Tuesday, June 10, 2008

To all my boy cousins—and my brother—who tried to gross me out as a child: EAT THIS!

a fine meal in the village of Bernal in the state of Queretaro:
tortilla soup with ancho chiles and a trio of quesadillas: huitlacoche, chapulin and zucchini blossom

Two foods I was set on sampling as we planned our trip to Mexico City were huitlacoche and chapulines, because neither tends to show up on the menus of even authentic Mexican restaurants north of the border. And both are pretty high up there on the list of foods for the adventurous.

Huitlacoche is corn fungus, a delicacy in Mexico, where it is also sometimes known as Mexican caviar. However, to gaze upon huitlacoche in its natural environment is to risk having nightmares—it’s some seriously butt-ugly stuff, all motled black, gray and yellow, and bulging like some mutant life form. It IS a fungus, after all, perched there on a tall, elegant corn plant like a hideous vampiric creature set on the utter destruction of its victim. I call it the monkfish of the plant world—you don’t want to look at it—just enjoy it. In fact, the native Nauhuatl words for it mean “raven excrement.” Yummy.

But huitlacoche is quite tasty, a sweet, smoky, corny mushroomy delight. I had it cooked up and served in a quesadilla with cheese. Just be glad I didn’t manage to get a photo of any fresh huitlacoche—the rainy season, when it flourishes, hasn’t yet set in. Most likely what I was served came from a can. Maybe next time I’ll be there in time for the fresh stuff, in the summer.

My dad was a farmer who despaired every time he found that immensely unpleasant-looking fungus growing on his corn crops. It’s too bad he didn’t know that the stuff is actually cultivated and appreciated as a delicacy and that it commands a high price. Well, even if he HAD known, it might not have made much difference to him. He was a practical man, but the aesthetics of the field were still important to him.

Alongside my huitlacoche quesadilla was another one, this one filled with chapulines, reddish Mexican grasshoppers. The taste was difficult to pin down at first—no entomological pun intended. Then Andy said, “When I was a kid, I’d play with grasshoppers, and the way my fingers would smell after I’d finished playing is exactly how these grasshoppers taste!” He was right about that—as odd as it sounds. Chapulines have a tangy flavor that's reminiscent of the plants the grasshoppers feed on.

Would I eat huitlacoche and chapulines regularly if they were available in my neighborhood? While a great part of my determination to try these foods was the I-had-the-guts-to-eat-it-do-you? factor, if corn fungus and grasshoppers ever do show up on the menus in the Mexican restaurants in this area, I’m happy to report that, yes, I’d order them and enjoy them. Both are good, and both are at least worth a try.

It’s all a matter of what you’re accustomed to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating either of these things. But because people in the U.S. don’t typically eat grasshoppers, corn fungus or myriad other foods that are the mainstays of the diets of others--and sometimes cherished delicacies--they seem to most people here, odd at best and unacceptable at worst. Would that all Americans could see how people in other countries often turn up their noses at some foods Americans think nothing of eating. Peanut butter, for example. People who didn't grow up in the U.S. just don't get it. And I know someone who prepared a turkey-with-all-the-trimmings feast for Thanksgiving while in another country, and no one wanted to touch the stuff!

It’s important to keep an open mind and an open mouth. Otherwise, we run the risk of missing out on some good foods and some great opportunities to connect with people in other cultures. Andy and I certainly scored points for ordering these things and for cleaning our plates. I'd hate to think what we'd have missed if we'd adhered to a narrow dining path. Not just the foods themselves, but the conversations we had and the connections we made with the locals.

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