I should have known from the look on Pepe's face.
We had just come in from enjoying some tamarind margaritas on the rooftop deck at La Tequila in Guadalajara. As we sat at our table, Pepe suggested ordering some appetizers for the table, asking whether he should order some more unusual things. Innocently, and ignoring for a moment that I was part of a group that included five other unwitting American writers and photographers, I said that I always have an appetite for the new.
Pepe grinned like a calaca. A sinister glint flashed in his eye. I had given him the answer he was looking for.
Really, I had no reason to suspect his intentions. As CEO of Casa Noble Tequila, Pepe Hermosillo had flown the group of us in from around the U.S. to gain a better understanding of tequila in general, and Casa Noble in particular. The previous day he and his wife Gina served us a magnificent lunch at their airy, modern Guadalajara home (including a cilantro mousse that I am currently obsessed with). He shared some of his housemade infused tequilas that blew my mind. Just a few hours prior to this dinner, we had toured the La Cofradìa distillery, culminating with comprehensive tastings of Casa Noble's offerings. The previous 36 hours were a blur of delicious regional Jalisqueño food and very, very good tequila. So, my guard was down.
Small white plates appeared before us, each with a tortilla folded around some filling. "Quesadillas," Pepe said, "with chapulines." Grasshoppers.
No big deal. While I had not ever eaten them before, I've actually been meaning to try them, so no time like the present. The quesadilla looked harmless enough. No legs or antenna grimly poking out from the edges. Nothing twitching. Fine. I took a bite.
It tasted like … a quesadilla. Not as crunchy as I was anticipating; in fact, quite the opposite. I expected crunch, craved it even. But had Pepe not told us there were crickets in there, I surely would never have known. I ate half, pacing myself for dinner. Did I mention we had been eating non-stop for 36 hours?
Fresh plates were set before us. The waiter set down a larger plate with two bowls, and a container of tortillas. One bowl was full of tiny specks like small pebbles. The other, undeniably, contained worms. A dollop of guacamole and a small dish of salsa sat alongside, presumably as distractions.
Maguey worms and escamoles (ant eggs) are common fare in central Mexico. I knew this. They are considered to be abundant, highly nutritious, and even delicious. And considering global concerns about overpopulation and wealth inequity, we may all be eating insects soon enough.
I pride myself on having a broad palate. Most who know me know that the only thing I have a real aversion to is, ironically, something widely beloved by nearly everyone else: Oranges. So I surely wasn't going to back down on this challenge.
I grabbed a tortilla, and laid down a couple maguey worms: Long, off-white, segmented and fleshy, like the Michelin man's digits. Then I spooned a sprinkling of ant eggs over, plus a little guacamole because, well, that was something I could understand.
As I raised the taco to my mouth, I hesitated, apprehensively deciding to take a small, cautious bite rather than a mouthful.
My teeth met a slight snap as I bit through the exoskeleton of a fried worm, followed by some springy resistance. The ant eggs crunched like Rice Krispies. (Not for nothing are they known as Mexican caviar.) The taste was mild, almost nondescript. No bitterness, no funkiness. No red flags. But as I pulled back from my dentally bisected worm, some stringy viscera remained intact, pulling the other half of the worm out of the tortilla, bouncing against my chin.
I gamely chewed my bite of taco, and even went in for a second with just the ant eggs. But even though I found the flavor agreeable enough, I couldn't bring myself to finish the other half containing another maguey worm. I told myself I was still pacing for my main dish, which was … oh, who the hell even remembers. Something without bugs in it. I think.
A wave of shame washed over me. I had half failed as an adventurous eater. I didn't chicken out completely, but I wasn't up to the task of finishing the job.
Would I do it again? Actually, yes. I now know what to expect, what not to fear. And I would bite harder.
But the tequila? No complaints there.