The Disgusting Food Museum’s curator on the irrational psychology of disgust

At the Disgusting Food Museum, which opens in Malmo, Sweden, at the end of this month, you can — as the name suggests — experience “80 of the world’s most disgusting foods.” There will be casu marzu (maggot-infested pecorino cheese from Sardinia) and the fermented shark meat that is Iceland’s national dish. There will be balut, a hardboiled fertilized duck egg that’s eaten as street food in the Philippines. There will be root beer — as in, you know, root beer — which is widely considered disgusting outside of the United States.

Root beer’s mixed global reputation was news to me, but then, that is the point of the museum. Samuel West, an organizational psychologist and the mastermind of the project, wants people to think about what disgusts them, and why.

It’s easy to read the museum as a culturally insensitive house of culinary horrorspeople (who are not me) in places (that are not here) eat that? And sure, there’s not not a gross-out factor, as evidenced by the name. But West told me the actual mission is the opposite: By really diving into the world of disgust, he’s hoping he can change the way people eat, and maybe save the world. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Sugar

What led you to start a museum about “disgusting” foods?

Samuel West

A little more than a year ago, I started the Museum of Failure, which has been ridiculously successful, highlighting the importance of accepting failure for progress. It was such an awesomely good way to start stimulating discussions about a theme I thought was important.

I’m not a vegetarian, I’m not a vegan, I’m not an environmentalist per se, but I just I feel like I’m not doing enough — or doing anything for that matter — to … I hate to say “save the planet,” but to do something that’s meaningful for an environmental cause. I read an article about how the single most powerful impact we can have on the environment is if we eat less meat. If we would eat less meat, it would have a greater impact on the environment and global warming than all the transport sectors put together. I consider myself aware and up to date, but I was shocked at how unsustainable the meat industry is.

New, environmentally friendly foods like insects and, further down the road, lab-grown meat, could be an option, but we’re still disgusted by these things. So I started thinking about whether I could use my newfound insights and experiences with exhibits to create something that would have an impact on people who wouldn’t identify as an environmentalist, or even a foodie, per se.

If I were to create an exhibit called “Meat Is Bad, You Should Eat Insects Instead, Shame on You,” nothing would happen. It would have no effect whatsoever. But disgust is something we can all relate to. We’re fascinated by it; I’m fascinated by it. It’s a vehicle to communicate what I really want to communicate with the exhibit.

Rachel Sugar

Why do people find certain foods disgusting but other foods — sometimes very similar foods — not disgusting?

Samuel West

Disgust is one of the six fundamental human emotions. It’s a universal emotion; it’s found in every culture everywhere. There’s fear, surprise, happiness, sadness, anger, and then disgust is right up there. The evolutionary function is to protect us from toxic or dangerous foods — that’s the primary purpose.

Casu marzu, a pecorino cheese with maggots — illegal in the European Union, but a delicacy in Sardinia.
Anja Barte Telin/Disgusting Food Museum

The interesting thing, though, is that even though disgust is a universal, hardwired emotion, it’s still something we have to learn. The people around us who we grow up with, who form us, teach us what to be disgusted by. That’s what makes it culturally interesting.

So, for example, food that’s rotting, that’s fermenting, that’s gone off — usually, that’s something dangerous and you shouldn’t eat it. Those smells are something that we’re hardwired to react strongly to. But then if somebody says, “You know, this sauerkraut here is actually tasty and it won’t kill you,” then we learn that it’s okay. It’s something we can actually like, versus everything else that we’re not familiar with that has that sort of decaying smell.

The original evolutionary function of disgust is to protect us from dangerous, toxic foods, but disgust becomes so much bigger than that. Disgust as an emotion gets sort of transformed into areas where you wouldn’t actually think it belongs. For example, our morals and our sexual behavior are also influenced by what we think is disgusting.

Rachel Sugar

How does that leap happen?

Samuel West

It’s fascinating. I don’t have an answer for you, other than that when researchers look into how we categorize disgust, it becomes very clear that disgust is much more than just toward food, although food is still the primary reason we feel disgust. We learn what to be disgusted by, and that varies from culture to culture.

I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, and if my mother would listen to heavy metal music, she would say, “Oh, that’s disgusting!” She would feel these real feelings of disgust. Whereas I maybe I don’t like the music, but I don’t feel any disgust toward it.

We learn about food the same way. I’m half-Icelandic, and I remember the stench from the fish factories from as a kid in Iceland. It smells horrible. But when I was growing up, it was called the smell of money because it meant that people had work and were exporting fish. The smell was not considered gross in any way except by people who didn’t live there. I think that’s kind of interesting, how the context can change how you view even fundamental smells and tastes.

“Disgusting” foods tend to have a few things in common

Rachel Sugar

It seems like one thing that often makes a food seem “disgusting” is that it’s fermented or rotting. Are there other common traits of “disgusting” foods?

Samuel West

That’s definitely the biggest category: foods that seem like they might be toxic, that they’ve gone off, that they’re infested with bacteria. Then we have foods that can be disgusting because you know where they came from. An example would be foie gras. Unfortunately, I still like it — it’s beautiful, it tastes wonderful — but if you pause for a moment and think about, “Okay, so these birds are force-fed so their livers sort of explode,” then the animal cruelty aspect comes into play. My wife loves foie gras, but the last 10 years or so, she can’t eat it because she just thinks of these poor birds.

There’s one more category, and that’s [foods] we’re not familiar with.

A can of root beer on a coaster
A can of root beer, beverage native to the United States.
Anja Barte Telin/Disgusting Food Museum

I’m half-American. I love root beer. But if you ask a European, they would spit it out and say it tastes like toothpaste. Because they haven’t grown up with root beer, they don’t like the taste. It’s disgusting. For example, with dog meat, many people would react, “Oh, no! You can’t eat dogs, they’re pets!” Or guinea pigs. But there’s nothing inherently disgusting about [eating] a guinea pig or a dog versus any other animal. But in our culture, we’re not familiar with eating it, so we give it the label of disgusting.

Rachel Sugar

I wanted to ask about meat specifically, because of the way certain parts of animals are seen as disgusting to eat, whereas others aren’t. Lots of people eat lamb shank but then are disgusted by haggis, which is also made from parts of lamb. Why is that?

Samuel West

Yeah, it doesn’t make any rational sense whatsoever. And it doesn’t make any nutritional sense either, because the liver is probably the most nutritional part of the animal, yet people are like, “Oh, no, it tastes nasty, it’s awful.”

There are two aspects I would say that makes eating haggis — or liver or kidney or lungs — disgusting compared to eating the tenderloin. One is that we’re just unfamiliar with it. We haven’t eaten it enough. The other is the connotation that some foods are for rich people and other foods are for poor people. That’s a theme that pops up all the time.

Like today, lobster is a delicacy, it’s expensive rich-person food, whereas two or three hundred years ago, it was used for prisoners and slaves. Nobody in their right mind would eat those nasty animals from the sea, and now we’re paying top dollar eating them with butter. That changed as lobster became less abundant and started to be eaten by the finer people in society.

There’s a fascinating story about the Swedish king. [Author’s note: This story may be apocryphal, though no less illustrative.] When potatoes first came to Europe from South America, the people of Europe didn’t want those nasty things — they grow in the ground, they’re weird, they taste funny. They figured out potatoes grow very well in the Swedish climate, but the masses wouldn’t eat them because they found them disgusting.

And so the king started making it almost illegal for non-royalty to have potatoes, and served potatoes at the royal banquet. He was brilliant at using psychology to make potatoes attractive as a luxury. And then it didn’t take long until the public was demanding that they also get potatoes. It’s fascinating. Now it’s like, of course we eat potatoes. No, you haven’t always eaten potatoes; you used to think they were disgusting.

So going back to your question, historically, offal has been something that poor people would eat because they had no other option, so that’s something that was less attractive and more disgusting. But then, of course, what happens is that changes. I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but in Sweden, if you’re a hipster, you love to eat all the weird parts of the animal. Now it’s cool to say, “I eat from tail to nose.”

A bowl of licorice surrounded by containers of licorice
Salted licorice, beloved in Sweden.
Anja Barte Telin/Disgusting Food Museum

We also find anything that reminds us of our mortality and our animal characteristics disgusting. When you see a human do anything that reminds us that we’re animals, that’s usually considered disgusting. That goes for food as well: if you see people ripping meat apart with their hands, that would be considered more disgusting than doing it with a knife and fork and a white napkin on your knee. So when it comes to offal, the liver and the heart aren’t just isolated meat, they’re actually something that we need to live. There’s a connection to our own mortality, and us also being animals, which is considered disgusting in other contexts, and I think it’s relevant for food as well.

Okay, but will Americans ever eat bugs?

Rachel Sugar

Can we intentionally change attitudes about what is or isn’t disgusting?

Samuel West

The strongest driver is when the elite change their food preferences. If we can get cool people, the elite in a given society, to eat insects, then that would increase people’s openness to trying insects. This season at Noma, in Denmark — the No. 1 restaurant in the world, or it used to be — they’re serving ants and some other insects on their menu.

More and more top chefs or restaurants are including insects on their menu, and I think that’s a great way to start introducing them, within the context of fine dining. It’s more likely to get you interested in actually eating insects on a daily basis, versus insects being something you only try in educational facilities or at Greenpeace yearly meetings or something like that. I think that’s a good way to get that change to happen.

Rachel Sugar

What about acquired tastes? How do you learn to like something you used to find disgusting?

Samuel West

I can describe a very concrete example. Twenty years ago, I did an internship in Australia as a psychologist. I’d tried Vegemite before, and it’s nasty. It’s really strong, salty; it’s like a concentrated soy sauce, nothing you would consider being delicious.

But in Australia, I was at a party and the hostess gave me two slices of toast with Vegemite on them. And seeing these young Australians eat it for breakfast and like it — it’s a learned behavior. Okay, you spread it really thin on buttered toast, and actually, it’s not bad. And because there’s nothing else to eat, I’ll eat it. And then it didn’t take more than a couple of weeks until I bought my first jar of Vegemite. That, I think, is the perfect illustration of how you can learn to like something you didn’t like before. It’s the context and then it’s the social learning.

Rachel Sugar

Do you think, under the right circumstances, you could acquire a taste for everything in the museum?

Samuel West

[A long pause] We have some stuff you couldn’t pay me enough money to try. We have kiviak, from Greenland. You take a freshly slaughtered seal, and while the body is still warm, you clean it, gut it, and then stuff the carcass with these small Arctic birds. And then you sew up the seal carcass and dig a hole and just let it rot for between three and 18 months, so it’s well-rotted. Then in the winter, when there’s not much to eat and you want to have a bit of a feast, you go find that rotting seal and dig it up, and because it smells, you’re not allowed to bring it indoors, and then you eat the whole birds, because the process of fermentation, the feathers, the bones, everything’s sort of turned soft and mushy. You couldn’t get me to put that rotting bird in my mouth.

A lamb head in a pot
Kale Pache, a dish popular in Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, and Iraq made from the head, feet, and stomach of sheep. It is considered to be a good hangover cure.
Anja Barte Telin/Disgusting Food Museum

We [the museum organizers] tried most of the items in the museum. I vomited when I tried the balut. It’s a street food from the Philippines: You take a fertilized duck egg with a duckling in it, still not hatched, and you boil it, and you eat it in the shell — you open up the egg and then you drink the juice, and then eat the semi-developed fetus, bones, beak, and all, along with what’s left of the egg white and yolk. It didn’t smell bad, but visually, looking at that little duck in the egg…

Rachel Sugar

Was it about the visual of seeing an unborn duck, or was it about the flavor, or can you even separate those things?

Samuel West

Had you blindfolded me and sent me that egg and told me this is whatever, some kind of a lie, and I didn’t get to see what it was, then I probably — you might have fooled me into taking another bite, yeah.

I wouldn’t have a problem eating the duck, which is strange. And I wouldn’t have a problem eating the egg. It was the in-between state, [which] doesn’t make any rational sense. Why does it matter if it’s half-hatched or not? It’s protein, it tastes good, eat it. Same thing with different types of animals — if they’re unfamiliar to us, that makes them disgusting, whereas if we see them in the supermarket every day, they’re not disgusting.

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