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DISPATCH: Wewak, Papua New Guinea
April 28, 2003

At four pm, my personal tropical cocktail hour, I was ready on the minute to make a strong gin and tonic: frozen Duty Free Bombay Blue Sapphire with a cold colonial Schweppes Indian. Even though the last lime had rotted,  the drink still braced enough for the task ahead. Early this morning Jerry and his wife had ventured into the local market.
"Keep your eye out for grub worms, OK?" pleaded a voice I didn't quite recognize as my own.
Since arriving in Papua New Guinea nearly three weeks ago, a freakish part of my mind has been set on eating sago grub worms. The previous month, during a lecture on New Guinea mask-making tradition, a question arose from the audience: "Is it taboo to eat the food of the clan symbol?" Yes, was speaker Dirk Smidt's answer, indeed it was. No crocodile steaks for the crocodile clan, no flying fox fritters for the flying fox clan, and NO SAGO GRUB WORM stew for the sago grub worm clan. My heart immediately cried, "Oh, lord, let me be a member of the sago grub worm clan," just in case there was possible incarnation as a New Guinea native in my stars. I knew in that moment of resistance that fate would force at least one fat worm down my throat. In this lifetime.
Jerry returned an hour later, triumphant, and handed me a white plastic bag. I saw something dark through the dull translucence, not the white writhing mass I'd expected.
"They're smoked," he smiled.
"Just eat them like this, no cooking, no frying?"
"Yes, yes, very good like this," he assured me guilelessly. 
I opened the bag and peered inside: three slim sticks with grayish-brown bumps on them. I pulled out the longest one. Oh god, they have heads. Big dark brown heads. And bulbous segmented bodies at least an inch and a half long. I never imagined they would have much of a presence. I just pictured some amorphous white mass that would be sautéed (by someone else: his wife?) with onions, salt and pepper, that I could then nonchalantly toss back like little bits of fried cheese, chased quickly by the local South Pacific beer. This unexpected form presented a new challenge.
They waited patiently in the refrigerator all day. I optimistically recalled the smoked tuna Jerry's wife had prepared last week. For two days, Michael and I enjoyed it as an appetizer with kalamata olives, cheddar cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. I hoped these creatures were not much different in substance than the fish; the smoke cooked the flesh, made it firm and not slimy, and gave the tuna a nutty, smoky flavor that had been great with our afternoon drinks.
I thought about the worms resting in the fridge a couple of times that day. Once, while polishing the hundreds of old dog teeth I will eventually use in jewelry, my mind visited them and giggled at the perverse delight of sudden dinner, of knowing about them while my friend Michael didn't. Then, a little while later, I said provocatively, "Know what we have?" He looked at me as I walked toward him with the bag in my hand, impatient with the tension of not knowing its treasure. I revealed the booty and he grimaced. Definitely not interested.
So I sat, feeling very apprehensive at the thought of eating them by myself, almost to the point of nauseous aversion. I voraciously read more Anthony Bourdain, groping through his culinary adventures for strength and inspiration: that man will eat anything. "And I've long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk," he says in Kitchen Confidential. Hell, waking up every morning in my life is all about risk. I should be able to do this one small thing.
A half-hour later, I asked Michael, "Ready to help me eat some worms?"

"Not interested." I guess I could have made it more enticing: "Ready for hors d'oeuvres, dear? Can I make you some appetizers and a nice cool drink?"
But no, I was on my own. "I need Jerry for this. I need to see someone else put a large smoked maggot in their mouth and have them live and not throw up and smile afterwards. After all, they're just like the tuna, smoked and cooked." I got them out for a look, tried to sound convincing. "They certainly smell good."
"Zena, you could smoke a dog turd and it would smell good," countered Michael.
I went down and called Jerry. "I need your help, Jerry. I'm not sure about this. Will you eat one in front of me?"
He laughed and pulled a fat one off the stick, stuck it between his teeth up to the head and bit it off, chewing it with familiar relish, casually tossing the head on the ground. I cringed. I needed more. "Will you do it again?"
He ate another and was still standing, smiling. I slipped the next one off the stick. "OK, I'll do it now..." I bit the fat body off at the neck before a thought had time to coagulate in my brain, while his wife giggled from the bench.
"They're even better fried in a little oil," Jerry advised.
Hmmm. It wasn't bad. Kind of sweet, and soft, nutty and smoky. I casually tossed the head on the ground. We both laughed in great relief for different reasons, and I went back to the house, the shortest stick of grubs in my hand.
It was time for a serious, analytical tasting. I beheaded another fat gray body with my teeth. It was creamy on the inside, a little chewy on the outside. The little stiff hairs on its butt scraped across my tongue. The next worm I downed underlined a buttery fatness, very rich, a little wet. There's also a slight green vegetal quality, and a certain earthiness on occasion. I tried not to ascribe these taste sensations to any anatomical part in particular, just took them as whole and complete.
After making another strong drink, a quick sauté seemed appropriate. I diced white onion and cooked it soft with a little salt and pepper, then added a chopped sun-dried tomato - anything would taste good in Italian. The ants were milling around the counter as usual, so I threw in a few big curious ones for good measure. God knows, they've tormented me enough. I gingerly layed in the grub worms, moving them around in the hot pan to make sure their innards would be as warm as their surroundings. Satisfied, I filled a plate and sat on the shady deck with my dinner.
Looking out over the Pacific Ocean, waves breaking on sharp volcanic rocks and a nice breeze blowing from the west, all was peaceful and tranquil. I tried to imagine the perfect wine. My first thought is always pinot noir, so I entertained the possibilities as I chewed a wet one - some of these critters are juicier than their brethren. Actually, I think a red with a little more acid would be sublime - as one cannibal might say, maybe a nice chianti…
All told, I ate twelve of them, a round apostolic number. I left two on my plate in case Michael changed his mind, since I am, after all, a considerate and civilized person. He was NOT interested.
Before I left the states, my good friend Jeff said he'd never kiss me again if my lips ever touched a grub worm. I have to hope that this does not stay true.

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