Can You Stomach Eyeballs?

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Anthony Bourdain was famous for eating almost anything put on his plate, as long as someone considered it edible. In one episode of his CNN series, “Parts Unknown,” he ate a seal, including the eyes, which his Inuit hosts consider a delicacy. His verdict: “Not bad.”

I have no disdain for Bourdain, but unlike the late global gourmand I have no stomach for eyeballs. Maybe it’s because, like many VMAIL readers, I spend so much time thinking about eye health and safety.

Yet eating eyes is common in some cultures. A quick web search turned up a number of articles about this culinary phenomenon.

In Chinese cuisine, for example, serving a whole fish is customary. In this Esquire article, “If You're Not Eating the Eyeballs, You're Missing the Tastiest Part of the Fish,”  author Maxine Wally, whose mother is Chinese, explains that the head and tail are left on for good luck and fortune. The most honorable guest, receives the eyeballs to eat. Here’s how she describes a family meal:

“After scooping the eye from the socket of whichever unlucky mackerel or sea bass that landed on our table, I'd hold it in my mouth and savor the gooey outer layer before biting into the crispy, wafer-like center, letting the rich umami flavor of the ocean floor dance across my tongue.”

Nancy Shute, a reporter for NPR’s The Salt, relates that people in Iceland and Norway eat boiled sheep's head. In her report “Eating Eyeballs: Taboo, Or Tasty?” she interviewed James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, who describes such a meal of svio, or boiled sheep's head. "You get half a sheep's head on your plate," Serpell told The Salt. "And you eat everything. Ears, eyes, nose—everything." He said the consistency of the eyeball is “quite offensive.”

Yet many cultures frown upon eating eyes. "Eyes represent faces, and it's through the face that we learn to recognize and empathize with others. So it's not entirely surprising that we find eyeballs disconcerting," Serpell told The Salt.

Wally concurs that eating eyeballs seems gross or barbaric to many people because, “The eyes are part of the face, which cradles the brain, the ultimate provider of identity; eyes are the windows into the soul.”

Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies human food choice and disgust, told Shute that when it comes to Americans, "people in our culture are disgusted by eating any non-muscle part of edible animals.” He noted, "Eyes may be special because it is so clear that they are an animal part, and they have some special significance for many people."

Yet lots of Americans will eat eyeballs… as long as they are the candy kind. Here’s an example of “Googly Eyes” candy that is readily available online.

Halloween is coming, so now’s the time to stock up on these ocular edibles.