5 Gross Foods We Had to Survive on Before We Figured Out What Tasted Good
The discovery of cooking is one of the most important things humans have ever accomplished. Scientists suggest that the additional nutrients that early humans were able to get by barbecuing their brontosaurus drumsticks were necessary to develop the large and complex brains that are our calling cards, due to the level of energy they demand. Not to say that there’s no nutritional benefit to the weird raw diets of insane TikTok bodybuilders. For instance, it allows them to take the sort of shits that split a toilet like a pistachio shell.
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Just because we figured out that we SHOULD be cooking stuff, however, doesn’t mean that we figured out exactly how to do it in a pleasant way. There’s a gap of a couple millennia between realizing bird in fire equals good and the first Popeyes perfecting the craft. Still, the nutrients were needed, so people did their very best to put together meals that seemed, at least to their beleaguered palates, edible. With our developments since, though, it’s highly doubtful any of them would make a modern menu.
Here are five of the grossest foods that were invented before we knew what flavor was.
Milk Soaked Lungs
The vivid mental picture just the name of this dish can create is remarkably impressive, and I regret to inform you that it’s completely literal. Sure, during times gone by, making the most of every bit of meat, especially among the lower class, was a necessity. But even for organ-meat enthusiasts who might enjoy a nice liver, fava beans and chianti, lungs are still not exactly good eats. In fact, in the modern U.S., they’re straight up illegal.
Food safety back in ancient times, though, was more of a thing you found out about rather than planned for. Sickness aside, to make the lung itself approach edibleness, it was soaked in milk and filled with things like eggs, honey and spices. The cooking method didn’t do it any favors, either, seeing as it was just straight up boiled, not a process known for creating subtle flavors. It was then sliced up and probably scraped off under the table to a waiting, freshly domesticated dog.
Melas zomos, or “black broth,” was a food eaten by the Spartan warriors. Which makes a whole lot of sense, since the ingredient list sounds like a folksy way to describe a Spartan’s toughness: full of blood, salt and vinegar. It looks almost exactly like you’d expect as well. Most charitably, like someone’s first, terrible attempt at a mole, and less charitably, like the hospital bedpan of someone with an intestinal injury.
Again, we understand that warriors had to cook what they had available, but there’s one bit of head-scratching detail here, which is that there is a mostly normal ingredient involved: boiled pigs’ legs. You’d think, having that, they would have been perfectly happy with a subpar pork stock, but apparently all that precious blood was too good to waste. Even the people of the time weren’t big fans, as one story says a non-Spartan tasting it reacted by saying, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully.”
One untoothsome combo the people of the past, including up to fairly recent times, seemed to be dead-set on conquering was that of meat and gelatin together. Is traditional gelatin itself a cooked animal product? Technically, yes, but that thin thread is far from enough reason to suspend meat and organs in it like something halfway between a Zelda dungeon and a Hellraiser movie.
An early recipe for a jiggly meat mistake is apician jelly, from one of the most famous (and earliest) cookbooks ever discovered, Apicius. Within this cookbook is a recipe for apician jelly, which starts off innocently enough with a list of herbs to include before we get to the more unfortunate bits — specifically, bits of chicken and other animal sweetbreads (read: weird organs like the pancreas) that are then covered with gelatinized broth and buried in the snow to harden. It then instructs you to add a sauce, like that’s going to help the situation.
You know a food is foul when the Romans wouldn’t allow it to be manufactured inside the town because of the horrific odor. Instead, if you wanted to create the ancient condiment garum, you were required to take to well outside city limits or pre-approved areas where you could stink up the place without sparking a neighborhood-wide unanimous retching epidemic. Learning the process, you could see why: They would fill stone tanks with the entire, disassembled bits of small fish, including guts, cover them with saltwater and let that rot in the sun for up to a year.
Truth be told, it’s not all that shocking, since fermented fish sauce still exists, especially in Southeast Asian cuisine. But if you’ve ever smelled or tasted that straight, you’re probably still not licking your lips at the idea. Add to that, garum is apparently a stronger version; in other words, garum is not something you’re storing in a fridge that you plan to keep for the foreseeable future. The Romans, though, loved it, and put it on almost everything they ate. So if you thought garlic breath was bad, just know that at one time, it could have been so much worse.
Hard Boiled Eggs
Look, I realize this one’s still popular today, but I have to beg the question, why? There has to be a better way. Eggs are one of the most versatile foods around, so why does everyone still insist on casting them into stinky, slippery little spheres for the world’s saddest lunch?
I don’t even know which part is worse, the outside, which feels like eating a bath toy straight out of the tub, or the nasty little yellow marble in the center. Does my hate come from having to swipe squelching bags of pre-cooked ones across the scanner at a Trader Joe’s job of the past? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong. If you fucked up soft-boiling an egg, so be it, but for this to be the intended result? I refuse to accept it.