Table for None: When Food Turns You Off
Posted October 30, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2018 7:13 p.m. EDT
MALMO, Sweden — The idea that anything labeled “food” can be described as “disgusting” is a minefield, running up against cultural tastes and personal preferences, not to mention the shrinking ability of some countries to feed all their people.
But clearly, if every human had a cornucopia of the world’s edibles laid out on a table stretching from one end of the earth to the next, not everyone would dig enthusiastically into, say, a lamprey pie, a sliver of maggot-infested pecorino or a chunk of rotten shark meat.
A basic human reaction would surface at some point: disgust. And that emotion is the basis for an unusual and controversial exhibition here in Malmo, in the south of Sweden.
“I want people to question what they find disgusting,” said Samuel West, the lead curator of the Disgusting Food Museum, a touring pop-up exhibition that opens on Wednesday.
Visitors will be invited to explore their notions of food through the lens of disgust, said West, an organizational psychologist, who hopes the museum will stimulate discussion and self-reflection.
“What’s interesting is that disgust is hard-wired biologically," West said this week over a restaurant lunch of cabbage pudding. “But you still have to learn from your surroundings what you should find disgusting.”
The idea for the exhibition was prompted, in part, by his concerns about the ecological impact of eating meat and his own environmental footprint. He said he hoped the exhibition would stimulate discussion about sustainable protein sources.
“We can’t continue the way we are now,” he said. “I was asking myself why don’t we eat insects when they are so cheap and sustainable to produce? The obstacle is disgust.”
When word of the exhibition broke, people in some countries were aghast that their favorite foods or treats were included.
“It’s interesting to see how everyone comes to the defense of their own food,” said Andreas Ahrens, the museum director. “People can’t believe that we take their favorite foods and put them in the museum.”
More than 80 items from 35 countries will be on display: Haggis, the Scottish delicacy made of offal and oatmeal, traditionally boiled in a bag made from a sheep’s stomach; Vegemite, the thick, black yeasty spread from Australia; and Spam, the pink-hued canned cooked pork product that U.S. troops introduced to the cuisine of the Pacific Islanders in the years following World War II, will be represented. So will dishes such as fruit bat soup from Guam, a maggot-infested cheese from Sardinia and a glass vat of Chinese mouse wine.
Visitors can sample items like root beer, sauerkraut juice and salty licorice. But if you’re not up for tasting tofu with a smell redolent of “stinky feet” and “baby poo,” or durian fruit (banned on planes and in some hotels) or hákarl, an Icelandic shark dish once described by chef Anthony Bourdain as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing,” you can get a sense of their taste by taking a whiff from a “smell jar.”
Ahrens said that to make it into the museum, foods had to be real and considered disgusting by many people.
“It is inherently a somewhat subjective thing to figure out what is disgusting,” he acknowledged.
He said a panel worked its way down a list of 250 foods based on four criteria: taste, smell, texture and background, the latter being how an animal is treated in the making of a dish, for example.
Pork, for example, scored low on taste, smell and texture on the “disgusting” scale, but high for background. Japanese natto — fermented soy beans — scored high for its slimy texture.
The factors that go into a feeling of disgust vary.
A combination of textures, as with the sight of many insects on one surface, can make people feel ill at ease.
“A crackling surface and soft dripping interior can often evoke disgust,” said Hakan Jonsson, a food anthropologist at Lund University in Sweden.
Seeing the way animals are treated in the preparation of food (displayed on video screens at the museum) can also inspire revulsion: geese being force-fed to make the French delicacy foie gras, fish served still flapping in Japan, or beating cobra hearts in Vietnam.
“Disgust is the result of a combination of biological and cultural factors,” Jonsson said. “And when it comes to food, it is most often impossible to define what is biology and what is culture. You can say that something is disgusting — but only from the individual’s point of view.”
While it is difficult to find something that is disgusting to everyone, there are foods that large groups of people uniformly find disgusting.
“Things that are particularly raw and also things that are really rotten — they are disgusting to most people,” he said.
Disgust is also mutable.
“We can change what we find disgusting,” said Rebecca Ribbing, a researcher working on the exhibition.
It has shifted in local cultures through the ages. She cited lobster as an illustration.
“In the 1600s, it was considered inhumane to feed lobster to prisoners more than twice a week,” Ribbing said (this is possibly because lobsters were so common at the time).
Fried tarantula became popular with Cambodians when food became scarce under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
This isn’t the first time West, 44, has explored hot-button issues through a museum. An innovation researcher who advises companies on how to become more successful, he opened a Museum of Failure in 2017 to examine why some gadgets end up in the junkyard of product history.
Since news of the food museum was announced, there have been many complaints on social media, Ahrens said. Australians are angry that Vegemite is included. Americans are shocked that root beer made the exhibition.
“I had the same reaction when we were talking about my favorites like pork and beef,” he said. “My initial reaction was that we can’t put this in here. When we talked about it, it was obvious that we had to have it in the museum because of the factory farming and the environmental impact.” The museum even includes what could be a sly nod to the host nation: Swedes’ preference for fermented Baltic Sea herring — surströmming — is noted in the museum, too.
The stench of surströmming (search online for “surströmming challenge” and you’ll get the idea) is so considered by some to be so putrid that a German judge ruled in favor of a landlord who evicted a tenant when he opened a can of the fish in the building’s stairwell.
Visitors can get a sense of their own expression of disgust by stepping into a photo booth and having their photo taken while the scent of surströmming is wafted in from a plastic tube toward the victim’s nose, West said.
If any of the items in this exhibition makes visitors want to throw up, the curators have thought of this, too. The ticket doubles as a sickness bag.
The Disgusting Food Museum opens Oct. 31 and runs through Jan. 27. Admission to the exhibition is 185 krona, or about $20.