The Guinness Book of World Records has been known to hand out an award for the Most Dangerous Cheese, a record that is currently held by a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese called casu marzu. Although Guinness gets the country of origin wrong—Sardinia isn’t part of the United Kingdom—the rest of the details are both accurate and rancid. The name itself roughly translates to “rotten cheese,” because it’s produced by leaving a wheel of Pecorino cheese outside to rot.
The cheese quickly becomes infested with cheese flies, which lay their eggs on its surface. When the maggots hatch, they eat the cheese and introduce enzymes that help it to ferment. For casu marzu aficionados, the maggots are the best part, and they don’t actually eat this ball of dry heaves until thousands of fly larvae are squirming on its surface. There are some risks; “The dangers can occur when the maggots, once consumed, can survive stomach acid to pass through the intestine walls, causing vomiting, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea,” the Guinness book warns. (And in addition to burrowing into your colon, the maggots can also jump into your eyes while you’re mid-chew.)
"One culture’s 'disgusting' is another culture’s delicacy, and the subtle similarities and stark contrasts are fascinating.”
Casu marzu is typically only available on the black market and has faced various bans in the European Union, but if you’re in Los Angeles and have a craving for both cheese and maggots, you’re in luck: it’s one of the items on display at the Disgusting Food Museum’s temporary pop-up.
The Museum is visiting the city from its permanent home in Malmö, Sweden (and that location is still open) but its curator brought some of its most unsettling exhibitions with him to California. There are more than 80 foods and beverages from around the world on display, including casu marzu, Icelandic hákarl (a fermented shark dish that Anthony Bourdain once described as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he’d ever eaten), Peruvian guinea pig, and fruit bat soup.
“The word 'disgusting' in the name highlights the arbitrary and culturally defined nature of what is considered disgusting,” museum curator Dr. Samuel West told MUNCHIES. “All three of the greatest food nations are well-represented, China, Peru, and France. These countries, like other rich and diverse food cultures, include delicacies some consider disgusting. One culture’s 'disgusting' is another culture’s delicacy, and the subtle similarities and stark contrasts are fascinating.”
"We have five of the world’s stinkiest cheeses, and the Danish one gives me nightmares.”
The foods on display haven’t all been chosen for shock value: Some seem to have been added just to illustrate what factors can shape what we consider to be gag-inducing or not. “I hope that visitors will challenge their notions of what is disgusting and what is delicious,” West said. “That people will understand that disgust is cultural. We find the foods we grow up with to be good. Root beer is a good example. Americans love root beer, but everywhere else, people think it tastes like toothpaste or medicine. I’m especially happy that most visitors understand that disgust is an emotion that can change.”
We’ll be interested to see the reception West’s museum receives in Los Angeles, where some of the display items—like durian, Japan’s pungent natto, and bull penis—are already on restaurant menus throughout the city. But maybe that’s West’s endgame, to illustrate that cow dick is just as “disgusting” as Pop-Tarts are, depending on what your family or community grew up eating, which is to say that none of these foods are truly, universally disgusting at all.
“We treat all countries and food cultures with the same dignity and respect,” West said. “Of course, there will always be those who do not bother understanding what the exhibit is all about and want to create a conflict. Once they visit, and they realize that the stinky tofu, durian, and cuy (guinea pig) are right next to steak tartare, Twinkies, gummy bears, and caviar. Yes—and Pop-Tarts. They are next to fermented birds in a seal carcass.”
West also hopes to highlight how our perceptions about food can change—and how we can remove our own self-imposed limitations on what we’re willing to eat.
“We can learn to like new foods. We can also learn to feel disgust if we learn about how foods are made [with regards to] animal cruelty or environmental destruction,” he said. “I really want to help people open up to the sustainable protein sources of the future, such as lab grown meat and insects. If we can change the idea of eating insects from disgusting to delicious, it would have a global positive environmental impact.”
But even he isn’t ready to make the jump to casu marzu. “I’ve tried everything I can,” he admitted. “But I really have a hard time with the cheeses. We have five of the world’s stinkiest cheeses, and the Danish one gives me nightmares.”