John Birdsall’s essay for Topic on crimes against taste deserves kudos for bringing us the beautifully evocative words “glitter-scurfed,” but also for being a fun and funny way of getting us all to realize when we’re being judgy assholes about peoples’s food (#ChideReads?). Is the line between “good taste” and “food crime” completely relative? Maybe. But even if it’s not, it’s a lot fuzzier than most of us think.
Some days my Instagram serves up a scroll of atrocities: cake-topped #freakshakes, Bloody Marys bristling with bacon swizzles and sliders on skewers, Luther Burgers with glazed doughnuts stunting for the bun, brownie-batter “hummus,” glitter-scurfed pink-and-blue unicorn Frappuccinos, and activated charcoal soft-serve so black and glossy it resembles roof-patch polymer. Social media is a major enabler of crimes against taste (their visual representations anyway; see the new popularity of “dark cuisine,” or hei an liao li—fantastical, thrillingly transgressive dishes trending on Chinese social media), but it is, after all, only food porn.
Let’s pause to consider the definition of “crime,” or at least to say what it is not. There are plenty of dishes that appear brutal, bizarre, or disgusting through the lens of culture. My introduction to Filipino food was the murky bowl of dinuguan (a stew of mixed pork innards in a sauce of vinegar and blood) my future mother-in-law served me for breakfast one morning nearly 30 years ago. As I slurped politely, I gazed longingly at the box of Cheerios on top of the fridge. If I’d stopped there, rejected a cuisine I didn’t understand and that seemed intent on assault (especially so early in the morning), my brush with the food of the Philippines might have gone down in dinner-party stories as a tale of staring down evil in a bowl and living to talk about it, or at least of shuddering in the face of grossness. Thanks to love for my husband-to-be, I suppose, I persisted. I came to see beauty in a bowl of blood and offal stew—the way a handful of economical cuts from a butcher’s market stall can transcend utility, honor an animal gone to slaughter by elevating its twistiest parts, and express an immigrant’s longing for a place on the other side of the world. A dish that looks, smells, and tastes like a crime can merely be misunderstood, evidence of an accusing prosecutor’s failure at grasping meaning or context.