Halfway through dinner one evening I was appalled to find an inchworm doing its cute little humpbacked crawl through my noodle salad. The waiter was not sympathetic. “Our produce is all organic,” he sniffed.
I’m not particularly squeamish. I grew up a small town farm girl, and always tell my girls, “Dirt don’t hurt.”
I’m also a firm believer in the many benefits of organic produce, but that doesn’t excuse skimping on washing before service. When I insisted on a refund he just shrugged and took my plate away. Only half my meal was comped, and I walked out hungry after eating half of a worm’s playground. I hoped he wasn’t missing any friends.
… Flash forward, but not too far, to last week on my living room couch …
I read an article by Harold McGee in Issue 3 of “Lucky Peach” talking about “Handling Herbs.” Spanking mint as opposed to muddling it for mojitos to ‘liberate its minty essence without over-damaging the cells and eliciting a vegetal quality’ was a surprising tip, but I was most intrigued by his discussion of how bugs can make organic produce healthier and even taste better.
According to McGee, the flavors of herbs and spices come from the chemicals they make and store for chemical warfare against bugs, animals, and microbes. You wouldn’t munch on a cinnamon stick because it doesn’t taste good on its own, but if you simmer apple cider with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks, the resulting infusion is autumn comfort in a cup.
Thus, if a plant is damaged by pest invasion, that sends a message to boost its chemical defenses (aka antioxidants, aka flavor). McGee suggests reconsidering buying the less-than-pretty bug-eaten produce at the farmer’s market as it may be tastier and healthier than it’s more presentable neighbors. (!)
I’ve often heard food is only as good as the soil it’s grown in, but this was the first I’d heard that bugs can actually improve a plant’s nutrients and flavor. I guess it’s true for people and plants alike; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
… And then, at a restaurant recently nominated for a James Beard award …
I had my second meet and greet with an unexpected critter in a restaurant setting. A few minutes upon arrival, while admiring the trays of artfully laid black trumpet mushrooms, locally grown oranges, key limes, and Persian cucumbers, I spotted a tiny mite-like thing crawling near my place setting. I wasn’t offended, but I didn’t really want to share my dinner with him, so I asked my husband to “get it.” He brushed his thumb over it, leaving a dark brown paint stroke on the white linen. I didn’t bother mentioning it to the waiter, and the entire meal was unforgettably decadent.
… Checking out the rearview …
I doubt that Thai-fusion waiter was up on his McGee so many years ago, but maybe I’ll reconsider my boycott. I’m can’t say I’m ready to slurp a scorpion lollipop like these insect treats we discovered at Pismo Beach last summer, but maybe it’s not such a bad sign if a healthy critter hops on my plate.
What do you think?