Gross Product

May 25, 2021

Why there's a place for disgusting food.

This is something I’ve never confessed in nearly 30 years of covering the food industry:

I’m squeamish.

Been that way my whole life. I just get grossed out easily, even nauseated, by the sight of nasty food. Just reading or thinking about it can leave me that way. That’s why I’ve never read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” I haven’t even yet started an article by Jiayang Fan, one of my favorite New Yorker writers, about something called the Disgusting Food Museum, in Malmö, Sweden. I’m put off by the simple directness of the one-word headline: “Yuck!” (The online version has a more descriptive headline.)

But being squeamish is not the handicap to food journalism you might think. Yes, there are food plants out there that would give me the dry heaves, if they let me in – which they won’t, because they know better than to admit reporters in the first place. And if I have to suppress a little shudder of disgust when I write about, say, insects as a protein source, who’s to know?

Sometimes, though, you have to acknowledge that nasty, unpleasant, even disgusting food can have its uses. Several items to that effect have crossed my monitor.

The first has to do with hardtack. I don’t know if that Swedish museum has any exhibits on hardtack, but they’re not hard to find elsewhere. An article on gives a fascinating history of hardtack, aka ship’s biscuit or “molar breakers.” It was mass-produced by the British starting at least in the 1660s. It was hard, all right, easily permeable only by the weevils and other insects that all too often infested it. It’s basically bread baked and rebaked until every bit of moisture is driven out, to ensure long shelf life.

And I do mean long. The article has pictures of pieces of hardtack, on exhibition around the world, dating from the Civil War era. In fact, soldiers who fought in that war may very well have eaten hardtack intended for troops from the Mexican-American war, more than a decade earlier. It’s safe to say that the stuff looks as good to eat now as it probably did when it was made.

In other words, hardtack was a 19th-century (and earlier) version of Twinkies.

The second item has to do with food waste in China. As I’ve written before, China’s government is conducting a war on food waste that, in true Communist-nation style, involves encouraging citizens to rat each other out. Partly as a result, food that is nearing its expiration date is becoming more popular, especially when it leads to bargains. Elderly Chinese shoppers have long sought out the steep discounts on food nearing its expiration date: now younger people are picking up on the trend. One retail chain, called HotMaxx, exclusively sells near-expired food at discounts up to 80%.

The South China Morning Post article that describes this situation does not refer to any feeling of revulsion or even reluctance on the part of consumers to eat such food. They likely know, as many American consumers do, that it’s perfectly safe to consume, and that many processors build safety margins into their expiration dates.

So maybe that’s not a great example of gross food. But the next item makes up for it in terms of yuck factor, at least for me.

The website of the BBC has a fascinating article about how pet food processors make the stuff appeal to animals. Yes, they festoon the packaging with luscious images of meat and vegetables – but that’s to separate the owners from their money.

Animals respond to other cues and flavors. Per the BBC article, many of them “find the smell of roadkill, sweaty socks, and vomit utterly enchanting.” A major formulation problem is how to add chemicals like putrescine and cadaverene – that’s what they’re called – to kibble without making owners sick.

"There is a slight paradox there, because the smells that cats particularly but also dogs seem to like are often the opposite of what humans like," a Mars Petcare researcher told the BBC with classic British understatement.

Just to bring this full circle, the BBC article recounts how James Spratt came to be the father of modern pet food. Spratt, an American lightning-rod salesman, was at the docks at Liverpool one day, watching stray dogs gobble down discarded, yes, hardtack.

Spratt had a revelation and went on, by 1860, to develop something he called the “Meat Fibrine Dog Cake.” He proved himself to be the father of pet food marketing as well. His packaging implied that within was beef of the highest quality, but the meat’s actual provenance, as the BBC article said, “was a secret he took to his grave.”

I bet he did.

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