On different kinds of bombs – Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker:
‘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.”’
‘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 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.’
‘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.’
‘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.”’
‘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.’
‘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.”’
‘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.’
‘The museum in Malmö has been mostly well received by tourists, but it also has numerous critics, who have accused it of cultural insensitivity and, in some cases, of outright racism. In 2018, the L.A. Times columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson argued that the museum reinforces prejudices by oversimplifying the customs of other countries and reducing their foods to clichés. A museum’s use of the word “disgusting” in its name implies an endorsement of the term, he wrote.
When I asked Ahrens about his use of the word “disgusting,” and whether he’d considered using a different name for the new museums, he nodded. “ ‘Disgusting’ is a controversial word, but if we used ‘unusual’ or ‘strange’ it’s just not the same,” he said.
“ ‘Disgusting’ calls attention to itself,” I said.
“Exactly,” he replied. “And we are a museum that relies on public support. That is how we survive.” As Peterson wrote, “The museum is trying to have it both ways—poking the bear, then backing away, hands raised innocently.” Even those who believe in the museum’s statement of purpose question whether it can be put into practice. The trouble with cultural institutions, Casey R. Kelly, the author of “Food Television and Otherness in the Age of Globalization,” said, is that those who run them can’t always control what’s being communicated. “On the one hand, the museum is introducing visitors to new foods,” he said, “but, on the other, there’s a cosmopolitan sanitization process at work,” in which foods are being stripped of their cultural context and then presented at a museum that keeps track of how many people they make vomit.’
‘Last spring, shortly after Donald Trump referred to covid-19 as the “China virus,” I received a Twitter message from a stranger. “Y’all Chinese ppl want eat bat soup & alive mice no wonder this coronavirus started y’all dirty asses eating shit wit rabies,” he wrote. “Get the fuck out the us go back to China with the rest of y’all eating animals alive ass family members.” This was also when photos of bats began arriving in my social-media in-boxes.
One afternoon, while I was talking on the phone at a grocery store, a passerby, hearing me speak Mandarin, hissed, “Nasty Chinese.” Another day, when I was riding the subway for the first time in months, a man called me a “disgusting Chink” over and over until he reached his station and left the car.
Something happens when you discover that you yourself are “disgusting.” It does not matter whether you believe it to be true. Shame and fear flood your body, as involuntarily as the disgust face, until a kind of self-disgust takes root. The origins of self-disgust have yet to be fully understood, but scientists speculate that the emotion likely arises from the internalization of others’ disgust. It is also a unique form of torture; to be perceived as repugnant is to live inside that repugnance, desperate to expel you from yourself.’
‘Perhaps this is what terrifies me the most about disgust: its ability to weaponize one’s gut in service of the outlandish. The idea that all Chinese carry the coronavirus because it could have originated from eating bats is risible. But covid’s invisibility has lent credence to the tribalist notion that disgusting-food-consuming Asians must surely be the ones who are carrying and spreading the virus.
If only nature were so straightforward. In food, funky smells raise an alarm that warns against ingestion; respiratory droplets expelled during a conversation with an asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus raise no such alarms. Disgust can’t protect us from this particular virus. If anything, it leaves us more vulnerable than we were before. Many people who contract the virus lose their senses of taste and smell. A friend of mine who got covid in March of 2020 can smell and taste again, but can no longer eat meat. “Hamburgers, ground turkey”—foods that were once staples of her diet—“it’s all become gross,” she told me. Pamela Dalton, an experimental psychologist who studies the interaction between emotion and odor perception, told me that many covid patients have reported a distortion of their senses of taste and smell while recovering from the virus, resulting in disgusting sensations. “The olfactory system is playing a protective role here,” Dalton said. “It’s not surprising that if parts of the system have gone awry due to covid the default setting is to turn tastes and smells unpleasant, so as to help us avoid high-risk foods.” Like meat.’
‘As I stood in my kitchen, a few minutes later, agonizing over what to do, I became aware of my hypocrisy: I was ready to eat the crabs when they were served by someone else, but I was too cowardly to do the killing myself. Still, if I left them in the bag on my kitchen floor, they would die, and I would have squandered Ying’s effort. Reluctantly, I dropped the crabs’ writhing bodies into a pot, covered it with a lid, and turned on the stove. Outside, two ambulances sped by, sirens blaring.
I poured vinegar and chopped ginger and tried to think about anything besides the crustaceans in my kettle. Egocentric pain. This was what evolutionary biologists would call my uneasiness. Our ability to empathize with animals is a function of their phylogenetic proximity to us; we can see the emotions of a dog much more clearly than those of a crab. And yet there was an unbearable scratching and scraping inside the pot—a mad scramble for life.
It occurred to me that what I felt was not disgust with the crabs or with the process but with myself, and what I had the power to do—or not to do. The doomed fight for survival is what the crabs and I had in common. Steam and the smell of the ocean had begun to fill my kitchen when the phone rang. It was Ying, and there was an impossible tenderness in her voice when she asked about the dinner: Had I cooked it yet?’
Read the article here.
If you find other people’s food disgusting, it’s much easier to find the people themselves also disgusting.
Nevertheless, often you can’t help yourself, you are overcome by disgust, whether you want it or not.
In 2017 I worked in several slaughterhouses for a series of articles, the only thing that I truly find disgusting was the place where they cleaned the intestines of the pigs. The smell was just too much. (Besides the fact that the act of killing of a bigger animal than let’s say a mosquito, even if you don’t do it yourself, even if you are just a bystander provokes a slight sense of alienation and of excitement.)
But above all remember: Crunchiness is a crucial factor in palatability.