2012.07.25 In the nose of the beholder

Written 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.

  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.base Ball
    UMPIRE Thomas Henthorn tosses the bat between team captains Mikayla Price and Chuck Piskoti of Flint’s Lumber City Base Ball Club. Following the 1860 rules, after the bat was grabbed by the captains, captains’ hands advanced to the top of the bat—one hand on top of the other. The captain whose hand ended up on top decided who would bat first. Additional photos of Sunday’s game appear on page 12 of this week’s Observer. The contest was organized in conjunction with Stair District Library’s Hometown Teams exhibit that runs through Nov. 20.
  • Front.chat
    VALUE OF ATHLETICS—Morenci graduate John Bancroft (center) takes a turn at the microphone during a chat session at the opening of the Hometown Teams exhibit at Stair District Library. Clockwise to his left is John Dillon, Jed Hall, Jim Bauer, Joe Farquhar, George Hollstein, George Vereecke and Mike McDowell. Thomas Henthorn (at the podium) kicked off the conversation. Henthorn, a University of Michigan–Flint professor, will return to Morenci this Sunday to lead a game of vintage base ball at the school softball field.
  • Front.cross
    HUDSON RUNNER Jacob Morgan looks toward the top of the hill with dismay during the tough finish at Harrison Lake State Park. Fayette runner Jacob Garrow focuses on the summit, also, during the Eagle Invitational cross country run Saturday morning. Continuing rain and drizzle made the course even more challenging. Results of the race are in this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.
  • Front.crossing
    Crossing over—Jim Heiney was given a U.S. flag to carry by George Vereecke (behind Jim in the hat), turning him into the leader of the parade. Bridge Walk participants cross over Bean Creek while, in the background, members of the Morenci Legion Riders cross the main traffic bridge on East Street South. Additional photos appear on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.hose Testing
    HOSE safety—The FireCatt hose testing company from Troy put Morenci Fire Department hose to the test Monday morning when Mill Street was closed to traffic. The company also checks nozzles and ladders for wear in an effort to keep fire fighters safe while on calls.

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