One Culture’s Delicacy Is Another’s Punchline

Having had more than my fair share of delicacies that I did not find appetizing, the concept of this museum is not lost on me. I can laugh, even when the humor is problematic. But of all the museums in all the towns in all the world,  I doubt I will visit this one. After yesterday’s post, this article by Jiayang Fan seems particularly well-timed:

The Gatekeepers Who Get to Decide What Food Is “Disgusting”

At the Disgusting Food Museum, in Sweden, where visitors are served dishes such as fermented shark and stinky tofu, I felt both like a tourist and like one of the exhibits.

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.”

An Icelandic shark dish, called hákarl, was the first assault on his stomach. “Eating it was like gnawing on three-week-old cheese from the garbage that had also been pissed on by every dog in the neighborhood,” he said. Next up was durian, a spiky, custard-like fruit from Southeast Asia that “smelled like socks at the bottom of a gym locker, drizzled with paint thinner.” 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 Disgusting Food Museum, which opened in 2018, is the brainchild of Samuel West, a forty-seven-year-old psychologist who was born in California and has lived in Sweden for more than two decades. In 2016, during a trip to Zagreb, Croatia, he wandered into the Museum of Broken Relationships. As he studied the remnants of strangers’ failed romances—photos of hookup spots; a diet book that a woman received from her fiancé—West came up with an idea for a museum dedicated to failed business products and services. A year later, in Helsingborg, Sweden, he opened the Museum of Failure, where the takeaway was simple: blunders are the midwives of success. One example on display at the museum was the Newton, a personal digital assistant released by Apple in 1993. Its shoddy handwriting software and exorbitant price nearly torpedoed the entire company, but its sleek black design eventually inspired the iPhone. The exhibits also included Bic for Her, a line of pens, from 2011, that were designed for women; DivX, a 2003 trademark for “self-destructing” DVDs that could be watched for only forty-eight hours; a collection of Harley-Davidson perfumes, from the mid-nineties; and Trump: The Game, a Monopoly ripoff released in 1989. (The game was pulled from shelves after Trump said that it was “too complicated.”)

The Museum of Failure was a resounding commercial success, attracting visitors from across the world and attention from the Times, the Washington Post, and National Geographic. By 2018, though, West was on to his next project, after reading an article about how reducing beef consumption could slow climate change. The piece explained that a dire problem could be eased by a simple solution—eating insects, a good source of protein—but that the First World had rejected this idea out of disgust. West realized that if the experience of failure had expedited human innovation, then the experience of disgust was potentially holding us back. Could that aversion be challenged or changed? “I just wanted to know, Why is it that even talking about eating certain things makes my skin crawl?” he told me, animatedly, over Zoom.

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…

Read the whole story here.

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