Ugly Bug Ball

18 Aug 2001

How do we decide whether something’s good to eat or not? How do the appearance, color, form and life of the animal and vegetable species we gobble up and influence our eating habits?
Travelling round the world it’ s surprising to find out that what we consider inedible and would never dream of collecting or catching to eat may be used for others for sumptuous banquets or as a workplace snack. Clichés abound about the gastronomic modes and mores of the world’s most exotic peoples. A lot of them are either figments of the imagination or travelers’ tall tales. Others are not only actual, they also provide food for thought about just how much our ideas and lifestyle influence what we eat.
There’s nothing objective about repulsion. It’s the result of mental patterns and associations that we develop in the course of our existence. Take enotophagia, for example. The eating of insects is a common practice for many peoples round the world. The diet of the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Central and South America were very scant in the way of meat and insects were eaten to set off the lack of protein. Grasshoppers (chapulines) toasted ants (nucu), maggots and worms (gusanos) are still part and parcel of the tradition down Mexico way. A dish of fried gusanos del maguey (the white larvae of the agave, or pulquera, used to distil pulque and mezcal, which you find at the bottom of the bottle) is a real delicacy. So much so that you have to bribe the restaurateurs of Mexico City to have them prepare you one. The same applies to escamoles, the eggs of the ants that live in the deserts of Mexico. They and the eggs of the axayacatl, a parasitic fly, are on a par with caviar and fetch stratospheric prices – and it’s not ‘gastro-eccentric’ whims I’m talking about, but well-rooted customs, delicacies with a precise dietological significance.
The atavistic hunger of peasants the world over has triggered the most wild and wonderful discoveries. In Cercenasco, in the province of Turin, for example, they still eat lampreys, pseudo-fish resembling eels in shape. The lamprey fry are weaned in muddy riverside ponds, where they act as a filter for the murky water and decomposing organisms. The worm-like lampreys are repugnant to look at, but if you wash them thoroughly in milk and fry them, you can’t beat them, though now that the local rivers are worryingly polluted, they have become a rarity.
And what about the sauces made from rotten fish used to dress dishes in Singapore and reminiscent of the vile-smelling Garum of ancient Rome?
The examples could go on forever. Let’s not allow ourselves to be influenced by the packaging and appearance; 100 grams of chapulines are full of protein, rich in minerals and are much less fatty than a fillet steak. What better summer diet!

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 18/08/2001

(English adaptation by John Irving)

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