Rotting Shark Meat, Maggot Cheese And Other Stuff Humans Love To Eat At The Disgusting Food Museum
"I bet the secretions from the anal gland of a deer would be delicious if you mixed them with rose water and pink food coloring."
It seems an unfathomably bizarre eureka moment and yet, at some point in the evolution of our species, it musk've happened (sorry, couldn't resist). Musk sticks are a real thing, a popular, if polarizing, Australian candy that has been on the market since probably the 1930s. It's also one of 80 items from 37 countries in the Disgusting Food Museum, a new exhibition at the A+D Museum in downtown L.A.
Walk into the dark, brick-walled room and you'll see screens playing looped videos of men cutting open a live snake then eating its still beating heart or the cleaning and preparation of a geoduck, a remarkably phallic giant clam. A stack of SPAM cans lines one wall next to a display of cajeta lollipops. Half-a-dozen large tables in the center of the room display foods
There's casu marzu, a traditional Sardinian sheep's milk cheese crawling with live maggots, who break down the cheese as they eat it, making it very soft...
Balut, a duck fetus that's boiled and eaten while still in its shell, a common street food in the Philippines....
Rocky mountain oysters (bull testicles)...
Huitlacoche, a soft, spreadable fungus that grows on corn...
Haggis, a Scottish dish made from sheep offal and boiled in the animal's stomach...
Twinkies, Pop-Tarts and a mold of a Jell-O salad...
Grasshoppers, fried tarantulas and other insects...
Durian, a thorny Southeast Asian fruit that smells like vomit...
Ortolans, a rare and tiny songbird that is traditionally boiled alive in a vat of brandy then roasted. You're supposed to eat ortolans whole, except for the beak, while wearing a napkin over your head so you can hide from god's judgement. Killing and selling the bird has been banned in France since the late 1990s.
I tell Samuel West, the curator of the exhibition, that if people feel like they need to hide from the judgement of the almighty while consuming a dish, maybe they just shouldn't eat it.
"That's one way to look at it," West says. He says he's witnessed two dominant reactions from visitors. "Some people are sad, like, 'How can we humans be so cruel to animals?' But an equal amount of people leave here saying, "Wow, this is a testament to human creativity!' We find ways to eat anything."
That much is true — although everything else about disgust is contextual. What one person considers horrifying, another person considers a delicacy, and much of that is rooted in culture and morality. Unlike with family, familiarity with food doesn't breed contempt. Most of what we're repulsed by are foods we simply aren't used to. West says that after running the Disgusting Food Museum first in Malmo, Sweden and now Los Angeles, he barely notices the smell of durian anymore.
Your $15-18 general admission ticket to the pop-up exhibition includes an immersive experience, complete with souvenir barf bag, where you can smell the world's stinkiest cheese and taste sweets made with chemical cleansers.
West leads me to the tasting bar. He gives me a smidge of durian. It smells like Pepto Bismol and vomit. It tastes exactly like that too, only worse.
We work our way through five of the stinkiest cheeses on earth. They're not as bad as I expect. One of them smells like a nutty version of roquefort gone rogue. Another has the stench of a locker room, but doesn't taste terrible. Then West hands me a gob of creamy stuff on the end of wooden popsicle stick.
"This one from Denmark, this one gives me nightmares, and you're going to taste it," West says.
"Does it taste good?" I ask.
"No comment," he replies.
I can't describe the stench but it tastes sharp enough to drive nails into your head.
"Old Ole is the name of the cheese," West says, "but this one has been aged so long it's called Old Old Ole, old Ole's great grandfather.
We get to the pièce de résistance, hákarl, a fermented shark that's the national dish of Iceland. "You dig a hole in the sand, dump the shark in there and let it rot," West says. On its own, the meat of this particular Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is poisonous but the fermentation process neutralizes the toxins.
"Anthony Bourdain called it the single most disgusting thing he's ever tried," West says. "The taste is described as a mix between death and ammonia, and the consistency is described as a urine-soaked mattress. Bon appetit!"
He seems to take a profound glee in getting people to eat things that make them want to retch.
I tell him I am recovering from a cold so my palate is not at 100% strength. He cuts me an extra large bite.
I'm holding a cube of quivering white shark meat that reeks of ammonia on the end of a toothpick. It makes lutefisk look tame.
"You won't die," West says. "You'll wish you were never born, but..."
I ask West questions. I crack jokes. I ask West more questions. I'm doing everything I can to stall. Finally, I have no choice.
Down the hatch. This isn't that bad I think, except for the texture. It's really tough. I chew and I chew, and with every bite it tastes worse. More pungent and ammoniac and it somehow never seems to soften. After what feels like eternity but is probably about 30 seconds, I can't handle it. I spit it out into my barf bag and take a slug of aquavit.
As with so many delicacies around the world, a dish borne of starvation has evolved to become a point of cultural pride.
Curious to try frog smoothies from Peru, sheep eyeball juice from Mongolia, putrid sea herring from Sweden or drowned baby mice in rice wine from China? You can see them all at this show but you'll have to find a way to taste them on your own.
The Disgusting Food Museum will remain open in DTLA through February 17.
You can also listen to a Take Two segment, reported and produced by Lori Galareta, about the Disgusting Food Museum.
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