We don’t usually think of foods as “beautiful” or “ugly.” More often while gazing at a deli sandwich or a peach pie we choose descriptors that speak to hunger or craving, feelings that are rooted in bodily, primitive desires rather than in dispassionate aesthetic ideals. A food we think looks good might be tasty, delicious, delectable, full-flavored, luscious, scrumptious, yummy, fresh, moist, rich, creamy—not alluring, charming, comely, handsome, or pretty.
While foods surely can be beautiful, there seems to be a clear difference between a beautiful food, which touches on some higher objective aesthetic—a crisp red apple, for instance, or a perfectly rounded scoop of vanilla ice cream—and a food that simply looks good because it tastes good: homemade spaghetti, buffalo wings, or a pint of dark ale. And we don’t necessary want to eat the former, whereas we almost certainly want to eat the latter. In fact, I would say that we find these latter foods attractive because we want to eat them; we have a desire to consume them and indulge in the accompanying gustatory pleasures. There’s a reason that legions of websites are devoted to “food porn” rather than food art or food still lives; what’s appealed to is desire and satisfaction, not intellectual stimulation.
When you look at what makes food visually attractive or not, it has less to do with timeless aesthetic criteria than it does with what we want to eat right now; that is, cultural attitudes shaping how we view and consume food and food images. All standards of beauty are shifting and subject to current popular tastes, as we well know by looking at fashion trends that change by the decade, or more obviously by the century. You would be hard pressed today to find a Diesel ad with men wearing long powdered wigs, lace, and heeled booties (Diesel limited those ad runs to the mid-18th century). But certain natural attributes seem to universally classify a face as beautiful or not: symmetry, health, completeness, a preference for the natural and the wholesome over the artificial or fantastic.
In food too, it seems reasonable to suggest that certain inherent qualities make a food item attractive or not—color, for example, which suggests nutritional content; fullness and firmness of form, indicating freshness; or symmetry and lack of blemishes, which attests to a healthy and disease-free specimen.
And yet these criteria hold limited sway over what we really want to eat or not, all told. People have widely differing food preferences even within one homogenous cuisine (I hate bananas, my brother won’t touch salad dressing), and when you get into the realm of comparing national cuisines, well, there is very little the born-and-raised American palate might have in common with that of an ethnic Chinese, relatively speaking.
All this brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is ugly food. Appealing food is rather easy to identify, and spans the globe—most every culture appreciates fresh fruit and vegetables, has their own form of fried dough, has their own sweets and comforting beverages. If I am allowed to appropriate a line from Tolstoy: Beautiful foods are all alike, every ugly food is ugly in its own way. Cultures differ much more on which foods they consider ugly than which they consider beautiful or appealing.
Now let’s define ugly foods, which is simultaneously very easy (look at a food—how do you feel? The gut reaction is swift) and very hard to do (now get 100 people from diverse populations to look at a food and decide how they feel). There are foods that are “objectively” ugly, for reasons of asymmetry, or rotten color, or strange irregular growths. Rotten or deformed fruits and vegetables, to begin, or root vegetables such as ginger, the Jerusalem artichoke, or turnips.
Much more than this, there are foods that reach people on a gut level, that are ugly because they inspire disgust, sickness, or repulsion. This is perhaps what defines ugliness itself—not so much the lack of what qualifies as beauty, but a strongly negative emotional response. Umberto Eco, who has edited the volumes History of Beauty and On Ugliness, shows us that while the multitude of words we have for “beautiful” often reveal a rational intellectual observation of the subject or disinterested appreciation (divine, brilliant, elegant, exquisite, stunning) synonyms for “ugly” (awful, disgusting, repellent, horrible, foul) almost unanimously invoke personal reactions of disgust, horror, repulsion, or fear.
Now which foods are ugly? Obvious candidates are what we know others eat, but which we cannot really bring ourselves to believe or imagine. For Americans that might be insects, reptiles, offal, animal fluids other than milk, sexual organs and extremities. Most of these products are associated with uncleanliness—body parts used for unwholesome activities, bodily secretions or their locale, and animals such as insects and snails that live in places perceived as unclean. Other foods might be ugly as a result of a color or texture we associate with unfavorable experiences. Natto, fermented soybeans enjoyed throughout Japan, are unpleasantly slimy and gooey. Squid ink pasta disgusts because of its black color that stains lips and teeth. So-called 1,000-year-old eggs, a delicacy in China, may remind us of putrefied matter. Monkfish looks like a monster, with its gaping jaws and googly eyes. There is also a moral element to disgust—eating balut, or duck embryo, would strike many people as a horrible sin, as would eating dog, cat, horse, or whale meat. The cultural gaps in question become an impassable abyss as we realize that there’s virtually no food substance that isn’t consumed (barring what’s literally inedible, such as feces or rotten food—and even then . . .) by someone else, somewhere—and more than likely, by someone you know. The English eat blood sausage, the French eat frogs and fatty goose liver and horse carpaccio, Australians eat vegemite. I’ve consumed all but one of the foods shown in these photos, my mother is even worse, counting chicken feet and bird’s nest soup in her meal history, and an unnamed friend has gone so far as to eat unmentionable things, including brains, semen, and heart. To note, he is not some kind of reality TV host, he is just a guy ordering dinner in China.
We mustn’t forget that food is primarily not a visual experience. We experience food more importantly through taste, smell, and touch. And so food that is redolent of death or decay (aged soft cheeses, durian) or that has an unpleasant texture (sea snails, seaweed) repels us.
Obviously I’m writing from a more or less Western/American food culture, and we could turn this around: we love our bacon and ground chuck, reviled in the first instance by Muslims and Jews and in the second by Hindus; we pay large sums in restaurants to dirty our bibs with lobster and crab, which are large arthropods, basically sea insects.
These preferences have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with nutritional content or hardwired human tendencies. Tastes come and go just like fashion. This is pointed out by Paul Greenberg in his book Four Fish, on our current bottomless hunger for Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is very quickly disappearing from the ocean. Modern sushi connoisseurs may not be able to imagine a decent sushi meal sans toro, or fatty bluefin belly, but the taste for this meat is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning in the 1930s, and was motivated by economics rather than gastronomics (as are so many things when you care to look). The familiar story of New England prisoners protesting their lobster dinners comes to mind (and so did Irish prisoners in response to too many meals of cod).
What’s interesting is how adamant people are about what they like to eat and what they cannot even conceive of as decently edible, even if rationally these preferences are rooted in nothing more stable than what’s familiar to them. Beyond that, hungry people at dinner can be at their most unreasonable, bigoted, and frankly racist when it comes to food differences.
Food, much more so than sexual attraction or artistic appreciation, I would argue, is emotionally charged. It is related to personal histories, to localities, to isolated moments in individual memory and collective cultural traditions. This is why tastes are so difficult to change, and why obsessive or compulsive eating is a response to a variety of emotional stresses and disorders. Alongside of this is the bombardment of commercial images we receive from food companies that homogenize our food culture and nostalgia and feed it back to us in easily consumable packages that reinforce what’s already familiar.
Whatever the feelings of disgust or fear attached to it, ugliness carries a certain fascination, especially when this ugliness is chewed up and swallowed inside our own bodies. Adventurous eating has become a kind of underground sport, and “exotic” dishes (read: very exotic) are gaining in popularity on urban menus not especially for the taste but for the novelty. Ugliness is just as vital to defining gastronomic tastes as beauty, and in a lot of ways, ugly food has more variety and excitement. Ugly food, more people seem to be agreeing, is worth a second look.
 For an entertaining discussion of what defines beauty see the BBC series The Human Face with John Cleese.
 According to Greenberg, giant bluefin tuna were first fished by sport fishermen in Canada and their bodies simply thrown away. Japanese planes importing goods to North America after WWII found they could buy the fish at next to nothing and fly them back to Japan, providing the sushi market with an influx of cheap flesh and creating a taste for it. Now a large bluefin can sell for as much as $150,000.
 In Four Fish, Paul Greenberg