🤢"Ewww, That's Disgusting" ... Or is it?
When I was in second grade, I remember nervously sitting in my elementary school cafeteria, not wanting to open my lunchbox. I sent up a silent prayer in hopes that my mom had packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not because I didn’t love the Nigerian foods she often included, but because I didn’t want to hear the teasing and taunts of my classmates. “Your lunch is disgusting,” was their constant refrain. Decades later, I still think about these moments. I long ago released the embarrassment that I felt. But it does still bother me that something I love (and that these other children had never tried) was labeled “disgusting.”
I find myself wondering why a treat to one person is considered a terrible trick to another’s tastebuds.
According to the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmö, Sweden, disgust is one of the six fundamental human emotions. “The evolutionary function of disgust is to help us avoid disease and unsafe food. While the emotion is universal, the foods that we find disgusting are not. What is delicious to one person can be revolting to another.” Over the years, I’ve witnessed Americans become more open to experiencing different cuisines. I get excited when I see foods from my culture being celebrated on Instagram or TikTok (shoutout out to the Jollof Wars!). I’ve had my own palette expanded by flavors from countries as diverse as Argentina and India. And while I haven’t loved every bite of food I’ve experienced, I still find it difficult to call a food disgusting. Disgust may be a natural emotion, but when it’s used to describe foods, it carries a greater weight. Like it or not, foods represent the social, cultural and political contexts they come from. To me, it feels very personal when someone labels a food from my culture as disgusting. We don’t all have to have the same tastes, but we can express our dislike of a flavor or a meal without labeling them in a way that demeans something that is a part of someone else’s history and identity.
Photo credit: Disgusting Food Museum
By labelling things that don’t suit our tastes as disgusting, we create distance.
Some people will argue that it’s just semantics. But words have power. In her article Washington Post article calling out the use of the word “exotic” to describe foods, journalist Daniela Galarza, describes how the use of the word exotic “indirectly lengthens the metaphysical distance between one group of humans and another, and, in so doing, reinforces xenophobia and racism.” To me, the word disgusting can have a similar effect. One of the beautiful things about sharing a meal with others is the sense of connectedness and belonging that it cultivates. By labelling things that don’t suit our tastes as disgusting, we create distance. This month, as we celebrate all things scary, ghoulish, and dare I say, “disgusting,” I challenge you to think about the foods you may have labelled as disgusting. Perhaps they’re not disgusting; they’re just not to your liking. And that’s okay to say.