Halloween Frights: Brains, Tongue and Other Terrifying Foods

Tonight, as any parent of small children, costume designer or chocolate fiend already knows, is Halloween: the night when the veil between the worlds thins, when dread things stalk the earth, when approximately 1,000 Elsas from Frozen show up at your door. (Be afraid.)

In the spirit of the season—having carved the pumpkins, hung the cobwebs, and positioned the clawing skeletons with the glowing LED eyes—I’d like to discuss the thing that truly frightens me:

Brains.

Also, tongue. And sea cucumber. And natto, the stinky fermented soybeans that trail long strings of goo when you pick them up. It’s a shameful thing for a food writer to admit, but there are foods that I find scary. Or, more precisely, revolting, gag-making, and impossible to eat.

I’m not alone. The great MFK Fisher, doyenne of American food essayists, once wrote: “One friend of mine feels his whole tongue fold back on itself and down his throat, so that he gags violently, if he is served any form of cooked tongue.” (She added, as an excuse, “This is his only known phobia,” which makes me feel a little better.)

As a journalist and traveler, I’ve eaten my share of outlaw foods: Reindeer. Seal. Horse. Whale, on Spitzbergen. Chicken feet in China, durian in Singapore, untranslatable cartilaginous bits in Vietnam. Lutefisk, in Minnesota. (Still shuddering from that one.) But there are these few things I can’t tolerate.

When I examine my food fears, trying to make them seem rational, I realize they fall into a few categories: innards and slime. (Sea cucumber, an undersea creature that expels its guts to ensnare prey, qualifies twice.) This is cultural, of course. “Slimy, gooey, mushy and gelatinous” foods consistently evoked the most disgust in tests run by Australian and Canadian researchers. Yet “rubbery or slithery things,” abhorrent to Westerners, are prized in Asian cooking, according to Chinese-food expert Fuchsia Dunlop.

Why do certain foods repel us? The lead hypothesis, articulated by Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania and Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is that disgust is adaptive. Humans internalized over millennia that something slimy or mushy was likely to be rotting or contaminated, and that avoiding it protected us from the illness-causing microorganisms it was likely to contain. (This is literally called the “pathogen-avoidance theory.”) Disgust turns out to be a uniquely human response—non-human primates do not experience it—and an acquired one: Babies dislike some tastes from birth, but disgust is learned.

Researchers also hypothesize that from their initial distrust of pathogens, humans benefitted from disgust because it protects society, keeping away infections that because of contagiousness would be particularly dangerous to groups. Some scholars argue that fear of contagion lay behind the creation of “untouchable” castes, such as India’s Dalits. A group that handles things thought disgusting—garbage, hides and human waste—and that is not allowed to interact with the rest of society would have served as a biological fence against contamination.

I saw a small version of this group-reinforcing behavior when I asked friends if there were foods they found unbearable. It was fascinating how quickly those who responded—94 journalists, scientists, and school friends—organized around their most-despised foods. Sweetbreads and other organs—liver, chitlins, tripe—were the least popular, followed by brains. Next were tongue; sea urchin and candy corn (a tie, not a combination — eww); chicken feet; and squid.

Some other notables:

Insects.

Okra. (“Boiled okra should be ashamed of itself.”)

Mayonnaise.

Ketchup.

Octopus.

Haggis.

Mimolette, the French cheese that relies on microscopic mites to develop its rind.

Celery.

Beets.

Cilantro. (This may be genetically conferred.)

Fish eyes.

Bone marrow.

Blood sausage, blood pudding, and the Vietnamese blood soup tiet canh. (“If it has blood in the name, I’m not eating it.”)

Frogs’ legs.

Caviar.

Hakari, Icelandic fermented shark. (My friends are well-traveled.)

School lunch.

Canned peas.

Spray cheese.

Looking at the list, I’m struck by how many of the reviled foods share the same categories as my pet hates: sliminess, or smelliness, or obvious disease risks. Blood can carry any number of pathogens; brains and spinal columns could transmit prion diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow. And though “school lunch” was probably offered as a joke, some dishes in the National School Lunch Program are infamous for the salt and fat they contain.

Which gives me an idea: For the trick-or-treaters this evening, I’ll prep a platter of celery, octopus, frogs’ legs, okra…

Kidding. I value my windows. I’ll go with chocolate. Apparently it almost never evokes disgust.

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