In 1986, a psychologist named Paul Rozin took a group of toddlers and did a peculiar thing. One by one, he sat them down at a table and presented them with a plate of what he said was dog-doo and asked them if they’d like to eat it. (In fact, it was peanut butter, scented with bleu cheese.) Then he did the same with a sterilized grasshopper. Sixty-two percent of the children under 2 happily dispatched the ersatz turd; 31 percent the insect. Older children invariably rejected both plates. His point: Disgust is learned. Culture is our instructor. We are taught that horse meat is disgusting but chicken embryos are not; that Slim Jims are tasty and crickets are gross.
Espousing, as I have, a belief that nothing is inherently disgusting, that it’s all a case of mind over culture, I have frequently, in my travels, felt the need to put my money where my mouth is and my mouth where it would rather not go. I have eaten walrus meat left buried on an Arctic beach to “ferment” for a month, a raw fish eye and its accompanying musculature, duck tongue, caribou marrow, brain, flipper, ant. I am, yes, one of those annoying travelers who boast about the disgusting food they’ve lived to tell about (and tell about and tell about).
Now I am getting my come-uppance. I am getting it big-time, in a small village in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I have come here to do a story on an anthropologist named John Patton. Patton studies a tribe called the Achuar, notable for their skill in blowgun-making and th...