Some places just don’t pass the smell test.
“Welcome to the altar of stinky cheeses,” says Samuel West, the curator of the Disgusting Food Museum in the Arts District of Los Angeles.
A half-dozen cheeses are arranged on a table, each kept under a clear glass dome. Little forcefields holding back the pungent assault that would otherwise dominate the room. Next to each display cheese is a clear jar tightly sealed with a screw-top lid full of cotton balls. Each of the seemingly soft and harmless cotton balls is soaked in the vomit-inducing odor of the world’s stinkiest cheeses.
“Are you curious to smell the stinking bishop?” West asks while holding one of the cotton-packed jars.
A hesitant breath is enough to trigger the gag reflex.
“It has been described as a rugby club changing room,” West says. That’s accurate.
The cheese table is one of several in the museum featuring taboo foods from around the world. The tables are set in an inviting manner, betraying the food resting on the dinnerware: a fruit bat lying in repose, a tray of frogs and quail eggs waiting to be juiced, a piece of pecorino cheese crawling in maggots.
But, there are also familiar foods: Twinkies, root beer, a T-bone steak and lobster.
“The lobster is a fantastic example of how our notions of disgust change over time,” says West. During the colonial era lobster was a food for the poor and for prisoners.
“So what happened?” says West. “The lobster hasn’t changed, and today lobster is a luxury food. It means through that period lobster has gone from something that is disgusting to something that is delicious. It does mean disgust can change within the same culture.”
The museum also serves as a warning. The T-bone is wrapped in plastic as it may be found at the supermarket. The price tag reads ‘global environment’ in a nod to the impact of cattle farming.
There are more than 80 foods from 40 countries displayed at the museum. And some are available for sample, in fact patrons are encouraged to taste the disgust. The tickets for admission are printed on vomit bags, which West says are used more often than not.
Perhaps the featured menu item is from West’s native land.
“I’m half Icelandic and in Iceland we like to torture tourists with the rotten Icelandic shark,” says West.
That torture has been imported to the LA installation, which is the second Disgusting Food Museum in the world. The first opened in Sweden last month, a natural location considering the Scandinavian stranglehold on the disgusting food market.
But, LA also makes sense.
“LA is a notorious food city,” says West. “You can find any kind of food, any country you can dream of there’s a restaurant in LA with that country’s name on it.”
The museum is open through mid-February. Tickets run between $15 and $18 depending on the day. This is West’s second exhibition, last year he curated the Museum of Failure.
“I was fascinated by how the simple exhibit that is thought provoking can actually change our fundamental assumptions,” West says.
West says the Museum of Failure was based on his research while earning a doctorate of organizational psychology, and the experience stewed into the idea for the Disgusting Food Museum.
“I want people to realize that disgust is completely contextual and it can change. If we can change our notions of disgust then we can eat insects which are the protein source of the future."
Check out Kris Ankarlo's full interview with Samuel West, the curator of the Disgusting Food Museum in the Arts District of Los Angeles here: