Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting -- the Difficult Pleasures of "Terrible Eating"

Philosopher suggests that "disgusting" cuisine lets us savor death while licking our chops

Release Date: January 9, 2004

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The next time you're about to pop a chunk of moldy Gorgonzola, lamb's lung, aged beef or urine-scented kidney into your mouth, consider its meaning.

"Part of the experience of this sort of meal," says Carolyn Korsmeyer, professor of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, "involves an awareness, however underground, of the presence of death amid the continuance of one's own life."

Korsmeyer, the author of "Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy" (1999), among other works, did not come to this conclusion easily. She has spent years analyzing recherché tastes -- the appeal of peppers so hot that they have been used as punishment; the poisonous parts of food that surround succulent and edible parts, blood puddings, overripe fruits, meats and vegetables whose toxins require careful flushing before they relinquish edible substances, decaying cheese....

Usually, when we consider "terrible" food, we are talking about the diet of the "Other" -- China's lizards, dogs, bats and fruit rats; Asia's reeking durian fruit, Japan's neurotoxic puffer fish, Australia's giant Bogong moths, to name a few -- but, Korsmeyer says, hold on a minute.

"We have our own examples of transgressive foods," she says. "These are foods that actually retain a bit of danger, or insist on reminding us of the animal death that produced them. By understanding what they represent," she says, "we can learn much about our own deeply rooted sensibilities."

While not addressing the 1974 Weight Watcher's recipe for "Fluffy Mackerel Pudding," Korsmeyer asks us to consider the penchant of some westerners for haut gout -- the "high" taste of rotting animal flesh; or our craving for putrifying cheese or for fowl that is killed, plucked, roasted, stuffed with its own organs and presented in the form of the original bird -- sometimes with claws intact, fish served with its head intact, suckling pigs and boar's heads.

She looks at the notorious "last supper" that the dying French Prime Minister Mitterand served to more than 30 guests -- dozens of ortolans, small migratory birds said to represent the soul of France, whose consumption is not only against the law, but considered a sin. First the birds were fattened, then drowned in Armagnac brandy....

"It seems to me most improbable to account for the development of such "terrible" cuisine simply in terms of the search for a really good taste pleasure." She argues that such foods have the capacity to fulfill the kinds of symbolic functions fulfilled by art -- the transformation of an aversion into a pleasure, the disgusting into the delicious.

She maintains that that such foods also allow the eater to consciously partake in what Leon Kass called "the great paradox of eating, namely that to preserve their life and form, living forms necessarily destroy life and form." Margaret Visser points out that, after we murder, tear up, peel, chop and treat our dead animals and plants with fire, we chew them -- a process "designed remorselessly to finish what killing and cooking began."

Not all of this violence is apt to disturb us, Korsmeyer says, "and indeed for some people none of it does. But certain meals deliberately harbor an awareness of the fact that to sustain one's life one takes another. This intuition looms especially close to consciousness when the object of one's dinner is an animal whose form is still recognizable."

Items whose flavor is offensive at first, she says, may be transformed into foods that we savor for the very qualities that repelled us -- very hot spices and peppers that burn, for instance, and alcohol that sickens.

"Once we have cultivated a taste for such things, food without them tastes bland," she points out. In fact, she says, although the taste of toxins or repellant substances that some foods come packaged with, "is washed away to make the food edible, since their tastes mean foulness or danger, sophisticated preparation often retains some of the noxious substances.

"In his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, Alexandre Dumas asserts that kidneys are best when they are prepared so that a whiff of urine flavor remains in them," Korsmeyer writes, "In this case, something one would gag to drink is retained as flavoring -- but only for kidneys, not for any other meat. Similarly, gamy meat retains harbors a flavor of decay that renders it stronger and more pungent."

She notes that in both cases, as in the case of many "difficult" foods, "it is not only that the taste initially disgusts, but that it signals the presence of things that have a repugnant meaning: waste and death. And yet the most sophisticated mode of preparation is the one that retains, rather than expunges the sense qualities that remind the diner of the food's borderline state."

"Far from representing the brutal end of the spectrum of eating," Korsmeyer says, " I suspect that terrible eating lies at the root of some sophisticated tastes. The meaning of this kind of cuisine helps us to develop the symbolic, cognitive aspects of tastes and foods."

So many examples of this kind of food "virtually force the diner to contemplate the sacrifice of his or her dinner. This suggests that part of the experience of this kind of meal involves an awareness, however underground, of the presence of death amid the continuance of one's own life."

In an article on this subject by Korsmeyer published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, she articulated this idea: "The gasping carp puts us in the presence of death," she writes. "The fragrances that summon up the life of ortolan are compressed into its taste, a taste that that is both nauseatingly difficult and ecstatically delectable. It would reach neither extreme were it not for one's intense, bodily awareness of this moment when a life and a death are commemorated in a taste."

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