|DISPATCH: Wewak, Papua New
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
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
"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,"
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
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.