The Debate on "Smelly Food"

cheese on a cutting board
bowls of curry and rice
a plate of kimchi

I want you to imagine your favorite food. Maybe it’s pizza, the dough made using a secret family recipe. Maybe it’s pasta with meaty red sauce or savory white sauce. Maybe it’s a bowl of deliciously cheesy macaroni and cheese. The choices here are endless. There are so many wonderful dishes to choose from.  

Now, imagine that you've brought that favorite food with you for lunch to a place you frequent daily. It’s finally lunch time and you’re beyond excited to eat. Imagine that you start eating and someone points out how weird your food is. It looks weird. It smells weird. The texture is weird. It isn’t normal. 

It seems completely normal to you! You eat it all the time. It's your favorite food. But someone else finds it offensive, and they don’t make any effort to hide this from you. This is the reality for anyone who has made the mistake of bringing “smelly” foods to the office or to school. Maybe this makes you feel small, feel shame or any variety of embarrassment. If not, good for you! Not everyone knows these feelings, but those who do usually make sure to never make this mistake again. 

This is a situation known as the “lunchbox moment,” and it refers to when someone (often a person of color) brings a “strange” or “smelly” lunch into a public place that can expose them to ridicule or scrutiny. 

You may agree that smelly foods shouldn’t be brought into public places for lunch. For as many delectable dishes as there are in this world, there are also smelly dishes. You can’t usually control what scents turn you off or make you feel nauseous. 

But I want you to consider this: can considering certain foods as smelly be an indicator of cultural insensitivity or prejudice? 

The short answer is not always, and usually not on purpose. 

Before I dive into the long answer, I want to define the word “normal.” According to Oxford Languages, to be normal is “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” Often, foods that are considered offensive at the office (or school) are foods with strong scents that are not familiar to the average white American. Obviously, this isn’t always the case. Most people consider fish and seafood to have a strong smell regardless of their cultural background. But sometimes, these smelly foods are not ones that your average person is familiar with, so they are denormalized. 

But what foods are considered “normal” or “typical?” Who determines what smells good and what smells bad? Why do foods with strong cheesy smells generally attract less negative attention than foods like curry? 

I will be the first to admit that I am fearful of the unknown and unfamiliar. I think that’s a part of human nature. But just because something makes me a little uncomfortable, do I want to subject someone to the feeling of shame that lunchbox moments often bring? 

Maybe you really do dislike the smell of a certain food, but I urge you to consider the feelings of the person eating it before you comment on it. What’s abnormal or different to you may be familiar and comforting to someone else. These days, when I am confronted with an unfamiliar and unpleasant smell, I ask myself these questions: Can you move away from the smell? Will the smell fade with ventilation? If not, and if you want to comment on it, can you use a different adjective to describe the scent? 

Some scents can be very potent and pungent, and reacting is not inherently linked to being culturally insensitive. But ultimately, is it not the impact of your actions and words that matter more than the intent? 

I think a lot of children would experience less traumatic lunchbox moments if we all asked ourselves these questions. And you never know, a dish that you think is particularly smelly could become your next favorite dish!  

Here's a list of cookbooks that you can use to expose yourself to foods that you may not have tried before: