I joined chef and <i>Bizarre Foods</i> host Andrew Zimmern in Oaxaca, where we ate stone soup and a salsa made from fatty ants, and talked about whether the future was full of Soylent or insect protein.
"Everyone prefers the females because they have more fat," said chef Andrew Zimmern of the chicatanas, as he broke open the toasted abdomen of one and rubbed the fatty white insides between his fingers until I could see the grease. Chicatanas—large winged ants native to the Oaxaca region of Mexico—have been eaten since pre-Hispanic times. They emerge from their underground colonies when the first rains of the year arrive, usually in May or June, and they can only be harvested during that period, a one-month window. They have fairy-like wings, the kind of dark opaque wings that an evil Tinker Bell might sport if Disney were ever into that kind of story, and they are aggressive. Locals pick them up by their wings to avoid being bitten by their pincers. Families know when the first rains are coming because the worker ants come out of the colonies. The night before, locals cover ant colonies with large woven baskets. After the rain, early in the morning around 4 AM, the ants begin to climb up the sides of the basket, and as they do, their wings drop off. To prep them for eating, families remove their legs and thorax, and toast the abdomens.
By the time I arrived on the scene in the village of Xoxocotlán, a half-hour ride outside of Oaxaca City, a local family had already showed the cast and crew of Zimmern's Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods how to collect and prepare chicatanas. As I stepped out of my taxi, I looked down a hill on an open field and a small one-room home built on a concrete pad. There, the matriarch of the family was preparing chicatana salsa and roasting the abdomens of the ants, and a bunch of teen boys were huddled in a nearby window laughing and giving each other several variations of fist bumps. I arrived just in time to fill a warm tortilla with chicatana salsa, which contains chili costeño, garlic, onion, tomato, salt, and corn oil, and then top it all off with the roasted abdomens of the ants. The salsa, given the fat content of the ants combined with spice and salt, is creamy and delicious. The chicatana abdomens were more texture—crunch, crunch, crunch—than taste, and I got to eat as much as I wanted since filming had ended and everyone was milling around. As I ate, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Zimmern reach out and grab the grandmother's hand and bend down and kiss it.
I had met Zimmern's crew on my flight into Oaxaca; Zimmern himself was in the back of the plane. I didn't get a chance to talk to him, but later that night I sent him a tweet introducing myself as a writer and asking if could join the crew as they filmed the show in Oaxaca. He tweeted back, "Yes, come join us!"
Each day, Zimmern was in constant movement, his face framed by bright orange glasses. He fluidly took photos and tweeted while tasting food, telling jokes, and letting the cameramen and photographers know what shots of food he wanted. He and his crew moved like a well-oiled machine, and the director of the show, who was eternally smoking a cigar, would often shout "Fantastic!" into the mic, something which the rest of the crew would imitate behind his back at inappropriate moments.
I asked Zimmern about the future of insects as food. "I think what happens is that certain people slowly but surely come to realize that these foods are yummy in every sense of the word and then they figure out that they are sustainable and all the other sorts of reasons that they might become popular. And the reason that I don't think anyone is going to become the all-star is that I think there is going to be a little bit of a rebound against the whole cricket/grasshopper thing," he said. "I think that foods like Soylent will be more popular than crickets because Soylent, which is a meal-replacement mixture, takes care of all the nutrition that you need."
I had read about the team behind Soylent in Lizzie Widdicombe's New Yorker article "The End of Food." They were three young tech guys who claimed that they worked so much that they didn't have time to eat. As Widdicome described, "They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas—supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy—but the grocery bills were still adding up. Rob Rhinehart, one of the entrepreneurs, began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all."
Zimmern knew Rhinehart, and was a believer in his story. He explained, "Even Rob, who invented Soylent, has said to me that it's not like he even uses it for the taste. He's a friend of mine. He uses it about half the week. He still likes to go out for sushi. It's like, 'I want to eat sushi. It's just that several other meals a week where I'm just at my desk and working I don't want to eat a shitty McDonald's hamburger or some other thing.'"
I was skeptical of the argument that Soylent was simply a McDonald's alternative, but I found Zimmern's second point—that Soylent would be the food of the future for the poor—more compelling. He explained, "I'm at this strange intersection where I'm talking to all these different people about it. You can't tell me when you're turning crickets into cricket flour to put in a protein bar and masking it with ground up cranberries and nuts—you can't tell me that that's eating crickets or grasshoppers. It's not. You're eating a ground-up natural protein source. I would think that solving hunger problems in poverty-stricken areas, it's probably better to give people a healthy nutri-shake or something once a day. What drives a lot of investigation of alternative foods is hunger and poverty. Ten years ago I told everybody, 'Yes, it's going to be bugs. It's going to be crickets.' Today, I think it's going to be something else that we just don't know yet because you're talking about 50 years from now or 20 or ten years from now—who knows what we're going to have invented by then?"
I tried to imagine the world's poor subsisting off of Soylent, but I couldn't help feel that there was something perverse about that solution to world hunger.
Meanwhile, in Oaxaca, Zimmern focused on learning about traditional pre-Hispanic cuisine, in which insects played a prominent role. After spending the first morning visiting a chapulines (grasshopper) factory and making chicatana salsa, Zimmern's crew of some 15 people—cameramen, photographers, soundmen, fixers from Mexico City, and a translator—split up and hopped into two vans. Each van was equipped with a cooler full of snacks that included Zimmern's two addictions: diet Red Bull and Starbucks iced coffee. I jumped into the van with the camera crew, which, as it turned out, was a great choice. They had a going thing where each person in the van got to play one song, and when I asked Ben, a lanky cameraman, if I could play reggaeton, he said, "Fuck everyone else, listen to what you want to listen to."
And with that, to the beat of Daddy Yankee, we drove into Oaxaca City to find Caldo de Piedra, a restaurant run by Don César Gachupín de Dios from the Chinantec village of San Felipe Usila. Upon our arrival, four young women with long, beribboned braids, bright traditional dresses, and rainbows of matching eye shadow greeted us. Don César was in the interior of the restaurant near the brick fire pit, where several large round stones were gathering heat. He had already laid out the ingredients for the soup on a wooden table next to the fire—a whole fish, whole shrimp, onion, cilantro, and tomatoes. As Don César cut up the fish, Zimmern joked with him that while women spend hours slaving away in the kitchen to make dishes like mole, which has a laundry list of ingredients, men make stone soup. "The one time a man says, 'I'm going to make dinner,' it's a bowl of cold water and a hot rock," said Zimmern.
Don César dropped a fish head into a bowl of cold water and added onion, tomato, cilantro, and shrimp. He then went over to the fire and used a giant spoon to scoop a rock the size of a softball out of the fire. When hot rock met water, steam rose above the fish—in four minutes, the soup would be ready. It was a simple, local dish, one that went back to pre-Hispanic times, and Don César was one of the few people who still made it in the traditional way.
Don César and Zimmern sat down to eat stone soup, and Don César wanted to talk about the history of his indigenous people, of their land, and of the connection between stone soup and that history. Due to the construction of dams and encroachment on indigenous lands, the fish and shrimp that were a key ingredient to the soup were becoming scarce. He worried that his generation would be the last one to make traditional stone soup. "In the city, they don't even use real rocks," he lamented to Zimmern.
When I interviewed Zimmern about stone soup the next day, he said, "Here is the sad part —César was concerned that stone soup would be dead someday soon if they didn't do something about it. And the sad reality is that stone soup is already dead— they just don't know it yet. And the reason is because the sons and the daughters of the people who have kept this alive for so long are now—they are living their lives on the Internet. They have handheld phones and they have electricity where they are and they are living different lives than their parents."
Back at the restaurant, Don César and Zimmern, as if in communion, lifted the giant wooden bowls up to their lips and slurped the stone soup broth. And suddenly the director called the end of the scene, and Zimmern's translator, who had been too busy facilitating the conversation to eat, offered me her soup. I sat down and dug into the whole fish head, picking flesh from bone with my fingers. Just like the food that my parents prepare from their garden in Arkansas, the dish was simple and fresh.
I wondered if Zimmern ever got depressed witnessing the end of or the last of things: a people, a food, a culture. When I talked to him about the bittersweet experience of sharing such stories, he said, "Sometimes people aren't even aware that these things are dying all around them. We do those kinds of stories: I call them 'the last bottle of water in the desert stories.' César is the last bottle of water in the desert."
But Zimmern wasn't depressed—I could see it. He loved telling the stories of makers, of the women and men and children who continued to grow and cook traditional local foods. And he didn't just care about food, he clearly loved people, and charmed them with his knowledge of cooking and appreciation of their work. Of the show, he said, "We also do great family meals and great process stories, and we get to show people this kind of thing. To show them a small, artisanal cheesemaker in a tiny little town in Oaxaca—that's pretty cool. Maybe that's going to inspire someone in Iowa or Minnesota to say, 'You know something, fuck that, I'm not doing the cheese coop. I'm not going to do the commodity thing. I'm going to do something the right way.'"
And in Oaxaca, the markets and streets and homes we visited were filled with people making tortillas, salsas, and moles from scratch, all from memory. On our second day in Oaxaca, we drove to the village of Etla to watch a local family make Oaxacan cheese, which is thick, stretchy, and ropelike with a mild mozzarella taste. The women of the family prepped the curd and fanned the coals of the grill, where they would cook tortillas filled with squash blossoms and the freshly made cheese. Zimmern looked over and said, "That woman over there who is making the tortillas—that masa is not bought from the Masa-R-Us store, it's not frozen from the gas station. She makes that. Why would you do that and go to that trouble to cook them fresh for every meal? Because it's better that way for everyone. It's a pretty powerful example. And so I like to present powerful examples to people."
Although the power of stories is unpredictable, Zimmern said that he hoped he would change people in small ways—convince them to buy local, to go meatless once a week, to support farmers. However, he also admitted, "My biggest complaint about my show is that because it is commercialized television, it is perceived as 'fat white guy goes around world eats fermented dolphin anus, comes home.'"
He continued, "I mean, I love food—it's my life. I give a shit about food. But I couldn't care less whether César was making omelets or stone soup or goat chowder. It does not matter to me. What matters to me is him and his story, that he comes from this place and he feels that it's going away."
Day two of filming began in Oaxacan Chef Alejandro Ruíz's restaurant Casa Oaxaca, with Ruíz preparing rabbit in yellow mole. Then we took off to the sprawling Central de Abastos market where Ruíz served as Zimmern's guide. The two ate fat corn memelas toasted on a comal, fingered bunches of garlic, tried creamy fruits like mamey and chicozapote, and perused cuts of meat in a section of the market where animal parts where hung like curtains from vendors' stalls. At one point, Zimmern, seeing a crew member eating a lone rambutan, said, "Good God, let me buy you a kilo. We've got to use up our money here." And then he admitted, "There's two fruits I've had that I'm afraid I will never have again and I think about them at least twice a week." Before I could find out what those fruits were, he was whisked off by Ruíz to admire overflowing bins full of chilies.
On the last morning of the shoot, we drove to San Marco Tlapazola, a Zapotec village, to learn from two local women, Flor and Silvia, how to make tejate. The pre-Hispanic drink is made from corn, rosita de cacao (the flower of the Funeral tree, which gives the drink its perfumed taste), mamey seeds and flowers, and cacao, although recipes differ among villages and are guarded jealously. Flor and Silvia toasted all of the seeds and corn and then took them to the mill to have them ground. They then added water to the paste to make a thick dough, which they kneaded and punched, their hands sinking into the pillowy mixture.
To witness the last stage of the process, we followed Flor and Siliva to the Tlapazola market. Flor placed the dough in a bowl, and used one hand to lift a jug of water as high above her head as she could, while continuing to knead the dough as she added water. After 15 or 20 minutes of kneading, a sea foam of white began to appear above the dough and water mixture, and it was ready to drink. Flor served it to us in bowls made of gourds, and the resulting drink was fragrant, complex, and nutty. Nearby, women lined the aisle of the market hugging live turkeys, their feet covered by the splendor of the feathers of those laying on the ground with their feet tied.
Talking to Zimmern about the Oaxaca experience, he reflected on learning how to make chicatana salsa and said, "So I looked over—there's grandma—she's the food expert and I looked at her hands and they just looked like the hands of someone who has been taking care of people her whole life. And I walked over and I just kissed her hands. We need to do that more metaphorically with the people who make food in this country, and I don't want to do that with factory farm owners. I want to do that with farmers and growers."
And, when I asked him about the future of food in the next 50 years, he added, "Maybe everyone will be eating Soylent, or maybe everyone will be growing their own food in family communities they way they did 500 years ago."