Can I Bug Ya to Try Bugs? Moreton Bay Bugs. Sydney, Australia.
I think we're being bugged.
We’ve all heard the sentiment “If I can just save (or help or whatever) one person, then I’ll have done my job.” The former meth junkie, who is now atoning for her life by dedicating it to saving other junkies, believes if she can just turn one person around, then she’ll have done her job. The same proclamation could be made by a couple of Mormon missionaries on shiny Schwinns. Day in, day out, in a Godless metropolis, these missionaries pedal away, knocking on doors, asking for people’s pardons as they proselyte. The typical day peppers them with an array of declinations like insurgency shrapnel to body armor. Then they get that one “yes” and in their hearts they acknowledge that they’ve, at last, done their job.
Just one person was all they needed to feel purposeful. Just one. Why only one? It’s the loneliest number. Why aim so low? Well, let’s be real, it’s not like these people are selling Pinkberry. They’ve got a tough sell to be sure. And after a day, week, month or longer of hearing “no” after “no”, one “yes” is gold.
If you happen to be of the belief that being an exotic food writer is all beast guts, glitz and glamour, you’d be wrong. It’s not easy being palatably peculiar and a born crusader to boot. There are moments between midnight and daybreak when I find myself wondering whether or not my scribblings have made the slightest impact on anybody. Anyone? Have I converted a single soul? What’s happening out there beyond my broadband connection? Have I ever inspired, say, a Hometown Buffet frequent binger to sample a piece of conventional sushi? Or, for that matter, a conventional sushi lover to try live sashimi? I wonder to myself if there’s been an uptick in blood tongue sales at the German deli since I published the piece about it.
I know people are reading but are people eating? Honestly, sometimes it’s just no fun to preach to the choir, so the people I’m really curious about are the Betty Crockers and the Joe Subways: The Betty Crockers never stray too far from the Pillsbury Bake-Off rotation while the Joe Subways appear content with mostly everything on the Subway Sandwich menu board as long as there’re not any onions, black olives or pepperoncinis involved (‘cause that’s just way too weird). These folks are pretty much set in their ways and either have not or will not try anything outside of their very claustrophobic, comfort-food zone. When it comes to odd eats, this segment of the dining population includes the squeamish, the uninterested, the boring, the weak of stomach, the uninitiated and the uninformed. A great example of this sort of diner is my friend Steve.
Steve is an old friend from my San Francisco days. He is a real, live native of San Francisco, born and bred, and most San Franciscans can tell you how rare that is. He is a film editor by profession and has worked in computer animation for many years. His first foray into computer animation was on Toy Story at Pixar Animation. He has also traveled to many parts of the world. Steve, in general, is an open-minded and reasonable fellow. He’s also a great guy with whom I share a lot of history.
Steve, however, hates eating with me. He despises it and will avoid it at all cost. This is why I often find myself meeting Steve for drinks and nothing else. This is also why I associate hellish hangovers with him.
With little exception, Steve's diet consists of chicken and cow but never the offals or the queer pieces. He accompanies these mains with some form of potato, a safe salad and bottled water, perhaps some Scotch on the weekends. One of his favorite restaurants is in fact Subway but never on the weekends since they don’t offer single malt Scotch on the menu board. But what Steve loathes just as much as eating with me is hearing about my dining adventures. It turns his stomach like a virus.
So this makes Steve the perfect mark for my personal Deep End Dining challenge. My mission: Get anything edible and exotic down his gullet, preferably without the use of force and on his own volition. It’s not as easy as it may sound because when it comes to food, people are quite particular, and although it may not be immediately evident, even I’m guilty of this choosiness. With all of my weird food ways I noticed I’ve become guilty of exotic cuisine snobbery, pooh-poohing dishes that aren’t bizarre enough. You can say Steve resides at the polar opposite end of this gustatory spectrum—his Dennis Miller to my Al Franken.
I should also mention that Steve is Chinese-American. The Chinese are widely recognized for their omnivore tendencies and lack of fear for eating unfamiliar edibles. This general notion however does not apply to Steve in the slightest. All Chinese folk may look the same but, trust me, we don’t all eat the same.
The way to delicately execute this experiment, I formulated, is to approach it like matchmaking. Any successful matchmaker can tell you, it’s best to have the lonesome loser believe that the match was of his own making. (Lonesome, a loser and a control freak. Hmm, wonder why he’s still single?) This method requires that one of the parties be unaware of the set up. This also results in face saving and less heartache if things don’t go well romantically. But, if the matchmaking produces a love connection, then the matchmaker can let the other person in on the secret and take credit or not.
I began my project by fooling Steve into an exotic cuisine outing by inviting him to dim sum with a Caucasian female friend of mine. In his mind dim sum was innocuous because he never ventured beyond the “A” section sanctuary of shrimp dumplings and sweet pork buns. Shrimp and pig were adventurous enough for Steve on that day or any day. The presence of my Caucasian friend induced Steve to perhaps underestimate the chances of something strange landing on our table. What Steve didn’t realize was that my friend is very accustomed to my eating habits and, at times, even joined in on the freaky feeding frenzy. So when I asked the dim sum lady in Chinese (Steve doesn’t speak Chinese) for some chicken feet and cow guts, Steve remained cheerfully unaware. When the items arrived in their cozy little tins Steve did not immediately realize what they actually were, however his bliss and dopey grin would soon slump into befuddlement which would further degrade into simmering disgust and ultimately transform into a shoe pounding outrage. He bordered on homicidal as I skillfully manipulated the tendons and savory skin off of the chicken knuckles. He turned positively savage Cro-Mag when I chewed on a chunky strip of tripe and shut my eyes briefly to bask in its broad array of flavors.
“That’s it!” he hollered, “I can’t eat with these atrocities on the lazy Susan.” He then slammed down his chopsticks and demanded, “Waitress, get me a bubble tea!”
The next time I was to break bread with Steve would be a couple of years later. It was Halloween weekend. Even though Halloween is one of my favorite occasions, that particular year required that I lie low and not dust off my Lord of the Dance costume and not head out to any ragers because that particular year I had my newborn daughter to consider. Basically I had to look forward to a night of handing out candy to neighborhood kids cavorting in their flame-retardant Harry Potter and Sailor Moon costumes.
Then, out of the blue, Steve called and wondered if I’d be interested in going to a restaurant for a Halloween-themed meal. I dismissed his suggestion and told him that I wasn’t interested in Jell-O molded eyeballs or dismembered fingers concocted out of marzipan as my All Hallow’s Eve amuse bouche. He corrected me and said that this place would be dishing up insects on its Halloween menu. I couldn’t believe my ears. Steve wanted to go with me to a restaurant that offered exotic cuisine? Hmm, I don’t know. This is Steve after all. I smelled a rat. However it turns out his plan was a great treat rather than a trick as we spent the blustery Halloween evening comfortably seated in Typhoon, a pan-Asian eatery located at the Santa Monica Airport. I ordered virtually every bug item on the Halloween menu and washed them all down with a kinky cricket Martini. But, Steve didn’t touch a single sea worm, cricket or cicada that came across our table that night. Instead, he opted for chicken Pad Thai. He did watch me eat the menagerie on my plate without expressing the slightest disgust. This, I thought, was a big step for Steve.
Steve’s food journey into the unfamiliar would experience its fits and starts but it would more or less progress rather than stagnate. He was clearly on his way and most importantly without my prompting. His greatest gastronomic advancement to date was only a month ago when he vacationed in Sydney, Australia. There he would encounter an uncanny crustacean that I have been obsessing about since the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics.
During the Millennium Games television broadcast I saw a segment about the oddities of Australia. Included in this topic was a quirky creature called the Moreton Bay bug or just "bug". In fact this “bug” isn’t a bug at all, it’s a crustacean that’s a species of slipper lobster found in parts of Australia’s seas. The Moreton Bay bug has more of an insect appearance than the average crustacean so it earns its name. The fact is it pretty much resembles the back half of a lobster (most would say the best half). Essentially, it’s a walking lobster tail with eyes. But as far as taste, bug meat is a ringer for lobster. Sweet and succulent.
Throw another bug on the barbie.
In the past, the sight of this (some feel) unsightly critter alone would have been enough to turn Steve off, but since his enlightenment as an extreme epicure, he’s better equipped to evaluate strange foods. According to Steve himself, he was put off by the thing’s appearance, but, because he learned that its meat is no different than clawed lobsters (there are those who say bugs are actually tastier than clawed lobsters), he gave it a try. Plus he didn’t want to offend his croc wrestling host. Good on Steve.
The happy ending to Steve’s eating adventure was not only overcoming his inherent revulsion to strange food but that he enjoyed what he initially feared. He got rewarded instead of spanked.
So in Steve I may yet have another pal to call up when I’m feeling peckish for piranha or even Pinkberry. (It can’t all be about Deep End Dining.)
Then again, do I really want someone else to battle at dim sum over the last chicken claw? Do I seriously need the whole world to embrace the wonders of stinky tofu? After all if everyone starts to eat exotic cuisine then it no longer is exotic.
But somehow I get the feeling this won’t be a problem anytime soon. I don’t know, call it a hunch.