A similar interrogation takes place at the Disgusting Food Museum, which opened in October 2018 in Malmo, Sweden, and recently mounted a two-month exhibition in Los Angeles. The collection of 80 items from 41 countries includes the likes of salty licorice from Scandinavia, sticky natto (fermented soybeans) from Japan and funky huitlacoche (a fungus that feeds on corn) from Mexico. Viewers are invited to sample certain dishes, with a complimentary barf bag in hand, just in case. “I want people to question what they find disgusting,” the lead curator, Samuel West, a Swedish clinical and organizational psychologist, has said.
Still, the museum’s self-proclaimed “disgusting” holdings cite China more than any other country. Among the delights attributed to the nation are an anemic-pink coil of bull penis and rice wine infused with the corpses of baby mice, neither of which is actually consumed on a regular basis, and hardly the equivalent of the museum’s American contributions: root beer and Pop-Tarts. Even within China, some diners might look skeptically at mouse wine and call it dark cuisine; as Gao pointed out, China is so vast, what’s happily eaten in one province might be shunned as strange in another.
Rodgers, the maker of the stargazy pie that won fame in China, wondered, in a 2017 conversation on her blog with the Chinese-cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop, why her dish had caused such a fuss. Dunlop replied, “You are just getting a taste of what it’s like the other way round” — the way the West routinely levies mockery at Eastern dishes. Earlier this decade, an online report on CNN placed pidan, or century egg, a snack and ingredient beloved in China and throughout Southeast Asia — the egg preserved in slaked lime until the whites brown and the yolks turn green — on a list of the world’s “most ‘revolting’ ” foods. Pidan is enshrined at the Disgusting Food Museum, too. The American chef David Chang addresses such prejudice directly in the title of his Netflix series “Ugly Delicious” (2018). In sampling regional delicacies from Japan, China, Mexico and the American South, he argues not simply that seemingly ugly dishes can, in fact, taste good, but that ugliness itself is a sham: a cultural construct. When Chang, who is of Korean descent, was growing up in Virginia in the 1980s, his peers thought the food he ate at home and brought for school lunches was “gross,” as he’s recalled. Now, they clamor for similar dishes at his 12 restaurants worldwide. Eating, one of the most basic human acts, can separate as much as connect us.
But consider again the stargazy pie. For diners from both East and West, whole sardines on a plate, however beady-eyed, would be unlikely to inspire dread; nor would a pie with an untroubled crust, seafood tidily tucked beneath. It’s the sight of the fish gasping to escape their pastry tomb that startles and thrills. The dish belongs to a category of food that compels us in part by repelling us — and draws us now perhaps more than ever, in an age when we’re relentlessly inundated with images of gorgeous food, when social media’s fantasy record of the way we eat is a ceaseless slide show of ingredients arrayed and lit down to the last centimeter.
Stargazy pie makes no accommodation for contemporary notions of what looks delicious or makes a dish an object of status or desire. It’s liberatingly unbeautiful; it doesn’t hide what it is. Instead, it offers the starkest, simplest, most comforting vision of how to live: Here is fish, here is pie. Let’s eat.
Photo assistant: Matthew Bernucca. Stylist’s assistant: Stephanie Redhead. Octopus: Shipwreck Seafood, Brooklyn, N.Y.