I recently finished In the Kettle, the Shriek, a collection of poems by Hannah Stephenson, and was delighted to come across a poem called “Five Second Rule.” I do not have permission to reproduce the poem in full, but it starts like this:
I drop an almond, pick it up,
examining each side.
I blow on it a little and eat it.
The five second rule
stands, ensures that any fallen
food will remain
uncontaminated if it touches
the floor for no more
than five seconds. Germs need
longer to adequately
contaminate food, crawling
over like an alligator
to claim what you’ve dropped.
When I wrote about Levi-Strauss’s culinary triangle for The Smart Set and the dissertation chapter in which that essay originated, I mention the arbitrary cultural coding of the floor as a zone of the rotten. When perfectly good food hits the floor, it hasn’t gone bad, but since the floor is not a designated surface off of which it is culturally acceptable to eat food, dropped food often ends up in the trash. That is, unless we declare “5 second rule!” and scoop it up hastily, brushing off imaginary dirt; then we may eat it with a sheepish or mischievous air, since we know we are bending the rules. Stephenson’s exaggerated visual of germs creeping up at a ponderous alligator gait pokes fun at the inanity of this ritual. We can’t truly imagine that dirt and decay behave in this way, but then, we can’t truly believe that momentary contact with a floor can ruin food either. These are rules made for stretching.
In The Anatomy of Disgust, William Ian Miller claims that “Disgust for all its visceralness turns out to be one of our more aggressive culture-creating passions.” We do tend to think of disgust as an almost involuntary response and a bodily response: if something disgusts you, you very likely feel it immediately and in your gut. Yet the boundaries of what is disgusting are very much created, curated, and guarded by cultural custom. That’s what I love about Miller’s phrase “culture-creating passion”: think of how many of our food rules, even just table manners, exist to avoid disgust! Consider archaeological digs: when the fragments of a dead society are unearthed and we use them to tell a story about a lost culture, that story has so much to do with the practices of hiding or eliminating things that putrify or contaminate: the practices of bodily hygiene, of cooking, of taking care of the sick or dead. We think about our own practices less as culture and more as manners, and might not think about them at all unless someone departs from them, but these too exist as detours from the disgusting: the social niceties of sharing a meal with friends without, hopefully, grossing them out with the base mechanics of eating; the whole apparatus of utensils and dinnerware, to keep food reasonably removed from unclean surfaces and to shuttle it tidily to the mouth; even the arts of containing, plating, and portioning food so that it doesn’t run or ooze or resemble something too alive or too close to decay.
After the opening lines about the rescued almond, Stephenson opens up the five second rule to rhetorical investigation, asking her signature series of questionmark-less questions both to poke fun at the concept and to push it toward a larger meaning. “Less than five seconds,/ and we can rewind, can undo/ time, our fumbling.” she muses, and wonders “could/ we use this logic/ to reverse any misjudgment. . . ” Obviously not; as the poem winds down, it’s clear that five seconds wouldn’t undo the damage of words said in anger or actions instantly regretted. But the five second rule doesn’t even apply to food across the board: something hard and discrete, like an almond, you can probably rescue from the floor without disgusting too many onlookers; something moist, like meat or fruit, you’d probably want to rinse first or just leave for your pet; if you drop an ice cream cone on the ground, forget it. Like any choice, preference, or selection (in food matters or broadly speaking), the decision to bend this food rule is not an innate or instinctive action but a complex colaescence of culture, habit, and taste.