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The Disgusting Food Museum
Back to July-August 2019
The disgusting food Museum in Malmö, Sweden, features the usual suspects: fermented shark, durian and surströmming (fermented herring). It also includes a few more esoteric items, such as fruit bats and casu marzu, the maggot-infested cheese from Sardinia. And, in a bit of theater, the tickets are printed on vomit bags.
What is more surprising, however, is the inclusion of root beer, a drink roundly despised in Europe, where locals consider it to taste like mouthwash. The obvious message is that disgust is relative.
That brings me to the question of whether all cooking is culturally relative. Or is there some ground on which we can establish a handful of culinary truths? I have tasted my share of “disgusting” foods. I had roasted guinea pig in Ecuador. It was gristly, greasy and lean and did not measure up to even a below-average steak from a basic Paris bistro. But, I had to conclude, the dish is plenty popular in its native culture, so chalk up one for relativity.
A couple years ago at Milk Street, we opened a can of surströmming, the fermented herring that is popular in Sweden. We had to clear the office and open the doors to the street. Only later did I discover that surströmming should be opened under water to contain the stench. One source points out that it tastes best with friends. In other words, sharing the experience, like sharing trauma, brings people closer together. Yet, I can imagine that if one gets beyond the opening gambit, a bit of surströmming with boiled potatoes, diced onion, sour cream and fresh dill might, at least to a Swede, hit the spot.
I have not tasted fruit bat, but I have eaten plenty of less dramatic food items beloved in other cultures, from chicken feet and sheep brains to dried grasshoppers and fish eyes served in a stew in a small fishing village in Tobago back in the 1980s. (The highly prized eyes were offered to the guests, though I wonder to this day if it was simply some form of local practical joke.)
My first encounter with durian was not a success. The fruit, in fact, did taste exactly the way it smelled, like a septic tank. However, there are over 20 species of durian, many of which are quite tasty. Even Samuel West, curator of the Disgusting Food Museum, told me that after cutting up durian every day for months for the exhibit, he started to quite like it.
So, is the love of food strictly a measure of familiarity? Let me put a stake in the ground and claim that a fermented shark sandwich, born out of necessity in a challenging culinary landscape, doesn’t hold a candle to a plate of Sicilian bucatini served with cherry tomatoes, pistachios and lemon zest. Give any Icelander a menu with those two options and I am confident which they would choose.
In a moral universe, one might claim that culinary universe, do similar rules apply? The answer depends on the ultimate meaning of food and cooking. If it is about one’s relationship to others and one’s cultural heritage, then everything in the kitchen is relative. If food on a plate can be experienced without context, then some foods are inherently tastier than others. A perfectly fresh piece of halibut cooked by Eric Ripert at New York’s Le Bernardin is more appealing than a chunk of fermented herring from a can of surströmming. Yet, and this is the point, if the latter is consumed on a small island off Stockholm during summer solstice with beer and friends, well, there you have it. Context wins the day.
That leads me to think that the search for absolutes in the culinary arts is self-defeating. I think that these absolutely do exist. Cooking is, in part, a science, and therefore subject to the rules of chemistry and physics. But the pure joy of cooking and of opening one’s table to the world trumps the science of conduction, convection and radiation. Cooking is not just food on the plate. One has to ask which plate, who is cooking and, of course, who are the happy guests at the table?July-August 2019