“Disgust is highly individual. The thought of eating a spider makes some people hungry but makes others want to vomit,” says Dr. Samuel West, the man who conceived and curated the Disgusting Food Museum, currently being exhibited at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Downtown Los Angeles through Feb. 17, 2019.
What is the Disgusting Food Museum? It’s an exhibit featuring 80 dishes from around-the-world cultures. While each dish is a delicacy in its culture of origin, other parts of the globe may consider the dish downright revolting.
Ever heard of Chinese “mouse wine”? Baby mice are drowned in rice wine to make it. What about the notoriously smelly fruit the Durian, popular in Thailand?
Now, don’t think for a second that this museum is a culturally insensitive takedown of non-Western cultures; that’s far from the case. West says he first conceived of the Disgusting Food Museum after another museum he’d opened, the Museum of Failure, took off with visitors.
“When I opened the Museum of Failure [a collection of 100-plus failed gadgets and electronics], I was amazed at the impact it had. If a simple fun exhibit could change peoples’ attitude towards failure, what other assumptions could an exhibit change?” he tells Hornet. “Our current meat production is terribly environmentally unsustainable, and we urgently need to start considering alternatives. But many people are disgusted by the idea of eating insects and skeptical about lab-grown meat, and it all boils down to disgust. If we can change our notions of what food is disgusting or not, it could potentially help us transition to more sustainable protein sources.”
West, himself a licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD in organizational psychology, knows a thing or two about disgust, which he notes is an evolutionary function that developed to help humans avoid unsafe food. “Disgust is one of the six fundamental human emotions, and it is universal across cultures,” he says. “Our ideas of disgust influence our lives in many ways — our choice of foods, our sexual behavior and even our morals and laws.”
With the Disgusting Food Museum, first displayed in Sweden and now set up in Los Angeles, West says the aim is simple: “To change our view of what is disgusting or not and expose our minds to what is known as normal in other cultures.”
Stepping inside, not only are you able to view these 80 dishes, you’ll smell and even be able to taste some of them, courtesy of the “grand finale tasting bar.” Are you up to the task?
And needless to say, the Instagrammable moments inside the Disgusting Food Museum are plenty.
Here are 6 dishes you’ll find at the Disgusting Food Museum in Los Angeles, with commentary on each by the museum’s own Dr. Samuel West:
1. Bull Penis, China
Bull penis is eaten for its claimed health benefits and its alleged aphrodisiac effect. It is cut down the urethra and washed to remove the urine smell, then blanched in hot water, and the tough outer membrane is removed like a condom. Bull penises need to be boiled for a long time to become edible. Enjoying penis is more about texture than taste; it is described as fatty and a little slimy. According to the experts, women should eat the whiter meat, whereas the darker penis meat should be consumed by men.
Museum visitors say: “Can you really touch it???” (We have a sign that reads “Please Touch!”)
2. Casu Marzu, Sardinia, Italy
A whole pecorino cheese is cut open and left outside so that cheese flies lay eggs in it. The fly larvae feast on the cheese, and their enzymes break down the fats in the cheese. The larvae excrement is a partially digested, semi-liquid, soft cheese. Warning: eating live maggots is risky, and diners need to protect their eyes from jumping larvae, as they can survive inside their new host and bore through intestinal walls. The cheese is banned in Italy and the entire European Union.
Museum visitors say: “Live maggots … I cannot believe people would actually eat that.”
3. Cuy, Peru
Guinea pigs have been raised as food in the Peruvian Andes for 5,000 years. During the Cuy festival in the city Cusco, the rodents are dressed up in fancy clothing for a fashion show. Prizes are awarded for best dressed, biggest and tastiest guinea pig. Cuy is usually fried or grilled, and the taste is described as a mix of rabbit and chicken. The hind legs are the meatiest part. The Cusco cathedral has a painting showing Jesus at the Last Supper dining on grilled guinea pig with his disciples.
Museum visitors say: (1) “I’ve heard it’s actually pretty good meat.” (2) “Is there really a difference between eating a guinea pig and a regular pig?” (3) “They’re so cute, I could never eat that, but I guess it’s not that different from eating turkey.”
4. Fruit Bat Soup, Guam
The bats smell strongly of urine during cooking, but the meat is described as slightly sweet with a taste similar to chicken. The soup was so popular with the Chamorro people that the Guam fruit bat was almost hunted to extinction. The bats in Guam accumulate dangerous levels of toxins through their diet, which when consumed by humans can cause a deadly neurodegenerative disease similar to ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Museum visitors say: (1) “He has huge balls!” (2) “Tastes like chicken!”
5. Salt Licorice, Nordic Countries
Salty licorice gets its distinct flavor from ammonium chloride, a chemical otherwise used to clean metals and make industrial fertilizers. The taste is described as intense ammonium and stinging pain, “as if somebody had sandpapered my tongue and then poured salt on top.” The pain is followed by a salty sourness. Once acquired, the taste often becomes addictive. Popular brands include Jungle Scream, Extreme Salt Devils, Sewage Pipes, Crocodile Tears and Canon Powder.
Museum visitors say: They vomit. (This licorice is the number one reason visitors vomit.)
6. Nattō, Japan
The bacterium Bacillus subtilis is found in soil and the gastrointestinal tracts of humans and other plant-eating animals. Nattō consists of soybeans fermented with these bacteria. It is especially popular for breakfast. The sticky beans are stirred with chopsticks to create gooey strings of slime. Nattō is something of an acquired taste, as it has a savory aroma of old cheese, sweaty socks and hot garbage. Nattō has a reputation as a probiotic superfood.
Museum visitors say: (1) “I love Natto!” (2) “Slimy mess … never!”