I used to work with a girl who told me there was a finite amount of time that could elapse between her starting to eat something and becoming attuned to the texture of the food, at which point she would have to abandon whatever it was she was eating, so horrified she was at its squelch or grit or stringiness. I only ever saw her eating a roast dinner, because we worked in a bar, and we got a free roast on Sundays. She was slender, and whenever she ate her roast, sat up on one of the tall stools at the bar, she would invariably receive a series of unprompted observations, none more inventive than a variation of ‘where do you put it’. Food can be a complicated business. Particularly for women, I think.
It makes sense to me that the most delicious foods are all a bit disgusting: blue cheese, ladies fingers, kombucha. But on the intersection of disgust and pleasure that can be found in food, I can’t think of many foods that cross this line more so than eggs. About a year ago I reneged on a decade-long stretch of veganism. Allowing eggs back into my diet after a long period of abstention, I went through a phase of putting them on everything. Almost anything can be improved with the addition of an egg. Some examples from recent memory: mashed potatoes with an extravagant amount of fresh dill (fried egg); a very spicy chana masala (soft boiled egg); rice noodles with spinach and spring greens (scrambled egg).And yet they are plainly repulsive: muculent and sulfurous and strangely metallic tasting. It’s a bracing way to begin the day.
A lot of people are disgusted by eggs. I have a friend who claims she can still smell raw egg from the bowls and utensils they have come into contact with even after she has washed them several times. My boyfriend often points out how many bad smells are described as being ‘eggy’, and why would you want to eat something that is short- hand for a bad smell? And they can be potent, if not pungent, objects. You can be respiratorily allergic to eggs; bakery and confectionery workers can become occupationally asthmatic from inhaling airborne egg proteins. For some reason this is called ‘egg-egg syndrome’.
The more I think about eggs and their textures, the more horrified I am by them. Of course, there are better reasons to be appalled: chickens in cages so small they are unable to fully extend their wings, forced to lay more than twice as many eggs as they naturally would. I buy free range but they come with their own horrors: beak trimming and still unnaturally cramped conditions. I tried the vegan eggs once. A velvety yellow powder you mix with water and then fry to a wet sneeze.
Like most food, eggs bring out our idiosyncrasies. My grandma only makes omelettes served with fried onions and sprinkled liberally with sugar. I always presumed this was a Polish recipe but apparently it is her own concoction. Polish food offers a lot of delicious / disgusting options. Blood-red broth. Knuckles of meat the size of your fist. Unsurprisingly, then, my most visceral encounters with eggs have been through my Polish heritage. Sucking them raw from their shell to paint at Easter, at the Polish Roman Catholic Club in Mans eld. Getting salmonella on a coach trip to Kraków, from scrambled eggs served straight from the pan. My sister and I wildly unpopular with the other coach trippers, vomiting across several countries on the long drive back to the UK. Zurek, a wincingly sour soup, served with an egg poached straight into it. You really appreciate that egg. A mild and salty reprieve.
We might think of disgust as entirely innate but it appears it may also be culturally conditioned: something commonly held as disgusting in one culture might be neutral in another. Paul Rozin, one of the leading thinkers on the psychology of disgust, believes most disgust triggers are animal in origin – rotting flesh and faeces etc: a reminder that we are animal, and that we will die. He developed the Disgust Scale, a survey which determines your predisposition to feelings of disgust. It includes questions like, would you eat soup stirred with a thoroughly washed fly swatter, or, how disgusted would you be to learn your friend only washes their underwear once a week, or, how do you feel about ice cream garnished with ketchup.The scale differentiates between three types of disgust: core, animal and contamination.
Core disgust is about defending the mouth from contamination by unpleasant things such as bodily excretions or cockroaches. As its name suggests, it is the most base and essential embodiment of the disgust response. Animal disgust is triggered by things that remind us we are mortal flesh, such as corpses or bodily violations. Contamination disgust is the urge to defend the whole body, not just the mouth,
from dirty or ‘sleazy’ people. Conservatives generally have a higher level of disgust than liberals. I was disheartened to find I had quite a high proclivity for disgust, particularly for core disgust: the disgust most closely associated with food.
However, Rozin believes you can educate yourself to like foods you previously found distasteful, as he has done with beer, which he used to find unpalatably bitter. He claims there are almost no foods he doesn’t like or hasn’t managed to coach himself into liking. But he still can’t stomach eggs.