I blame my mother. Really, it must be her fault. She’s the one with the mantra of “Try it. You might like it.” She said it when she served liver or tongue, beef heart, chicken livers and gizzards to her four hungry children at the dinner table. We even arrived home from school one day to find the head of our just-butchered hog sitting on the kitchen island so she could make head cheese. (When she repeatedly slammed a hatchet into the head to cut it into quarters, my then-4-year-old brother said, “Momma, don’t be mean to that pig.”) Even though I now routinely use boneless, skinless chicken breasts and packaged ground beef, there should be little wonder that as I stood in the Cambodian roadside market watching the small woman with a gray bucket hat shading her face approach carrying a pink plastic platter piled with sautéed tarantulas that I thought, “I’ll try it.”
For millennia, people around the world feasted on arachnids and insects. They’re healthy and nutritious raves the report, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security.” They’re rich in protein and good fats as well as high in calcium, iron and zinc. More than 2 billion people worldwide eat insects, according to a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They pop into their mouths and crunch down on beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets and more than 1,900 others documented as edible. In America, our palates and plates have grown narrow indeed.
Tarantulas caused the group of Indiana State University graduate students with whom I traveled to stop at this roadside market along the way from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham in Cambodia. Children holding out small bunches of bananas or plastic bags with chunks of pineapple and mango, pleaded with wide eyes, “You buy from me” as they rushed to us standing blinking in the brilliant sun. But our focus stayed on the sauntering woman in the purple long-sleeve shirt and pink pants with the platter of tarantulas. She balanced the round tray on one hand and carried a bucket with the other. When she reached us, she sat the bucket on the dusty ground, reached inside and let a tarantula crawl up her hand. The spider travelled around her hand and arm as we stood deciding whether to buy two cooked spiders for $1 and who wanted to share.
Psychology doctoral student Michelle Ertle pulled a spider out of the plastic bag in which the Cambodian woman had placed it. First she nibbled a leg, which crunched like a thin, crispy pretzel. Soon, she popped the spider’s body into her mouth.
“It was so seasoned it just tasted like barbecue,” she said. “The body’s crunch was like Puff Cheetos.”
Graduate student in mental health counseling Michelle Bond approached her spider with more trepidation.
“I wanted to eat the spider because I have a major, major fear of spiders,” she said. “I thought it was a symbolic way to conquer that fear.”
She forced herself to pick up the tarantula, then to nibble on its legs.
“It took a little courage to eat the face,” she said later.
I lifted my own tarantula with my mom’s message of a lifetime as my guide. I nibbled the first leg and then another and another – tiny protein sticks of garlic and Asian spices. After I finished the legs, I held the puffy body and wondered at its texture. I opened my mouth, dropped it in and bit down into the crunch of a body that exploded into flavors of Asia.
As I finished chewing, a woman approached with sautéed crickets.
“One cup for $1,” she said as I eyed the platter.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “I should try it. I might like it.”
Jennifer Sicking, ‘GR 11, is the editor of Indiana State University Magazine. While the tarantula and crickets tasted good, she generally prefers fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese or Wise Pies white pizza.