Edward Austin Hall
Disgust is a privilege. Ask anyone whose typical response to the question “What’s for dinner?” is a blank look.
Coming from Latin by way of a French term, desguiser, meaning to lose one’s appetite, disgust is a word that embodies the synesthetic nature of language. Although its kinship with gustatory yokes it to our taste buds, we use disgust to label reactions that are visual, tactile, and (chief accomplice to taste) olfactory, but also aesthetic, moral, and ethical. No wonder discussions of taste, all the way back to the ancients and their wisdom “De gustibus non disputandam est” — concerning matters of taste there is no argument — are full of fruitless clashes over apples versus pears. Or is it apples versus oranges (pomes I typically avoid because of the horror that biting down on their seeds breeds in me)?
Whereas many artful meditations on food nowadays focus on positive — if not exalted — eating experiences, the Grub issue of Eyedrum Periodically gathers material near the other end of that scale, though not exclusively. “Edibles from the Utterly Disgusting to the Surprisingly Delectable,” as this issue is subtitled, exploits the dual meaning of the term grub as slang for food and label for the often earthbound larval stage of some insects.
In addition to being a luxury afforded to people lucky enough to enjoy regular meals, disgust is vastly subjective. Class, culture, location, religion, and philosophy inform what we do not (or could not, or could never) consume. In the Western world, for example, only recently has the conversation begun to include serious talk about insects as a source of nutrition. I sought first-person narrative on the experience of eating bugs, but none was submitted. Fret not, though: As guest editor, I took one (actually, several …) for the team, as I detail below.
In the realm of disgust, I still vividly recall the worst dish any restaurateur ever set before me. At a long-defunct Atlanta soul food establishment known as Annie Keith’s, a friend and I met once — once — for breakfast. We both ordered the cheese omelet plate, whose name offered two lies in three words. What lay on our plates, upon arrival, was undeniably colorful: bright-bright-yellow egg surrounding the unmistakable orange of “cheese food,” which of course is neither; and on top, in dimples across the “omelet’s” surface, a translucent red oil whose origin remained a mystery to me until recently. My friend and I took simultaneous bites of this abomination — and simultaneously froze, forks in our mouths. Our eyes met in horror. I don’t recall that I actually chewed any of the thing, so powerful was the sense of its rancidity, but I may be mixing this memory with one of a bad, parasite-riddled mussel I got in a bowl of seafood stew. I do know that we called over the server, who informed us that complaints had to be directed to the owner. Enter Annie Keith herself, whose response to my statement of the dish’s rank inedibleness was a classic of self-revelatory victim blaming: “Well, you’re the first people to complain all day!” We were, I remind you, at breakfast. Years later, I told this story to someone who suggested that the red mystery liquid was repurposed fat that had cooked out of hot sausages of the vile, Red-Dye-Number-∞ sort I stopped eating in childhood.
Of course, I was a picky young eater. Many of our notions of nastiness perforce begin at home. I have another vivid memory, this one of the time my brother cooked chitterlings in our house, which emptied the house of everyone but the chef himself. Thereafter he was barred from even bringing such offal across the threshold. And I have never, ever tasted chitterlings.
Nearer the more edible of this issue’s thematic poles is my own lone experience with an oyster omelet (lest you think me an omelet hater), whose incorporation of oyster liquor made for a tasty dish ringed in what looked just like grimy, days-old, oft-trod sidewalk slush. At the same meal, inside what I only dimly recall was an Indonesian or Malaysian eatery along Atlanta’s Buford Highway, one appetizer came to the table in a wee, shallow bowl of flavorful, oily curry sauce. It consisted otherwise of the upright ribcage of some unrecognizable roast beastlet. Mammalian? Avian? I did not care; the flesh dangling raggedly from its curving bones was as delicious as the presentation was grisly.
A few nights ago, my subconscious mind guided my hand in solving this issue’s problematic lack of insectivorous journalism. I rinsed a mostly empty bottle that had been filled with Dole Orange Peach Mango juice and set it uncapped on the kitchen counter — instead of marching it forthwith to the outdoor recycling container, as I should have. Naturally, I returned some hours later to find the countertop aswarm with the ants I had desultorily seen there throughout the summer. I swiped a fingertip along the edge of the sink and made a little ball of freshly dead ants — which I immediately dropped onto my tongue. These ants taste exactly the way they smell when crushed, which is delicately akin to coconut and downright ambrosial in comparison to, for example, the scent of chitterlings cooking.
Mostly outside the West, people in all sorts of places eat all sorts of insects. I remain curious about the big-butt ant, which is considered a delicacy when toasted. I cannot lie: I like big butts, and I know I’m not alone in that predilection. When — or whether — my fellow Westerners might awaken to so vast a source of nutrition as the insect world remains unknown. Privation, a condition likely to accompany the unfolding of global climate change, might speed the “anthill plow,” so to speak. But hunger is already widespread, we eat too damn much unsustainable meat, and I’ve always admired the wisdom evident in the adage “live simply so that others may simply live.” The widespread want of food seems far more disgusting to me than even the prospect of consuming a second Annie Keith “cheese” “omelet.” Let us hope, then, for the widespread ascendancy of another adage, one imparted by my favorite fictitious gourmet: “It is important, always, to try new things.”