For those of you fortunate enough to have missed them, please see my two former articles on this subject.
So, we come to it at last. My votes for the worst food I have ever tasted in my life. Firstly, allow me to thank our competitors:
and remind them that everybody's a winner.
Actually, that's true, because in the end I came to a tie. Both these concoctions are so foul that I could not ascribe them any place but the top spot in the pantheon of evil. This is the food that heaven will not serve and that the devil sent back to the kitchen. I am not kidding when I say that I hope I never have either of these again, in all my life.
Drum roll, please. Our winners are:
Vegemite (Australia) and Hakarl (Iceland)
What can I say about these foods? Why call them foods? What can I say about this garbage? They put the 'nary' in 'culinary'. They are awful, shameful and vile. They are inexplicably bad, in an almost fascinating way. They are both the products of two of my favorite countries on Earth, and remain in each case the biggest chink in the armor. If Iceland had one face, I would slap it over hakarl. If the guy who invented Vegemite ever walked in front of my car - well anyway.
GOLD MEDALLIST #1
Here is a picture of hakarl.
It is poisonous shark that has been killed, buried in gravel by the seaside for months, dug up, hung to dry for ponderous amounts of time and then cubed. Everyone involved in this process should be on trial in The Hague.
Here is what I had to say about hakarl in an article I wrote about Iceland last year:
"Iceland is infamous for being among the world leaders in 'gross-out' food. The Japanese, with their natto and fish heads, can only stare enviously at some of the things the Icelandic folk have cooked up. Things that have been cut off of both ends of rams, unknown meats pickled in whey, and harkarl, a kind of fish that should sue for damages. Somewhere along in the past, on one of those days that must have existed but is lost to ancient history, a Viking fellow was stumbling along an Icelandic beach with a large shark over his shoulder when he thought to himself, "Hmm, I'm starving. This is the only food I have. Better leave it here, then." And off he went. My theory doesn't account for how this poisonous fish came to be buried three feet deep and allowed to putrefy in its own bodily fluids for weeks or months, nor how it was dug up again. My theory doesn't explain what caused somebody to want to eat it, knowing it is usually poisonous, or to decide that it was good, and serve it in cubes with toothpicks in it to giggling tourists. I can't explain it, and neither can the rest of the world. Which is why harkarl is still in Iceland, and we all live very far away."
So what does hakarl taste like then? It tastes like crying. It tastes like broken promises. It tastes like the Lord God Almighty ripping the Bible out of your hands and saying, "Sorry, this doesn't apply for you. I think you want "Who Moved My Cheese?" It tastes like the Predator wading into a Care Bears movie and opening fire. It tastes like - bah. That's what it tastes like. Bah.
The only - and I do mean only - upside about this food is that it was free. I was wandering through a weekend market in Reykjavik and came across a stall serving fish. The woman working there started talking to me in Icelandic (please see the full set of my Icelandic articles to figure out why), and the moment she realized I was not Icelandic, she smiled and offered me a little paper cup with a cube of hakarl in it. At the time, I thought this was a warm gesture of welcome to her country. As it turns out, she was thinking, "Well, you are foreign and now I shall poison you."
I smiled the moment I put the cube on my tongue. It was the exact sort of smile you get when you are having the worst day of your life and then find out that your house was crushed by an airplane carrying rubber chickens. It is the smile you smile when everything is aligned against you and it is simply not your day.
And then the following conversation took place:
Tongue: (sits down)
Brain: What's wrong?
Tongue: I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if a million voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.
Brain: What's that your eating?
Tongue: I think it's a bullion cube.
Brain: Why would you ever eat a bullion cube?
Tongue: I don't know. I don't know anything, anymore.
Brain: Well spit it out then.
Tongue: I can't. I can't move.
Brain: Spit it out I say!
Brain: Hold on, just hold on!
Tongue: There...is...another Skywalkeraaaaggghhhhhhhhhhh.
I was raised not to spit out food. It goes against every fabric of my being. I used to work in Chinatown, where often they serve you meat that is so chewy that it is customary that you dedicate a room in your house to it, and invite people to help chew it in their leisure time. I especially would not spit out food that someone else gave me - a guest in their country.
Instead, I stowed the cube in my cheek and walked far away, to the retaining wall by the bay, and spit it out there. A duck (there are ducks everywhere in Reykjavik) came up and pecked it a few times. Then, and I believe I can say this without fear of contradiction, it flew out to sea and plunged into the icy waters, its last words "Forgive me!"
And then there's Vegemite.
GOLD MEDALLIST #2
Ah, Vegemite. We meet again.
Nature has already been clear about what happens when you mix red and yellow. It yields the six great poisons:
When I went to Australia, my mother sent me an e-mail that included this line: "there is a vegetable equivalent to peanut butter in Australia that they eat on bread. Some love it, some hate it." What she was talking about was Vegemite, which is marketed as "One of the world's richest known sources of Vitamin B." That alone should scare you.
I had rented a cabin in Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, and drove one day to a very small nearby town (nearby as in a half-hour drive) to get a few supplies, and one of the things they had was Vegemite. "What the hell?" I thought. How often do you get this opportunity? I bought some bread to go with it and took it back to my cabin. So far, so good.
I opened the jar.
The smell equivalent of this came out:
Determined to press ahead, I took a spoon and dipped it into the hard, brown substance. It yielded. I spread it on the bread and it was soon a brown wall of smell. I closed my eyes. I took a bite.
I literally dropped to one knee. I stared at the bread. I actually picked up the bottle and read every word written on it, afraid that it was either expired, or I was using it wrong. Perhaps I was supposed to cook it? Perhaps I was supposed to beat it first? Was this a balm to be spread on cow udders to prevent infection, or was it real, honest-to-goodness people food?
Not only did I instantly spit it into the trash, and then throw the bottle away - I scrambled around my cabin for something, anything, that could get the taste out of my mouth. I tried chocolate. I tried soda. I tried brushing my teeth. I would have tried far more unspeakable things if they had been at hand. They weren't.
I got in my car and I drove down to the local visitor's center, which had a small cafeteria. I walked in and told the young lady working there that I would like "anything." She calmly turned around and began to gather things, as if "anything" were a legitimate, normal order. Five minutes later she brought to my table a muffin, a cup of coffee, a chocolate bar and some sort of rye toast with Vegemite on it.
I leave the future travels in this world to the rest of you. I have eaten Vegemite, and I am going home to die.