The appeal to extremes is an ancient rhetorical flourish, what puritans will describe as a logical fallacy — to make an argument, the premises are stretched to a fault, even to absurdity. The Disgusting Food Museum, which opened this month in Malmo, Sweden, is in keeping with that glorious tradition of argumentation. The purpose of allowing visitors to see, smell and even taste the pungent “acquired tastes” on display is not to judge food from other cultures because “our foods are just as disgusting when seen through the lens of another culture,” according to museum director Andreas Ahrens.
A mouse wine from China, a fruit bat soup, frog smoothies — and other exotic fares — find a place next to American root beer and foie gras, the French delicacy obtained by force-feeding ducks and geese. Nordic delicacies such as rotten fish and even a meat so common as pork have been placed in the “disgusting” category. The intention behind the exhibit is certainly noble. By placing American and Swedish food next to the more obvious challenges to the Euro-American palate, the museum seems to want to say, “in the end, we are all people. Either all food is disgusting or none of them is”.
The problem with a museum of palates, like all things cultural, is that the act of curation exoticises some elements at the expense of others. Historical truths such as colonialism and the economic and culinary realities of globalisation mean that a hamburger and liquorice are placed in a museum of “disgusting” food at best as straw men to make Ahrens’ argument and, at worst, as acts of mere tokenism. Finally, there is the question of the nomenclature for the exhibit. Dishes from the peripheries of the European imagination, when placed in the “disgusting” category, may actually reinforce the stereotypes that the museum seeks to break.