Eyeball, Anyone?

Curator's Note

Disgust is often considered a basic response that evolved to protect the human organism from contact with foul or contaminated substances. Yet we eat only a small percentage of nature’s edibles, and overcoming disgust may awaken our receptiveness to sources of nutrition that are underutilized. Here is a swanky venue to challenge routine eating habits – the annual dinner meeting of the Explorer’s Club.  

The diners on this occasion heroically traverse the borders of disgust. The setting is elegant, the guests nicely attired, and the arachnids, insects, testicles, paws, and feet on the menu are served with gourmet garnishes. Chef Gene Rurka’s creations include sautéed scorpions on endive, testicles poached in blood, and tarantula fritters. The effect is both witty and grotesque. Only a few of the guests evince disgust, though some draw their lips fiercely back as they approach their foods with their teeth alone – the only bodily instrument of eating that is free from sensation. 

One stated purpose of this event concerns the promotion of new and sustainable food sources. This objective is more plausible with certain of these delicacies than others. The cockroach, a resilient creature that has endured for millions of years, is fat free, high in protein, and (we are assured) tastes like shrimp. Roaches are also plentiful – though the one featured here is the relatively handsome Madagascar hissing cockroach, not the kind that scoots behind your kitchen cupboard. On the other hand, sustainability is an improbable claim when it comes to bear paws. And while it is hard to identify the reptile and amphibian filets stacked in the kitchen, one suspects that at least a few would be headed for the endangered species list if they were to become popular comestibles.

Eating is necessary, pleasurable – and unavoidably destructive. Unfamiliar foods prompt not only disgust but also other emotions, including sympathy, pity, and curiosity. Are such emotions useful culinary guides? How should we assess the emotions that can arise when our attention is drawn so vividly to the identity of what we eat?


Thank you, Carolyn, for this stomach-churner!  I love your observation about the dinners’ teeth, which not only lets them avoid sensation, but also doubles as a flash of aggression.  I’m struck how the “Look!  They’re really eating it!” shots and many others (the return to the writhing larvae or the displays of raw flesh) add up to a visual grammar of disgust:  National Geographic tries to create the visceral reaction that we’d presumably have at the gala through its presentation of the gala—an experience of virtual disgust.  And that’s an intriguing reversal of the way that food usually gets presented, on the Food Network or in glossy food magazines, as delectably and deliciously edible.  What, I wonder, do these revolting shots reveal about those meant to entice us?  How does the viewing eye(ball) decide what it will or won’t virtually eat?  

Yegads, even explorers have fallen prey to all the sustainability hype! I love how Chef Rurka speaks about sustainable practice against a backdrop of mounted trophies, without irony emphasizing how he sources exotic foods from all over the world. This report really seems to be about distinction in the Bourdieuian sense—in this case showing distinction through disgust. I have to admit my curiosity was piqued, so I went to the Explorers Club website, where I found that I, too, can partake in the 2011 meal. But a prized ticket at the “Solstice” level costs $2500. I could settle for being on the distant “Horizon”—which I guess is like being in “Siberia” in other restaurants—but even that would set me back $375. So I wonder how much of this meal is about what the diners are actually eating, and how much is about showing what they can afford to eat.

In any case, I think they’re missing the main point, which is taste. Sure, these foods may be healthy—low in fat and high in protein—but what about their deliciousness factor? If they tasted as awful as the diners’ grimaces would lead us to believe, these foods wouldn’t last long in anyone’s diet. There doesn’t seem to be any awareness of just how tasty they can be. In many Middle Eastern cultures the sheep’s eyeballs are the most prized part of the animal, often reserved for guests as a mark of honor—it’s not, as Chef Rurka says, about their high protein content. I’d like the Explorers to talk about deliciousness rather than the ick-factor. Then maybe then some of these foods would become more widespread.

Thank you for this, Carolyn!  Somewhat arbitrarily, I wished there were time in this clip to hear more about the preparations, the nuts and bolts of what these foods taste like and how the chef works to highlight or downplay the more challenging tastes and textures. As it is, the element of Fear Factor tourism mentioned above--"Lots of people enjoy or have to eat these things, but we'll pay a lot of cash to force them down"--left me a little cold, much as Carolyn points out the dubious sustainability of, say, bear paws. But I also think anyone who loves food loves to have a little culinary swagger, and you'll see that same dynamic on the Cooking Channel, the Travel Channel, etc., too.

In fact, that makes me want to watch this clip and say, Man Vs. Food, with the sound off, to watch for the moments when the lips draw back in disgust, or the shoulders get pulled back with pride, or any of the unconscious cues to human repulsion, excitement, and bizarre pride in eating ten pounds of meat or a single eyeball.   

This is a very fascinating post, Carolyn.  Identifying sustainable food sources for consumption in the West, where we look beyond our more typical proteins, is going to be an increasing concern in the coming years.  Your observation regarding some of these foods becoming endangered if we try to consume them on a large scale is an important one, and I found it fascinating that this event takes consumables that are considered necessary and vital food sources in some nations and places them within in a highly ceremonial environment.  The questions posed here are intriguing.   How are these images of the foods themselves and the act of eating them meant to entice us to consider the importance of consuming proteins that are outside the comfort zones many Westerners?  In this particular situation, they are presented in a sort of "dare" environment.  It will be interesting to see if some of these proteins ever find their way onto non-dare-related TV cooking shows like Good Eats or Iron Chef America.  In terms of their representation in a media environment, this may be the best way of finding ways of adding a touch of the familiar to the exotic.  Thank you for such an intriguing post!

I mean that literally, given the infestation in my kitchen right now!  It makes me wish that I had a good recipe for the roaches I keep finding in my silverware drawer, dishwasher, on the counters--argh!

What a great, thought provoking clip and response.  I'm also struck by the presentation, and echo Michelle's wish that more time had been devoted to presentation.   What I notice is how much the chef seems to strive to maintain the original appearance of the creatures being eaten--bear claws look like bear claws, spiders are dipped whole into tempura batter, eyeballs on skewers, aligator heads on plates, etc.  This presentation goes against the general tendency to conceal our protein, both in the way its packaged raw, and the way it appears on the plate.  In other words, most people are happy to eat chicken, beef, or pork as long as they don't have to think of the animality of the creatures they are eating.  In this case, the diners are invited to confront the creatureliness of the food they are being served.

Thanks for a wonderful post Carolyn! I find your post very intriguing and it makes me wonder about how disgust operates here.  I like how you have drawn attention to lips that these people very carefully hold from touching, and it seems to connect well with Eric's comment about the visual grammar adding up.  At the same time, I wonder if these visual or tactile indicators are enough to fully account for the broadness of sensations connected with disgust.  

It seems that cultural habit (as others have pointed out) is what drives the sensationalism of the video: we are exposed to non-normative cultural cuisine (at least for many in the US?).  I would imagine that this isn't exactly the pleasure we might experience from debasement, which people like Bataille discuss, because the gastronomic form seems far too polished.  These are certainly the undesirable parts, but culled (and cooked?) to become culinarily delightful.  

I wonder if you might offer some insights about the intersensorial or synaesthetic components of disgust.  If, in fact, this food "looks disgusting," but it smells and tastes delicious, is it merely a different way to address the boundaries of appetite?  I ask this thinking about Willy Wonka, who found Augustus Gloop's behavior disgusting.  What Wonka found disgusting wasn't his river of chocolate but Augustus' appetite: the gluttonous way he consumes food. While this might locate disgust as a response to cultural manners and norms, it seems to prompt a few more questions: how do we determine the boundaries and limits for disgust in contradistinction to delight? And, do we limit the intersensorial pleasure we experience when eating by structuring responses like disgust around cultural and emotional investments in appropriate foods and/or appetites?

Thanks to everyone for your thought-provoking observations. Disgust responses to food are indeed very complex and interesting, and the high-class venue provided by the Explorer's Club furnishes still more layers to think through. It did not occur to me to investigate getting a ticket to the next event, as Darra did. Obviously one is purchasing far more than mere cocktail tidbits!

The absence of disguise of what one is eating does indeed seem to be part of the dare of these dishes. And of course these days we frequently hide from immediate attention the origin of our foods, especially if they are meats. (I suppose an insect doesn't count as "meat", but it certainly isn't a vegetable either.) I myself am prone to squeamishness, unfortunately, and am never very far from an aversive response mid-bite.

At the same time, I also believe that what is disgusting can tread a very close border with what is delicious, both as a gourmet treat and as a surprising experience once the unfamiliar is overcome. Our appetites and tastes are flexible, and can be as deeply informed by conceptual categories as by the sensations themselves. This does make eating an "intersensorial" experience, as Kristopher puts it.

So thank you again for your responses. I now have much more to think about. And maybe even to sample.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.