Years ago I was hired to do some research on Native American food sources and decided that the best way to understand the subject would be to see if I could live for a week or so by subsisting on foods the native people of the region would have relied on. Fortunately, I was not working alone on this project. I had enlisted a friend to help out, a southern gentleman we used to call the Red Cowboy, who was a geologist by training, but was an authority on local wild foods.
He and I began our food-gathering experiment in the summer (a fortuitous time for such a test, to be sure). We would meet in the early morning and, fortified with noncaloric beverages (black coffee), range out over the local landscape in search of breakfast. The blueberries were in season then, and, since there was a profusion of berry bushes in a cutover section of pine woods within a short walking distance from my house, the Red Cowboy and I would always start there. Later in the morning, we would go down to a bank beside a slow brook with a wide floodplain and fish for bass and bluegills, or catfish.
Most of the fresh greens had grown old and bitter by the time of the year when we were collecting; but the Red Cowboy did manage to find some groundnuts growing on the southeast side of the hill where I lived; and, at the edge of a nearby lake, I found a patch of hog-peanuts, although there were hardly enough to supply one meal.
By the end of the third day we were getting a little desperate. More and more the Red Cowboy would insist that we range along the edges of the brook looking for cattails, arrowhead tubers, and other aquatic plants that he would parboil and roast. By the fourth day we didn’t even bother to go into the woods and fields anymore. We would go straight to the brook to fish and gather our quota of cattail stems and arrowheads.
In the afternoon of the fourth day, basking on a log opposite a sunny little bank where we used to fish, we saw a group of five large painted turtles, which the Red Cowboy determined to catch for a stew. Without a word he slid quietly into the water and, with his head and eyes just above the surface, swam toward the baskers. They were alert to his presence though, and, when he was about five yards from the log, they splashed in, first an old one at the top of the pile, and then, one after another, the smaller ones.
All the better I suppose. According to the laws of the Commonwealth, you are not permitted to go out and catch painted turtles for stew. But as far as I know there is no law against eating insects; and so, at the end of the fifth day, having lost by that time about three or four pounds, and having suffered from a headache most if the day, and having lived with hunger like a constant companion, the Red Cowboy, somewhat to my horror, began to consider the possibility.
We were sitting on my back porch at the time, eyeing a paper wasp nest at the corner of an arbor I had built across the back of the house.
“You know,” he said reflectively, “almost two-thirds of the world include at least a few insects in their diet.”
I knew what the Red Cowboy had in mind; and before I could disagree he had brushed away the slow-moving wasps and brought the nest onto the porch. There, we picked out the grubs and laid them on the table. He popped one into his mouth, and then, finding it tasteless, decided that we should fry the rest in butter for dinner. In the process, partly at the urging of my wife, who had endured all this with patient suspicion (not an uncommon state of mind concerning some of my projects), we added a clove of chopped garlic to the wasp larvae, and then a little fresh thyme, and then, finally, just to improve things slightly, a dash of sherry and a little white pepper.
With the evening light fading beyond the wall of the woods, we decided to celebrate—or mourn—the end of our experiment and added more garlic and olive oil and used our admittedly meager main dish of sautéed wasp larvae as a sauce for pasta topped with Parmesan. I decided we might as well accompany our repast with an expensive bottle of chilled Chassagne-Montrachet I had been saving for more formal occasions. Still hungry, we finished off the dinner with a plate of fresh garden peas and then as an afterthought had a green salad with garden beets and cherry tomatoes and green onions. After dinner we piled in the car and drove across the marshes of the brook where we had so recently hunted our wild fare to a locally famous ice cream stand to have dessert.
“Sure do wish I could have caught those old turtles, though,” the Red Cowboy said, digging into his mountainous chocolate sundae.