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Eating Larvae

February 9, 2012 | by Emuna Braverman

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.


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