Swedes make an art of disgusting food
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 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 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 last 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.”