Primal squeam

I wasn’t the kind of kid who didn’t like to share, although my mother’s endorsement of my childhood open-handedness leaves something to be desired. “You weren’t worse than other children,” she told me.

As an adult, though, I find that I sometimes don’t want to share at all. While I generally don’t mind sharing with people (unless it’s my annual hot-fudge sundae, of which you most certainly may not have a taste), I hate sharing with insects.

The insects, though, are bound and determined to share with me. They are particularly covetous of my collard greens, and have turned many of them to lacy shadows of their former selves. Still, there are many parts of many leaves that are salvageable, but I find myself curiously unenthusiastic about salvaging them.

Ditto with wild mushrooms. I can’t very well object to wild creatures eating wild fungi, but a mushroom with several holes in it – and most of them have at least one – is markedly less appealing than an intact specimen.

I don’t think of myself as being squeamish, and I’ve never been particularly hostile to insects, but I hate the idea of their sharing my food. If their little insect legs have crawled all over my collards, and their little insect mandibles have ripped pieces out of my hen-of-the-wood, I start thinking about take-out Chinese. Sure, other insects may have crawled all over the bok choy and ripped pieces out of the bamboo shoots, but what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

The thing is, what you do know can’t hurt you either. By the time the collards and mushrooms reach my dinner table, the insects have been removed, as has almost everything they might have left behind. Sure, there might be a hind leg here or a saliva molecule there, but those things aren’t harmful.

They’re merely disgusting. And that’s what this is all about. Insects won’t hurt me; there are cultures the world over where bugs are a major source of protein. But I still feel a visceral repugnance for food that has been crawled on.

Psychologists have a name for this (psychologists seem to have a name for everything, so I will remind any psychologists reading this that our boat still needs a name, and any help you can give will be appreciated). They call it ‘touch transference.’ Here is how Helen M. Macbeth, in Food Preferences and Taste: Continuity and Change describes it:

Americans are inclined to reject foods that have contacted a disgusting entity, such as a worm, cockroach or body waste product. The deep motivation in these rejections seems not to be fear of microbial infection, because the rejection is not substantially weakened if the disgusting contaminating agent is sterilized. The intuition here, even for educated Westerners, is that when a cockroach touches their mashed potatoes, even briefly with no visible residue, the potatoes have been ‘cockroached’ and take on some cockroach properties.

It’s the part about “Americans” and “educated Westerners” that gets me. If disgust for insects were simply a part of the human condition, I might resign myself to my repugnance. While there are some things for which disgust is universal (feces, vomit, corpses, rotting things), most insects don’t make the list. Flies, maggots, and lice seem to elicit disgust across the board, but those aren’t your ordinary garden pests.

(But don’t start thinking that disgust for harmless creatures is yet another indication that sissified America and the educated West are inferior to other, less developed societies. Some of those same cultures that will eat insects won’t eat food prepared by a menstruating woman. We all have our enculturated crosses to bear.)

Feelings are funny things. Love and joy are well and good, but envy, spite, and avarice are much more likely to get you into trouble than keep you out of it. Back in the days before microbiology, repugnance worked for us. It evolved, no doubt, because people who avoided germ-incubators like feces and vomit and corpses lived to reproduce. Now, though, we have better ways to figure out what’s dangerous and what isn’t. It’s a problem for your head, not your gut. (Most things are, it turns out.)

I try to keep my envy, spite, and avarice under control. And, if I’m going to live rurally, I’m going to have to get over my insects-on-the-food problem. So, a couple days ago I took a deep breath and harvested the bottom leaves off all our collard greens. I salvaged any intact parts that were bigger than bite size, cleaned them and parboiled them. Yesterday, I went mushroom hunting and did the same with a big bowl of boletes.

Tonight, I think I’m going to make them all into a nice, spicy stir fry with some ground pork. At least that way I can pretend it’s take-out Chinese.

2 people are having a conversation about “Primal squeam

  1. I have sincerely thought 15 minutes before posting because I don’t know if it will help or hurt, but here goes…you know, if you think about it, that every morsel that you consumed in NYC had been, “cockroached” at some point. Doesn’t matter if it was at Katz’s. Le Cirque, or your own clean kitchen, they’ve been there. From shipping to storage, to supermarket to you, tiny livestock the whole way along. Sorry.
    So you see, you can do this, you’re an old pro. And how much more benign, somehow, is a garden bug than the Cooper Mini-sized roach I killed in my (clean) East Village kitchen last night. :).

  2. Obviously you didn’t look too closely at all those berries you picked from our batch. With my 3x eyeglasses I see a whole universe of crawling arthropods. How do you think those blackberries get their little woven shrouds if we don’t pick them at just the right moment?

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