At the southern tip of Sweden lies the picturesque city of Malmö. Only 25 miles by train from Copenhagen over the Øresund Bridge, Sweden’s third-largest city seamlessly blends the old and the new. It is a veritable feast for the eyes with sights ranging from the gabled Dutch-Renaissance buildings of the Gamla Staden (Old Town) to the Turning Torso building of the waterfront. Serene yet vibrant, traditional yet avant-garde, it is not the first place you would imagine yourself chomping down on a dung beetle or a cube of fermented shark.
Malmö’s Disgusting Food Museum is a place where you can do exactly that. Set within the walls of a very Swedish shopping centre (think expensive Scandi furniture and unfathomable concept stores), the museum offers its visitors a chance to look at, smell and taste some of the most interesting delicacies from around the world. The ‘exhibitions’ are set out on white tables in a sterile room, almost like anatomy specimens. Laid out in this scientifically anodyne manner, it is clear the ‘disgustingness’ of these foodstuffs is to be analysed carefully, with rigour and cautious judgment.
My visit to the museum at the beginning of the year did not disappoint. Nervous and with some trepidation, I took my ticket (an entry sticker printed on a sick bag) and began to explore the delights within. Some of the foods I had expected to make an appearance and they delivered on the shudder factor – the tinned Swedish fish suströmming did indeed smell like death, and the Peruvian frog smoothie made me feel a little queasy – but many of the exhibitions surprised me. There was liquorice, the Scandinavian sort that is intensely salty on the outside and devilishly dark on the inside; Roquefort, the pungent blue cheese I quite happily slather on sourdough bread or throw into a salad; and the Twinkie, that joyfully American ‘’golden sponge cake with a creamy filling.’’ These are all foods I love – how can they be labelled disgusting?
I am aware liquorice and blue cheeses are divisive foods and many people I know would spit both out. I have, however, never thought about them within the realm of ‘disgust.’ The whole purpose of the museum, it became increasingly clear, was to upturn its visitors’ understanding of the concept. Taste is inherently individual and many a time natural, an example being the many coriander-phobes whose genes prevent them from enjoying the herb. Yet, what the museum was hinting at was the cultural bias attached to food. Why do I feel reproach towards Scandinavians for eating fermented fish, when I quite happily eat ‘typically’ British dishes like steak and kidney pie? An animal’s life is an animal’s life, but why am I happy for one kind of animal to die over another?
Much research on disgust has been carried out in recent years. Many scientists believe disgust to have an evolutionary function, a response to offensive foods that may cause harm to the body. Don’t eat roadkill, it may be infested with maggots. Stay away from mouldy food, it will most probably make you vomit. Pathogen disgust seems to only be one part of a more complex puzzle, however. On closer analysis, moral disgust seems to be the more significant factor.
Moral disgust can be summed up as an emotional response towards actions that transgress social norms. Within wider society, this attitude may pertain to racism, war or rape. Within the food world, it comes down to whether you morally should or should not consume a certain foodstuff. Think of the horsemeat scandal from a few years back – people were not so much shocked by the fact food manufacturers had lied to them, so much as that they were eating Black Beauty. In Britain today, eating horse is a taboo, as the animal’s status is that of pet, even ‘friend.’ If the same incidences had taken place in France, the situation would have looked very different. In a country where horse tartare is not such a cultural taboo, the reaction would not have revolved around the meat itself, but the food industry’s lack of standards.
The question of taste, it becomes clear, is one that is intimately linked with culture, nationalism and the fear of otherness. We take pride in the food that we eat in our respective countries, according to what resources we have and what cultural practices develop over the course of history. We fear the Other, as it threatens the pedestal on which our country’s identity is perched. To look down on the French for eating horse is no different from rubbing Agincourt in their faces. And the situation is much worse for cuisines that are not so ‘European’ – African and Asian cuisines receive the greatest amount of disdain, as unfamiliar ingredients and unknown cooking habits are automatically labelled as ‘immoral.’
I found people-watching in Malmo’s museum to be particularly interesting. Circulating around the 80 exhibitions were people from all over the globe giving the various foods a sniff. What I found revolting, the next person didn’t. This was the long and the short of it – taste is conditioned by various factors, mainly cultural, and a greater appreciation of the formation of taste may help us overcome other aspects of cultural prejudice. Not only that, but the museum begs the question of what we are supposed to do with the crisis of feeding a rampant world population. A more pragmatic approach to food must be taken, for instance, if we are to provide people with enough protein. As intensive livestock farming becomes unsustainable and unpopular, eating insects seems a logical next step. Scientific research is gravitating towards this as a suitable solution, yet great swathes of people need convincing. A large part of this is upturning people’s attitude towards eating creepy crawlies and other foods that do not come wrapped in plastic at the supermarket, a change only possible if people reconsider their gastronomic biases.