What Does It Mean to Eat What You Fear?

EATING HAS ALWAYS carried risk. “This is an act that can be exquisitely pleasurable, but also frightening; an act that nourishes, at the same time as it increases the chances of death or illness by toxins and microorganisms,” the psychology professor Paul Rozin writes in his 1999 essay “Food Is Fundamental, Fun, Frightening, and Far-Reaching.” When we eat, we take what is external and thus essentially alien and make it literally part of us. It’s the breaching of a boundary, as Rozin puts it: “The world enters the self.”

With so much at stake, every society has set up prohibitions on what is and isn’t acceptable to eat. In the West, dogs are pets; elsewhere, they may be meat. A lamb’s eyeball — an Eastertide treat in Greece, bestowed on honored guests — starts off crunchy, then collapses into gooey lusciousness. Live octopus is gelatinous and slithery, its textures still beyond the pale for most American palates.

This may in part explain the reactions to “Oldboy.” Some reviewers and online commentators deployed the language of nausea, warning of the need for a “strong stomach.” There was, too, the occasional whiff of xenophobia: The film critic Rex Reed went so far as to write, outrageously, “What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots?” (Disgust is an evolutionarily protective measure, holding us back from eating things we don’t recognize — or from being open to learning from other cultures — because we fear they might hurt us.)

Yet for all the murmurs of “poor octopus,” the revulsion seemed to have little to do with animal rights. Octopus is also eaten in the West, after all — but only if its suffering and death take place out of sight. This is the case with almost all animals eaten in the developed world. The writhing octopus on film provoked shock in American audiences not so much out of empathy for a dying animal but because it defied the script of easy victory. It revealed an animal still capable of struggle, refusing its destiny. Is the horror the slaughter, or being forced to acknowledge it?

IN THE PAST two decades, great crowds of jellyfish, called blooms, have begun to wreak havoc around the world. In Japan, giant Nomura’s jellyfish, some with nearly seven-foot-wide bells and weighing 450 pounds, are often accidentally swept up in fishing nets; they’re so heavy, they can smother the catch, and once even capsized a trawler trying to drag them in. Other species get sucked into nuclear plants when they’re still in the early stages of development, then grow too big to escape and congeal en masse in the pipes, prompting shutdowns and loss of power. They’ve been known to disable aircraft carriers, thus becoming a threat to national security.

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