Ilsa J. Bick, author of The Ashes Trilogy[read my review of Ashes] joins us today to tell us all about The Things You Never Thought You’d Eat! If you haven’t already read Ashes – after an EMP pulse a lot of people die, but many people of a certain age turn ravenous and violent, so basically zombies…just not dead.
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Okay, we can all agree that a zombie’s lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Principally, it’s the food issue: all that chowing down on people is, well, very Soylent Green, if you’re in the sanitized version,
or Night of the Living Dead (a movie that completely freaked me out when I first saw it) and its ilk, if you’re not.
Now, most of us have this automatic aversion to the idea of cannibalism; I remember asking this question of a bunch of eighth graders and only a handful said that, hey, the person’s dead, so . . . For the record, I agree with them. Eating a person wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’d never say never. Still, whether it’s a kind of knee-jerk response—I mean, really, what is the objection to cannibalism anyway?—or a response conditioned by the idea of putting something yucky in our mouths, everyone’s got some kind of internal limit: this far, and no far, and I will never eat that.
Ask yourself, though: if you were starving, just how high on the yuck factor would you be prepared to go? Do you even know what your personal yuck factor is? (Again, cannibalism is a non-starter here; I’m talking everything just short of that.)
Most people think of plants first because we all know about edible plants, the theory anyway. Although, all apologies to The Hunger Games, you can’t eat white pine pith raw the way Katniss does in the book. That stuff’s disgusting. Tastes like turpentine. You can eat white pine; the Indians considered it, like acorns, starvation food. But you need to boil or fry it up first. Boiling is . . . meh. Tolerable. Turns the water in your pot a nice ruby-red. Frying is better. Just saying. Now, white pine needle tea . . . that’s fine. Tastes pretty good, actually. So does chewing on raw needles. But the pith? Forget it.
For most of us, chowing down on, say, a violet feels better, more civilized, and lower down on the yuck factor than squeezing out a bunny’s innards through his bottom, stirring around the goo, and picking out the good parts: kidneys, heart. (A real technique, by the way, because you might not have a knife, and the nice thing about a bunny is the skin is very lax and easy to peel.)
Ah, I see you now: making faces, sticking out your tongue, shaking your head. You’re thinking, no way in hell.
Like I said, guess again.
It’s normal to have plate fright, which is exactly what it sounds like: an aversion (call it a gross-out or yuck factor) to eating something. For some people, it’s raw oysters; for others, it’s snails or sheep’s brains or whatever. But everyone’s got plate fright—and in survivalism circles, plate fright can spell the difference between staying alive or becoming a Happy Meal for the maggots. I’m being totally serious here. Forget zombies popping back eyeballs like M&Ms. I’m telling you right now that you had better be prepared to scarf down that eyeball or bunny heart or grub . . . yes, a grub . . . if you want to survive in the highly unlikely event of a zombie apocalypse—or the much more likely scenario that someday you might find yourself good and lost.
So let’s talk plate fright and the one food group that most Americans could do without and yet may save your life. No, not bunny hearts or minnows or snakes (all very tasty).
Let’s talk about what gave me plate fright until I got over it.
Let’s talk bugs.
* * *
True story: Everyone in the military takes survival training. Makes sense: get yourself lost or caught behind enemy lines or maybe you’ve been shot down . . . you need to know what to do to stay alive long enough to be rescued, which is the name of the game when you’re in the Air Force like I was, or any of my sister services. So even we doctors went through a flavor of survival school, which is where I really got my first taste of what it might be like to be far away from things like refrigerators and grocery stores.
My training happened in the desert around Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Actually, I think we were closer to Kelly Army Base . . . anyway, the principle’s the same, regardless of location: the military takes you and a bunch of your fellow sorry asses . . . uh . . . comrades in arms out into the desert. (Sidebar: We were all doctors. Ten guesses how well we worked as a unit.) You’ve got a couple Marines there to babysit you. They give you a backpack with practically nothing by way of supplies. (To this day, I wonder why the heck no one thought of giving any of us a KA-BAR. Rule One in terms of survival gear: if you can only have one tool, take the knife. Hands down. Ever read Hatchet? Same principle.)
Anyway, so we get this pack with about, I dunno, a couple quarts of water, some ration bars, parachute gore . . . I can’t remember everything the pack had, but it was damn meager. Anything we ate extra, we had to find.
Which meant we had to scrounge. In the desert. With no knife and no other weapon.
A whole bunch of us—I was with a ton of guys—were really focused on hunting down a defenseless armadillo. Me, I thought the chances of that were slim to none, and I was a little worried, too, about the idea of clubbing that poor thing to death because that’s what we’d have had to do.
So, I was focused on alternatives, namely plants. Knowing what lay ahead, I’d boned up on some of the native edibles. The problem was that where we were training was routinely used and pretty well picked over. But I thought, You can eat yucca. You can eat prickly pear. You go, girl.
I must’ve scoured for a yucca plant for HOURS that first day. I remember finally finding one, digging it out—took hours with only a stick, you know—and then hauling it back to camp. (Shades of my first Girl Scout camp-out: when sent out on a firewood run, I was gone longer than anyone, but, boy, did I drag back one big-ass pine tree. I mean it. I brought back the whole damn tree. A small pine, but it was the “whole” thing that made me proud. Only . . . pine is terrible in terms of campfires. Want to touch off a bigger blaze than you intended? Want to start a forest fire? Burn fresh pine. Stuff is explosive.)
Anyway . . . that thing I thought was a yucca? Ehhhh, <buzzer sound> Ilsa, you lose. I’d brought back a lovely big bear claw (a lookalike to yucca, so I have an excuse), which has the virtue of being completely inedible.
So I went to bed kind of, you know, hungry, having used up tons of calories for nothing. I think this was Day Two or something, and I’d eaten about half an energy bar in the last forty-eight hours. (This being survival school, they’d kept us busy, too: evading the enemy, orienteering, building shelters, you name it.) So it was really dark, and I was lying there, kind of semi-conscious on account of being dehydrated, too, when all of a sudden, there was this huge scream: AAAAHHHHH!
It was one of the guys. Bolting up from my really uncomfortable nest of whatever debris I’d gathered, I scrambled out of my shelter just in time to hear this guy go shrieking into the night. A second later, there was this THUMP!
Because, of course, he’d hit a tree. With his nose. Blood everywhere. Which put an end to his adventure.
The point of this little vignette? This: the guy woke up because he felt something on his chest. Being only in a semi-doze, he took a swipe at it—only to have this thing chitter really loudly. He freaked, and the rest is history.
But what made him freak . . . was a grasshopper.
Now, if he’d been thinking, instead of having an argument with a tree, he might have popped that sucker into his mouth. If I’d been thinking, I might have beaten him to it. Okay, I’d have roasted it first . . . but maybe not.
And that is the point of this whole long story: to introduce you to the idea of eating bugs.
* * *
So, the big question: have I ever eaten a bug? Yes. The grossest thing I ever swallowed was a grub (raw and very quickly; the trick is with squishy things like grubs and worms is not to chew). Would I do that again? Sure, if I was starving, but if I could get a fire started, I’d probably dry roast that sucker first. For me, scarfing down grub or worms done that way is just easier to take. It’s the squish and sliminess of which I’m not overly fond, which is the same reason okra’s one of my least favorite vegetables. I don’t like slime in my vegetables, my fish, or my insects and bugs.
Why eat bugs as survival food, or any regular day of the week? Well, why not? Most countries, even developed ones, include bugs and insects in their cultural cuisines. Really, what keeps most of us from sampling insects is cultural bias: that knee-jerk yuck factor.
But as Marcel Dicke points out, whether you know it or not, you’re already eating insects and bugs, pieces of which are present in just about every processed food: peanut butter, chocolate, tomato soup, noodles, bologna, and the like. If you’re a fan of sushi and those California rolls made with crab sticks (not real crabs but whitefish dyed red), you’re eating an insect product; the dye used to color the crab sticks is produced by an insect. Take a moment to listen to Dicke’s TEDTalk; it’s really interesting.
Second, most of the world’s population includes insects in their diet. Cooked and seasoned, they’re really quite tasty, so much so that the New York Times has even gotten into the act (http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/the-bugs-you-can-eat/?ref=dining&_r=0). Diner’s Journal has some nice suggestions, too. (http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/the-bugs-you-can-eat/?ref=dining&_r=0).
Which means that you can do this in the wild. (I mean, you’re already packing that salt shaker, right? Something to double as a frying pan? A little oil? So . . . you’re set. Even if all you brought was the salt, you’re still golden.)
Bugs and insects are the most abundant food source on the planet. They’re plentiful, easy to catch, and, by and large, require no fancy-schmancy traps. They’re packed with calories, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Most people can eat them without worry, the exception being those with allergies to shellfish as some insects—like cicadas—are in the same family. Not every insect is safe to eat either, so you do need some knowledge. Daniella Martin’s excellent site, Girl Meets Bug, has a wonderful list of edible insects, recipes, a fun blog, and information on where to purchase some of the more exotic types (http://edibug.wordpress.com/list-of-edible-insects/).
Basically, the rules of thumb in the wild are:
a) Ants, grasshoppers, crickets, mayflies, cicadas, moths and butterflies are best;
b) Avoid things like the grub I forced myself to swallow if at all possible; that slime factor is just a killer and everyone gags. Gag enough to vomit, and you’ve just fluid you can’t afford.
c) Give bees, wasps, hornets, and any insect with fuzz a pass because they’re usually poisonous (although some say you can eat bees and the like if you remove the stinger; for me, that’s too much work unless there’s no other option).
d) Avoid really bright insects or those that don’t seem to give a damn if you’re around. As one writer for Field and Stream noted (http://www.fieldandstream.com/articles/survival/survival-food/2010/08/eating-insects-survival), those insects know they’re poisonous and so don’t care.
e) Boil, sauté, or roast (for example, by wrapping the insects in leaves), not only because this makes the insect more palatable but kills off any bacteria along for the ride.
And that’s really all you need to know. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about eating insects and the only thing stopping you is plate fright. Check out this article if you don’t believe me: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/2013/07/24/whats-stopping-us-from-eating-insects/
Then, the next time you’re at a zombie flick or someone’s hosting a zombie party and brings out that plate of zombie cookies or something equally tame . .
gross ‘em out with the real deal, like a tarantula.
And take pictures.
Among other things, I was an English major in college and so I know that I’m supposed to write things like,”Ilsa J. Bick is<fill in the blank>.” Except I hate writing about myself like I’m not in the room.
Helloooo, I’m right here … So let’s just say that I’m a child psychiatrist (yeah, you read that right) and an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, ebooks and novels.
Believe me, no one is more shocked about this than I … unless you talk to my mother.
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