maggots make me sick!

Here's something I hate that happens to me all too often (and probably indicates senility).... I'll be in the course of looking for one thing, and I'll stumble upon something interesting (or inane as the case may be), but because that's completely unrelated, I'll forget where I saw it, and then days later something else will remind me of it, but I can't remember where I saw it.

In this case, it "bugs" me, because it involves insect fear, and the "yuck" factor so often invoked as philosophically informative.

There's an irony here, because in this case I think the "yuck factor" is philosophically informative.

Anyway, once I put aside my guilt over how many Boreal virgins were sadistically shredded in pulp mills to produce this morning's Inquirer, I opened it up with my guilty, bloody hands, and saw a piece about the growing gastronomic trend -- eating grasshoppers. They serve them in a local restaurant, and the importer had to jump through years of FDA hoops to sell them as food (they're "agricultural pests" naturally enough), but now they're on the menu as gourmet food, and they're said to be delicious:

In a warm tortilla slathered with creamy avocado, they taste great, providing a crackling chew and hit of salt and garlic. (Priced at $15.95 for a heaping ounce with avocado, lime and two soft tortillas.)

A grasshopper is, it turns out, all about flakiness and crunch - an initial sensation of the Spanish peanut's flaky skin; then the hollow crunch of fried pork rind.

The flavor? Well it's like anything oil-fried in garlic and lime, salt and chile, geared to maximize the lust for beer or, perhaps, a snifter of the bar's high-end, blanco tequila.

Saute even a lowly snail in garlic and butter and it's easy to forget its origin and mode of transport.

Which brings us to the broader cultural issue of dietary aversions: "How strange that we think it natural to eat some arthropods - even crabs," Calvin Schwabe writes in Unmentionable Cuisine, while sticking our noses up at bugs and caterpillars.

Crabs, he points out, are notorious scavengers of the deep; grasshoppers, fastidious vegetarians.

Which may be the way Suro will try to sell his next act - imported cactus worms (which are used in, among other applications, powdered salts) and, toward the end of the evening, I believe he made mention of the eggs of ants.

But you've got to draw the line somewhere.

(I draw the line at eating ants for moral reasons. Ants are hard-working, and grasshoppers are lazy! Just kidding, of course....)

While I'm neurotic where it comes to eating liver and hard-boiled eggs (something that could probably be fixed with therapy), I have no problem with eating insects, and when I was a teenager I ate fried termites (by the plateful) in the Congo. If shrimp are served to me with the heads on (as they are in Europe and South America), I'll eat them in their entirety. Some people consider this gross, but I enjoy the taste and it doesn't bother me at all.

Certainly there is a yuck factor involved, because we are conditioned that way. But it would never occur to me to think of this in moral terms, much less scold people for eating insects.

However, I was reminded of something I'd seen somewhere. Someone somewhere had said insect eating did involve morality, and I'd seen it recently but just couldn't remember where. I googled and I googled, and finally, some angry leftists (trying, in their usual inane way, to link all conservatives to Dinesh D'Souza), supplied a clue. In the comments to this Crooks and Liars post, they claimed that D'Souza "implied gay marriage is akin to eating maggots" because liberals ate maggots on the "Fear Factor" show or something. One commenter was particularly irate:

Dinesh D'Souza's version is that liberals eat maggots and promote the videos on TV. I do take exception to that because the Republicans own all the TV stations and they want to do everything on the cheap so they put on shows like the ones described. They find some idiot broke enough to compete for money by eating maggots. As a liberal, I refuse to take responsibility for such a middle school concept. When the adults take control of the TV landscape I'll start watching again.
While I don't see what's liberal about eating maggots (or any other insect), this triggered my memory, and finally I found the source. It was D'Souza (in a screed I had linked just two days ago for other reasons), and I had not considered the maggot decadence remarks all that interesting, but here they are:
...are the radical Muslims right? Is America a threat to the traditional cultures of the world? Is American culture a worldwide destroyer of morals? Do American values undermine the traditional family and corrupt the innocence of children? Many Americans are likely to indignantly answer, "No." Even conservatives are reluctant to admit that some radical Muslims may have valid objections to American society. Patriotism itself seems to demand an American response that highlights the horrors of Islamic behavior. "Look how your religion inspires terrorists to kill women and children!" "Look how you oppress women!" As broad judgments on Muslim society, these charges are ethnocentric, which is to say they reflect a narrow, prejudiced view of Islamic culture. But even if the charges were true, they would hardly constitute a vindication of American culture.

We should not dismiss the Islamic or traditional critique so easily. In fact, as our own domestic and cultural debate shows, we know that many of the concerns raised by the radical Muslims are widely-shared in our own society. Indeed, many conservative and religious Americans agree with the Islamic fundamentalists that American culture has become increasingly vulgar, trivial and disgusting. I am not merely referring to the reality shows where contestants eat maggots or the talk shows where guests reveal the humiliating details of their sex lives. I am also referring to "high culture," to liberal culture that offers itself as refined and sophisticated. (Emphasis supplied.)

There's no question that most of us would find eating maggots to be disgusting, so I think it's a good example of the "yuck factor." (Certainly, a better one than ice cream licking, although the father of philosophical yuckery once deemed that to be disgusting, at least, if done in public.)

I admit, eating maggots doesn't appeal to me, but for the right price I'd probably detach myself from my senses and give it a whirl. But would this be decadent? To people with religious dietary issues, perhaps. (Many Muslims, for example, are said to be prohibited from eating crabs and shrimp, and I can remember someone saying "God hates shrimp!" a few years back, and yes, it appears that God hates maggots.)

Back to D'Souza, who shifts gears immediately from maggots to vaginas, and after reeling in what I'm assuming is sincere horror from "The Vagina Monologues," he asks an interesting question about "rights":

If the garbage heap of American excess leaves many Americans feeling dirty and defiled at home, what gives America the right to dump it on the rest of the world?
That's an unanswerable question as he poses it. I don't feel dirty and defiled by Fear Factor or the Vagina Monologues, and I'd be lying if I said I did. But what do my feelings have to do with the fact that some producer somewhere will sell videos of these things to people who are willing to pay for them? I mean, traditional Muslims hate alcohol too. Does that mean the Gallo wine company has no right to sell wine in other countries?

Lots of people are grossed out by lots of things, and I am sure that many people find alcohol to be worse (and more yucky) than maggots or vaginas. Why should the yuck factor be invoked to limit the free market? It isn't as if anyone is being forced to rent videos and vomit over them, is it?

Drink enough booze and you'll vomit too, and just whose "fault" would that be?

But let's stick with maggots. I think they're disgusting. But is that "wise"?

I'd probably find it more creepy to have maggots crawling inside my body. Such a reaction might very well be wise in the medical sense, because if maggots are crawling around inside me, I probably need a doctor.

But wait!

There's now an emerging medical consensus that maggots can actually be good for you. That under the right circumstances, they promote wound healing:

It's enough to make your skin crawl -- yet flesh-eating maggots being applied to a festering wound that fails to heal could become a familiar sight in our hospitals. Last week Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend, hailed maggots as an alternative to expensive antibiotic gels and lotions. She pointed out that maggots could speed recovery times, help to free hospital beds and fight MRSA. In a parliamentary motion backed by 35 MPs from all parties, she urged the Government to carry out clinical research into the widespread use of maggots.

Recent studies have indicated that maggot therapy can cut treatment duration from 89 days to just five, and slash the cost from £2,200 to £300 per patient.

Moon describes the grubs as "a highly cost-effective, highly efficient but forgotten and undervalued method of treatment", and Caroline Flint, the Public Health Minister, says that using fly larvae (maggots) is "increasingly common" and "an illuminating idea"

In trials in Wales and Manchester, says Moon, patients not only recovered faster but noticed less smell and felt less pain from their rotting flesh when maggots were allowed to eat it. "Maggots are highly precise," she says. "Unlike surgeons, they remove only the rotting tissue. Surgeons have to cut out healthy tissue to clear the wound, thereby creating a larger wound and more bleeding."

Last year 30,000 NHS patients had maggots applied to their wounds. A study published in the Journal of Wound Care suggested that if larvae were used more widely the annual saving could be £162 million.


This "illuminating idea" generated an interesting conservative discussion at Free Republic, and interestingly, the "yuck factor" is discussed at length, but it didn't seem to be philosophically informative -- even to conservatives.

I'm not sure whether that means FreeRepublic has gotten decadent, but I'm sure Sayid Qtub would think so if he were alive today. Hell, he thought vaginas were disgusting, and had a lot of issues that way, but is an organ that half of us humans have worth getting so exercised over that you have to start a movement around it?

Is it wise? As it happens, I have known many gay men who find vaginas disgusting too. It is no exaggeration to describe their reaction as another form of the "yuck factor." But most of them didn't think this was a form of wisdom.

We all have our "yucks," and they're all worth taking into account. But because they involve emotion, I don't think they're should be controlling over our ability to use logic and reason, and I disagree with the approach of calling them "wisdom."

Obviously, billions would disagree with me, although I should try not to let their collective "yucks" trigger my counter "yuck."

Of course, I'm human, so it's counterintuitive.

posted by Eric on 03.15.07 at 09:58 AM


I don't know if this will make any diffence to you when shopping for dinner, but maggots and ants are not Kosher; however, grasshoppers are Kosher. You can eat all you want! Insects are classified as unclean or unfit to eat under Jewish and Islamic dietary law, but an exception is made for grasshoppers and locusts. That is because after grasshoppers and locusts have eaten everything, there is nothing left to eat but the grasshoppers and locusts themselves.

Chocolatier   ·  March 15, 2007 11:46 AM

I've always found myself to be a fussy eater and the subject of seafood (namely shrimp, crabs and lobsters) has always made me have the the "yuck factor." I've always reasoned that I don't like eating bugs or insects on land, why would I essentially want to eat the ones of the sea? I just can't get my head around it. I'm not scared of the things, I just can't get anywhere close to eating them.

Course that does cause problems at dinner dates or what not where the host decides to serve seafood.

CTDeLude   ·  March 15, 2007 11:54 AM

Just remember that grasshoppers can carry immature tapeworms, so if you absolutely have to eat them, make sure you cook them pretty thoroughly first.

Chris Taylor   ·  March 15, 2007 12:35 PM

I'd always been an adventurous eater, probably starting with earthworms from the garden when I was a toddler. There are a few fews I'll avoid, mostly on the basis of texture on the tongue, but never on what sort of critter it came from. And that's a good thing, 'cuz I've lived in a lot of places around the world with very different calibration of the 'yuck' factor.

But living around the world made me acutely aware of the problem D'Souza points to. Working in public diplomacy for the USG, my job became increasingly more complicated each time a new technology brought the world closer together and every time TV or Hollywood producers pushed the envelope a notch further.

In the 1960s, many sophisticated Europeans truly believed that Chicago was run by the Mob and that Apaches and Navajoes were threatening every outpost west of the Mississippi. Yeah, that was stupid. But they were basing their thoughts on what they saw, i.e., gangster and cowboy films.

Today, with the MTV variants, the HBO and Showtime productions, and the utterly unfettered Internet, people abroad are getting far more information, far more visuals, but no more context.

I can explain how a program like 'Dallas', while not very representative of America or Americans on the whole is nevertheless something like the reality of certain subsets of American culture. (Contemporarily, take 'OC' or 'The Real Wives of OC'.)

Are they part of America? Darn tootin'!

Are they representative of America? Not quite.

How can I explain the sudden allergy to underpants that seems to have stricken America's performing artists? An artifact of global warming? Probably it's something better explained by a psychologist or anthropologist.

Neither I nor my colleagues abroad have anywhere near the time--assuming the inclination--to take on the task of interpreting American mores to the world at large, tailoring the interpretation to every culture being offended.

Amazingly, a huge percentage of the world population has access to satellite TV. Sometimes it's a dish, connected to a TV, connected to a car battery. Sometimes it's cable TV running through remote villages in India or various parts of Africa.

People will, necessarily, attempt to understand what they're seeing through their own culture. And what they're seeing does not paint America with very bright colors.

Yes, free market, free speech, freedom of artistic expression, yada yada yada...

But it would be nice if the producers of the media onslaught spared a moment to consider just what the consequences of their actions might be, relative to the image of the US in foreign markets.

Noting 'forces' a Saudi, for example, to watch the syndication of 'Sex in the City'. Nothing other than the purely human desire to see that which shocks, offends, bewilders us. Much like the rubber-neckers at a traffic accident, or those who turn on a TV news program in order to be offended, audiences do have volition. But it's a weak inhibition that keeps us away from that which we know we shouldn't like.

John Burgess   ·  March 15, 2007 5:38 PM

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