I had never felt this nervous before dinner. Not even before a first date. In a way, this was a first date: with rotten soya beans, coffee from the anus of a civet, and breasts of jelly. I was on my way to the Dirt Banquet, produced by Guerilla Science and Bompas and Parr for the Wellcome Collection Dirt season, and my stomach was in knots.
If the pre-circulated menu hadn’t tipped me off, I knew the 50-strong party was in for a treat when we rolled up at the evening’s venue: London Crossness is a sewage pumping station built by civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette in 1865. Only the Victorians could build a sewer like a cathedral.
The proud building rises out of the Kent wasteland, and as the sun set in a smoggy orange and indigo haze, we slipped inside for a night of food and filth. Surrounded by wrought iron painted in red and green and four huge pumping engines named after Queen Victoria’s family, we sipped a delicate punch of gin, champagne and real lavender petals as the evening began.
Mike Jones, trustee and treasurer of the Crossness Engines Trust, kicked off the night with a brief talk about the remarkable building we stood in. He explained that Crossness was built after the Great Stink of 1858, when London’s River Thames was heavily contaminated with human waste and the smell of sewage was unbearable. 20,000 people died each year from cholera. Bazalgette built a sewer system that intercepted waste water and channeled it further east, down the river towards the sea. This required several pumping stations, and Crossness was built as one of them. The entire project was a feat of extraordinary engineering. In 1987, the Crossness Engines Trust was set up to renovate the pumping station, and so far the engine named “Prince Consort” has been restored to his former working glory.
After the punch, my taste buds were tingling for some food. Four canapé courses were presented on plinths: radioactive cheese; Papua New Guinea mud cakes (made from real mud); bacterial cheese and jelly; and haggis. Talking about stomachs in knots… haggis is cooked in a sheep’s stomach.
This traditional Scottish dish is made from heart, liver and lungs and on paper it seems disgusting (though it is really rather delicious to eat). Where does this disgust come from? Anthropologist Val Curtis, who gave an illuminating pre-dinner talk, suspects that human disgust has developed as a way to avoid disease. Most of us are naturally revolted by faeces, vomit and rotting foods. We know now that these substances are potential sources of disease, but the disgust comes from something more deep-rooted. It is instinctual, and has helped the human race survive over thousands of years.
Bompas and Parr’s menu challenged the “disgust centre” of our brains. Fermented soya beans and raw tuna made up the first course. With “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” in mind, I tucked in. Of course, I lived to tell the tale: that raw tuna has a wonderfully squishy texture, but gone-off soya beans aren’t exactly more-ish.
Next, we had to dig for our dinner. The main course was served in enormous flower pots filled with soil. The earth contained baked potatoes in foil and cooked pork in jars, topped with plants that served as our salad. The flecks of soil that stuck to the radishes only gave the tasty meal an extra crunch. Our drinks, too, had an earthly origin: charcoal-cleansed Thames Water and Pillastro Primitivo wine bestowed with a subtle flavour of rich vineyard soil.
Midway through our feast, it became clear that all our thirsts would be sated. Led by Elizabeth Pisani, author of The Wisdom of Whores, and Catherine Stephens, a professional sex worker, we exchanged sexual favours for money. Don’t be alarmed; we hadn’t descended into Ancient Roman debauchery. The money was chocolate coins and the “favours” involved swapping genitalia-shaped sweets. This was an experiment to see how deviant we might be if offered enough money. Sugar-coated anuses were swapped for banana-flavoured penises with great humour. We were well prepared for the dessert proper: orange and Laphroaig jelly breasts with gold leaf nipples – surely the most decadent dessert that has ever passed my lips.
The night ended with more adventure and experiment. After-dinner coffee was made from beans digested by a civet cat. Durian fruit truffles and chocolate anuses accompanied this dirty delicacy, and everything was washed down with a peaty dram from the shores of Scotland’s finest whisky-making region, Islay.
Finally, the experiment we had all been fearing, one that was intended to make our fermented fish, buried pork and jelly breasts emerge in the same way as a coffee bean from a civet: the brown note. This is a theoretical infrasonic frequency that might cause humans to lose control of their bowels (though there is no real evidence for this). The suspect sound waves did not cause anyone to prematurely eject their dinner. Rather cheekily, one of the Guerilla Science team let off a sulfurous stink bomb, but they weren’t fooling anyone.
If Heston Blumenthal is the chemist of cooking, then Bompas and Parr are the biologists. My taste buds were challenged like never before and I mastered my underlying fear of disease to taste some remarkable foods. And where better to do this than in the middle of a sewer?
Louise Crane is a Picture Researcher at the Wellcome Library.