I thought after the feast of chicken feet here in Vientiane, Laos, there could be no further gastronomic traumas for me. I'm prepared for anything, you name it. Human flesh? Make mine rare. Cup of blood? Pour me a double, dash of Tabasco and a twist. Snakes, snails, puppy dog tails, slugs and guts, and a hundred other things. I'm ready for them all if they are artfully prepared and served with beer.
But as night follows day, thirst follows heat. I passed people selling coconuts brimming with milk for the thirsty traveler, soda, fruit juice, and even unchilled beer. My God! When it's 90 degrees in the shade and humid to boot, the thought of unchilled beer is almost as bad as no beer at all. I kept walking, until almost hidden in the leafy folds of a giant banyan tree, and there on the river bank I found a watering hole.
It was really little more than a wooden deck, about ten by twenty feet, covered with thatch and tin, but set within the boughs of the banyan. It was a treehouse. The shady limbs of the great tree held the little house in a cool, dark embrace, giving protection from the midday sun while still affording a delicious view of the placid river.
I heard the friendly sizzle of food frying in good oil; that inviting sound that beckons travelers and laborers anywhere. And I heard the clink of ice and the pop of bottle tops. I stepped off the bank and went inside.
"Mistah. Welcome, Mistah," a sarong-clad woman greeted me. "You drink bia, Mistah?"
"You bet!" I said, and took a seat at one of the low tables near the far railing so as to have the best view of the river.
The lady served me a cold one, and it foamed down my throat in icy relief. I slowly sipped the second one, and as I did I noticed a girl of about sixteen sitting across the deck and engaged in some household activity that looked like it might be stringing beans, and so I assumed it was. I smiled at her and she grinned in return. We exchanged numerous smiles until she finally gathered up her work, brought it over to sit beside me, and resumed her labor.
In a steep-sided bowl she had many dozen live, wriggling, trying-desperately-to-get-out potato bugs. Potato bugs, goddamnit, potato bugs! And she was preparing them as the specialty of the house! She smiled at me again as she drew another bug from the bowl. Deftly and matter-of-factly, she broke the critter's neck at the back, leaving the head attached, and drew out the contents of his torso. Then she grasped his hind end, cracked the exoskeleton, and slowly drew out his viscera in a long, slimy string.
"You eat?" she asked, holding the carcass up to my face. It twitched.
"Oh," says I, "I eat anything, sure."
"You want?" she offered.
"Uh ... Me no hungry. Okay?"
"Okay," she said, and cracked another neck.
Now, I've eaten insects before. Many times. I've eaten red warrior ants in Borneo where the people use them for their lemon/tarragon flavor to season fish. I've enjoyed numerous kinds of larvae, baked, boiled, and roasted in a leaf. Crickets? Jumping jimminy, ate 'em by the pound, roasted and salted like peanuts. And the noble locust, who looks more like his marine cousin the prawn when cooked, has made me a meal. Recommended by both the libidinous Nero and the abstemious John the Baptist, the locust is an excellent dish. But potato bugs! Oh, God, potato bugs! Eeeiiiww! There is nothing redeeming about a potato bug. He is the ugliest, yuckiest creature on Earth. He is the chosen weapon of wanton boys to throw at girls when they want to really gross them out. A potato bug is a six-legged pustule who, if he has any grace, is an offense even to himself! And I ate him.
I ate a whole bunch of him. I wasn't going to, but this French couple walked in and sat down near me. They were clearly shocked at the butchery being practiced by the bug-slaying girl. The Monsieur spoke English and asked me, with great distaste, what the hell was going on with the potato bugs. I explained as he translated to his wife. She blanched. And I mean she blanched real good, too. As though some wanton boy had just thrown one of the beasties at her. Monsieur didn't look any too healthy either, and I decided this was the time to do away with my last food prejudice.
"Madam. Cook Ke Lai for me?" I asked the girl, using the local name for a stinking, rotten potato bug.
"Yes, yes," she assured me. "One kilo?"
"Oh ... What about a dozen to start?"
She called out to Madam and broke another neck, and soon I heard the furious sizzle of deep frying. The Frenchies looked unwell.
Madam set a plate of french-fried potato bugs in front of me. They were all on their backs, their little bug legs sticking up. A small cup of dipping sauce graced the presentation. A shaker of salt sat nearby. I sprinkled some salt on their fried bodies, tossed a pinch over my shoulder, and took a long pull of beer from my bottle. Then I grabbed a bug by the head and popped him in my mouth.
His spiny legs on my tongue felt alive, as though he would scurry down my throat. I bit down and he crunched audibly. The French caught their breath. The girl continued her casual slaughter and smiled.
"Good?" she inquired.
It was good! So help me it was! Mr. Potato Bug tasted and chewed like a shrimp deep-fried in his own shell until the shell becomes crisp and edible and its flavor permeates the meat. If I were a blind man you might have fooled me into thinking I was eating crustaceans.
"They're not bad," I said to the Gallic duo, and I crunched a few more as they watched in morbid fascination. Then I handed one to Monsieur and said, "Go ahead. Be a man, ha ha!"
I thought about wantonly throwing one at the little woman, but I restrained my boyish self. The challenge I had thrown down to the Frenchman was of the highest masculine order. The simple issuance of it effectively impugned his manhood in the now testosterone-charged air. Frenchy was in a fix: on the one hand, he didn't want to eat a bug -- who could blame him? -- but on the other, he would be damned among males as a wuss (at least in his own mind) if he refused the awful summons. And he would be doubly damned, as his humiliation would take place in front of girls. He sat upon the razor's edge, but I had faith in him. A Frenchman may be a cultural chauvinist with effeminate gestures, but he is no wuss. He can be a pain in the ass, look lengthily down his nose and denounce things American as he consumes his Big Mac and Coke, but he makes an art of accepting the challenge. Melville shows us the cannibal harpooner Queequeg reaching across the table for beefsteaks with the shaft of his harpoon, but while outlandish, it was a thing done with grace for, he tells us, Queequeg did it coolly, and a thing done coolly, he writes, is a thing done with grace.
I saw the hot revulsion in the Frenchman's face begin to cool as he girded his gastronomic loins for the culinary duel. A tremble I had noticed in his hand was visibly abating. His wife looked daggers at me. In the hush, the bug girl audibly broke another neck. In the breathless silence, we could just hear the sound of the guts being drawn out in a long little slurp. My adversary hesitated. A part of me wanted to see him humbled, cast out, bear the mark of shame, be driven east of Eden and all that. But the better part of me would not see my fellow done so cruelly.
"Go ahead," I told him. "High protein, low cholesterol, no tropical oils. Lightly salted. And the sauce is piquant without being overpowering." He took the proffered bug and boldly chewed it, savoring its shrimp-like taste. We exchanged that special masculine glance that is the gastronomic equivalent of the ancient warrior's arm clasp, a glance that says "Hail, thou bold fellow, and bon appetit!" The missus glanced at her husband in a way that said he would surely be a happy horseman that night.
Frenchy and I ate several bugs together. My work done, I paid the tab and tipped the bug girl. She wiped her gutsy hands and received it gracefully. On my way out I paused, turned and shot Frenchy a sort of half salute, which he returned. I think his wife gave me the finger. But it was subtly done -- coolly, I might even say.
Once outside, I saw that the sun was dropping low to touch the horizon and set the waters of the Mekong ablaze with red-gold. I ambled down the dusty river road, a full belly and a full heart, knowing that I had dined, and done, well. I wonder what tomorrow holds for me, I mused, in a world of infinite gastronomic diversity. Who can say? Not I. But I can say this: A potato bug, artfully prepared and tastefully presented, is still a goddamn, gross, ugly, disgusting potato bug, and I'll never eat another one again! Ptooui!