Tim Wharton bristles at being called a "foodie," with its connotation of lush, sumptuous "food porn." He prefers "gastronaut," a label popularized by late British television chef Keith Floyd, for its evocation of intrepid culinary exploration.
Wharton's provocative new book Ugly Food: Overlooked and Undercooked, written with fellow gourmet Richard Horsey, is a celebration of the gustatory pleasures of octopus and other beasts and plants less eaten. The authors make an impassioned case for why we should prefer the likes of sea robin, a plug-ugly whiskered fish found along America's eastern seaboard, to the comelier but parlously-overfished Atlantic cod and its kin.
Horsey and Wharton met as grad students at the University of London in the 1990s, bonding over a mutual love of food on a trip to California. They found the academic conference they were attending underwhelming, but accomplished their extra-curricular mission, says Horsey, "to blow all (our) money on the best food we could get."
Ugly Food is a love letter to the dishes Horsey, an international political analyst based in Myanmar, and Wharton, a musician-turned-academic at the University of Brighton in southern England, have encountered in their quest to delve "beyond the [chicken] breast." But the recipes it serves up — Maldivian curried octopus, boiled sheep's head from Scandinavia, rabbit stifado from Greece, French giblet pie and, of their own devising, ice-filtered squirrel consommé among other delicacies — throw into sharp relief a mainstream Anglo-American food culture fixated on the sanitized presentation of flawless specimens of a few favored foods. Besides being a cookbook, Ugly Food is equal parts culinary "manifesto," earthy polemic and disquisition into why we embrace some ingredients but balk at others no less nourishing and delicious and often considerably cheaper.
Actually, ugliness isn't the half of it. For every homely fish in Ugly Food there are cute critters like rabbit or squirrel that are similarly spurned — anything in fact that evokes an "emotional reaction, positive or negative," according to Horsey and Wharton.