Have you ever wondered just how it is that we can be sure of anything?
I mean, how can we be sure that when we see a particular color, everybody else is seeing the same thing? This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night…that and the Travel Channel.
One depressing morning while watching Anthony Bourdain eat pig testicles, the ideas fused. I’ve been wracked in existential doubt ever since.
How the hell do entire cultures consume foods that are so objectively terrible? And what does this say about a shared sense of humanity? How can my sense of what is delicious exist in the same universe as the following five foods?
Here they are: five international treats that will give you an existential crisis:
1. Irn-Bru (Scotland)
There is one place in the entire world where Coca-Cola is not the number one selling soft-drink. That place is Scotland and the soda of choice Irn-Bru. Flavored with the actual rust of a post-industrial economy (and bubble gum!), Irn-Bru spokespeople insist that their product is not a metaphor for a crumbling civilization. Unfortunately for them, they are contradicted by the stupid spelling.
Despite the tweet-like, twit-like name, the beverage was not actually created by a gaggle of compulsive texters struggling in vain to alleviate the ravages of early-onset carpal tunnel. No, no, originally spelled as if an adult ran the marketing department, Iron Brew was legally obliged to change its name in the 1950s because their neon orange sugar-water was not actually brewed.
We can only imagine that this was a well-intentioned but ill-advised bureaucratic maneuver intended to kill the budding monstrosity. Like most bureaucratic measures, however, it only made matters worse. Irn-Bru was the result and it marked the first shot in a generation’s long war against our taste buds and against the English language.
Spelling hiply before it was hip, this locally adored and internationally derided pop might find a market in Brooklyn, provided it doesn’t catch on anywhere else. Luckily for non-New Yorkers, that isn’t likely to happen.
2. Lakrisal (Sweden)
If the medicinal sounding name doesn’t turn you off, the taste probably will. Often described as a mixture of licorice and soy sauce, this candy is amazingly popular in Sweden. Amongst everybody else, the unholy alliance of flavors elicits only fear and trembling. A well-known newswoman recently sampled it on air and quickly declared that “nothing will ever taste good again!”
If that isn’t a statement of Kierkegaardian angst, I don’t know what is.
Those Scandinavians have interesting fare, from their fermented herring to their jellied reindeer but distilling alienation into a hard candy is an accomplishment of an entirely different sort.
3. Marmite (British Commonwealth)
What is it and why does the Commonwealth like it so much? On both counts, it’s difficult to say. Marmite (and its uglier sibling, Vegimite) is a pungent, overwhelmingly salty, spreadable yeast. So, if the thought of chowing down on a loaf of bread soaked in armpit sweat doesn’t get you salivating, this might not be the food for you.
How has this culinary mess managed to stay around for so long?
Well, in part because the folks at Unilever have cashed in on our nostalgia for stupidly fought wars. Frequently cited as a British staple throughout World War I, we are told that Marmite singlehandedly powered Tommy’s repeated, suicidal efforts at capturing strategic German mud (the glory of it all).
Apparently, Marmite’s marketers are at ease with the implication that theirs is the food left when everything else has been exhausted and you need a condiment capable of masking the ubiquitous funk of death and trench-foot.
At least the subtext is honest.
4. Balut (the Philippines)
Like seemingly everything consumed in the East, Balut is believed to increase the libido (this, of course, is just an ancient marketing technique designed to get people to pay money for disgusting things [hello, Axe body spray!]—but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t worked).
So what is it? At first glance, balut appears to be nothing but a hardboiled egg. However, upon closer inspection, the dish reveals its horrible secrets like a macabre nesting doll. Like a nightmare straight from the fever dreams of Rick Santorum, the cracked shell unleashes a steaming duck fetus.
I’ll give you time to stop retching…
Ready? Well, in the Phillipines, these little gastronomical gems are as common as our hot dogs (and to be fair, not quite as gross). I don’t know how to deal with this fact.
5. Dr. Pepper (U.S.A.):
I hear the objections through the computer screens! Yet, it’s true. Dr. Pepper is our Irn-Bru. Nobody, but nobody, can stand the stuff if they weren’t born in this good old U.S. of A.
The British comedic character Alan Partridge once described Dr. Pepper as tasting of cold medicine and this is absolutely correct. If you are in the U.K., you are familiar with Benalin and said syrup definitely shares the 23 flavors of our favorite Doctor.
Like most people though, I filter uncomfortable ideas through an untarnished lens of American exceptionalism. So, unlike the previously mentioned foodstuffs, I can say that Dr. Pepper actually does f*cking rock. And Britain, scoff all you want but I would chug your cold medicine even if it didn’t have that sweet, sweet diphenhydramine.
So, upon reflection, I think Descartes was right— “There is but oblivion, and we are nothing more than brains in vats.”
Thankfully, however, our storage units are equipped with Anthony Bourdain and basic cable. Now pass that Dr. Pepper flavored cough syrup.
Thomas DeVito has a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has traveled to over 30 different countries and spent 2011 living and teaching in Panama. Thomas also writes at Mission.tv.
Editor: Sarah Winner
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