‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’. This expression is often used when two people disagree over something, especially food. Believed to have been coined by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius in the first century BC, the expression is a pithy reflection of how deeply food tastes and taboos are ingrained in every culture (and indeed every family). What is tasty and what is not; what is healthy and what is harmful; what is culturally acceptable and what is not…the history of food and cultures has laid down norms since time immemorial.
I was reminded of this when I read about the Disgusting Food Museum which opened recently in the city of Malmo in Sweden. The museum features 80 dishes from around the world that, for one reason or another, have earned the epithet of being “disgusting.” Among these are Surströmming: fermented herring from Sweden; Cuy: roasted guinea pigs from Peru; Casu marzu: maggot-infested cheese from Sardinia; Mouse wine from China; Hákarl: well-aged shark from Iceland, and Durian: the infamously stinky fruit from Thailand.
The purpose of the museum is not so much to sensationalize the weird and the exotic, but rather to sensitize to the fact that food-related notions are subjective. What is delicious to one person can be revolting to another. The Museum invites visitors to explore the world of food and challenge their notions of what is and what isn’t edible.
This made me think about the many examples of these notions that are so intrinsically entwined with our food and food habits. In a country as diverse as India, the notions are as diverse as the nation; the state, the region, religion, schools of health (from hot and cold foods in Ayurveda to mutually incompatible foods in other systems), and above all family traditions and cuisines—all these combine to define what kind of food each one of us considers suitable, tasty and palatable.
This diversity presented a challenge when I had the opportunity to be a part of an exercise to develop national textbooks for primary students. One of the objectives was to develop lessons that celebrated the richness of diversity, especially food. How to do this led to numerous debates within the team itself—to talk about the fried caterpillar larvae as a delicacy in the Northeast of India, to talk about “non-vegetarian” food, even to talk about the different cooking oils used in different parts of the country? And how to present these in a manner that evokes not disgust and shutting out of ‘what is different’ but rather curiosity and openness about the richness of cuisines and cultures.
When I was in school we did not have too many such theoretical lessons, but every recess time was a live lesson. It was food that connected us—lunch boxes were opened, food was shared and tasted, and new tastes were cultivated; mothers exchanged recipes, and exploring and discovering different food that you and your friends ate was an everyday adventure, not part of a visit to a food museum!
Today with the homogenization of food (I suspect many lunch boxes contain the ubiquitous Maggi and Lays) we are losing such a rich link. Even more worrying is the fact that food is being used to create boundaries rather than bonds. The old Lucretius expression is, sadly, more true than ever before. It is time to remember another adage “Sharing a meal is the best way to turn strangers into friends.”