Congratulations to Pip Marks, winner of the 2015 Frugal Feast Writing Prize, run by our friends at YWCA Canberra. Each year YWCA Canberra raise funds in their Frugal Feast campaign, to distribute food hampers and donate groceries to locals in need over the festive season. As part of this campaign a special writing competition was born to get the community thinking creatively about the issue of emergency food relief, and how insecure access to food might impact on members of our community. Read Pip’s prize-winning story: How Hungry Would You Have to Be? in full below.
How hungry would you have to be?
by Pip Marks
Old Harry and I were sitting on hay bales in the shed, taking refuge from the scorching midday sun after a morning of fixing fences. Fine shafts of sunlight entered through numerous holes in the corrugated iron roof. Like laser beams. The air was thick with dust and the smell of manure and our sweat.
“How hungry would you have to be to eat a spider?” he asked.
I followed his gaze. It rested on a big fat huntsman spider high up on one of the rafters. I could just make out its plump torso.
“Pretty hungry!” I replied.
“Raw or cooked?”
“No idea. Maybe mashed up with other things so I couldn’t taste it properly or see its eyes? Or its hairy legs. Although I might not care if I were hungry enough. Assuming they’re not poisonous?”
Harry was a local entity. Everyone knew him. He’d been a hard worker, quick witted, quite handsome apparently. A real catch, my Gran said. But he fell on hard times after his wife died. Now he drank his way from town to town, picking up work when he could.
Whenever Harry arrived on our doorstep, my father gave him odd jobs to do. Dad saved them up. It drove Mum crazy.
“Why can’t you just do it now?” she would ask. Even though she already knew the answer.
“No. It’s perfect for Old Harry,” he would reply. “I’m sure he’ll stop by soon.”
I often worked alongside Harry during the summer holidays. Mum always made us a big lunch. I’d hold back so there was more for Harry. And pretend not to notice when he pocketed a few bread rolls for later.
Over smoko, he would tell me stories about growing up in the thirties. Some real and some not. It was hard to tell which were which.
I always think of Harry when I see cow pads. He claimed to have stood in fresh ones to warm up his feet in winter. Gran said that was definitely true. I think she might have been a bit sweet on him.
“We used to eat all sorts of grubs and other things. Life was tough back then,” he said.
“Did you catch rabbits?” I asked.
“Yeah. But only to sell. They were worth too much. My family was normally skint.”
“Love ‘em,” he replied with a cheeky smile. I knew that he still caught yabbies in the dam in our back paddock. Dad never told Mum or she would have had a fit.
“I ate witchetty grubs one time with Dad when we were camping.” I said. “Cooked.”
“They taste different raw. More like scrambled eggs. Less nutty. Not bad really. But I never eat the heads.”
I cringed at the thought.
“There are lots of edible insects, you know?” he continued. “Crickets, beetles, worms, maggots, caterpillars, grasshoppers, termites. Not to mention water bugs. You name it and I reckon someone in the world eats it. I seen amazing things in the outback. And overseas. Things you wouldn’t believe.”
It was hard to imagine Harry travelling the world.
“Even scorpions and tarantulas,” he added. “And cockroaches.”
“God’s truth. Seen ‘em in markets in Asia. With the navy.”
We sat in silence for a while. Harry lost in his memories. And me wondering if I could ever overcome my squeamishness. I decided I’d have to be pretty desperate.
“The local black fellas never went hungry,” he said. “Always knew where to find their supper. I learnt a lot from them. Did ya’ know that native bees don’t sting?”
“And they taste good. They taught me to eat bogong moths as well. Packed full of fat and protein, the moths are, after feasting up north all spring.”
“And arsenic,” I added.
“Yeah. Gotta watch that. No surprise, really, with all the poisons we’ve used over the years.”
“I suppose even a locust plague might be a decent food source. If they haven’t been sprayed.”
Harry was quiet for a minute. He took a swig of beer before making a prophetic statement that changed my life.
“One day we’ll all be eating insects.”
“Makes sense. Takes too many resources to raise cattle and other livestock. Insects need far less grain and water to produce the same amount of edible protein. Someone’s just gotta figure out how to scale it up.”
“But it won’t be on farms like this. It’ll be close to cities in multi-storey vertical farms and huge greenhouses. That’s the future. Not farms like this.”
I was about to disagree, but Harry cut me off.
“And they’d have to work out how to cook ‘em right. So people actually wanna eat ‘em. And pay good money for ‘em.”
“You mean develop a whole new western cuisine based on insects?”
“Yeah. Otherwise they’ll end up as stockfeed or pet food. Some things have to be cooked in a certain way to make ‘em safe. Others just look or taste awful.”
“Can you change their flavour based on what you feed them?”
“Dunno. But everything tastes better with chilli and garlic. Even snails.”
I’d never eaten a snail and wasn’t sure that I ever wanted to.
“You don’t think there’d be animal rights groups up in arms? Fighting for free range insect farms?” I asked him.
“Nah. Better to protect natural insect populations and keep ‘em separate. With things like snails, they purge ‘em for a few days so they’re not full of crap and then freeze ‘em. Pretty painless death.”
“I guess so.”
“Then you can dry ‘em and grind ‘em into a powder. Can’t hardly tell what they were to start with. Freeze it. Ship it. Whatever you want.”
“So, affordable staple foods, mass produced in climate-controlled energy and water efficient facilities?” I was intrigued but still a bit skeptical.
“How else we gonna feed the billions of people on this planet?” he asked.
Over dinner that night, I told my father what Harry had said about insects. Dad shook his head and laughed. “Sounds like Old Harry has finally lost it. Pity. I heard he was one of this area’s best farm managers back in the day. When he wasn’t banging on about some wacky scheme.”
I looked down at my plate of steak, roast potato and frozen peas. Nothing against Mum’s cooking, but I didn’t think Harry was crazy.
I surveyed the sea of crisp white tablecloths. The room was dark, lit only by candles and some strategically placed spotlights. Soft music played in the background. If you listened carefully, you could hear cicadas and bird calls. But this was a long way from the bush. The floral centrepieces comprised a cornucopia of edible native plants.
I hadn’t seen Harry for years. When I went home during university holidays, my visits never seemed to coincide with his. Mum said he dropped in every now and then for a free feed. Even after he could no longer do odd jobs. Always asked after me, she said.
That was before my folks sold the farm and moved to the city. Dad says the land’s going to be covered in houses soon. The new owners are just waiting for planning approval.
Glancing at the menu, I couldn’t hold back a smile. Deep-fried crickets, roasted bogong moth and mealworm frittata, and insect-fed beef, yabbies and witchetty grubs in a bush tucker version of surf ’n’ turf. Old Harry would have loved that last one. It was full of garlic and chilli.
We’d also used native plants like lemon myrtle, bush tomato, saltbush, kakadu plum, finger lime and pepperberry. And included a side salad of wild greens and swamp grass. Old Harry might have passed on the ‘rabbit food’, but he would have really enjoyed the wattleseed damper rolls.
I’d learnt a lot about edible insects since that conversation in the shed. But I still wasn’t sure if this would be a sustainable business. We’d opened a few food kitchens to test our products. No spiders, though. Our patrons gave us lots of great tips. Especially the old timers and indigenous Australians.
My guests today had paid a small fortune to attend this dinner. The launch of my new agro- innovation joint venture. Each course was paired with a fancy organic wine. Except for the crickets. They were being served with a boutique beer from a local micro-brewery. In Harry’s honour.
Old Harry wouldn’t have been surprised by any of this. He’d predicted it almost two decades ago. Even my Dad had eventually come round to the idea and helped finance the operation. But Harry would have hated that it was so pretentious.
We were about to indulge in an elaborate banquet based on edible insects. And, to my amazement, I wasn’t the least bit hungry.