He ate his first live insect at Mexico's Day of the Jumil festival. After that, every bug got easier to swallow.
Mexico's Mount Huizteco is the site of a festival known as the Day of the Jumil, which honors a half-inch-long type of stinkbug. Twenty thousand people gather here to drink sodas and beer, listen to music, and look for jumiles under the leaves of trees--then chew them alive or grind them with chilies and tomatoes into a paste served on tostadas. Here I ate my first insect. Live. It was disgusting. I crunched the unfortunate bug between my teeth before it could scratch my lips or crawl away on my tongue. But my efforts to avoid one unpleasant sensation earned me another: My taste buds were bombed by the creature's bitter, medicinal flavor; jumiles, it turns out, are rich in iodine. As it went down, I remembered the raw oyster my dad had given me when I was 10. This was worse. At least the oyster wasn't an escape artist with little legs that got stuck in my teeth.
After that, every bug got easier to swallow. In the past eight years I have traveled around the world with my wife, exploring the frontiers of entomophagy. Our view of the culinary potential of invertebrates broadened as we ate raw scorpion in China, roasted grubs in Australia, stir-fried dragonflies in Indonesia, tarantulas on a stick in Cambodia, and live termites in Botswana. Perhaps the most memorable meal was Theraposa leblondi, a tarantula big enough to hunt birds, which we ate with Yanomami Indians in the Venezuelan rainforest.
'It's a way to look at culture, from a very personal angle,' I told those who asked why I was doing this. But I should have said, 'I want to use entomophagy to encourage us West-erners to examine our own diets and our attitudes toward what we eat.'
Although Americans are ever more distant from the food chain, we seem to be ever more shackled to the dinner table. And as the marketplace expands, turning the globe into Planet Big Mac, so do the waistlines of Americanus corpus grossus. The large creatures I see in my supermarket, stuffed with the meat-and-potatoes diet I cherished as a child, look ever more like the future of the human race. Bugs are in no way the solution--one bite of jumil was enough to tell me that--but they are food for thought.
Describing these new tastes to friends was difficult. I was able to explain that a witchetty grub cooked in the fire by an Aboriginal grandmother in Australia tastes much like a tender cheese omelette rolled in a smoky phyllo-dough shell. But live termites in Uganda were harder to evoke. After nibbling on several heads (you toss the bodies), I finally figured out the flavor: roasted peanut skins, only juicier. Ugandan children had no such trouble describing the taste. 'It's just like young grasshoppers,' they explained.
Our knowledge of cultural cuisine has expanded exponentially; neither my wife nor I have suffered the slightest gastronomic discomfort from these food forays. Insects are a huge, closely related family (the world's largest zoobiomass), and we often wondered if they had a collective memory. Because in the Amazon, by day we ate bugs; by night they ate us.
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