Chicken feet curry. Sauteed crickets. Barbecued crocodile. These were all warmups to the Main Event. The bite that planted me firmly into bizarre foods territory.
First, let me tell you a little story. On our first trip to Europe in 2001 (oh, but we were just babies) I wouldn’t even eat shrimp that arrived on the table with the heads and legs still on. I would covertly slide them under a napkin so as not to offend, after I did mightily offend a Parisian waitress when I couldn’t – wouldn’t – eat a single thing on my seafood platter. We’d saved for a year and a half for the trip, and in order to have a splurge dinner on our anniversary night, I sneaked into Brian’s waiter apron early every morning to pilfer some change that I collected until I had a sum I thought would buy a fancy dinner in Paris. For whatever reason we ended up having seafood, though the extent of my seafood experience at the time was limited to the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster. I’m still struck cold at the thought of that waitress’ glare. “what?” she sneered in that inimitable French way. “You no like?” We paid our long-saved francs and beat a hasty retreat.
I have become a bit more of an adventurous eater since then. Especially since I abandoned my vegetarian ways – after so many years of not eating meat, I kind of figure meat is meat and what difference does it make what part of the animal it comes from, or really, even what animal it is. Add to that my seemingly endless attempts to be a badass, whether in weightlifting, sports, or adventure eating, and I’ll try just about anything. We make steak tartare at home, I adore bone marrow, and when our farmer friend gives us brown paper sacks of mysterious parts (lamb balls, anyone?) we tackle them as a project.
So when Tu, our street food guide in Hanoi, stopped by the lady squatting on the side of the street over a box of worms and a frying pan, and asked if I wanted to try them, I didn’t want to say no. The worm cakes were a delicacy, he assured me, and he wasn’t just egging me on. Tu was a fantastic guide, educating us on the ways of Vietnamese food culture, and everything we’d eaten so far had been exceedingly delicious. Mixed with onions, dill, eggs and mandarin peel, the cakes were fried until they looked a little like potato cakes – a dish I love.
I was in – they didn’t look so bad. And then the worm-cook picked up an already fried cake and dropped it into the oil. Gross. It could have been sitting there in a pool of grease for a minute or a day. But I was already committed. She (re)fried the cake, removed it, gave it a cursory blot on newspaper, and wrapped it in a piece of was paper for us. Flaccid and oily, it could not have looked less appealing. It was piping hot though, I’ll give it that.
GoPro and Tu’s camera trained on me, there was simply no backing down. I took a tentative nibble. It was as revolting as I anticipated. But at least I was done. I’d tried it. “Wait!” Tu said, “I need to get another picture.” Taking a bite when you don’t know what it will taste like is one thing. Going back for another taste of limp, double fried, revolting worm cake is another matter entirely. But what the hell? I took another bite and pawned it off on Brian (who gamely ate more than I did).
Like many unpleasant things, once it was over, it passed into the realm of excellent stories. I found a way to work it into conversations for the rest of the trip. “It wouldn’t have been so bad, maybe,” I’d say, “except that she REfried it,” as I dramatically described the scene for fellow travelers. I didn’t mention the nightmares that plagued me all night, as I tossed and turned, feverishly regretting the worms. In the worst timing ever, and unrelated, as I’d started feeling badly much earlier in the day, I succumbed to some terrible stomach bug overnight. Tiny bites of rice and toast were my only food for three days after. So even if the worms had been a good experience, they’re now inextricably intertwined with getting sick.
I still thought it was pretty badass of me to eat worms. Then I happened to interview the Bizarre Foods guy Andrew Zimmern for a story this week. Near the end of our conversation, in asking him how he addresses food safety, and whether he worries about getting sick, I had to try to give myself some cred, and mentioned my worm tasting. I expected nonchalance or perhaps a spark of surprise, a sense that he was impressed this random writer in Louisville had dared to eat worms in Vietnam. Instead, “why did you eat worms?!” he demanded.
Well how the hell do you tell the Bizarre Foods guy why you ate worms?
“Because they were there, and I could,” I feebly replied.
The guy who will eat anything reprimanded me. “I am extremely, extremely vigilant about what I eat,” he said. “I would never eat worms from someone on the side of the street unless there was a long line of locals.” Better still, he prefers to forage for them himself and eat them raw. Raw! He’s a braver soul than I. Now that I know how to eat fried worms, I think I’ll call it a day.