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The mermen dish, half frog, half fish, at the Atlantic restaurant in Toronto. (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
The mermen dish, half frog, half fish, at the Atlantic restaurant in Toronto. (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

Are you up for some disgusting degustation? Add to ...

Would you eat a dish that stared back at you? If you’re the adventurous type, not only would you dig into unfamiliar and even seemingly ghastly foods, you would probably relish the experience.

This Fear Factor approach to dining fascinates organizational psychologist Reidar Mykletun, who teaches at the Norwegian School of Hotel Management at the University of Stavanger.

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While studying the appeal of the traditional Norwegian sheep’s-head meal, called smalahovemiddag or smalahovelag, a dish served in the Voss area that involves serving a head split in two, Prof. Mykletun examined what makes certain foods fun and frightening to diners at the same time.

What he discovered is that some people tend to seek out the “scary” foods of other cultures. It could be while travelling on vacation or simply trying out “ethnic” foods, perhaps imported or prepared authentically, such as fermented shark in Iceland, frog legs in France and snakes and insects in Asian countries, much in the same way that some people pursue thrills like skydiving or whitewater rafting.

Eating scary foods, he says, is akin to adventure tourism. “There are not so many unknown places to discover any more,” Prof. Mykletun says. “So if we turn to food and meals, then we can find some areas where we haven’t [explored] and we can easily experiment and experience quite a lot of fun.”

The consumption of scary foods has become increasingly popular, he says. The current trendiness of offal and the introduction of insects by more venturesome North American restaurants, such as Atlantic in Toronto, known for serving crickets, and Vancouver’s Campagnolo Roma, which is serving pig’s brain, crispy snout and blood pudding at its Quinto Quarto Dinner on Wednesday, offer evidence of this.

Much of the pleasure people get from tasting seemingly strange, exotic foods comes from the sense of pride they achieve by overcoming their anxieties, Prof. Mykletun says. “Fear makes you very happy afterward,” he says. “You have this good feeling of being brave.”

When it comes to the sheep’s-head meal, for example, many consider eating the eyeball with a slug of aquavit, as is customary, to be a sign of manliness, says Prof. Mykletun, whose research on the subject has been published in the journal Tourism Management.

But what makes certain foods frightening in the first place? Prof. Mykletun suggests that part of the answer is that people learn at an early age to be wary of foods that seem peculiar. From childhood, we’re conditioned to avoid putting anything in our mouth that looks, smells or feels unfamiliar.

Moreover, cultural culinary taboos raise our suspicion of some foods. In his study, for example, Prof. Mykletun points out that Western societies frown on the consumption of animals that people would own as pets.

For many, the notion of eating animal heads may elicit even further fear and disgust. “The head has this fabulous property that it makes you think about living animals,” Prof. Mykletun says, noting that the face of an obviously dead animal can serve as an unpleasant reminder that it had to be killed to arrive at the table.

But there is also another more rational reason for being frightened of eating heads. Prof. Mykletun notes that the head is a part of the animal that is generally heavily contaminated with bacteria, and so possesses a health risk if it’s not properly prepared.

Nevertheless, the enduring popularity of the Norwegian sheep’s-head meal, complete with ears, nose, lips and teeth, and served with potatoes, can serve as a case study for other countries that want to capitalize on their own “scary foods,” Prof. Mykletun says.

In Voss, the meal has become a valuable product, with entrepreneurs operating production facilities to process heads in large volumes. Others manufacture merchandise, like sheep’s-head ties, pins and earrings, and festivals and parties dedicated to the sheep’s-head meal help to draw visitors to the area. One hotel has even embraced the dish as its specialty.

So long as their traditional foods aren’t so scary that they repulse diners outright, various cultures could likewise prosper from embracing the frightening qualities of their cuisine, Prof. Mykletun says. “They can make a fortune out of it.”

 

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