Needed: Worm Wordsmiths

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

Here in the U.S., we have cringed at the thought of eating a pair of college oxen by the names of Bill and Lou. We have turned our noses up at the idea of consuming lean, finely textured beef dubbed “pink slime.”

We have eaten nameless cows, pigs and chickens without batting an eye, but we would not dream of chowing down on a horse — whether it has a name or not.

Much of what we like and dislike, it would seem, has nothing to do with taste and everything to do with emotion and perception and culture. Which begs the question: “What might our taste buds be missing?”

Enter a recent Associated Press story on a harvest season in Zimbabwe that yields one of the most popular staples in the country’s diet — mopane worms.

Yes, worms.

Now, farmers have long understood the value of worms. Earthworms help aerate the soil, which allows plant roots to grow more easily. Their castings also make great fertilizer.

In fact, there are entire composting businesses that revolve around these wiggly willing workers.

But while we may recognize worms as a key player in food production, most of us don’t view them as a main ingredient in food preparation. That would be like, well, opening a can of worms.

Not so in Zimbabwe where, the article states, mopane worms are both a diet staple in rural areas and a delicacy in cities.

A caterpillar of the emperor moth, mopane worms are so named because they feed on the leaves of mopane trees.

Once their entrails are squeezed out, they can be dried in the sun and eaten like potato chips or cooked in a spicy or peanut butter sauce.

Mmm, mmm good.

Who needs oxen stew or leaner ground beef or horse meat roast when you can have Caterpillar Supreme, right?

Maybe not.

Many of us have a resistance to chowing down on creepy crawlers, and it has nothing to do with concerns about how happy they were in life or how humanely they were treated before their innards were expelled.

Getting America’s taste buds on the worm wagon might require some clever marketing.

Perhaps inspiration might come from a recent New York Times article on cheese wits, those New York City cheesemongers who use creative prose to tantalize potential customers.

One cheese shop cited in the article described a particular raw milk goat cheese from Italy this way: “The Lindsay Lohan of the cheese world, this pecorino has a tan, leathery exterior that surrounds a delicate yellow paste. With hints of herbs and the aroma of hay, you can almost hear the bleating of Lindsay up in the Italian hills. Pair with nicotine, Red Bull, and an alcohol monitor.”

Could we incite the same interest in worms with a similar soliloquy? Is there a Lindsay Lohan of the worm world that could make us forget our inhibitions and slurp down a plateful of slithery goodness?

Perhaps we should at least try.

A study published in December in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers in the Netherlands found mealworms to be an earth-friendly source of protein.

The study, which examined the environmental impact of mealworm production, found that mealworm farming cut carbon dioxide emissions and land use by one-half to two-thirds compared with milk, chicken and pork production, and by about 90 percent compared with beef production.

“With land availability being the most stringent limitation in sustainably feeding the world’s population, this study clearly shows that mealworm should be considered as a more sustainable alternative to milk, chicken, pork and beef,” the researchers wrote.

More sustainable? Maybe. More palatable? Well, let’s just say the wordsmiths who would market mealworms as a meal have their work cut out for them.

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