A few weeks ago, before I visited my daughter and her family in Oakland, California, I contacted my three-year-old grandson, Declan, and asked him, only half-jokingly, if he'd like to me to bring him some grasshoppers to eat. I thought it'd be funny and weird for him to try Mexican chapulines (fried grasshoppers). My grandson told me, "I love grasshoppers," adding "But not raw ones. Crispy."
So I brought a bag crispy of grasshoppers and, indeed, he did love them, eating one after another. I thought this was a good sign. Grasshoppers like these are very popular in Oaxaca, Mexico, where we bought several "flavors" of the bugs from local street vendors: salted, garlic and a chili-flavored variety. They were probably the best bugs I've eaten.
The reason I was impressed by my grandson's eagerness to try this food is that bug-eating is not common in the United States. I'm guessing most would consider it gross, though entomophagy is common throughout the world.
Yesterday, we went to The Strange Food Festival, an event organized by fellow food writer/blogger/videographer Keng Sisaveth. Keng is Laotian, and he wanted to introduce people to the food of his homeland, as well as the food of a lot of other "ethnic" groups who may not currently have a strong presence in Chicago and whose food might be considered, by others, to be strange.
"Strange," though, is a very relative term. What is strange to some might be commonplace to others. We had, for instance, an outstanding bowl of pozole, Mexican pork soup with hominy. This is a soup known to probably 100% of Chicago's Hispanic community, though obviously those outside this community might think it at least uncommon and perhaps strange. Similarly, there was mac n' cheese offered, and there's probably not a person in American who hasn't had this old standby; to some Asians, however, cheese is one of the most disgusting foods in the world, repulsive, abhorrent, inedible and truly strange (why, they might wonder, would anyone eat rotten milk?).
The Strange Foods Festival exemplifies one of the main reasons, aside from appetite, that I like food: it brings people together. When you take the plunge to eat a food from another culture, you're connecting with that culture. And in our current climate of divisiveness, anything that brings people together is a good thing.
At the festival, I met Anwar Jebran of Honeydoe, a catering company that sells Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food though mostly, significantly, Syrian food. There are currently no Syrian restaurants in Chicago, and Jebran is now just making his food for events, banquets and so on. He plans, however, to expand and hire Syrian refugees because, he told us, "they know the food, they need jobs, and they need to integrate into the community."
That's what food does. It integrates people, bringing together people from different cultures to share their foods and learn about one another. I can't think of a time in the history of the world when it's been more important for people to learn about one another.
So I was happy when my grandson tried a kind of food that most of us have never had and that I guarantee will not be found in 99.99% of Mexican restaurants in this country (who have to serve mostly gringos). I am certain my grandson did not think eating grasshoppers was a way to increase cultural sensitivity – he did it because it was fun – but I'm confident that the next time someone offers him a food he's never had before, and that maybe his friends will think of as gross, maybe he'll just give it a try and gain some understanding of another way of thinking and being.
Postscript: my grandson also ate a lot of bacon with his chapulines; my daughter had to admonish him, "Declan, you have to eat more than just bacon and grasshoppers." True, true…