Alt-Food for Thought

“I’d like a pound of ground cicadas, please.”

I can imagine a world in which I might make such a request. Right here at home. Cicadas are in the news. They’re coming. 

Every seventeen years they emerge from the ground. They buzz and clack around, look for a mate, enjoy a few nights of passion, then die. This year is their year, which makes me wonder. Why didn’t I see them seventeen years ago? or thirty-four years ago? Or seventeen years before that? Will they show up this year? I kind of hope they do, the way I once kind of hoped to feel a minor earthquake (did that, did not like) or see a minor tornado from a safe distance (still on the checklist). Except supposedly cicadas don’t do minor. It’s not like, Hey, there’s one! Supposedly it’s Biblical.

I can imagine asking Nick the butcher for a pound of them–because why not eat bugs? We live in the age of alt-, alt-news, alt-energy, alt-people, alt-music, alt-foods. When we were in China a few years ago, we ate fried bugs. They were good. (Okay, I only had a couple.) But then, anything fried and salted tastes good. 

Cicada burgers. Why not? Cicada ragu. It would be worth a try. 

We are not an alt- family. We’re very trad-. Trad-marriage, trad-work, trad-transportation, trad-food. Trad-etc. So I was surprised the other day, a Monday, cleaning out a cupboard, to find a sixteen pack of roasted seaweed, which is kind of alt-green.  And remembered. A covert operation, an alt-food our daughter turned to in order to get green into her kid’s diet. He liked it. So my wife signed on and home-loaded some seaweed, from Costco, which we shoved into a cupboard and forgot about.

“Look at this,” I said her.

“That’s old. Throw it away.”

“But–.”

“You’re not going to feed that to Gabriel. It’s old. Check the date.”

All right, it was old. “It might still be good,” I said.

“Throw it away.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the package. “It’s organic.”  Figuring that should count for something. I tried to imagine inorganic seaweed. What would that even mean? Maybe that it would last longer?  “It’s organic,” I said, “and USDA approved. That should count for something.”

She snatched the package from me, turned it over. “This stuff expired in 2017. Throw it away.  Please.” 

I took it out to the garage, set it on the recycling bin. The next day, a Tuesday, I circled back, reconsidered. Throwing food away, just summarily consigning it to the trash heap, bugs me. I checked the package again. It wasn’t “expired.” It was “best before.” For me that suggested “okay after.”

If you want to believe what you believe, it’s best to preserve your ignorance. “Best before” has a very specific meaning. I checked. “Any pre-packaged food product having a durable life of 90 days or less must have a durable life date on the label, expressed as the ‘best before’ date, and instructions for proper storage” (my emphasis). That’s an online publication called Badgut talking. They should know. Then again, lots of things that aren’t “good” can be good. Anything fried, for example.

These deliberations reminded me of get-rid-of-some-stuff soup (not to be confused with get-rid-of-some-stuff sauce. When our son came home from college for the last time, he brought provisions, some of them vintage. Canned beans, canned peas, canned tomatoes. Just a few cans, which found their way into our pantry because there was available space and because who wants to throw away food. Years passed, quite a few. I admit I had my doubts. I figured soup–a good long-cooked soup would wipe out any mischievous microbes. It was a three-fer: I liberated space, my wife and I had a decent lunch, and that stuff didn’t go to waste. 

With respect to cans, Foodprint, a publication that shares “innovative strategies to increase public awareness of the critical environmental and public health issues created by our current industrial food system” (was ever a quotation a bigger mouthful, and a greater bummer?) cites a two-to-five year rule.” Within that time frame, if the can is not bulging, go for it.  

Ugh. Bulging. 

There are limits even I will observe. In our basement, next to the bottles of gin no one drank at our wedding reception 45 years ago, still good, I trust, I think there are a few cans of very old stewed tomatoes. Most definitely not good; candidates for the bomb squad or hazmat.

Garbage day at our house is Thursday. 

On Wednesday I break into the sixteen pack and extract one of the maybe-still-good, individually wrapped, lunchbox-ready cups of seaweed. The stuff is practically weightless. It dissolves on your tongue. It’s texture is slightly fibrous, not chewy exactly, kind of veiny. In the little cup are 20 or so mini-sheets, perfectly cut, which calls to my mind piles of pre-dried seaweed in long sheets on a conveyer belt and a mechanized chopper, an industrial process of some sort.

One taste is not enough. In my mouth, old roasted seaweed feels like old 35 millimeter film. I pick up half the pile, half inch thick, and take a bite. Tastes like salt, green salt. Sea salt is supposed to be good for you. In the bottom of the dish I now see a tiny packet, the kind that comes with sushi take-out, a little bit of soy sauce to go with your California rolls. I figure it’s there to make the seaweed taste better.

I look more closely and see the Chinese characters. Then, in English, “DO NOT EAT.” It’s not sauce. It’s silica gel. Gel, really? That’s an almost-sauce.

The roasted seaweed goes in the trash, the whole lot of it, along with its gel/sauce.

Entomophagy is the practice of eating bugs. Not on the menu in the US today, bugs have a place in American culinary history, particularly in Native American communities. Gastro Obscura (a delectable title) notes, “Both Native Americans and colonists enjoyed fried cicadas, grasshopper flour, and insect fruitcakes.” The Shoshone ate grasshoppers, the Paiute lunched on caterpillars. North Carolina Cherokee knew how to do it: “They dug up young cicadas, removed their legs, and fried them in hog fat as a treat. Sometimes they baked them into pies or salted and pickled them for later. They also apparently loved roasted cornworms and yellowjacket grubs, which were hardly as convenient to harvest as a locust swarm.”

A few years ago the neighbor kid ate some ants in survival class. He said they tasted like lemons.

“Ground cicadas,” Nick will say. “You gonna freeze these?”

“Nope. Best eaten fresh, I’m sure.” 

What would the freezer-life of cicadas be? There must be a “best before” or “eat by” date, numbering not in days or months but in years. Seventeen, maybe?

2 thoughts on “Alt-Food for Thought

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