I have always loved food. I love cooking and know the process of buying the right tools in the kitchen. I hate tools with one purpose and I know you don’t wash a nonstick pan with soap. I also know that the reason food at restaurants have calories over 600 is because of a French cooking method that requires butter at the beginning and butter at the end of cooking. I read chef books and devour chances to perfect my cooking style. I know how to cook a 18 pound turkey in two and half hours and that brining is a step you do not avoid. Cooking for me is a pleasure. I enjoy fresh ingredients. Especially a bowl of lemons always on the table for a quick zest for pork to desserts. Or making my own mint jelly or chicken broth or having a squeeze bottle of olive oil filled with garlic cloves and long stems of basil to create the best basil garlic olive oil for garnish or cooking.
Cooking is my passion. Especially the importance of cloves in my special pumpkin pie or making my own crust for my blueberry pie. Or making beef stew using the toughest meat knowing full well that slow and low will make it as soft as tissue paper in water.
I have eagerly waited to be in my village to cook on my own. I have made many things. But I have never been tested so much in cooking.
I cook on a charcoal stove that if without my host family less than 100 feet from me, I’d have to light on my own every day.
Charcoal heats up quickly and when it heats up quickly there is only one temperature. Blowing on it when the ash starts overpowering the flames release a dust cloud that covers everything and if you don’t have lids for your cookware, well you added extra gray garnish. My kitchen is outside and everything else is inside so you either have to go back and forth and cook while also paying attention to any chickens coming near your veggies or cooking food. They are incredibly stupid and daring for food. Or you have to carry everything out at once and then back at the end. It is a tiring job but it’s part of life here.
In Central, there is a wide variety of food available. Pumpkin leaves are so delicious to eat as well as sweet potatoes that are yellow not yam orange and a staple breakfast. There are an incredible variety of mushrooms that are delicious and incredibly healthy to eat.
One day as we went to fetch some sand for a cementing project I wanted to do, I saw Violet searching the ground for feces and then look to the sky. I kept having to stop my bike and I became curious. My number one flaw: my curiosity.
Caterpillars are growing now and will be ready to eat soon.
Excuse me. I stopped my bike and looked at her to repeat her words.
You will like caterpillar. I will make some when they are ready.
Um. No. I love me some delicious squid and eel and tree fungus in my Chinese soups. I can eat garlic cloves whole and enjoy chewing on fresh ginger when I have tummy aches. I love truffles and the smell of yeasty bread but excuse me, caterpillars?!
I forgot that day until I was feeding Cecil some dried fish and I turned to see my dad playing with something in his hands. Green with little stubby red legs crawling up his shoulder was a fat long caterpillar. Eating every leaf in sight made it as huge as his hand and he was playing with it like a child.
I was so happy to see it. It was supposed to be a butterfly and it reminded me of Pokemon as a kid. But he took it and fried it and ate it in minutes. I was so shocked that I used the excuse of feeding Cecil to walk away before I threw up. I understand culture but my stomach doesn’t.
I touched them and they feel like those gummy candy with rough skin on the outside but squishy and jelly on the inside. And they ate all the leaves on my lemon tree so I already despised them. But one day Violet came to my house and had a plate for me to eat and I stared at her and back at the plate. I know what was inside. Could I just say I’ll eat it later and discard it or am I going to have to tap into my inner reserve of strength today in front of her?
My host mom Annie came to join us and I knew I was doomed. She opened the plate and there they were. Cut up and shriveled. Fried in some oil and random spices that will for all I know not disguise the taste of the caterpillar. My stomach was screaming but I was being sensitive.
Until I saw my mom gag and spit out her tongue. I laughed so hard feeling free to feel disgusted as my host mom hated them and never ate them. She handed Violet back the plate and said,
My daughter will not like them. She is my daughter and since she is like me, take it home with you.
I laughed and nodded to Violet, jeering at her statement and added,
That’s my momma!
But as the weeks past, caterpillars did not leave anyone’s mind. As a source of income, people from the town shifted their entire lives into a single bag to come into the villages and into the forest and sleep under trees and harvest these little tree climbers. Hordes of people left their families and slept under mosquito net free skies for an extra source of income.
Violet wanted to search for caterpillars just for some relish for that days food and she kept walking hoping to reach the silent forest. But it took her a few moments to realize the forest had now become populated.
She walked in asking,
Is it a town here now?
She recalled the story to me after her long day about how there were no caterpillars to be grabbed as people’s hands were outstretched to catch them even before they touched the ground. Violet returned with a dying thirst and a lost voice and legs tired without any caterpillars laughing and cursing moments later after some water, all the towns people stealing her relish.
A town has arrived, Megha. And they take it all away thinking they are the only ones who will be selling them in town but you will see, how wrong they are.
And she was right. That Monday, every stall was filled with piles of dried caterpillars. Every stall. It was gross but I watched the faces of the women working hard to get money for their family and seeing their competition sprawled across the entire town.
I will try anything but caterpillars, though full of protein, are not my thing. I cannot get past their form before or after cooked and the idea of tasting them scares me. But to Central Province, it is a delicacy that only comes in late October and a chance for many families from far off to try their luck and gain an extra source of income.
To me, those things are just fat eating competition winners who eat away my beautiful lemon tree, so good riddance.