Food culture writer Sara Davis asks an intriguing series of questions (i.e. intriguing if you like thinking about the pleasures of food)
Is there such a thing as a middle zone for taste? Is it possible to taste something that is not enjoyable without feeling something like disgust? When food is lacking in flavor or has a homogenous texture, the words we use to describe those sensations–bland, mealy, tepid, etc.–have negative associations; do those negative sensations define a disgusting experience, or is there some middle space between pleasant and unpleasant tastes?
My intuitive, initial response was of course. I don’t enjoy pasta with no sauce, butter, oil, or seasoning. It’s the very definition of bland. But I wouldn’t say it’s disgusting, and in fact I’m always sampling plain pasta when I cook to see if it’s done without experiencing disgust.
After thinking about it, I think the question involves a conceptual confusion. Disgust is not just a negative taste sensation, a bit of unpleasantness. Disgust is an emotion that consists, in part, of involuntary recoil and at least the beginning stages of nausea. Certainly a taste experience can be unpleasant without inducing the more powerful emotion of disgust. I know we sometimes say of food we don’t enjoy that it’s disgusting but that’s often a bit of hyperbole.
At any rate Sara’s inquisitive nature is commendable, surely beyond the call of duty:
Prison Food Weekend at Eastern State Penitentiary last summer offered an opportunity to explore these questions in an entirely unscientific and anecdotal way: I tasted a few samples of punishment loaf and observed others going through the same process.
Nutraloaf or punishment loaf is a food product used in some U.S. prisons as severe punishment, particularly for inmates who are in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. Punishment loaf is not standard cafeteria fare, it’s the modern-day replacement for bread-and-water rations in which most of the major food groups (proteins, starches, veggies) are blended together to meet daily nutritional requirements. The loaf is often served without utensils or a tray, so it must be eaten with the hands or out of a bag.
She describes the experience with the attention to detail of a NY Times food critic. So if you’re curious about what a loaf of nutrients stripped of flavor and context tastes like check out her post.
To be honest I find the fact someone finds it acceptable to deprive prisoners of the simple pleasure of a meal disgusting, and that’s not hyperbole.
But I do agree with her ultimate conclusion.
I don’t have an answer to my question–or if I do, it’s that tolerable blandness can become intolerable with only minor shifts in circumstances.
Foods that we find merely unpleasant can become disgusting. While I don’t find a few forkfuls of plain pasta disgusting, a plateful might be a different matter.