What Does It Mean to Eat What You Fear?

THE BOX JELLYFISH pulses through the water, so translucent it appears more outline than flesh, with its dropped handkerchief of a head and tentacles up to 10 feet long. It has no armor, neither shell nor bone, only those delicate trailing tentacles studded with nematocysts, tiny tubes filled with venom. These are essentially projectiles that “act as a hypodermic delivery device,” explains Angel Yanagihara, a biochemist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who, after barely surviving a box jellyfish sting 24 years ago, has devoted her career to studying the mechanics of her near killer.

The venom shares some of the same lethal proteins deployed by snakes and spiders, as well as a toxin that perforates cells and lets potassium seep into the blood, which can quickly swamp the body and stop the heart — although this can be reversed (within a certain time frame) by medical intervention. The National Science Foundation ranks one jellyfish species, Chironex fleckeri, as the most venomous animal in the world: Its tentacles may host as many as four or five billion nematocysts and kill a fully grown human in less than five minutes, with enough spare venom to kill up to 119 more.

Yet in parts of Asia, fishermen pluck box jellyfish straight from the shallows with their bare hands, holding the creature by the bell as they carefully pinch off the tentacles and fling them away. (Note that the nematocysts can still discharge venom, attached or not.) What’s left is rinsed in the sea, then bathed in vinegar or lime juice and may be chopped with chiles or else eaten whole on the spot, wobbling and crunchy, almost all salt.

This isn’t necessarily an act of daring or machismo: Jellyfish is a traditional food in the East, though typically the flesh is taken from less dangerous species, like the flame jellyfish, whose stubby orange-red tentacles just leave an arc of welts and a nasty rash. Nevertheless, it can be framed as such for outsiders seeking an exotic thrill. Yanagihara, who is 62 (and an aunt of T’s editor in chief, Hanya Yanagihara), recalls reports of a woman hospitalized in Thailand after eating a box jellyfish that hadn’t been properly neutralized: Stray nematocysts stung her in the throat. In unregulated economies, children are sometimes deputized to harvest box jellyfish for diners. “Kids have been seriously injured because a cook at a resort wanted to wow customers,” she says. (Much of her current work involves humanitarian outreach to marginalized groups in coastal areas of the Philippines where children die every year from box jellyfish stings, which often go unrecorded, dismissed as mere “environmental accidents.”)

Spanish octopus, honeycomb tripe and seaweed in a bowl, with an arrangement of peppers, Asian swamp eel, okra, longans, mangosteens, artichokes and seaweed beneath it.Credit…Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy

For culinary tourists, eating an animal that could kill you can be a kind of flex — a show of power. This follows a strain of thinking that humans are superior to other life-forms and thus destined to rule over them. Those who subscribe to this view tend to see the world with humans at the center and everything else defined by its relationship to us. And so a jellyfish isn’t just protecting itself against intruders into its domain; it’s attacking us.

Part of the fear and the desire to dominate comes from confronting anatomy that in no way resembles our own. Jellyfish are creatures without hearts or brains, and thus cast as faceless, soulless killing machines. Likewise a shark, shooting through the water smooth as a torpedo, or a snake on land, rippling like muscle, or a spider and its scurrying legs. It doesn’t matter that a moray eel, with its beady eyes and gaping maw, is shy and just wants to hide in its cave, alone. We project malevolence. We imagine monsters.

IN THE 2003 South Korean film “Oldboy,” directed by Park Chan-wook, the character Oh Dae-su, a low-level businessman, is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years in total isolation. Every day the same meal is pushed through a slot in the door: fried dumplings. When he is finally, mysteriously released — he wakes up to find himself on a roof, in a natty suit, blinded by the sudden sunlight — he makes his way to a restaurant and announces, “I want to eat something alive.” The chef brings him sannakji, live octopus, a traditional Korean dish. This is generally presented either cut into manageable pieces, the twitching and flickering of tentacles proof of freshness, or as a specimen small enough to wrap around the tips of chopsticks, then pop into the mouth whole (although there’s always a risk that a suction cup will clamp onto the inside of your throat, causing asphyxiation). But in “Oldboy,” the head of the octopus is nearly as big as Dae-su’s fist; the tentacles lash at his face as he eats, clinging to life.

The scene was greeted as the height of horror when the film was released in the United States in 2005. Never mind the film’s many set pieces of operatic violence, including the extraction of 15 teeth from a live human with a hammer and no anesthesia. From a Western perspective, there was only one way to comprehend the devouring of the octopus: as the brutal conquest of a flailing monster, subjugated by human will — an expression of Dae-su’s rage at his long entrapment, and a foreshadowing of the vengeance he will seek.

Given that in Korea there’s nothing unusual or transgressive about eating live octopus, however, a more nuanced interpretation is that Dae-su, who has lost everything and essentially risen from the dead, is quite literally grasping at life; that he and the octopus are not enemies but strangely one, in symbiosis. (It’s also a metaphor for what’s to come: Dae-su will himself thrash about and try to resist his fate.)

Yet these two readings are not, in fact, opposed. Both rely on the presumption that the act of eating is in some way magical — that the octopus, still alive, is a source of potency, and its powers transfer to the person eating it, whether the animal is seen as a slain enemy or simply food. This falls under the notion of sympathetic magic, a term introduced by the British anthropologist James George Frazer in his 1890 study “The Golden Bough” that describes the exchange of qualities, good or bad, when one object or being comes into contact with another.

A suckling pig, with a tarantula perched on top and a freshwater eel curled around its leg, surrounded by a Silkie, cow tongue, salted jellyfish, yardlong beans, ginger, garlic, marjoram, oregano, dirt, sel gris, cucamelon and sage.Credit…Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy

Some of our ancestors might have believed that eating an owl’s eyeball conferred night vision, for example, or that warriors should avoid venison lest they turn meek and skittish as fawns. Modern diners have their own superstitions, from children adamant that an unloved vegetable can “contaminate” the rest of their meal (and render it inedible) to adults persuaded to drink brands of soda based on celebrity endorsements or to seek out foods posted on Instagram — birria tacos, leche flan-stuffed doughnuts — as much for their halo of cool as for their reported deliciousness.

Arguably, much of the American obsession with red meat, above all hulking bone-in slabs of steak served rare and bleeding, aligns with the ideal of the red-blooded American male: blood to blood, like to like. It’s proof of virility and a reminder, perhaps, of our history as hunters, long ago when we were less technologically fortified and just as likely to be prey, when bringing down a mighty beast — a monster — was a matter of survival, to be celebrated at feasts with a wild boar’s head on a platter, fangs bared, still primed to fight.

EATING HAS ALWAYS carried risk. “This is an act that can be exquisitely pleasurable, but also frightening; an act that nourishes, at the same time as it increases the chances of death or illness by toxins and microorganisms,” the psychology professor Paul Rozin writes in his 1999 essay “Food Is Fundamental, Fun, Frightening, and Far-Reaching.” When we eat, we take what is external and thus essentially alien and make it literally part of us. It’s the breaching of a boundary, as Rozin puts it: “The world enters the self.”

With so much at stake, every society has set up prohibitions on what is and isn’t acceptable to eat. In the West, dogs are pets; elsewhere, they may be meat. A lamb’s eyeball — an Eastertide treat in Greece, bestowed on honored guests — starts off crunchy, then collapses into gooey lusciousness. Live octopus is gelatinous and slithery, its textures still beyond the pale for most American palates.

This may in part explain the reactions to “Oldboy.” Some reviewers and online commentators deployed the language of nausea, warning of the need for a “strong stomach.” There was, too, the occasional whiff of xenophobia: The film critic Rex Reed went so far as to write, outrageously, “What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots?” (Disgust is an evolutionarily protective measure, holding us back from eating things we don’t recognize — or from being open to learning from other cultures — because we fear they might hurt us.)

Yet for all the murmurs of “poor octopus,” the revulsion seemed to have little to do with animal rights. Octopus is also eaten in the West, after all — but only if its suffering and death take place out of sight. This is the case with almost all animals eaten in the developed world. The writhing octopus on film provoked shock in American audiences not so much out of empathy for a dying animal but because it defied the script of easy victory. It revealed an animal still capable of struggle, refusing its destiny. Is the horror the slaughter, or being forced to acknowledge it?

IN THE PAST two decades, great crowds of jellyfish, called blooms, have begun to wreak havoc around the world. In Japan, giant Nomura’s jellyfish, some with nearly seven-foot-wide bells and weighing 450 pounds, are often accidentally swept up in fishing nets; they’re so heavy, they can smother the catch, and once even capsized a trawler trying to drag them in. Other species get sucked into nuclear plants when they’re still in the early stages of development, then grow too big to escape and congeal en masse in the pipes, prompting shutdowns and loss of power. They’ve been known to disable aircraft carriers, thus becoming a threat to national security.

A pig’s head, presented with a vessel of pig ears and lamb’s quarters, yardlong beans, a bowl of hijiki and, underneath the table, a rattlesnake.Credit…Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy

And who has brought this army of jellyfish upon us? To satisfy our hungers, we’ve depleted crucial sections of the marine food web, eliminating many of the predators that feed on young jellies and leaving them to replicate virtually unchecked, while allowing nutrient-rich runoff from commercial farms to change the chemistry of the oceans, the better for jellyfish to thrive. “It’s always this story line: Jellies are this sinister ancient entity in the deep,” Yanagihara says with a sigh. “I think we pretty much have evidence that we are the sinister factor.”

In the wild, we fear being consumed by predators, yet we, too, are predators, consuming others. As the bioethicist Leon Kass points out in “The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature” (1999), this is “the great paradox of eating, namely that to preserve their life and form, living forms necessarily destroy life and form.” It makes sense, then, that eating has become the driving metaphor for so much of modern life: Where in the 19th century consumption was another name for tuberculosis, a disease believed to eat you from within, today we are all consumers, our identities defined and exposed by the products we buy.

In the 1992 essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” the cultural theorist bell hooks argues, “It is by eating the other” — what is foreign or alien to us — “that one asserts power and privilege.” This goes beyond animals, for the system that allows us to consume, that gives those of us with resources food and other necessities and luxuries in abundance, rests on the stark truth that some of us will thrive while others starve. The anthropologist Dean MacCannell suggests, in “Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers” (2002), that late capitalism “is an only partly sublimated form of cannibalism,” the greatest of all food taboos. If in the past warriors would eat the heart of their enemy to prove their dominance, today those in the highest ranks feed off the labor and lives of those below. Workers are treated as subordinate to the commodities they produce, while globalization slowly neutralizes and erases cultural difference, MacCannell writes, “not merely by doing away with it but by taking it in completely, metabolizing it, transforming it into [waste] and eliminating it.”

There is “something ethically problematic, or arguably even fundamentally wrong … about our right of existing at all at the expense of others,” the Finnish philosophy scholar Sami Pihlström notes in an essay in “Man-Eating Monsters: Anthropocentrism and Popular Culture” (2019), edited by Dina Khapaeva. In the Christian Bible, as part of the chronicle of creation in Genesis, God gives humans “dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Some see “dominion” as a responsibility, a vesting of stewardship; others, as license to take from the earth whatever we want, even from our fellows, so long as we imagine ourselves their betters. Who, then, are the monsters?

Food styling: Young Gun Lee. Set design: Victoria Petro-Conroy. Retouching: Anonymous Retouch. Photo assistant: Karl Leitz. Digital tech: Russell Underwood. Food stylist’s assistant: Tristan Kwong. Set designer’s assistant: Rochelle Voyles

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