Subtle ways to avoid the 'stinky food' debate
From picky eaters to hyperosmia, ethnic food critics can avoid the controversy
When a family member invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner, I quickly accepted the invitation. While I was used to helping my mother with dinner at my childhood home or going to my paternal grandparents’ home when they hosted dinner, this was a change of scenery. I was flattered she invited me to come by. That is, until she opened the lobby door and the smell hit me.
My eyes started to water. Only people who know how chitterlings smell could explain the repulsive scent permeating through the lobby and all the way up to her apartment. It still didn’t occur to me that it was her unit that smelled like this.
“What is that?” I asked, covering my nose and mouth. I assumed she would start complaining about a neighbor or that a plumber was in the building handling a toilet mishap.
“I’m making chitterlings!” she happily announced. “I know they don’t smell good, but mine are delicious.”
I blinked. I’d tasted chitterlings one time, also from my paternal grandmother’s home. My father, who enjoys them, offered a forkful of them to me.
“If you don’t like them, it’s OK,” he said. “Just spit them out.”
I’m 99.9% certain he meant to spit them out in a napkin. I chewed on them twice and spit them out into his cupped hand. The taste of them was so disgusting that I raced to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Clearly, my father disagreed. After cleaning his own hand, he went right back to munching on them like they were macaroni n’ cheese.
Oddly, I don’t remember my grandmother’s home smelling like anything at all while she made them and the rest of her food was fiyya. (I only remember her making chitterlings one time in my whole life, although my father claimed he ate them all the time as a kid.) When a childhood friend’s aunt also made chitterlings, I didn’t smell hers either. Although they still looked like chewed human brains no matter whose household they were in, I would’ve been none the wiser at two of those three homes.
Although I fail at my mother’s instruction of “don’t say anything if you don’t have anything nice to say” a sizable amount of the time, I really tried to stick it out at this family member’s house on Thanksgiving. I was going to tolerate that smell and just play with her baby. I realized if I camped out in her bedroom or the living room, the smell was faint. But once I walked into the kitchen, that smell smacked me like A Pimp Named Slick Back.
She made a beautiful plate of Thanksgiving turkey (I was not a vegetarian at the time), dressing, macaroni n’ cheese, collard greens and a couple other sides, and she placed them neatly on a plate for me. I looked at this amazing meal on a decorative plate. But I just couldn’t eat it. She and her boyfriend wanted to sit in the kitchen, where that smell was having a fistfight with my stomach.
Those two sat at the kitchen table, chewing on those chitterlings, and I couldn’t even look their way. I glanced at my phone, specifically at a completely irrelevant text message, and apologized to her. I told her my mother texted me and was rushing me back home because we had guests coming over. I wrapped my plate, hugged her and her boyfriend, and raced out of her apartment like Sha'Carri Richardson.
As much effort as she put into making that meal, I felt bad about not hanging around with them, but I just couldn’t handle the smell of those chitterlings — not even with her windows up, doors open, and she and her boyfriend cracking jokes about how their neighbor also said the building stank but they wouldn’t report it to the landlord as long as that same neighbor got a plate of chitterlings too. Eeeeeew.
Are foods really smelly, or is it just you?
There is no nice way to tell someone their food stinks. If I couldn’t even be honest with my own relative about her apartment smelling exactly like what chitterlings are (i.e. pig intestines), then it’s rough all around for me to tell anybody their food stinks.
Additionally, you walk a slippery slope when the food really doesn’t “stink.” For example, from kindergarten until today, I have hated the smell of eggs so much that I would go into a different room when my parents scrambled or boiled them. Egg whites look like sperm, and scrambling eggs makes me gag at the sight and smell — even if someone else is cooking them. Although I’ve returned to my vegan goals over the past month, during my vegetarian years, I occasionally ate a boiled, cruelty-free egg. Topped with lemon pepper, red pepper and margarine, I’d cut it in half and eat it on toast. Once an egg is on a sandwich, I don’t smell it anymore. Meanwhile, my parents would sniff the air and not be able to smell eggs regardless.
In a similar example, I used to love the smell of BBQ and fried chicken before I went to college. After that? I distance myself from it. Bacon is the only exception to my meat-hating smell, and I haven’t eaten it in 18 years either. To the people who eat these dishes regularly, these food smells are phenomenal.
When culinary cultures collide
Smelly foods don’t universally stink to everyone. It’s just not a food you’re used to smelling (or eating). And that’s why telling someone their food stinks gets complicated, especially if it’s a cultural cuisine.
Who wants to bang on the door of their Indian neighbor to complain about the smell of hing or asafatida? Who is ballsy enough to complain to their Japanese neighbors about making Nattō? Or, the Chinese neighbor making stinky tofu? (Fresh, regular tofu is odorless, but “stinky” tofu is self-explanatory.) Are you willing to deal with the response to your Nigerian neighbor about the smell of bearded goat meat, fufu or fish soup? No matter the dish, there will be someone who loves the smell and taste of it, and a sizable amount of people who are not a fan.
So how do you avoid being the neighbor (or houseguest) who doesn’t want to be an a-hole but also doesn’t want to sit in a home of (what you consider) funk?