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 their long-ago rivalry with the head-shrinking Chuar. (If you've seen an authentic South American shrunken head, you've probably seen an Achuar tribesman.) Patton's base is Conambo, a scatter of houses along a fast, muddy river, reachable every now and again by a four-seater missionary plane. There is no hotel, no restaurant, no store. You eat what they hunt.
I am fast coming to understand that there is a huge difference, a vast yawning canyon of difference, between tasting something deeply unappealing and living on it. Anyone, if he tries, can suppress his disgust long enough to swallow a single fish eye or a mouthful of decaying walrus. Eating enough of this sort of thing to live on is altogether a different matter. I am here for five days. I'm not doing very well.
My problem at the moment is a knee. It's a rodent knee, quietly genuflecting in a bowl of oily broth. Earlier today, the knee was attached to a happy, hairy, spaniel-sized rodent, gamboling and cavorting in the wee hours of the rain forest morning until our host happened along and plugged it full of buckshot. (Blowguns are used only on birds and pack animals like monkeys, which would be scared off by gunshot.)
The knee is one of nature's marvels, a busy intersection of tendon, bone and cartilage. Be that as it may, "marvel" does not exactly describe my state of mind at the moment. Extreme psychic discomfort comes closer. The hunter and the chef are sitting directly across from me. Their generosity is heartbreaking. I have to clean my plate. I must force apart the gristly abomination with my teeth, work my tongue into its fissures and slimy orifices, extract anything vaguely chewable, and swallow it. I lean over to scout the contents of Patton's bowl.
He got the ankle. The thing about ankle bones, as schoolchildren everywhere know, is
that they're attached to foot bones. And foot bones are attached to toe bones and toenails
and those filthy little rubbery pads on the bottom of the foot. No matter how good a meat
may taste, the experience is indelibly marred by the act of spitting ghastly unchewables out
into your fingers.
Patton is undaunted. He has the entire thing in his mouth. He stops sucking and
gumming long enough to say: "The foot pads are a good source of fat." He is enjoying
his rodent soup in the way that only a man who has been served steamed tapir fetus and
live palm beetles can. A hail of tiny foot bones accumulates on the ground beside him.
The knee awaits. I've finished my broth. To stall any longer would betray my
revulsion. I manage to locate a couple of pockets of reasonably normal-looking flesh. My
inclination is to chew these slowly, forever if need be, until my hosts tire of sitting here
and go off to tend the manioc garden. The problem with this tactic is that boiled rodent
flesh isn't the sort of thing you want to have hanging around your tongue for any longer
than is strictly necessary for purposes of not choking to death. It's not really that bad, it's
just strong. As in overpowering, as in taste buds passing out and waving white flags. It
doesn't, in short, taste anything like chicken. I find myself chewing with my mouth open,
hoping my hosts will take this for an endearing cultural peculiarity, rather than an attempt
to bypass the tasting portion of my meal.
I beg Patton to take my meat. (Our hosts speak no English.) Kind soul that he is, he
relieves me of the knee. The man of the house makes a comment, which Patton translates:
"She doesn't like to eat?" He has seen Westerners who don't have any children, who don't
know how to shoot a rifle. Perhaps there are Westerners who don't like eating. "She had
a big breakfast," fibs Patton.
It was in fact a big breakfast, but I didn't do very much having. Someone shot an
alligator, and I had some leg. (It's a leg sort of day.) I have eaten alligator meat before, in
Florida, but someone, bless him, had taken it upon himself to remove the scales before
cooking it. (See "ghastly unchewables," above.) I tried to pretend that the leg was
something else, something bland and comforting. After several false starts -- Melba toast?
lettuce? -- my brain, clearly shaken, presented me with "orange roughy."
Patton maintains that the bulk of an Achuar's daily calories do not come from meat.
They come from chicha, a mildly alcoholic, vaguely nutritious, watered-down manioc
mash. Achuar men drink up to four gallons a day. If you like chicha, you can live well in
Conambo. In about an hour, I will get to try it. Patton's friend Isaac is hosting a minga, a
work party for the villagers who helped Isaac's family dig a new manioc plot. It's similar in
concept to the Amish barn-raising, with marathon chicha-drinking taking the place of
I am of two minds about chicha. On the one hand, it's a beverage. In the land of scary
food, the beverage is your friend. It's the Tecate that washes down the menudo, the swig
of sake that makes the giant clam neck tolerable.
On the other hand. We are talking about a beverage fermented with human saliva.
Achuar women chew boiled manioc into the desired mashed-potato texture, and then spit-spray the contents of their bulging cheeks out into the chicha urn. While I know that,
percentage-wise, we're talking a tiny fraction of the mixture, I'm having difficulty
embracing the idea. I have a little agreement with myself: When spittle finds its way onto
the ingredient list, I find a way to say no.
"You can't say no," says Patton, tossing ankle carcass to a cringing, harelipped dog.
"It's just not done."
Patton and I are seated on a low log bench in the open-walled platform that serves as
Isaac's living room. The man of the house whittles blowgun darts as he chats. A pair of
black horn-rim glasses sits askew on his face. One lens is violently cracked, as though
someone stepped on it, though no one here has the kind of shoes for that. The floor is
dirty but uncluttered. Decor runs to parrot feathers and jaguar skulls, a government poster
urging vaccinations for children. In the corner, a little girl has set up a chicha tea party
with her dolls, the tenderness of the scene marred only by the knowledge that the tiny
chicha bowls are made from howler monkey voice boxes.
Isaac's wife and mother are in constant motion, serving bowls of chicha to the 10 or
so guests. Chicha is the backbone of Achuar society. As with the ankle bone and the knee
bone, you feel an unalterable pressure to accept. Chicha is the holy communion, the
Manischewitz, the kava-kava of Achuar life. It's present at every ceremony, every visit,
every meal. An Achuar woman's desirability rests in no small part on her skill at chicha
brewing and serving.
Isaac's mother dips a clay bowl into an urn of eggnog-hued liquid. Something slimy
dangles off the bottom of the bowl, waving howdy-doo as she crosses the floor to our
bench. Her hand is coated with a mucilaginous yellow fluid with flecks of manioc fiber.
The sidewalk outside a frat house on a Sunday morning comes, unbidden and unwelcome,
"It's Miller time," says Patton as he takes the bowl. After 10 minutes, he warns, she'll
return to take the bowl away and give it to someone else, most likely me. It is considered
irretrievably rude to refuse a bowl of chicha, or even to set it down. (In a maddening
instance of form following etiquette, the ceramic bowls in which chicha is served are
rounded on the bottom, so that the drinker cannot set one down without spilling the
A refusal is interpreted as a bluff and triggers a ritualized pas de deux: "No, really, I
shouldn't." "Yes, yes, I insist." Woe unto the visitor: The host never backs down.
Which means I have 10 minutes to talk myself out of the revulsion that's building in
my gut, jostling for space among the pinworms and protozoa. My mouth is full of saliva
anyway, I tell myself. What's a little more? Myself isn't buying it. Myself is noting the vast
and unsettling difference between oral hygiene practices around the Amazon basin and
around the basin in our bathroom at home. This isn't a matter of disgust, I tell Patton. It's
a matter of gum disease.
Patton wipes manioc slime from his beard. Intelligent chicha drinkers, he holds, don't
fret about the saliva it's made with. They fret about the giardia and amoebas in the
unfiltered river water it's made with. It is at this moment that Isaac's mother gets up to
retrieve the chicha bowl from Patton, fill it to near overflow and present it to me.
The first thing that hits you is the smell. Fruity and fetid, a whiff of drinker's breath on
a late-night bus. I put my lips to the rim of the bowl, bumpy-slimy with manioc pulp. I
hold my breath and drink.
The taste is not awful. It's chalky, rummy, indifferent. But this was never about taste.
It's about distaste. Did you ever drop something into a toilet and have to roll up your
sleeve and retrieve it? That's how I'm feeling right now. Only I've got to keep going. I've
got to lift the lid, step right in, and hunker down in the toilet bowl. As soon as the level of
chicha lowers visibly, Isaac's mother will step up to refill the bowl.
I disappoint and surprise myself. I come from a tribe that eats Vienna sausages. I
should be able to cope. But I can't. I cannot drink this bowl of chicha.
An idea alights. I ask Patton to hold my bowl and rummage in my backpack for the
crinkle of airtight cellophane: a raspberry-chocolate Trader Joe's energy bar. The room
falls abruptly quiet. Foreigner's backpacks are known to hold all manner of otherworldly
wonders: sugar packets, earplugs, contact lenses. (The concept of bits of plastic aiding
vision is not easily absorbed. I recall the tale of a tribesman who pointed to a baby bottle nipple and asked, "Could I as well put
a piece of this in my eye?")
The energy bar makes the rounds. A few of the men sniff at
it. Only Isaac takes a bite. He chews vigorously at first, then stops, suddenly and with
alarm, as though someone had snuck up behind him and put a gun to his head. His
eyebrows bunch together like drawn drapes. His lips go all abstract and jumpy. He stands,
grabs hold of a roof post, and spits forcefully. He coughs, arrghs, hawks, spits again.
Every few seconds, he looks back at me, his face changing channels from disgust to
bewilderment and back. After a good minute of this, he hands back the energy bar,
grinning now that the taste is gone, shaking his head at the foreigner's unfathomable tastes.
The way I see it, permission has been granted to back out of the next bowl of chicha.