Food is sublime in part because of its transience. Funny, then, that we so rarely talk about where it goes
A few years ago, I was courting Mason Hereford, the chef of Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans. I help chefs write cookbooks, so part of my job is finding those willing to let me. He and I chatted. My friends and I feasted. And after we’d demolished and paid for the teetering bologna sandwiches and collard melts, I made my way to the restroom, where I did not rest. Instead I partook in the newly nostalgic pleasure of a leisurely, unmasked poop.
Mason and his team might be able to handle the constant deluge of customers, but his restaurant’s plumbing couldn’t handle my business. Stricken, I fled and didn’t speak a word of it to Mason — until a pandemic later, when I sent him a draft of the introduction to his cookbook, where I’d added something he hadn’t said: “I’m happy I got to write this book with my pal JJ, who once ate so much at Turkey and the Wolf that he clogged our toilet and is only telling me this just now.”
That particular shit has been on my mind lately. Other shits have been on my floor. In other words, I have children, two daily reminders of the connection between what we ingest and what we evacuate: last night’s dinner in today’s diaper. After seven years submerged in the toilet bowl of parenthood, coauthoring cookbooks by day and wiping butts by night, it began to strike me as somehow both perfectly sensible and utterly strange that a product of ordinary bodily function remains a societal third rail, that for almost two decades I’ve written about eating and never even considered acknowledging the aftermath.
I’m certainly not alone. Food sites, sections, and magazines are as clean of poop as a bidet devotee. While we all fawn and fuss over dinner, we ignore the elephant dung in the room. Because whether it’s hand-harvested scallops with sea-buckthorn jam or a Popeyes chicken sandwich, what’s on our plate will soon be ground by the teeth, transported via peristalsis through the esophagus, macerated in stomach acid, metamorphosed by its journey through two dozen feet of intestinal tubing, and then deposited into the toilet. Food is sublime in part because of its transience, each plate of it the edible equivalent of a sand mandala, destined to disappear, once there and then gone. Funny, then, that we so rarely talk about where it goes.
On its face, our denial makes sense: Since the delights of the table animate us, anything that detracts from them is unwelcome. We eat up Best New lists to sell us on how that latest Korean hot spot sizzles, not how the maeuntang sizzled on the way out. We want to hear Paul Hollywood whinge about a disappointing showstopper, not about how an underbaked custard tart sent him to the loo.
And so publications devoted to what goes in uphold an unspoken rule to eschew what goes out. “When I worked at Saveur, we had a running joke about doing the ‘Six Hours Later Issue,’” Helen Rosner, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, said via email. When Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo were working on their cookbook, they allegedly joked about pairing the photo of each dish with one of its post-colonic counterparts. They didn’t, though I can’t help but notice that their 2008 book’s title, Two Dudes, One Pan, recalls that of a certain viral scat-fetish flick that came out the year before. [“We are going to hold off on commenting on this,” said a spokesperson for Shook and Dotolo’s restaurant group when asked to confirm whether such a joke was actually made.]
Perhaps the ultimate expression of our denial can be found in the high-end restaurant bathroom, where every aspect, from the marbled toilet seat to the vintage tiles, seems curated to maintain the illusion that you’re not here to debase yourself. As Anna Polonsky, a restaurant design consultant, told me, her clients often bring up the bathroom right away, though their focus is more about identifying “the Instagram moment” than selecting seat warmers and bidets. “It’s a place people go and hang out on their phones,” she said.
Pete Wells essentially agrees. “I don’t know if I’ve ever found a stall occupied by a pooper,” he said. As the chief restaurant critic of The New York Times, he has visited his fair share of posh water closets for the purposes of surreptitious note-taking and urination, though supposedly never for the production of dark masses. For a man of good gut health, he told me, that would suggest poor planning. As a man of Jewish gut health, I can’t relate.
The people behind our favorite food, it should be said, are perfectly aware that their work induces more than just financial discharge. “We got a lot of notes that said, ‘My stomach was really rumbly that night,’” said David Zilber, Noma’s former fermentation guru, though it wasn’t his lacto-fermented gooseberries or squirrel garum causing the disturbance, but the sheer variety on the plate. “The vegetable season menu included 150 different ingredients — most people don’t eat more than 60 in a decade.” And that can shock our systems. When I asked if that meant Noma had precipitated some legendary loads, he smiled. “You said it, not me.”
Once, not too long ago, our collective prudishness seemed unremarkable. But now, here we are, two grisly years into a global pandemic that has forced us to reconsider ourselves and those around us as purveyors of respiratory droplets and sentient sacks of hijackable cells. Given this pageantry of bodily horror, the absurdity of our evasion feels especially stark, the line between what we do and don’t discuss glaringly arbitrary. It brings to mind the scene in Luis Buñuel’s 1974 surrealist comedy The Phantom of Liberty where two couples gather at a table, the men dropping their trousers and the women hiking up their skirts as they take their seats on open commodes. Later, one of the men excuses himself to use the dining room, where he privately scarfs bread and meat. How strange that we will publicly masticate but not defecate.
Perhaps our collective performance ends now. After all, we all do it. It unites us, Democrats and Republicans, heroes and villains. Poop makes no pretense, emerging from us all in the same horrible form. You’d be mistaken, for example, if you assumed that Padma Lakshmi releases only powder pink quenelles that have the rip entry of an Olympic diver. Her digestive tract embattled by 17 seasons of Top Chef judgments and stage-4 endometriosis, Lakshmi finds elation in a healthy poop. “Because of my constipation, I feel really accomplished, like I organized a sock drawer,” she told me. During filming, she sometimes forgets to turn off her mic. “No one is a hero to their sound guy,” she said. “It’s like a symphony in there.”
I’m not saying I want to see a new sort of selfie colonize the grids of food Instagram (#ThePoo), but suddenly I find myself begrudging Food & Wine’s Holiday Gift Guide for excluding the Toto Washlet C200. Food publications will take on almost anything else — the science of lactobacillus, the history of the tea sandwich — except for this. If you poop and I poop and Padma poops, why shouldn’t we talk about it?
The omission of emission doesn’t serve us, because while poop is gross, it is also engrossing. Our denial, for example, robs us of an appreciation for the food-to-feces transmogrification, which is as compelling as any walk in the woods or trip through a lost continent. In fact, you can learn a great deal about food’s journey along the alimentary trail from your father’s favorite travel writer, Bill Bryson. His 2019 book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, devotes an illuminating chapter to “The Guts,” from which you contract the disturbing news that we’re just an epithelium’s breadth from being devoured from the inside by our own gastric juices. And you learn how your 25 feet or so of small intestine spends six to eight hours extracting nutrients from Sweetgreen salads and omakases through so-called chemical digestion — that is, not the mechanical grinding and macerating, but the enzymatic action brought about by bile and pancreatic juices, which convert food for the mouth into food for the body.
What remains enters the large intestine, six feet of tubing that Bryson describes as a fermentation tank. There, for up to three days, the gruesome sludge is sapped of liquid (thereby becoming more turdlike) and feasted upon by our microflora — the trillions of bacteria from at least 160 species that reside in our colons. (Silly me, I thought only I was eating my food.) The health of these hungry inhabitants, incidentally, is vital. It’s associated, for reasons not yet well understood, with lower risk of heart diseases, diabetes, colorectal cancers, and COVID-19 severity. It’s why fecal transplantation, which delivers happy microbiota via endoscope, nasoenteric tube, or capsule, is more effective at treating recurrent C. diff infection than antibiotics. And it explains why consuming fiber is so important, not just because it encourages regularity but because it nourishes your gut pals.
What ultimately passes through your rectum and exits your anus then is not, as I had naively assumed, just the churned, consolidated food for which the body didn’t find use. It is a far more disturbing concoction of, among other things, fat, mucus, dead cells, trillions of bacteria (living and deceased), and sure, some insoluble fiber. It’s typically brown, not because, as I imagined, all the colors mixed together make brown, but because of a pigment called stercobilin, an end product of catabolized red blood cells.
We don’t all need to become experts on our machinery, but our inhibitions can create an epistemic vacuum that leads to imprudent behavior. This might mean an open-lid flush in a public restroom because you’re ignorant of toilet plume; engaging in questionable hygiene protocol because no one taught you differently (see Wax Kyng’s gobsmacking admission that he uses toilet paper to catch his turds); or shrugging off frequent floaters (call your doctor). “People are still reluctant to talk about the subject,” says gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, explaining that patients will self-treat for years rather than initiate discourse on discharge.
The consequences are what led Sheth to write What’s Your Poo Telling You? with Josh Richman. The 2007 book chronicles its muse’s tantalizing variability — the myriad shapes, textures, buoyancies, and colors. It’s a vivid update of the stodgy Bristol Stool Scale, the crude diagnostic tool developed in the late 1990s and currently available printed on both t-shirts and coffee mugs, which classifies poop into a trifling seven categories ranging from little pellets reminiscent of rabbit droppings and indicative of constipation to an amorphous puddle reminiscent and indicative of diarrhea.
Sheth’s book also explores the ways that the contents of the porcelain bowl can be a snapshot of your health, albeit a blurry one. Deviances from the ideal turd, which the Bristol Scale describes as a smooth, soft sausage, with a chocolatey resemblance and an effortless arrival, can reflect anything from mere dietary imperfection to chronic conditions (when, say, diarrhea is more climate than weather) to imminent danger (beware the pathological hues).
Yet while we’re typically too shy to share the finer points of our feces with doctors, dinner companions, and readers, we are also beguiled by the subject of our revulsion, the strength of our loathing fueling a paradoxical fascination. No other elimination function, Sheth points out, “can cause pleasure and pain.” On the other hand, he says, “pee is pee — there’s no cachet.” And he should know: That first book sold over 700,000 copies, while his follow up, What’s My Pee Telling Me?, didn’t come close.
We’re not born with a prejudice against poop — when my kids were two, for instance, they didn’t seem to know it from a pancake — but by toilet-training age, we all find the stuff disgusting. Disgust is a much-studied basic emotion with its own set of associated facial expressions — the raised upper lip, the wrinkled nose, the gape with tongue extension — designed, in the Richard Dawkins’ blind watchmaker sense, to keep certain dangerous substances from entering our bodies. However, that’s where things get weird.
According to Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a leader in disgust research, the emotion is uniquely human. Most animals exhibit an aversion to feces — unless, like the many species of coprophagic creatures, they subsist on it (e.g. dung beetles) or consume it as a sort of homegrown fecal transplant (e.g. koalas) — but only humans are both materially and ideationally repelled. Rozin’s subjects, for instance, evince disgust at apple juice served in a (brand new) bedpan and at what they know is chocolate fudge sculpted to resemble dog doo.
Through the process of preadaptation, by which an adaptation evolved in one domain generalizes to others, disgust has morphed into a moral emotion, protecting not just the body but the soul. We’re not necessarily disgusted by poop because we fear microbial contamination. We’re disgusted because its presence evokes the mortal coil. The emotion’s most haunting elicitors — carrion, shit, swarming bugs — remind us of our own beastly nature and impermanence. Or as Carolyn Korsmeyer puts it in her book Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, “the nasty realization…that the exalted human will become one with the worm.”
Comedians understand this better than anyone, their gags hitting hardest when they expose the farce in which we all partake. “All day, every day, we’re all pretending that we’re not poopers,” says Ilana Glazer, co-creator and co-star of Broad City along with Abbi Jacobson and now starring in The Afterparty. “It reminds humans that they’re animals. When you poop, you’re like, ‘oh my god, I’m a bear.’” In their feces-filled paean to female friendship, the shit jokes have layers: In one of the show’s final episodes, Abbi agrees to show Ilana a picture of her own foul movement, a poignant consummation of their intimacy. They’re also transgressive in their unflinching silliness and plentiful application to the bodily functions of women. Because despite rumors to the contrary, and the unexplained additional 17 hours food spends in the female gut, women poop too.
While comedy is the main social refuge for our fascination — from Caddyshack’s pool-clearing Baby Ruth to the suitcase scene in the first-season finale of The White Lotus — our complex relationship takes many forms, including a peculiar sort of tourism, where we (sort of) confront the charade. Visitors to Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art can watch fecal matter take shape in a digestion-simulation machine called Cloaca, Latin for “sewer,” that takes in actual food and, after 13 hours, spits out a highly realistic turd, complete with stink. South Korea has several options for the indecorous traveler, including a toilet-themed (and shaped) museum called Haewoojae (translated as “a house to satisfy anxiety”) and a multifloor exhibit slash amusement park called Poopoo Land. And there are many establishments where an intrepid diner may, if so moved, eat from a toy toilet bowl, from Moscow’s Crazy Toilet Café to Toronto’s Poop Cafe — each one a capitalist’s wager on a Paul Rozin experiment.
Of course, the appeal only goes so far. We might triumph over our hardwiring when we eat the “turd sub sandwich” at Modern Toilet, in Taipei, a log of ground meat studded with corn kernels and served on a split bun. We don’t, however, eat poop, which seems both too obvious to mention and also not entirely true.
Humans consume poop for reasons of pathology (the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in the throes of dementia, is widely believed to have consumed his own), sexual desire, medicine (see fecal transplants), and lax slaughterhouse regulation. The carnivorous eat poop virtually every time they eat a hamburger. In 2015, Consumer Reports tested 300 samples of ground beef and found a bit of business in every single one. About this, we are not sufficiently disgusted. Vegetarians aren’t safe either, thanks to leafy greens fouled by run off from animal agriculture operations and food handlers untroubled by the sign above the restaurant bathroom sink.
Not all poop is harmful to consume. Lazy cooks like this one, for instance, pay no mind to the shrimp “vein,” which, as many frantic Googlers can attest, is just a family-friendly way of referring to the intestinal tract and is often filled with crustacean crap. Whenever we eat a creature like an oyster or a mussel, we consume the contents of the stomach, intestines, rectum, and anus. Among scholars of the gastrointestinal tract, there exists a quiet consensus that, were you so inclined, you could safely eat your own poop. It’s far from sterile (urine comes closer), but as gastroenterology professor Parul Agarwal told Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, “they are your own bugs.” Someday, after the climate apocalypse forces us to take refuge in space, we may even look to human waste for sustenance. In 2017, a research team at Penn State announced a promising breakthrough that could allow them to use microbes to transform astronaut doodies into a nutritious Marmite-like foodstuff, prompting Noma chef and bacteria buff René Redzepi to tweet, “To the people that say fermentation is a fad, eat shit.”
Even in the dystopian present, some people intentionally consume shit. Naturally, culinary swashbucklers have explored fecal delights. Andrew Zimmern ate dung beetles and a maguey worm’s freshly extruded turd. The late Anthony Bourdain dined on what he described as the “lightly charred poop chute” of a warthog that had been only cursorily cleaned. He pronounced it “sweet.” In southwest China, there is tea made from insect frass, the leaves alchemized by the bowels before being steeped in water. Similar in concept to the famous civet coffee and its kin, this is just one of many examples of the digestive tract’s service as a culinary tool.
Incidental and conspicuous consumption aside, many of us seek out foods that feature the pleasures of poop. Sometimes, their attributes can be attributed to an ingredient’s anatomical purpose. Namely, the intestines, which despite rigorous cleaning and long simmering never quite surrender their odor of ordure. Still, they have plenty of fans. Whether it’s Chinese zhūchàng (translated occasionally as “pork bung”), andouillette (the notorious French sausage that’s basically chitlin-stuffed chitlins), or the fragrant South American street treat chunchullo (the small intestine of a cow dunked in hot oil, which a Colombian friend affectionately refers to as mierda frita, or fried shit), these preparations can conjure what they once contained.
Often, though, there is no anatomical connection between so-called barnyard flavors and actual bowels. Certain pleasingly rank cheeses are less evocative of the grass and hay the cow ingests than what the cow expels. In explaining why she adores the romanesco variety of zucchini, April Bloomfield once described its flavor to me as “manure-y.” While some fans of low-intervention vinification consider the association of natural wines with flavors of the barnyard overblown, Alice Feiring, author of Natural Wine for the People, finds it insufficiently precise to boot. “Not all guano is created equal,” she told me, before taking me through the aromatic distinctions between bovine and porcine output, a distant fertilized field, a freshly filled diaper, and shit on your shoe.
Of course, adventurous eaters know that the horsey stench of a spontaneously fermented Dolcetto, bodily funk of ripe durian, putrescence of so-called stinky tofu, and gym-sock pong of Époisses coincide with relatively mild-mannered flavors and also, contra the insistence of our olfaction, won’t actually hurt you. And this might be part of the appeal. The pain-to-pleasure conversion comes from a sort of mind-over-body mastery, a phenomenon Rozin has dubbed “benign masochism” and can apply to everything from the burn of exercise to the burn of the chile pepper, from the thrill of a scary movie to the gruesome gratification of a Dr. Pimple Popper TikTok.
This mastery is, ultimately, a sham, because the truth is, we are not safe. Look too closely into the mirror or the toilet, and our illusions fade. Whatever the reason, there has, over the last several years, been less reluctance to look. Nowadays you can buy Facility magazine for its “rigorous study of toilets” and musings on bathroom culture, read a drinks writer’s guide to pairing wine with analingus, or flip through Help Yourself, a colorful cookbook devoted to gut health that courageously includes a sidebar on poop. Rosner herself has gotten around to the subject in her meditation on edible gold. (Of the late designer and provocateur Tobias Wong’s malleable-metal–filled gelatin capsules, she wrote, “The art is the act of selling the promise of golden shit, or maybe it’s the act of producing it.”)
This modest shift was accelerated by the pandemic: witnessing its daily toll made words harder to mince. Social boundaries broke. In my own group of friends, there were confessions of childhood cancers, autoimmune diseases, and very early pregnancies. Work and home merged. Some days, my only reprieve from the monotony of Zoom “school”-work-sleep was an intriguing bit of effluent.
And as society underwent seismic change, so did the food media, where many of us who got into this business to write about, say, the best burgers have realized, belatedly, that we should’ve been reporting on the impact of beef consumption on climate change, the rights of workers in meat packing plants, and the cesspool of kitchen culture responsible for turning out some of those very patties. Talking turds might seem silly, but maybe if we had accepted that our heroes shat, we wouldn’t have been so blind to the ways our world is shit.
And yet, at the same time, abstaining from potty talk is perfectly understandable. I don’t know about you, but my mental stability depends on the strenuous denial of the fact that my heart pumps, my lungs respire, and my colon houses billions of microorganisms who feast on the remnants of Italian sandwiches and pad thai, and that when any of these organs quit their function, I cease to be. Psychologists even have a name for how the fear of death shapes us: Terror Management Theory, also known by its more common moniker “getting through the fucking day.” We are animals. We eat, we shit, and then we die. And so we opt for obfuscation. God does the trick for some. For the rest of us, we eat.
JJ Goode helps people write cookbooks.
Tim Lahan is an artist and illustrator living and working in San Francisco.