Welcome to the world’s first exhibition devoted to foods that some would call revolting. The museum’s name and its contents are pretty controversial — one culture’s disgusting is another culture’s delicacy. That goes for escamoles, the tree-ant larvae eaten in Mexico, or shirako, the cod sperm eaten in Japan, or bird’s nest soup, a Chinese dish of nests made from bird saliva. The name is meant to grab visitors’ attention, but that’s the point that West says he’s trying to make: Disgust is a cultural construct.
“I want people to question what they find disgusting and realize that disgust is always in the eye of the beholder,” said West. “We usually find things we’re not familiar with disgusting, versus things that we grow up with and are familiar with are not disgusting, regardless of what it is.”
For example: Though the museum is in Sweden, he includes surströmming, an incredibly pungent fermented Swedish herring, and salt licorice, which is found throughout the Nordic nations.
“We try to treat everybody the same, and that’s what I thought was interesting when we were working on it — directing that lens back toward us,” said West. That includes his other nationality, too: He is half-American, and includes American foods others might think are gross. Those include such classic processed foods as Spam, Twinkies, root beer (“If you give root beer to a European, they’re gonna spit it out and say ‘This tastes like toothpaste, it’s disgusting'”), Jell-O salad with pasta in it and Pop-Tarts. Another North American delicacy that made the cut is Rocky Mountain oysters — a.k.a. bull testicles.
But even if West hopes to redefine people’s cultural notions of disgust, the name of his museum is likely to cause trouble. Calling any food — but especially food from people of color — “disgusting” is othering, and perpetuates the false notion that they don’t deserve respect. While the goal of the museum is to help people understand other cultures, it’s possible that for some, the takeaway will just be: “Dog meat! Yuck!”
Even as people become more adventurous eaters in the United States, there’s still a lot of shame — and shaming — associated with foreign foods. When Philippine food first became trendy, chefs told The Post about their feelings of hiya, or shame, about the duck embryos, pig’s blood, shrimp paste and other ingredients that proved challenging as American immigrants. Bon Appetit was roasted for publishing an essay that hinged on the thesis that matcha, spirulina and turmeric — three ingredients found widely in Asian cooking — “taste like dirt.” And when immigrant cuisines become trendy, the white chefs who adopt them will often say they are “refining” a cuisine or dish from another culture — a loaded word that suggests the food needed a classically trained chef to make it acceptable.
West says he’s trying to keep it equal and not let his own cultural biases affect the museum’s selections. Of the approximately 80 displays in the museum, an equal number are from Asia as from Europe, and there are more entries from the United States than from Central and South America, Africa and Australia. But there are more foods from China than from any other country, followed by the United States. France is well represented, too.
Disgust isn’t just about flavor or smell, though. It’s also about the way the food is produced — particularly in regards to animal welfare. Throughout, you’ll find exhibits dedicated to foods that might taste pretty good, but are made possible only by an animal’s extreme suffering.
“The emotion of disgust is something that’s primarily evolutionary. It’s to protect us from toxic food,” said West. “We humans have taken disgust and applied it in different areas of life, like morals.”
Those include French foie gras, which requires force-feeding ducks, and monkey brain, which has been recorded as being eaten while the animal is still alive in China. Two exhibits describe food that is made by drowning animals: Chinese mouse wine, which involves brewing baby mice in wine, and the ortolan, a French dish that involves drowning a songbird in brandy, cooking it and eating it whole — traditionally with a napkin over one’s face, to hide your shame from God. And then there’s U.S. factory farming, represented by a statue of a pig with syringes stuck in it. There are only two exhibits that involve live animals: locusts, which are eaten in Israel, and maggots, which are in casu marzu, a Sardinian cheese.
West hopes that the museum will help people from those cultures rethink what is normal and what is a delicacy. He also hopes that it could encourage people to try more environmentally sustainable sources of protein — cutting back on meat, especially beef and pork, and eating smaller animals or insects instead.
“Is it really that disgusting to eat a grasshopper or locust when you eat bacon? Or is it really disgusting to eat guinea pigs when you eat regular beef?” said West.
Guests might get the chance to try some of those insect dishes, as well as a rotation of other samples that will be available each day. Those might include hákarl, a putrid shark meat dish from Iceland that the late Anthony Bourdain said was one of the worst things he had ever tasted. Or it could be durian, a fruit so smelly that it’s banned from many enclosed public spaces throughout Asia. Or maybe some of that salt licorice, a candy with a taste “described as intense ammonium and stinging pain,” according to the museum’s wall text. Or maybe an assortment of the world’s smelliest cheeses. The museum puts fresh food on display, using plastic models or photographs only for things that are extremely hard to source, or foods that result from animal cruelty. So yes, that bull penis — a Chinese dish that is eaten as an aphrodisiac — is real. Some dishes that aren’t available for tasting will be offered in glass jars for visitors to smell.
Groups can even reserve a special tasting experience. West is playing with the idea of making it a “Fear Factor”-style competition: “We split them into smaller groups and then the groups get to compete against each other,” eating more and more challenging dishes of “escalating disgust,” said West. “In this game, there’s no winners, only losers.”
West, who is also known for his Museum of Failure, has tried about half of the foods on display in the Digusting Food Museum and says he would try anything, except for the ones that involve animal cruelty. The one that disgusted him the most, he says, was balut, the Philippine delicacy of a boiled fertilized duck egg. People drink the amniotic fluid and eat the partially developed duck fetus whole, beak and all. He did what he anticipates some of the visitors to his museum will do: “I vomited.”
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