In Praise of Ugly Food: You Can’t (always) Judge a Dish by its Looks
People talk about “food porn” a lot these days, as in, “when food is portrayed/displayed in an appetizing and aesthetically appealing way.” People are constantly posting photos of beautiful food. Hell, I do it myself all the time, but the truth is, food can look appealing, but still taste like a Thailand gutter.
Let’s talk about the opposite: I just happen to have sampled my share of restaurants across the globe, and I have some thoughts on the subject of ugly food. My mantra: “Not everything you see tastes and smells like it looks.” We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and this statement holds true in every facet of life. As I walk this planet, I continue to see examples of this concept more and more, every day.
Why can’t something that’s not necessarily appealing to look at—let alone downright ugly—be complex and tasty despite its ugliness? You have to look, smell, and taste. Think about people. I’ve dated many beautiful people in my life, but alas, sometimes when you get a little closer the sparkle fades, and then the truth comes out. You can gift-wrap a piece of shit, but there’s still shit inside that beautiful exterior. Not everything is what it seems to be. A princess can be a witch; a trusted salesperson can be a scammer; and a priest can be a pedophile (yes, I said it). At the other end of the spectrum, there are so many people in this world who might not look like models, but they’re incredibly beautiful on the inside.
How many times have you or I (or our kids!) looked at a plate of food and, based solely on its appearance, made up our minds whether we’re even willing to try it. It’s instinctive; our eyes guide our guts and our hearts. Here I am nonetheless, pushing for acceptance and love of the ugly. “Ugly equals awful” is certainly true when it comes to mold, some fast foods, and smelling something that’s past its expiration date, but hell, chili-flavored Fritos, chicken and dumplings, octopus, and chicken feet—all undeniably ugly—all taste delicious. So when you think about it, ugly could be your new culinary yellow brick road.
Which brings us to the number-one dish of northern Italy and one of my top-three favorite dishes on the planet: Osso Bucco, Saffron Risotto, and Gremolata. Wow, Jim (barf), this could be the food of nightmares. It’s just plain yucky looking. Parents, take a flashback to your kids’ used Pampers when they started eating solid foods, and you’ll get the idea. Yow.
I digress. During a recent trip to Italy, I dined at Osteria Mamma Rosa, one of the top places to eat Osso Bucco in Milan. When the dish arrived at my table, I giggled like a child, saying to myself, that sure looks poopy, and yet I knew from experience that it was going to be great, and boy, did that dirty vintage food porn ever deliver. The flavorful meat fell off the shank, the risotto was sooo smooth, the gremolata zippy, the meat sauce so deep/delicate, and the bone marrow … gelatinous heaven. I paired this glorious meal with a beautiful bottle of Gaja Barbaresco. When I look back on it now, it was a true Five-Star-to-Dive-Bar pairing—dive-bar looking food with a beautiful, five-star bottle of wine. Perfection!
So before you nix a plate of food based on its inauspicious—if not downright ugly—looks, always remember my mantra and don’t rush to judgment. Pull off that diaper, dig in, and give it a try!