We have taken our places. This evening’s performance, sold out months in advance, is about to begin. The programme, handwritten in a traditional script on a rolled parchment, tied with string, tells us to expect a prologue, two chapters and an epilogue, without interval. I’m nervous with anticipation but I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that it’s not because I am waiting for the curtain to rise on a Wagner opera or a Shakespeare play. I’m actually waiting for my dinner.
This is no ordinary meal, however. It’s the 19-course tasting menu at one of the world’s best restaurants, Frantzén/Lindeberg in Stockholm. Ranked number 20 in Restaurant magazine’s influential annual survey, it earned two Michelin stars in its first two years and is almost certain to get a third. Food doesn’t get much, if any, better than this.
Yet there seems something wrong about the effort and expense that fine dining like this involves. And when the average bill is the stiffest in the Nordic region, around €350 (or £280) per head, that unease can turn to moral outrage. What on earth could justify spending so much money on what is ultimately just fuel for humans, especially in a world where almost one billion people still go hungry every day?
Answering these questions was the main reason I was at the table at all. I was writing a book on food and philosophy and felt I needed to experience some of the extremes of food luxury. Of course, I also love eating, so it was a wonderful excuse. But I really don’t think I could have justified the reservation without some rationale other than pure pleasure. After all, this was going to be the most expensive three hours of my life.
Earlier, I had interviewed the head chef Björn Frantzén and he had played down expectations. He told me that he likes eating the sausages sold at football matches. Also that ‘I know there’s so many things wrong with it, but I think McDonald’s is nice’. And that ‘At the end of the day, let’s not forget, it’s a restaurant, you go to a restaurant because normally you’re hungry and it’s just food.’ As it turned out, he could not have been more wrong. This is not just food, and hunger is not the reason to eat it.
Take, for instance, the bone-marrow with caviar and smoked parsley. Delicious but, for all that, you might say it’s just an ephemeral experience. The obvious rejoinder is that of course it’s ephemeral: all experiences are; life itself is. The difference is that unlike, say, opera, when you are eating food you can never forget that fact. Certain aesthetic experiences of high art create a sense of transcendence, a feeling that you are somehow transported beyond the merely mortal realm to taste something of the divine. Indeed, that is precisely why some people believe art is so important.
I would argue the other way. The problem with art is that it can fool us into forgetting that we are mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. The culinary arts, on the other hand, remind us that we are creatures of bone and guts, even as they delight us with creations no other animal could ever produce. Fine food is about the aesthetic of the immanent, not the transcendent. A mouthful of Frantzén’s diver scallops, truffle purée and bouillons transports you to heaven while never letting you forget it is a perishable place on Earth. Through experiences like these you come to know the potential intensity of being alive, what it means, as Thoreau recommended, to suck out all the marrow of life.
So yes, eating is ephemeral, but some experiences are so extraordinary they are worth it for their own sakes. Life is not just about such peak moments but it is very much enriched by them. ‘Mere experiences’ can also provide a kind of first-hand knowledge of the heights to which skill, flair and determination can take us.
Disgust is one of our most basic emotions—the only one that we have to learn—and nothing triggers it more reliably than the strange food of others.
Nattō is a stringy, sticky, slimy, chunky fermented soybean dish that Japanese regularly eat for breakfast. It can be eaten straight up, but it is usually served cold over rice and seasoned with soy sauce, mustard or wasabi.
Aside from its alien texture, nattō suffers from another problem, at least for Westerners—odor. Nattō smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire. Though this might not be the worst smell combination ever, it has zero food connotation for me, and I’ve never met a Westerner who can take a bite of nattō on the first attempt. What Japanese love, we find disgusting.
In the last several years there has been an explosion of research on disgust. Disgust is one of the six basic emotions—along with joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear—but it is the only one that has to be learned, which suggests something about its complexity.
Most children get their first lessons in disgust around the time that they are potty trained. After that, the triggers of disgust are quickly acquired from the responses and rules of parents, peers and, most importantly, the wider culture. One of the best places to look for the vast differences in what is or is not considered disgusting in different parts of the globe is food, especially distinctive foods, like every culture’s favorite fermented dish.
Take cheese, considered by Westerners to be anything from a comfort food to a luxurious delicacy. A good taleggio, Gorgonzola or Brie might be described as sweaty or slimy. Cheese also has its fair share of aromatic obstacles and, depending on the circumstances, may be confused with vomit, stinky feet or a garbage spill. Many Asians regard all cheese, from processed American slices to Stilton, as utterly disgusting—the equivalent of cow excrement.
Given that cheese can be described as the rotted bodily fluid of an ungulate, that’s not far off. But controlled rot tastes good in this case—at least to us (or most of us). The key is to manage the decomposition in such a way as to get that desired flavor and to ensure that we don’t get sick from consuming the food (in some cases, rot is actually necessary because the fresh version is poisonous).
A quick jaunt across the globe for some favorite fermented foods will lead us to kimchee in Korea, which is fermented vegetables (usually cabbage); gravlax, the fermented raw salmon enjoyed in Norway; injera in Ethiopia, a spongy, fermented flatbread; chorizo in Spain, which is fermented and cured uncooked pork sausage; and the many forms of fermented dairy that are adored and consumed from India to Indiana.
Among the most hard-core variants of fermented food is the Icelandic delicacy hákarl. Hákarl is made from the Greenland shark, which is indigenous to the frigid waters of Iceland. It is traditionally prepared by beheading and gutting the shark and then burying the carcass in a shallow pit covered with gravelly sand. The corpse is then left to decompose in its silty grave for two to five months, depending on the season. Once the shark is removed from its lair, the flesh is cut into strips and hung to dry for several more months.
Hákarl has a pungent, urinous, fishy odor that causes most newbies to gag. An extremely acquired taste, hákarl was described by the globe-trekking celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten.
At an international convention of food oddities, you might try to wash down your hákarl with the Ecuadoran aperitif chicha, which combines the alcoholic perks of fermentation with a disgusting bodily fluid. Chicha is made from a masticated blend of boiled maize (or yucca root) and human saliva.
My favorite fermented challenge, because I’m a cheese lover but am mortally repulsed by worms, is casu marzu. Casu marzu is a sheep cheese popular on the Italian island of Sardinia. The name means “rotten cheese” or, as it is known colloquially, “maggot cheese,” since it is literally riddled with live insect larvae.
To make maggot cheese you start with a slab of local sheep cheese, pecorino sardo, but then let it go beyond normal fermentation to a stage most would consider infested decomposition (because, well, it is). The larvae of the cheese fly (Piophila casei) are added to the cheese, and the acid from their digestive systems breaks down the cheese’s fats, making the final product soft and liquidy. By the time it is ready for consumption, a typical casu marzu contains thousands of larvae.
Locals consider it unsafe to eat casu marzu once the larvae have died, so it is served while the translucent white worms, about one-third of an inch long, are still squiggling. Some people clear the maggots from the cheese before consuming it; others do not. Those who leave the maggots may have to cover the cheese with their hands—when disturbed, the maggots can jump up to six inches.
It is no accident that you likely feel revolted by many of these descriptions. The most elemental purpose of the emotion of disgust is to make us avoid rotted and toxic food.
So why are fermented saliva, decomposed shark and maggot-ridden cheese so desirable in some cultures? Is it just a quirky paradox of the human condition that we eagerly consume things that give off all the signals of putrefaction?
We learn which foods are disgusting and which are not through cultural inheritance, which is very much tied to geography. One reason that certain foods carry so much local meaning is that they capture something essential about a region’s flora and fauna. The same is true of the microbes that make fermented foods possible; they vary markedly from one part of the world to another. The bacteria involved in making kimchee are not the same as those used to make Roquefort.
We also use food as a way of establishing who is friend and who is foe, and as a mode of ethnic distinction. “I eat this thing and you don’t. I am from here, and you are from there.”
In every culture, “foreigners” eat strange meals that have strange aromas, and their bodies reek of their strange food. These unfamiliar aromas are traditionally associated with the unwanted invasion of the foreigners and thus are considered unwelcome and repugnant. Conversely, a person can become more accepted by eating the right foods—not only because their body odor will no longer smell unfamiliar and “unpleasant,” but because acceptance of food implies acceptance of the larger system of cultural values at hand.
Food is a marvelous window through which to examine the multifaceted emotion of disgust. Food is a great passion, but it can also inspire terrible repulsion. Strangely, as with almost all facets of disgust, it is in our nature to be attracted to this repulsion. Who, uninitiated to the actual foodstuff, isn’t at least a little curious about tasting some soft and stinky hákarl or a wormy morsel of casu marzu?
What human beings find disgusting varies greatly not just from place to place but across time. It cannot be separated from what the object of our repulsion means to us.
If lobsters are considered the vermin of the deep—as early American colonists saw them—then they become objects of disgust, not food fit for kings. If Americans who ordered chicken wings were instead served a dish of deep fried grasshoppers, they would gag, even though many people in Thailand would line up for the delicious snack. Strange? Not if you take a moment to reflect about it the next time you order a burger topped off with rotted ungulate bodily fluid.
—Ms. Herz teaches at Brown University. Excerpted from her new book, “That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion” (Norton).
In Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a 1979 documentary by Les Blank, the German director proceeds to cook and publicly eat one of his own shoes (not the Chaplin’s Gold Rush licorice kind) after losing a bet to his friend and future acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
Herzog had met Morris a couple years earlier at the Berkeley Pacific Film Archive. Morris, who had yet to make his first film, shared with Herzog a fascination with social outcasts and deviants and, inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho, had flown to Wisconsin to conduct a series of interviews with the infamous serial-killer Ed Gein. Morris and Herzog had agreed to visit Gein’s hometown in the summer of 1975. There, armed with shovels, the two intended to secretely visit the local cemetery to determine whether Gein, as legend had it, had dug up his own mother in the course of his gruesome activities. Herzog showed up but Morris flacked out and stood him up (Herzog didn’t open the grave).
The two however remained in contact and the next year Herzog invited Morris to join his crew on the set of Stroszek. Morris used the modest salary he received there to fund another speculative research (the Ed Gein project was for all intents and purposes dead an buried…). But that one too was eventually abandonned as Morris embarked in yet another project, this time about California pet cemeteries.
It was around that time that the bet was made. Tired of watching his friend wasting aways his potential, Herzog promised to eat his shoe if Morris ever managed to follow up on one of his projects and actually made a film. And Morris did.
And that’s how one day in April 1979 —the day of Morris’ Gates of Heaven local premiere—, Herzog found himself landing at SFO airport (supposedly wearing the shoes he was wearing when he made the bet) and heading to Chez Panisse, the famed Berkeley restaurant (and has it happens, the hangout for the Pacific Film Archive crowd). There, Herzog set out to cook the shoe under the supervision of the restaurant co-founder Alice Waters, while the rest of the kitchen staff was going about their evening business. The reconstituted recipe is as follows
Unlace and stuff each inner cavity with a whole head of unpeeled garlic, two peeled red onions, and several bunches of parsley. Season with a dozen or more generous shakes of hot sauce. Reinsert laces and use them to truss shoes. Place the stuffed shoes in a large metal pot. Add equal parts liquid duck fat and hot water to cover shoe tops. Add up to a dozen whole sprigs of rosemary and additional hot sauce if desired. Salt to taste. Cook over moderate heat for approximately five hours.
Waters recalls how the stewing shoe “smelled absolutely horrible” and that five hours of cooking did absolutely nothing to soften the leather. Herzog had to take poultry scissors to the upper to manage to cut it into edible pieces, he wisely discarded the sole explaining that “one does not eat the bones of the chicken.”
At the public shoe-eating, Herzog suggested that he hoped the act would serve to encourage anyone having difficulty bringing a project to fruition. “I thought film could cause revolutions or whatever and it does not. But films might change our perspective of things. And ultimately in the long term, it may be something valuable. But there is a lot of absurdity involved as well. What we do as filmmakers is immaterial. It’s only a projection of light and doing that all your life makes you just a clown. It’s an almost inevitable process. To eat a shoe is a foolish signal, but it was worthwhile. And once in a while I think we should be foolish enough to do things like that. More shoes! More boots! More garlic!”
A mathematician, an engineer and a psychologist go up to a buffet… No, it’s not the start of a bad joke.
While most of us would dive into the sandwiches without thinking twice, these diners see a groaning table as a welcome opportunity to advance their research.
Look behind the salads, sausage rolls and bite-size pizzas and it turns out that buffets are a microcosm of greed, sexual politics and altruism - a place where our food choices are driven by factors we’re often unaware of. Understand the science and you’ll see buffets very differently next time you fill your plate.
The story starts with Lionel Levine of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Katherine Stange of Stanford University, California. They were sharing food at a restaurant one day, and wondered: do certain choices lead to tastier platefuls when food must be divided up? You could wolf down everything in sight, of course, but these guys are mathematicians, so they turned to a more subtle approach: game theory.
Applying mathematics to a buffet is harder than it sounds, so they started by simplifying things. They modelled two people taking turns to pick items from a shared platter - hardly a buffet, more akin to a polite tapas-style meal. It was never going to generate a strategy for any occasion, but hopefully useful principles would nonetheless emerge. And for their bellies, the potential rewards were great.
First they assumed that each diner would have individual preferences. One might place pork pie at the top and beetroot at the bottom, for example, while others might salivate over sausage rolls. That ranking can be plugged into calculations by giving each food item a score, where higher-ranked foods are worth more points. The most enjoyable buffet meal would be the one that scores highest in total.
In some scenarios, the route to the most enjoyable plate was straightforward. If both people shared the same rankings, they should pick their favourites first. But Levine and Stange also uncovered a counter-intuitive effect: it doesn’t always pay to take the favourite item first. To devise an optimum strategy, they say, you should take into account what your food rival considers to be the worst food on the table.
If that makes your brow furrow, consider this: if you know your fellow diner hates chicken legs, you know that can be the last morsel you aim to eat - even if it’s one of your favourites. In principle, if you had full knowledge of your food rival’s preferences, it would be possible to work backwards from their least favourite and identify the optimum order in which to fill your plate, according to the pair’s calculations, which will appear in American Mathematical Monthly (arxiv.org/abs/1104.0961).
So how do you know what to select first? In reality, the buffet might be long gone before you had worked it out. Even if you did, the researchers’ strategy also assumes that you are at a rather polite buffet, taking turns, so it has its limitations. However, it does provide practical advice in some scenarios. For example, imagine Amanda is up against Brian, who she knows has the opposite ranking of tastes to her. Amanda loves sausages, hates pickled onions, and is middling about quiche. Brian loves pickled onions, hates sausages, shares the same view of quiche. Having identified that her favourites are safe, Amanda should prioritise morsels where their taste-ranking matched - the quiche, in other words.
Not surprisingly, Levine and Stange found their two-person buffet strategy didn’t work when they applied it to a scenario with more people. Even so, they found that rushing into grabbing favourites is not always advisable. This time, however, they modelled two general approaches: the “boorish lout” who would always pick their favourite food and the “gallant knight” who makes selections that take into account the enjoyment of others as well as their own. They found that if any of the diners act boorish, everybody ends up with a less satisfying meal than if every person acts gallantly (arxiv.org/abs/1110.2712). So it can pay to be altruistic - but not if there are any selfish diners.
Indeed, sometimes the only way to satisfy an appetite at a buffet is to pile your plate high while you can - and here’s where some engineering know-how can apply.
Software engineer Shen Hongrui, who lives in Beijing, China, found a way to fit an astonishing amount of food into one dish: piles reaching up to a metre tall. Shen had noticed that patrons of the salad buffet in Pizza Hut were asked to follow the rule: “one bowl, one visit”. So he worked out how to build towers from salad items, and so maximise his haul. He even, with tongue firmly in cheek, published equations, diagrams and instructions online so others could repeat the feat.
The key is to build a cylindrical tower using a base of radiating carrot sticks balanced on the bowl rim. “The foundations are very important, so choose dry and strong material,” Shen advises. Then build walls of cucumber slices or fruit blocks, before filling the inside of the tower with any food items you want.
Bear in mind you may be thrown out for such mischief, though. Shen and his fellow salad architects were thwarted when Pizza Hut banned the practice in China.
So, back to our hypothetical buffet. The engineers are busy building towers while the mathematicians scribble strategies on napkins. What are the psychologists up to?
When they approach a buffet, they are more interested in spying on other people than eyeing up the food. Their findings could help explain many of the extra pounds you will inevitably pile on during the festive season.
For example, Brian Wansink and colleagues at the Food and Brand Laboratory at Cornell University noticed that people with a high body mass index (BMI) sit on average 5 metres closer to a buffet than those with an average BMI, and 71 per cent face the food, compared with 26 per cent of people of average weight (Obesity, vol 16, p 1957). They were also more likely to go back for seconds. It’s hardly earth-shattering news that larger people like food, of course, but with the right triggers anybody can be encouraged to gorge. Indeed, researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta have shown that group size dramatically affects the number of calories consumed. If you are with one other person, you will eat 35 per cent more calories than if you dine alone. In a group of eight, you’re looking at a whopping 90 per cent increase (Physiology & Behavior, vol 51, p 121).
The gender of eating companions also influences the food people eat - but it’s more likely to influence women. In unpublished experiments, Wansink noticed that if a woman is next to a man at a buffet, about 12 per cent of what ends up on her plate will be determined by what he takes. If she’s next to another woman, that jumps to 44 per cent. So women are influenced by both sexes. By contrast, men’s choices were unaffected by either.
Clearly then, deciding between the sandwiches and pork pies is not such a straightforward task after all. A scientific mindset can be a terrible burden at the buffet. You can only imagine the hand-wringing that goes on at dessert.
Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum: A favorite destination for sodium fiends and penniless college students, this museum honors ramen inventor Momofuko Ando and boasts a theater shaped like a giant Cup o’ Noodles, a make-your-own-noodle workshop and a life-size replica of Ando’s “research shack.”
From left to right: Korean table setting, Japanese sushi conveyor belt, European table setting, Chinese table setting
Courses are served on a table. Dishes are set on a rigorous manner. But does the subsequent experience of eating leave place for interaction among the companions? Each culture places cutlery in such a way that the subsequent freedom of movement is already predetermined. It is mostly remarkable between Western and Asian cultures; if the former pleads for a hierarchical untouchable order, the latter prefers a higher degree of spontaneity and unplannedness. The fact of using generic chopsticks instead of specific tools for each meal is directly translated into how guests relate themselves to space through their eating choreography. One dish surrounded by dozens of additional cutlery pieces Vs. dozens of dishes surrounding a pair of chopsticks.
In Korea, a meal consists of dozens of atomised courses scattered all along the table, letting each guest choose the actual order, rhythm and combinations of the meal. Sweet, cold, calm, sour, Kimchi, warm, roasting, Kimchi, cold, chilling, faster, tea, sweet… Every item – and every rest – plays the main character on stage. In the same line, Chinese table setting introduces a new component. Courses are decomposed in fewer dishes and are laid on a revolving surface, which guests decide when – and how fast – to turn around to pick the desired piece for their following bite. A constant negotiation with your sitting neighbours. Far beyond, Japanese sushi conveyor belts impersonate the paradigm of this choreography of freedom, where courses are on a constant move. Same food, countless different meals.
On the other hand, Western culture inherited Bourbon and Versailles customs, and still needs to deal with this burden. Having only evolved to a slight simplicity of their past lavish versions, banquets nowadays still consist of appetizer, main course, second course and dessert. And don’t even dare to alter the order, for God’s sake! Once every course is placed on the table, food is served among guests. Always following the cutlery and glass hierarchy. Once a course is finished, dirty plates, forks, knives and spoons need to be replaced by clean ones. And next course, of course. Clean cup, Clean cup, move down!
There have been some reactions against established codes of dining orders (leaving snobbish experimental cuisine restaurants aside). In the 1930s, Marinetti already proposed a Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, where “the perfect meal demands: general harmony among setting (glassware, dishes, decoration), flavours and colours of the food, […] the abolition of knife and fork, […] the rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination.”
If the rules are to be broken, why not creating a colourful week diet and table setting out of one Paul Auster’s character? Mixing reality with fiction, and back to reality reinventing fiction, Narrative Artist Sophie Calle ventured into The chromatic diet in 1997.
But if dishes are to follow a strict composition of order, then Junya Ishigami’s Table, makes dishes stay still at their most accurate coordinates in the immensity of the eating surface. Only four legs support a magic span, with a scarce 3 mm thick, almost flying, panel. The objects layout must remain untouched, static to death, so that the structure of the table stays in the most pure horizontal.
Radical poetic experiences can teach us that a general demand for a more relational space seems to be needed at our obsolete everyday eating site. This space should rather be exclusively composed of relations between viewers and objects, participants and events. Like in Martí Guixé’s Mealing, a meal-in-motion prompting guests to interact. If not, this space is not even invisible; it almost does not exist.
“Creativity is to discover a question that has never been asked. If one brings up an idiosyncratic question, the answer he gives will necessarily be unique as well.” This philosophy is the thread that runs through the entire text of Kenya Hara’s Designing Design. The book begins with several exhibitions that Hara organised and for which he devised the question that should be answered. For example, how would world famous architects go about re-designing the humble macaroni?
Macaroni? At first this feels like and almost insulting task, a practical joke. Wouldn’t it be hilarious to bring these egotistical designers of monumental buildings down a peg to a more everyday level? And whilst there is definitely a hint of playfulness in Hara’s brief it soon becomes clear that he gives it out of earnest curiosity.
A number of architects were invited to participate in the production of macaroni. The exhibition showcased their macaroni models—fifty times larger than ordinary macaroni—along with their production intent and original recipe for cooking macaroni, as well as the participants’ profiles and master works. As macaroni is made of ground grain, it can basically take any shape. However, macaroni is an architecture that guarantees conditions much harder to fulfill than is first imagined. Working conditions include “a shape that can be evenly heated”, “an ample area that can be coated with sauce”, “a shape easily mass-produced” and “appealing to the sense of taste”. The operation exerted in this project can be expressed as “architecture for food”. The participating architects thus competed with each other in the architectural design of food.
Such a simple brief gives rise to the insightful analysis of structure and form in design from both Hara and the architects. When Hara visited a pasta making factory himself, he was stunned by the complexity of the design and market constraints that govern its manufacture, which is what made his simple brief so compelling. It also showed that even these great design minds of architecture had trouble competing with pasta makers and home cooks making tiny iterations over many generations to find the optimum shape that is used the world over.