August 1, 2021

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The View On Cooking

The Gatekeepers Who Get to Decide What Food Is “Disgusting”

15 min read

In the spring of 2019, Arthur De Meyer, a twenty-nine-year-old Belgian journalist, toured the Disgusting Food Museum, in Malmö, Sweden. As with the Museum of Sex, in New York City, and the Museum of Ice Cream, in San Francisco, the Disgusting Food Museum is conceptually closer to an amusement park than to a museum. There are eighty-five culinary horrors on display—ordinary fare and delicacies from thirty countries—and each tour concludes with a taste test of a dozen items. De Meyer, the son of a cookbook author and a food photographer, told me that he’d always been an adventurous eater. As a reporter, he also prided himself on his ability to maintain his composure. “But the taste test was war,” he said. “The kind where you’re defenseless, because the bombs are going off invisibly, inside of you.”

An Icelandic shark dish, called hákarl, was the first assault on his stomach. “Eating it was like gnawing on three-week-old cheese from the garbage that had also been pissed on by every dog in the neighborhood,” he said. Next up was durian, a spiky, custard-like fruit from Southeast Asia that “smelled like socks at the bottom of a gym locker, drizzled with paint thinner.” But worst of all was surströmming, a fermented herring that is beloved in northern Sweden. De Meyer said that eating it was like taking a bite out of a corpse.

He vomited ten times, topping the museum’s previous record of six. Mercifully, admission tickets are printed on airplane-style barf bags.

The Disgusting Food Museum, which opened in 2018, is the brainchild of Samuel West, a forty-seven-year-old psychologist who was born in California and has lived in Sweden for more than two decades. In 2016, during a trip to Zagreb, Croatia, he wandered into the Museum of Broken Relationships. As he studied the remnants of strangers’ failed romances—photos of hookup spots; a diet book that a woman received from her fiancé—West came up with an idea for a museum dedicated to failed business products and services. A year later, in Helsingborg, Sweden, he opened the Museum of Failure, where the takeaway was simple: blunders are the midwives of success. One example on display at the museum was the Newton, a personal digital assistant released by Apple in 1993. Its shoddy handwriting software and exorbitant price nearly torpedoed the entire company, but its sleek black design eventually inspired the iPhone. The exhibits also included Bic for Her, a line of pens, from 2011, that were designed for women; DivX, a 2003 trademark for “self-destructing” DVDs that could be watched for only forty-eight hours; a collection of Harley-Davidson perfumes, from the mid-nineties; and Trump: The Game, a Monopoly ripoff released in 1989. (The game was pulled from shelves after Trump said that it was “too complicated.”)

The Museum of Failure was a resounding commercial success, attracting visitors from across the world and attention from the Times, the Washington Post, and National Geographic. By 2018, though, West was on to his next project, after reading an article about how reducing beef consumption could slow climate change. The piece explained that a dire problem could be eased by a simple solution—eating insects, a good source of protein—but that the First World had rejected this idea out of disgust. West realized that if the experience of failure had expedited human innovation, then the experience of disgust was potentially holding us back. Could that aversion be challenged or changed? “I just wanted to know, Why is it that even talking about eating certain things makes my skin crawl?” he told me, animatedly, over Zoom.

The planning for the museum began with a more basic question: What counts as food? West recruited his friend Andreas Ahrens, a former I.T. entrepreneur and a foodie, to help him choose which items would qualify for exhibition. The men ruled out artificially flavored gag gifts—such as Rocket Fizz’s barf soda and Jelly Belly’s booger jelly beans—and novelty foods like deep-fried Oreos and a Polish beer that had been brewed with a woman’s vaginal yeast. Four hundred items made it through the initial screening, after which they were culled based on four criteria: taste, texture, smell, and the process by which they were made. Foie gras “failed” the taste, texture, and smell tests, which is to say that West and Ahrens found it inoffensive on those fronts. But the dish, which is typically produced by force-feeding ducks until their livers swell to ten times their normal size, easily passed the process test, earning itself a place at the museum. (According to Ahrens, many visitors, after reading about the process, swear to never eat foie gras again.) The winnowing of the foods was spirited and combative. West emerged as the bigger wimp; he threw up so many times that he lost count. Ahrens found plenty of the foods unpleasant, but he got sick only after tasting balut, a Filipino egg-fetus snack that is eaten straight from the shell—feathers, beak, blood, and all.

After the men chose the items, they had to contend with customs and transportation. Svið, a traditional Icelandic dish in which a sheep’s head is cut in half and boiled, was impossible to procure, for “logistical reasons,” Ahrens said. The food is instead represented by a photo of the head next to helpings of mashed potatoes and pureed root vegetables. The same goes for ortolan, a nearly extinct French songbird, which is prepared by blinding the bird and then drowning it in brandy, a practice that is now banned in the European Union. Raw monkey brain, which was supposedly served at Chinese imperial banquets, is represented by a type of wooden table that would have been used to hold down a live monkey while the top of its head was sliced open and spooned out. (“It is unclear whether it’s an urban legend, or something that’s still being served in China,” an accompanying sign says.)

Even the foods that appear at the museum in their real forms posed unusual difficulties. To make cuy, a Peruvian dish, West had to watch several YouTube videos on how to skin and boil a guinea pig. “I sent my wife and children away the day I did it,” he recalled. “It just felt wrong, bordering on criminal.” For a South Korean wine that demanded the “fresh turds” of children, Ahrens found himself scooping up his eight-year-old daughter’s excrement and fermenting it with rice wine. The final product is on display at the museum, in a gallon jug, though Ahrens has not mustered the will to try it.

On Tripadvisor, the Disgusting Food Museum is ranked No. 1 on a list of ninety-four things to do in Malmö, the third-largest city in Sweden. Visitors are often surprised to find that the museum is situated on the first floor of a shopping mall, between a furniture store and an art gallery. Daniela Nusfelean, a Romanian college student who visited the museum in January, said that one of the first things she noticed was the absence of any odor. “This place is supposed to have so much food,” Nusfelean remembered thinking. “How can food not smell?”

The stinkier items are secured under bell jars, Ahrens, the museum’s director, said, when he gave me a tour over Zoom, earlier this year. Most foods, such as kale pache—an Iranian soup made from a sheep’s head and hooves, which are boiled overnight to eliminate any smells—were displayed in bowls or pots that sat atop a series of white tables, illuminated by long-necked lamps. (Some of the foods are made fresh every week; others, like the poop wine, have a lengthy shelf life.) The museum, whose walls were bright and bare, looked as sterile as a science lab, until Ahrens, who wore a T-shirt that bore the museum’s logo and the word “Yuck!,” gestured to a chalkboard that read “2 days since last vomit.” “This is the scoreboard,” he said, grinning.

We went on to the exhibits, each of which was accompanied by a placard that, in English and Swedish, noted a dish’s history and its country of origin. First stop: dried stinkbugs from Zimbabwe, which vaguely resembled the buds of microgreen sprouts. Then there was kungu cake (East Africa), a dessert made from millions of crushed flies; fried locusts (Israel), the only insect that the Torah considers kosher; frog juice (Peru), a frothy green beverage containing frogs and quail eggs; and mouse wine (China), a jug of rice wine infused with two hundred baby rodents.

“Gee, I dunno. What do you feel safe going out and doing?”
Cartoon by William Haefeli

Eventually, Ahrens led me to a Warhol-esque wall of yellow and red cans. “Our most popular selfie destination,” he said, adding that the cans, which were full of surströmming, the fermented herring, had induced more vomiting than any other item in the museum. (“Surströmming is one of the worst smelling foods in the world,” a placard read.) The exhibit featured a smell jar, inviting visitors to lift the lid and to take a sniff. Before the pandemic, one of the highlights of the museum was a photo booth that sprayed jet streams of various scents—durian, stinky tofu (a fermented bean-curd dish)—and captured visitors’ facial expressions as they inhaled. “Instagram,” Ahrens explained.

The term “disgust” entered the English language more than four hundred years ago, from the Old French word desgouster, meaning “to put off one’s appetite.” But disgust wasn’t considered worthy of scientific examination until 1872, when Charles Darwin defined it as a reaction to “something revolting, primarily in relation to the sense of taste . . . and secondarily to anything which causes a similar feeling, through the sense of smell, touch and even of eyesight.” Darwin theorized that disgust is a basic human emotion—like anger, fear, or sadness—and that it is expressed with a universal “disgust face.” If you are presented with a glass of sour milk, you will almost certainly scrunch up your nose, purse your lips, and blow out air between them, making an “ack” or “ugh” sound through clenched teeth. If you are forced to drink the milk, you might open your mouth wide, tense your brows, and retract your upper lip to decrease inhalation, pinching your features into the likeness of the vomit-face emoji (all of which is often a precursor to the act itself).

There is a reason that we find certain foods offensive. A prehistoric human who scarfed down decomposing meat or bacteria-ridden feces wouldn’t have lived long. “Life would have been simpler if we were koala bears,” Daniel Fessler, an evolutionary anthropologist at U.C.L.A., told me. Koala bears eat only eucalyptus leaves, so there isn’t a lot of hand-wringing about what’s for dinner. But humans have made it a lot further in life than koalas, in large part because of our diet. Eating meat has allowed our digestive tracts to shrink and our brains to grow in outsized proportion to our bodies, because the animals we consume have already extracted the nutrients we need. Meat consumption, however, has also entangled our species in the omnivore’s dilemma: we must be flexible enough to consume a variegated diet, yet wary enough of novelty to avoid accidental death.

Evolutionary psychologists often cite the Swiss Army knife as an analogy for the mind, because both have all-purpose tools designed to cope with an unpredictable world. Disgust is simply one blade of many. If the blade is kept sharp, it helps you avoid disease, but if it becomes too sharp you might not ingest enough calories. “Evolution has optimized this trade-off so that priority is placed on the more urgent goal,” Fessler said. If you’re starving, then the blade is dulled: you may be more likely to eat something that you’d otherwise find disgusting, such as rotting leftovers. (As Cervantes wrote in “Don Quixote,” “Hunger is the best sauce.”) “The key point here is that people do not need to make conscious decisions about these trade-offs,” Fessler said. Evolved psychological mechanisms do the work.

Disgust may have originated as a food-rejection system, Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told me, “but it has expanded into a vehicle for perceiving the social and moral world.” Rozin is the pioneer of a subfield called disgust studies. His favorite experiment involves dropping a cockroach into a glass of juice. Most people, of course, refuse to drink the juice, citing the dirtiness of cockroaches. “What’s amazing is that even if you disinfect the cockroach and convincingly demonstrate that the juice is harmless, people still won’t want to drink it,” Rozin said. The juice has been irrevocably contaminated.

The concept of contamination is one example of how biology maps onto cultural systems. Both Islam and Judaism forbid the consumption of pork; many cultures avoid other kinds of meat. These taboos may have been provoked by disgust (pigs are thought to be unclean, raw meat tends to be slimy and unappetizing, and both can cause disease if prepared incorrectly), but disgust can also be perpetuated by taboos. Lebanese Christians are technically allowed to eat pork, but many of them abstain, owing to the influence of their pork-avoidant neighbors in the Muslim-majority country.

Like a regional dialect or a style of dress, most food taboos advertise and affirm membership within a group. Humans evolved in tribes, and food taboos helped to define coalitions. In a Hobbesian past, a cohesive tribe would have had a better chance of domination. Chimps know this just as well as high-school cliques do. A show of strength intimidates the loners—by making them feel like losers. It’s not an accident that minorities with unfamiliar customs can pique our suspicion, Mark Schaller, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, told me. Our behavioral immune system, much like our biological immune system, is meant to detect danger. But it can go into overdrive. Schaller compared it to a smoke detector. “It’s designed to be hypersensitive for a reason,” he said. “In the wild, it’s O.K. to make small errors by overestimating a threat, but, if you underestimate, you are dead.”

When I was a child in Chongqing, in the nineteen-eighties, food forged the rules and the language of existence. To be fed was to be loved, and to live was to taste the world. (In Chinese, the character for “life” contains the component word “tongue.”) I grew up on an Army compound—my mother was in the military—and the adults I knew had a habit of pinching the round bums of young children, appraising them as “great juicy cuts of meat for dumplings.” Many of those adults, my father included, had lived through the worst famine in history, during which some villagers had cannibalized one another. When I wondered, at the age of four, if human flesh tasted like pork, it did not occur to me that the thought might be disgusting.

As a young Army recruit, my mother ate the rats that scurried outside the granary she guarded, and for years she ate kernels of rice that she found on the ground—something I was told by other adults never to do. To be the first member of my family spared the pangs of hunger was to live through an epochal transition that felt like cultural transformation. Still, the threat of deprivation hung over our lives like the dangling carcasses in the village wet markets.

At those markets, my mother traded her extra grain coupons—which she began to receive after becoming an Army doctor—for eggs, an expensive protein in the hierarchy of foods. Shortly before I began first grade, my mother stopped feeding me the rice porridge and the pickles that she and my grandmother ate every morning and started me on a special breakfast of what she called “brain foods”: a warm, viscous puddle of milk, bobbing with chunks of raw egg yolk. My Swiss Army knife was already being honed. Disgust welled up in me, but it contended with other blades that were necessary for survival: the shame of ingratitude, and the fear of disobedience. I ate the brain foods every morning for two interminable years.

Even so, disgust did not leave a lasting mark on my psyche until 1992, when, at the age of eight, on a flight to America with my mother, I was served the first non-Chinese meal of my life. In a tinfoil-covered tray was what looked like a pile of dumplings, except that they were square. I picked one up and took a bite, expecting it to be filled with meat, and discovered a gooey, creamy substance inside. Surely this was a dessert. Why else would the squares be swimming in a thick white sauce? I was grossed out, but ate the whole meal, because I had never been permitted to do otherwise. For weeks afterward, the taste festered in my thoughts, goading my gag reflex. Years later, I learned that those curious squares were called cheese ravioli.

Olives were another mystery. In Chongqing, I had been introduced to them as a fig-like snack, dried or cured, that had a sweet-tart kick. In the U.S., I placed a dark-green drop onto my tongue and, for the first time in my life, spat something out of my mouth and into my palm. Salty and greasy weren’t what I was expecting, and my reaction was born as much of disgust as it was of having been deceived.

To be a new immigrant is to be trapped in a disgusting-food museum, confused by the unfamiliar and unsettled by the familiar-looking. The firm, crumbly white blocks that you mistake for tofu are called feta. The vanilla icing that tastes spoiled is served on top of potatoes and is called sour cream. At a certain point, the trickery of food starts to become mundane. Disgusting foods become regulars in the cafeteria, and at the dinner table.

Recently, I joined a few Asian-American friends at a restaurant in Queens to have hot pot, a fondue-like communal meal in which ingredients are dipped in a shared pot of boiling broth at the center of the table. By the time I arrived, bowls of sliced pig arteries, pig intestines, cow stomach, duck feet, and pale-pink brains of unidentified provenance already sat around a burbling vat of broth, spices, and chili oil. All of these would have made it into a Westerner’s encyclopedia of disgusting foods, but everyone at the table knew that the gusto with which we consumed the entrails and viscera connected us.

I asked my companions if they’d had any memorable encounters with disgusting food. Nearly all of them named dairy products that they had tried for the first time in the United States. A Chengdu native recalled the chalky taste of a protein shake, making the classic disgust face as she spoke. “The first time I had pizza was bad,” Alex, a forty-year-old network engineer, said. It was margherita pizza, and he thought that the little white splotches of melted burrata were fresh vomit. “I couldn’t believe that there were people who ate this regularly,” he continued. “But Americans told me this was a very common food here.” He bit into the muscled leg of a bullfrog.

“And?” I asked.

“And I just learned to get used to it.”

I had had almost the exact same experience with a Sicilian slice some three decades before. Assimilating requires you to adopt a foreign tongue, in more ways than one. But when the choice is between annihilation and assimilation, you assimilate. This was as true for prehistoric humans as it is for a young, deracinated Chinese immigrant in America. One of the wonders of the tongue is its sheer malleability. New tastes are acquired and seamlessly incorporated into the tapestry of one’s gastronomic predilections. I don’t remember the exact moment when I began relishing Western olives, but the change felt natural; with each new experience, the tapestry is rewoven.

Shortly before my virtual tour of the Disgusting Food Museum, I had received a temperature-controlled package in the mail. It contained goat-stomach cheese, fermented shark, surströmming, and several other items from the museum’s taste test. I arranged the food in small saucers around my laptop and launched Zoom, where Andreas Ahrens was waiting for me. Before I dug in, he suggested I check that the items had made it through their transatlantic journey O.K. “Maybe smell them just to make sure they haven’t gone bad,” he said. But, wait, I said, weren’t most of them supposed to smell bad? He laughed. “Good luck, then.”

I opened a pouch of German sauerkraut juice. Its putrid gray color reminded me of stagnant gutter water. By way of encouragement, Ahrens said, “Very few people try nothing. Most try more than they thought they would.” I had skipped lunch to prepare for the taste test, and by then my stomach was growling so loudly that I felt obliged to apologize to the screen.

“Today’s speaker has written a colorful tell-all memoir about his life as a pollinator.”
Cartoon by Edward Koren

The juice tasted cool and refreshing—a blend of pickles and kimchi. Next was bagoong, a Filipino fermented shrimp, which tasted so much like a beloved Chinese fish sauce that I was tempted to spoon it over some leftover rice. Things started getting real with hákarl, the Icelandic shark. My head cocked back at the taste of ammonia, but the chewy texture reminded me pleasantly of squid. I moved on to the insects, beginning with grasshoppers from Oaxaca, Mexico, which had been marinated with dried chilies. They were delicious—crispy, sour, and spicy, like lime-tossed tortilla chips. A bag of dehydrated mixed bugs contained mole crickets and sago worms. The hardest part was knowing that you were eating something that you last saw crawling on the bathroom floor. Crunchiness, I discovered, was a crucial factor in palatability; the crickets could have passed for salty granola. The worms, which looked like deformed prunes, were denser and nuttier. Everything tasted considerably better than it looked.

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