I am reading a fascinating book which posits that we would all be better off if we had hookworms in our guts. Somehow, this would help prevent, or at least reduce the occurrence of, such diseases as diabetes, allergies, and Crohn’s Disease. In The Wild Life of Our Bodies, author Rob Dunn looks at how we’ve gotten rid of bacteria both harmful and helpful without distinction, and makes the case for some people who have introduced worms into their super-clean and sterilized American intestines, often with good results.
I am thinking about this as I watch Leah, an Iraqi girl, make a salad. Her mother has already cut lettuce in strips and added finely-cut cucumber and tomato, then drizzled it with olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of salt. Leah plunges her unwashed hands into the salad bowl to mix it. Then she touches a bit of lettuce to her tongue to taste the dressing. It’s okay, so she drops the lettuce back in to the bowl with the rest of the salad.
When I invited M and W over to try Mexican food for the first time, they ate guacamole with the serving spoon then put it back in the bowl. Their daughter takes the sugar spoon, takes a big bite, and puts it back in the sugar. I don’t throw it away later.
This is far beyond the double-dipping which is so decried at American parties. And it happens at every meal. Dishes are served in medium sized bowls, placed every 2 or 3 people, and you just take your spoon and dip it in the nearest bowl of yogurt or lamb/okra stew or hummous, take a bite, and then use the same spoon to take a bite of something else. No problems!
Fortunately I have lived overseas so this amuses me more than bothers me. In Mauritania, meals were served in a large common platter, and we all gathered round and scooped up the rice and meat with our hands or a bit of bread. When tea was served, you always had to have three rounds. It was the height of rudeness to leave after having had only one or two cups. The cups were always rinsed in between rounds, but the same water might be used between all 3 rounds, and certainly there was no soap involved.
I have written before on my view that America has become too regulated, in our attempt to control anything bad that could possibly happen to any of us, ever. (Click on these links; I really liked those posts) It’s strange to watch people fussing over small things like their kids (gasp!) sharing a coke, between a brother and sister; it feels false, like a silly thing to worry about when some people have real problems.
So, you are thinking, I am probably in total agreement with The Wild Life of Our Bodies? Um, no. Not entirely, although I should mention I am barely halfway through the book yet. (Do you read nonfiction more slowly than fiction? I do.) The problem is that I have had worms, and giardia, and other intestinal visitors, and they did not make me healthier. They made me miserable, albeit a bit thinner. And while it is true that none of us have allergies or Crohn’s, I have a friend who raised her son in the dirt-laden sands of Nouakchott and he nonetheless developed severe nut allergies.
The thing is, there will always be something. We have beat the odds overall as a civilization has developed; we are safer and live longer, in general, than at any other time in history. But this world is still broken, imperfect. We are not going to win. We’re still mortal, and just because we’ve beaten the flu and the measles, it’s not surprising that we are now at higher risk from allergies or autism. Even if we ingest hook-worms and that helps, we’re still at risk of a car accident, or random freak tsunami. The world is ultimately not controllable.
So I’m all for not fearing a few germs. I enjoy eating with my Iraqi friends and sharing all our colds and coughs with each other. I would even posit that I’m healthier than a lot of people, in spite of not currently having any parasites that I’m aware of. But I’m under no illusions. We’re not the ones in control.