Mimetic Food Habits

Paul RozinIt would be very interesting to create an intensified dialogue between Paul Rozin‘s research on the acquisition of likes and dislikes of foods and René Girard’s mimetic theory. Although some scholars already made some connections between the two (for instance in Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue, ed. by Darra Goldstein & Kathrin Merkle, Council of Europe Publication, 2005), much promising work remains to be done.

bugpartywormeatingAmong other things, biology and psychology professor Paul Rozin conducted a research with children from 16 months to five years of age. This resulted in a paper first published in Appetite (7: 141-151; June 1986), The Child’s Conception of Food: Differentiation of Categories of Rejected Substances in the 16 Months to 5 Year Age Range (click for pdf). The abstract from the article:

Children (N = 54) ranging in age from one year four months to five years were offered over 30 items to eat. The items included normal adult foods and exemplars of different adult rejection categories: disgust (e.g. grasshopper, hair), danger (liquid dish soap), inappropriate (e.g. paper, leaf) and unacceptable combinations (e.g. ketchup and cookie). We report a high to moderate level of acceptance (item put into mouth) of substances from all of these categories in the youngest children. Acceptance of disgusting and dangerous substances decreases with increasing age, while acceptance of inappropriate substances remains at moderate levels across the age range studied. Although the youngest children accepted more disgust items, the majority rejected most of the disgust choices. Almost all children at all ages tested accept combinations of foods which, although individually accepted by adults, are rejected in combination. No significant differences were observed between ‘normal’ children and those with a history of toxin ingestion, although there was a tendency of ingesters to accept more inedible items. In general, the results suggest that a major feature of the development of food selection is learning what not to eat.

disgust“A major feature of the development of food selection is learning what not to eat.” In other words, disgust is not just a biological thing, a matter of nature. It is a cultural thing too, a matter of nurture. In yet other words, a huge part of our development concerning likes and dislikes of food lies in the imitation of others. If disgust is a matter of nurture it is also a matter of mimesis. Powerful social models have the potential to increase or decrease the disgust for certain foods. For instance, the disgust for organ meat is decreasing since it is increasingly perceived as food served to the beau monde in fancy restaurants. Organ meat thus becomes an object of mimetic desire, while at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it used to be something undesirable for the rich as it was “meat for the poor”.

Further considerations by Paul Rozin on the origin of disgust as a specifically human trait include the possibility that disgust arose around things that were (considered to be) contagious. Which brings us back to René Girard, whose mimetic theory could explain why things that are not actually contaminating on a purely biological, “natural” level are indeed considered disgusting to the extent that they were once associated with “contaminating” violence (on the “cultural” level).

Well, let’s explore!



  1. Hanna Mäkelä · January 25, 2016

    I hate to honk on my own horn (being far too modest a person to do so), but I have actually written a big chunk about mimetic desire and food in Sir Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved (2003) in my doctoral dissertation. Hustvedt’s text quite clearly links the obesity / anorexia extremes and weird food fetishes (that over-compensate for the lost religious order) with the secular-democratic collapse of external hierarchies – which is not to say those hierarchies were good, but that they kept extreme behaviour in check and through their melt-down let us glimpse at new (internally mimetic) problems – indeed, quite literally (ontological) sicknesses.


    • erik buys · January 25, 2016

      That’s great Hanna! And yes, I guess the short summary of your analysis nails it!


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