Now, I know that bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a disease that is primarily carried in the bovine nervous system; and I have been told it is impossible to contract BSE from eating muscle even from an afflicted animal; and yes, the statistical likelihood of even finding an affected animal approaches zero; and yes, I’ve already eaten the equally risky marrow; and plus we’re all going to die anyway, so why not eat whatever? But as comforting as all this knowledge is, it is different when you enter a dim, narrow, classical French restaurant at five o’clock on a weekday afternoon by yourself, confronted by a lone waitress who seems somehow to know you were coming. Of course they serve calf’s brains, the waitress says quietly. Come. Come eat them.
No. I could not. It was too creepy, too reminiscent of Sbirro’s, the fabled restaurant from that seminal gastronomic horror story “The Specialty of the House,” by Stanley Ellin (and for that reason, I will not name the establishment, as I do not wish to demonize it for those with less active imaginations). In the story, Sbirro’s is a gastronaut’s paradise known only to the cognoscenti, exceedingly plain in its decoration, serving but one single meal a night, not even providing salt and pepper lest it interfere with the chef’s vision.
But then there is the special, “lamb Amirstan,” which, suspiciously, only appears on the menu whenever one of the regulars disappears. And at this moment, as I consider eating brains, I cannot help but think of the final scene in the book, as the owner invites his guest–secret ingredient into the kitchen, his arm around “his meaty shoulders.” Which calls to mind another taboo—the one against cannibalism (which I trust you share with me). And that, in turn, makes me think this: Rational or no, there is just something too powerful and vengefully poetic about brains that eat your brains: a food that, as you consume it, consumes you.
And so I am here to tell you that I ran. Even though I ran to a goat’s-blood taco in the back of a Mexican deli on Tenth Avenue (yes: another blood sausage), and even though it was delicious and fragrant with cilantro, at the end of the day it only tasted like cowardice. And cowardice, of course, tastes like chicken.
Sadly, Santacruz’s grasshopper connection never came through, but the odd food trail offers strange twists of fate, and just when I was about to give up, I was tipped to a bug-bake at the Museum of Natural History.
On a bright morning, in support of its Imax film Bugs!, the museum has invited journalists to watch children eat insects (which is the sort of thing you imagine only happening in secret clubs in pre-Castro Cuba). Apart from cricket pizza and mealworm tamales, Bill Yosses, the pastry chef at Citarella, who gamely agreed to concoct the meal, is offering a simple “trail mix” of bloated wax worms—fat and sweet from the beehives where they live and feed—and crickets.
A great group “eeeeewwWWWWW!” echoes against the high vaulted ceiling as the first child downs his cricket pizza. Klieg lights come to life, and journalists jockey for position. The children attempt to deal with what is happening the only way they know how: suspicion of conspiracy. “I don’t think it’s a real worm,” one young boy says soberly to a camera.
After some pacing and hemming and hawing, I put a cricket in my mouth, and it tastes just like a roasted pumpkin seed. The wax worms have a little more meat on their bones (or rather, within their boneless carapaces), with strong notes of sweet biscuit. There is really nothing to them, but then, far more than after anything I’ve eaten so far, I feel changed, and relaxed. I didn’t realize how long I had been waiting to eat a bug on purpose, and I can almost feel the continental shift in my head. I suddenly have more in common with more people than ever before.
As I am munching, I am approached by a man wearing a pith helmet. Somehow, this seemed inevitable. He is “Wildman” Steve Brill, who runs foraging tours through Central Park, where he collects wild blackberries and wine-cap mushrooms, burdock root from Japan, Mexican epazote, and caffeine-free coffee beans from Kentucky coffee trees. The diversity of forage in New York’s parks is unrivaled, he tells me, a result of natural dispersal of seeds and shoots carried from all over the world—a side effect of the city itself. He is a vegan, however, and thus not a bug eater, and so it is unclear exactly what he is doing here. Perhaps he was drawn by a forager’s intuition for kindred spirits—to a rare place in the world where strangeness takes root and blossoms into the ordinary, a place where pith helmets are acceptable, in a city where, resist though they may, we are teaching our children to eat bugs.