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Eating Larvae
Mom with a View

Eating Larvae

Why are some people driven to eat bizarre, unappealing delicacies?


Did you know that a sheep cheese popular on the Italian island of Sardinia is riddled with live insect larvae? According to the Wall Street Journal (1/29/12), “the larvae of the cheese fly are added to the cheese, and the acid from their digestive systems breaks down the cheese’s fats…By the time it is ready for consumption, a typical casu marzu contains thousands of larvae.”

Are you nauseated yet?

You can accuse me of not being PC, of not appreciating cultural diversity, but I can’t believe that anyone finds that appealing (kashrut issues aside).

Likewise, I am skeptical of the claims of some guests we had who recently returned from touring southeast Asia. In raving about their meals, they asserted that snake was the best thing they had ever eaten.

The best? Or the most provocative? The most likely to start a conversation (with you at the center)?

I remember reading Anthony Bourdain’s book, A Cook’s Tour, in which he describes his around-the-world food-tasting experiences. He may have tried to be open to possibilities and to preserve a nonjudgmental tone but I think that shot of vodka he always had before a particularly disgusting offering suggested otherwise.

What is this drive to eat more and more unusual foods despite (let’s be honest here) their real lack of appeal? Despite how unappetizing they actually are?

I’m still haunted by Bourdain’s description of a restaurant in China that has a zoo out back where you go to choose your dinner. Or the book my husband once gave me, Cooking with Bugs. (Don’t worry; my house is still kosher. None of us found spaghetti with meal worms even remotely tempting!)

I think it’s an unfortunate testimony to the boredom and lack of meaning rampant in our world that we are drawn after these bizarre experiences. It’s a hope that this meal, this delicacy, this unusual “treat” will be vivid and exciting enough to lift us out of our humdrum daily existence.

It’s an aspect of the same need that pushes us onto ever high roller coasters or to watch scarier movies.

In the absence of anything more substantial, it makes us feel alive (if it doesn’t kill us!). But I think that’s, unfortunately, only when we aren’t deriving that pleasure and excitement from the daily experiences life offers us.

When my husband went skiing recently, he felt it wasn’t challenging and exhilarating enough. It’s not that he is looking for the newest extreme sport. Instead he felt that the ups and downs on the slopes bore little comparison to the real life joys and terrors of raising teenagers!

If we really throw ourselves into our work, our marriages, our children, our community contributions, our relationship with God and Torah, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time left for exotic travel and strange foods. Or a lot of need.

The pre-eminent commentator on the Torah, Rashi, tells us that we don’t have to find non-kosher food disgusting, that in fact we are allowed to say, “It looks delicious but the Almighty forbade me to eat it.”

However I don’t feel the need to rely on Rashi’s allowance here. I can comfortably assert that I don’t have any interest in snake or “maggot cheese” or fermented shark (and Icelandic delicacy) or cricket-flavored lollipops. And I would surprised if, after a little introspection, anyone else does either.

February 11, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Chana, December 7, 2014 9:17 PM

Emuna emphasized eating foods BECAUSE they're perceived as bizarre or disgusting

To my mind, Emuna was very clear that she is not addressing the desire to eat foods that one enjoys and is used to even as others find those same foods disgusting or bizarre (like tongue, crab, lobster, chopped liver, or gefilte fish), foods that are quite normal in Western society. Emuna very clearly emphasized the desire for people to eat foods that THEY AND THEIR SOCIETY find bizarre or disgusting, foods that are exotic or unheard-of fare in their society -- and then feel the need to announce it.

And #4 is absolutely right about many Sefardim finding the idea of gefilte fish disgusting the first time they encounter it. Personally, I love gefilte fish. Having grown up with it, it is quite normal and appealing to me -- not at all bizarre or disgusting. Yet I do not feel the need to just up and declare my love of gefilte fish around my Sefardi-Israeli family members who dislike the whole idea of gefilte fish, particularly the older (and less exposed to non-Sefardi foods) generation, some of whom give a little shudder at the mere mention of gefilte fish.
I'm not ashamed or proud of eating gefilte fish, I just eat it. I like it.

(10) scott, February 18, 2012 9:47 PM

What matters

I was having a similar conversation with my wife this morning. We were talking about a new ice cream shop that specializes in odd-flavored ice cream. Why would anyone want to try beer-flavored ice cream other than becuause of an obsession with being in on the new epicurian delight? Instead of finding delight and spending ones energy on meaningful things it seems that modern culture is obsessed with new sensory experiences simply for the sake of empty entertainment. If you're part of a culture that eats bugs then mazel tov. But what possible benefit is eating food that disgusts one simply for the new experience? It makes as much sense as stepping into a UFC ring and getting pummeled to see what a broken nose feels like. I'm just saying if the desire for new sensory input is so overwhelming how can there be anything else left over for the moral or the spiritual? Perhaps that's why modern society seems so superfical. It is and we are. I think that was the point.

(9) Yehudit, February 17, 2012 11:58 AM

I agree

Its true that we eat what we are introduced to. I believe that emuna is talking about westerners seeking out unusual gastronomic experiences, not denigrating those cultures who enjoy their own traditional fare. It's a fine line between observing others and feeling what we feel, and judging. I don't think emuna is being judgmental here, merely wondering why western palates seek out the clearly antithetical taste to their own upbringing..... Chill out all you so-called non-judgemental types who come precariously close to judging emuna for having an opinion! I appreciated greatly your inclusion of the Rashis teaching on how we should approach forbidden foods and the like: it is a wonderful example to set for our children instead of feigning disgust at the rest of the world.

(8) Rachel, February 16, 2012 11:44 AM

This time I don't agree

Dear Emuna, although I normally find your blog full of common sense and uplifting, I am disturbed but the comments you raise in this blog. It sounds judjmental when you say that exotic travel or 'strange' foods are really for people who don't have other (more important) things to do in life, like taking care of their families or learning Torah. By the way, it seems pretty logical to me that the notion of what is 'strange' or 'exotic' is subjective and cultural, ad you are the first to say that Kasherut is not about eating better or healthier food, but about complying with a Torah comandment. And if somebody wants to try a new food or travel in an unsual place, in most cases it is not because he or she wants to attract other people's attention but to experience new places and cultures! PS I am not sure that snake meat is any more disgusting than chopped liver!

(7) Ilana Leeds, February 16, 2012 11:28 AM

Thanks Rachel but I will reserve the right

to be disgusted by a meal that I find my stomach and senses churning at the thought of it in my tummy. I am narrow minded and happy to be so me in my reactions to some things, religion or no religion. Respect ....

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