Rot­ting fish, mag­gots, mice wine and — root beer? — on menu at Dis­gust­ing Food Mu­seum


Sheep eye­ball juice. Bull tes­ti­cles. Mag­got-in­fested cheese. Amer­i­can root beer. Th­ese are among the items con­sid­ered palat­able or even re­garded as del­i­ca­cies in some cul­tures that the Dis­gust­ing Food Mu­seum in Malmo, Swe­den, is serv­ing up. The tem­po­rary mu­seum, which opened Oct. 31, clearly braced for re­volted vis­i­tors to gag at the foods on dis­play, most of which can be smelled or tasted. Tick­ets came in the form of vomit bags. Cu­ra­tor Sa­muel West said the ex­hi­bi­tion is meant to en­ter­tain, but also to con­vey a thought-pro­vok­ing mes­sage: what is con­sid­ered ap­pe­tiz­ing or re­pul­sive is learned and can change. He hopes vis­i­tors will be en­cour­aged to try more sus­tain­able food prod­ucts that are be­ing de­vel­oped or mar­keted, like in­sects and lab-grown meat. “Dis­gust is one of the six fun­da­men­tal hu­man emo­tions, and the evo­lu­tion­ary func­tion of dis­gust is to help us to avoid foods that might be dan­ger­ous, that are con­tam­i­nated, toxic, gone off,” West said. “Dis­gust is hard­wired as an emo­tion but what we find dis­gust­ing is cul­tur­ally learned.” The idea of ex­plor­ing gross food came to him with aware­ness that the “sin­gle most im­pact­ful way we can im­pact the en­vi­ron­ment is by eat­ing less meat,” he said. “It’s an ex­hi­bi­tion that asks vis­i­tors to chal­lenge their no­tions of what is dis­gust­ing and what is de­li­cious, and the aim is to get peo­ple to un­der­stand there is no ob­jec­tive mea­sure of dis­gust,” West said. “For some, the rev­e­la­tion might be that ‘maybe in­sects aren’t as dis­gust­ing as I thought.’ ”

The 80 food items in the mu­seum’s ex­hibit in­clude a bull’s pe­nis, frog smooth­ies from Peru, a wine made of baby mice that is con­sumed in China and Korea, and Swe­den’s “surstrom­ming,” an in­fa­mously pu­trid fer­mented her­ring. Vis­i­tors are also in­tro­duced to “ba­lut,” par­tially de­vel­oped duck fe­tuses that are boiled in­side the egg and eaten straight from the shell in the Philip­pines, as well as “casu marzu,” a Sar­dinian pecorino cheese in­fested by mag­gots. Also in­cluded are items many West­ern vis­i­tors might not con­sider dis­gust­ing at all. Swedish vis­i­tors are sur­prised to find salty licorice, pop­u­lar in Swe­den but per­ceived as dis­gust­ing to many oth­ers.

Amer­i­can foods on dis­play in­clude Jell-O salad, made of gelatin and typ­i­cally fruit; canned pork brains with milk gravy; and root beer, a sweet soft drink that Swedes say tastes like tooth­paste. “I think that by turn­ing the lens onto our­selves, on Swedish or Amer­i­can food cul­ture, we are say­ing, ‘ We treat ev­ery­one the same,’ ” West said.

West said he has man­aged only to sam­ple about half of the more ex­otic col­lected con­sum­ables. Asked if he ever vom­ited while pre­par­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion, he said, “Ev­ery day.”

Some of the del­i­ca­cies are so smelly they are kept in glass jars. At a mu­seum pre­view last week, peo­ple took ten­ta­tive sniffs of the dis­plays be­fore re­coil­ing with gri­maces. “Real food in the mu­seum set­ting can be a prob­lem,” said An­dreas Ahrens, mu­seum di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor.

“You have to change things pretty reg­u­larly. You have to make sure that it doesn’t start to rot.” Or as West put it: “You can’t leave bull tes­ti­cles out for too long.” West, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and re­searcher from Cal­i­for­nia, was also the cre­ator of the Mu­seum of Fail­ure, a suc­cess­ful show­case of prod­ucts that failed with con­sumers. It also opened in Swe­den and will be shown soon in Shang­hai. Hakan Jon­s­son, a Lund Univer­sity eth­nol­ogy pro­fes­sor who helped with re­search for the ex­hi­bi­tion, said no­tions of what peo­ple find de­li­cious and dis­gust­ing are al­ready chang­ing.

“A lot of big groups in (the) West­ern world are all of a sud­den think­ing, ‘Meat has be­come dis­gust­ing, some­thing that I could never put into my mouth,’ ” he said. “And that is some­thing quite new in the his­tory here, where some­thing con­sid­ered as be­ing nor­mal, and pres­ti­gious, be­ing the thing that you were aim­ing for Sun­day, and all of a sud­den that had be­come a mat­ter of dis­gust for many peo­ple.” The Dis­gust­ing Food Mu­seum is sched­uled to run un­til Jan. 27 at the Slagth­uset MMX in Malmo. Mu­seum or­ga­niz­ers said the mu­seum shop of­fers a se­lec­tion of “un­usual” drinks and snacks and prom­ise a restau­rant op­er­at­ing in the build­ing is “not dis­gust­ing.”


The Dis­gust­ing Food Mu­seum in Malmo, Swe­den, in­cludes a con­tainer of mice wine where baby mice are brewed in rice wine for up to a year be­fore it is con­sumed.

Cen­tury eggs are put in clay, quick­lime, ash, salt and rice hulls for months un­til the egg white turns into black jelly, and the yolk be­comes a green-grey slime.

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