slaves, it was no more than three times a week; for prisoners, not more than two.

What were they doing feeding lobster to prisoners, you wonder? Lobster was considered a disgusting food fit only for the dregs of society. It was “aquatic vermin” used as bait and for fertilizer.

After all, it’s in a family with cousins that include woodlice and sand hoppers. They live on the bottom of the ocean and eat the detritus that sinks to the depths. They have blue blood like spiders.

Disgusting stuff. No wonder they took pity on prisoners and voted to limit lobster to no more than twice a week.

Valerie Curtis has tortured people for years as she investigates the origins of disgust. She presents people with a pair of choices and asks for a response—which is worse?

She starts off with photographs—a bee vs. a louse, for example. Next comes a platter of sticky blue goo along with another that contains something yellow with red mixed in. Which is more disgusting? The vial of slugs or the vial of leeches? Caterpillars or maggots? The earthworms or human round worms? Then out come the vials with odors.

At the age of about four, humans everywhere begin to develop a disgust for items that could lead to disease. This is sometimes described as Darwinian medicine—it’s in our genes and gets passed on from generation to generation.

Even a safe object can spoil the broth, such as when Curtis brings out a bowl of vegetable soup and gives it a stir with a toilet brush. It’s a new brush, fresh out of its package from the store. She’s been known to pour a glass of apple juice, but then drop a clean cockroach into the beverage. 

She even has an on-line survey that asks questions such as whose toothbrush would you be least likely to use, ranging from your partner’s to the mail carrier’s. I’ll have to take a close look at Mark Jones during his next visit. Everyone already shares a lot of germs with their close relatives, but Mark’s wife might be the only one who would share a toothbrush with him.

Curtis collected some cultural information from a city in India and found that sources of disgust include a dead cricket in food, kissing in public and a mouse in the curry.

That last one explains my wife’s reaction to finding a dead mouse in a butter wrapper. That incident came up recently during a family gathering and I think my brother Tom accepted full responsibility. I’ve been blaming someone else for the past 30 years. 

“Wet cloth” also makes the list from India, and it makes my list, too. It’s odd how one person finds no problem with a wet dish cloth in the sink and another calls it disgusting. I’m the latter person, imagining that it harbors untold germs.

Interviews with the mothers of young children in two cities in Netherlands turned up disgust with fish monger’s hands, dog hair, aphids in lettuce and fat people. Politicians are also listed, but they’re placed on Curtis’s list of moral disgust.

A survey from Cheshire, U.K., added a few more examples to moral disgust, including wounding an old lady and cruelty to a horse. Other forms of disgust include cleaning another’s false teeth and eating a burger that a stranger has bit into. Here’s the oddest one: body parts in a jar. Is that a common practice in England?

Other studies have found a link between disgust and conservative thought. People who consider themselves conservative thinkers tend to have a higher level of disgust on “issues of purity.” Scientists always end this sort of research by saying “It’s a topic for further study.”

Valerie Curtis could do a little research in my kitchen when I come home and smell vomit. I’ll walk into the kitchen and find my wife happily cutting into a block of fetid cheese—wait, that’s feta cheese.

It’s my 17th century lobster, my eyeball in a jar. The odor says “Do not put this in your mouth,” but my wife says it’s delicious.

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