The promise of a modern sewage system is the freedom to forget that the waste goes somewhere. It’s an indulgence that quickly hardens into abuse — which, in turn, hardens into something else altogether. Over the years, in London, millions of tiny droplets of cooking oil have been funneled down into the city’s underbelly from the drains of fried-chicken shops and curry houses, slipping past grease traps in a swirl of wastewater. At the same time, in homes all across town, wet wipe after wet wipe has been flushed out of sight and into the mix, where their plasticized fibers formed a skeleton around which the fat could accrete. Slowly, the incipient mass began to trap tampons, condoms and often a discarded needle or two in its oily matrix, eventually growing into a monstrous subterranean clot the length of 22 double-decker buses with the weight of a blue whale: the Whitechapel Fatberg.
The fatberg was discovered in September 2017; just nine weeks later, it was gone. Utility workers clad in hazmat gear broke up the blockage with water jets and shovels before sucking it out into tanks and processing most of it into biodiesel. One large chunk was saved, however, at the request of the Museum of London, which opened a new exhibition in February titled, simply, “Fatberg!” Its chief attraction is the chance to see, in person, this last remnant of the Whitechapel monstrosity. The week it opened, I lined up, elbowing past school kids and pensioners for the chance to gaze upon the shoebox-size lump.
At first glance, a fatberg is not very appealing. Its surface is disconcertingly soft-looking, a beige putty color, waxy in places and chalkier in others. Fatberg scientists — a lonely group — theorize that as cooking oil ages in the low-oxygen conditions of a sewer, it undergoes a process of saponification, hardening into a crumbly, soaplike substance whose nearest relation is the layer of “grave wax” that can mummify a buried corpse in a shroud of its own exuded fat. The museum’s head of conservation, Sharon Robinson-Calver, told me that when the fatberg first arrived, its most notable feature was its smell — a cocktail of rotting meat mixed with dirty diapers, its rancid base notes all but drowned out by an ammoniac tang. When the fatberg was fresh, she recalled, it was still sloppy, with reddish maggots visibly writhing beneath its glutinous surface. By the time I saw it, the fatberg had dried and begun to crumble, revealing the treasures concealed within: I spotted chunks of Styrofoam, as well as the distinctive orange-and-purple plumage of a Double Decker chocolate-bar wrapper.
Being superlatively revolting is, however, not enough to merit an object’s display alongside the Museum of London’s priceless collection of Roman ruins, Elizabethan jewelry and Art Deco ironwork — particularly when the thing in question risks infecting staff members with incurable diseases. Robinson-Calver said she kept the fatberg under observation in quarantine for several weeks, submitting it to chemical and X-ray testing before judging it admissible to the museum’s public galleries. In part, the curators and conservators say they went to the trouble of acquiring, conserving and displaying the fatberg in the hope that a face-to-face confrontation with their creation will provoke the shock needed to change Londoners’ habits.