Eating Ants and Whales
By Mike Buesseler
This is a confession. I am definitely not the sociopath who filled Tylenol capsules with cyanide several years ago, nor do I know who did. I was, however, an accessory to a similar offense, committed many years ago. No one, to my knowledge, suffered significantly as a result of my actions, and certainly no one died. I am not even sure that anyone ever discovered my crime, or if they had, would they have known what sense to make of it. Regardless, a time comes to tell the truth, and this is the whole truth--at least as I remember it:
There was a small, stuccoed, flat-roofed store in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, where I grew up, called simply, The Cheese Shop. How a specialty shop survived during the 50's and 60's in a small suburb, I don't know. It wasn't even near the meager central business district of town, but stood by itself about a mile north, just off Highway 61 and practically on the railroad tracks. In the summer those rails became pathways and trails for my brother and our friends, and inevitably, they led us to the shop.
It should come as no surprise that the Cheese Shop sold all kinds of cheese, but it didn't smell like the kind that my mother bought: Velveeta and American, which, now that I think of it, don't have much smell and may not be cheese at all. Anyway, it wasn't the cheese (and certainly not its odor, which we compared to my brother's feet) that attracted us to The Cheese Shop. It was the cans and jars of imported exotic delicacies, shelved in one corner of the store, some of whose labels we couldn't read, and others we could read but couldn't believe, that captured our interest. There were smoked oysters and smoked octopus, (none of us had ever seen a real octopus, let alone considered the possibility of eating one) canned snails, and smoked sparrows. Smoked sparrows! We were flabbergasted and delighted. And the list went on: reindeer stew, canned whale meat, quail eggs, pickled eels, bird's nest soup-and incredibly, as if taken from our own personal fantasy menu: chocolate covered ants and fried caterpillars! Certain labels we could read but could not fathom: cockles, calamari, squab, and dozens of names I can't possibly recall. I cannot imagine who in this small midwestern town purchased and ate such things and I never actually witnessed anyone doing so. Most of the containers were imported from strange, distant places like Iceland, Norway, Japan, and Peru, but as far as we could see, they were there solely and exclusively for our amusement. Had there been any profit in entertaining prepubescent boys, this business would have flourished.
For awhile we were content to shake cans or tilt jars, hoping to catch a murky glimpse of some unknown beast or grisly appendage. Or we would just try to outdo each other by reading aloud the outrageous lists of ingredients of whatever we could find. We eventually grew bored with mere reading and we began to consider the possibility of actually buying and tasting some of these wonders. We were driven in part by normal curiosity, but our desire to be able to declare that we had actually eaten, say, whale meat or chocolate covered ants cannot be overestimated. The compulsion to invent and take a dare when one is not offered is the source of much boyhood mischief more evil than eating ants and whales. Unfortunately, the prices were as shocking as the ingredients. None of us had much money in those days, and so we pooled our paltry resources to purchase one or two selections at a time. We would hold a sort of culinary budget committee meeting at our house, which was also near the railroad tracks, negotiate the day's menu and head off, stomaches aflutter.
Once we got our treasures home, the real adventure began. There would be some minor squabbling over what and who would get first taste, until finally we chose the first course, held our breath, and broke its seal with mixed horror and anticipation. The first sight of a suction-cupped octopus tentacle coiled in oil or a smoked sparrow, packed in a flat can on a miniature skewer, tiny drumsticks splayed out, was sometimes more than worth the purchase price. Often, after the first close look and cautious sniff, tasting rights were forfeited. Surprisingly, though, the flavor of most of the things we bought was unremarkable-at worst, somewhat odd. But the textures were another matter, and are not easily forgotten. Canned octopus had the consistency and shape of tiny, oily snow tires. None of us were able to actually swallow one. The bones in the gamey, dark-meated, delicate little smoked sparrows provided an unfamiliar crunchiness. Fried caterpillars (which, to our dismay, were some kind of blackened, puffy, inch-long larvae) were brittle, hollow, slightly greasy, but otherwise nearly tasteless. Someone compared whale meat, which was dark red and stringy, to horse hearts, which of course, none of us had ever eaten, either. Ants added an interesting crispness to chocolate, but little in the way of flavor. Cockles, which we later learned are small clam-like shellfish, looked (and might have tasted) like mouse livers.
Eventually we satisfied most of our curiosity for weird food, having compiled an impressive list, which remains, to this day, unchallenged. And so, we turned our endless quest for amusement in another direction.
Many of the items we bought and tasted (I hesitate to say we actually ate any of them) remained a mystery to us. The exact identities of these strange organisms preserved in oil, mustard, or brine were never positively determined. That is probably just as well, but it led us to speculate further as to just who bought this stuff and to ponder what else such people might eat. We concluded, finally, that there must be people who buy their food as sort of an adventure or an experiment--that is, without knowing exactly what they were getting. We also concluded (based mainly upon our own behavior) that you could probably put anything in a jar at the Cheese Shop and sooner or later someone would buy it for lunch.
Now, in some years my mother bought us live baby chickens for Easter. This was not an uncommon practice in those days, at least not in Minnesota. One year she bought us two baby ducks, perversely died pink and blue. But, in that year, it was chickens, about six of them. By midsummer the survivors of our overhandling and overfeeding regimen were nearly grown, living their miserable lives pretty much ignored, inside a small pen temporarily erected around our sandbox. My mother grew up on a farm and enjoyed telling us about her childhood, when she stirred cow pies with a corn stalk and ran around the farmyard barefoot, stopping occasionally to poke out the chicken turds stuck between her toes with a stick. These stories seemed to amuse her more than they did us, but it explains how she allowed chickens to share her children's sandbox. And that explains how we came to have a supply of chicken turds, which looked every bit as appetizing as some of the mystery items we found in jars and cans from the Cheese Shop.
I can't honestly say exactly whose idea it was to put chicken turds in a jar for the Cheese Shop gourmets, but as the oldest member of the group, I am prepared to accept at least partial responsibility. And I do remember that the motor oil was my idea. The choicest of the chicken morsels, sifted from the sandbox, could probably have passed inspection in a jar dry, by themselves, but, we all agreed that they were nicely improved by the addition of some clear, amber-colored motor oil. Just the idea of someone picking our jar off the shelf and inspecting its contents sent us into hysteria, which was never far off for us, anyway.
We howled at the idea of applying a home-made label to the jar, reading "Chickenshit in Motor Oil." It had a nice ring and an appealing honesty to it, but we elected instead to disguise our creation with a label soaked off another jar, and so "Chickenshit in Motor Oil" became "Cockles in Olive Oil." It would have fooled us, and that was good enough.
It was relatively easy to sneak our decoy from a pocket and onto the shelves among the other foods, but we were more nervous doing so than we were the time we shoplifted a box of chocolate covered ants. (I guess I had two confessions to make.) I suppose we could not imagine how we would explain the depravity of our actions if we were caught. As far as we knew, this was a transgression never before committed, which perhaps carried penalties never before assessed. We pulled it off, though, and staggered out of the Cheese Shop in convulsions of laughter.
Everything was pretty much anticlimactic after that (at least for us ), since there really wasn't much chance we were going to be able to enjoy watching our intended victim discover his ghastly mistake. We did check the shelf weeks later and the "Cockles" were gone.
And so, to whoever bought that jar, I am sorry. If you actually ate one of the cockles, I am very sorry. But then...maybe you deserved it.