Ed Ames unlocks the studio door for me, as I enter the dimly lit corridor.
“Shhhh!” he says. “Remember, we are not suppose to be here.”
“I know,” I mouth back.
I am at a secret location which is an old movie and TV set. We continue down the hall until we reach the aging wooden stage. On the stage sits a lone card table with several glass bowls. We head up the three rickety stairs and towards the table. A single light shines down and highlights the bowls.
Ed points to them one by one and tells me whats in them, “Dish one: Balut, which is underdeveloped duck fetus in an egg….Dish two: Beetle larva…and dish three: casu marzu, or maggot cheese.”
“And these are all safe to eat?” I ask a little hesitantly.
Ed smiles, “Yes, of course. That’s my job, to research the most bizarre and grossest foods from around the world, test and taste them, and then recommend them to shows like Fear Factor, No Reservations, and Survivor…among others.”
Ed’s official title is Gross Stunt Taste Tester.
Me: So, how do you find this stuff? You know, the “foods” ? (I do air quotes, which I’m usually oppose to, but this was one of the few times it seemed super appropriate).
Ed: Research, research, research. We basically spin an old globe while dragging our finger on it. Where ever it lands we research the hell out of the native foods, traditions, and customs. More times than not, what we find to be a heavenly delicacy to them, probably belongs in the bottom of the garbage disposal for us. But hey, can’t knock it, until you have tried it is our motto…but for the most part, you can definitely knock it!
Me: So, do you ever come anything that is surprisingly good?
Ed: Rarely…but that’s the point right? For these reality shows, they want a spectacle. It has to not make the contestant terminally sick and the viewer physically sick all at the same time, yet keep them watching. It’s a delicate dance.
Me: A dance of the Vomit Fairy…
Ed: I get a bonus if the contestant vomits.
Me: (I put my head close to the maggot cheese.) Since you have to eat all this stuff first, how do you work past the smells, textures, looks, and in this case…maggots?
Ed: Well if I revealed that, then I’m giving away a trade secret. Did you decide which one you’re going to try? (Ed waves his hand over the bowls like a Magician’s Assistant at a 5 year old’s birthday party.)
Me: Not yet, but definitely not the Balut. I have a couple of friends from the Philippians who have offered that particular…just plain wrong dish to me before. I couldn’t get past the smell. By any chance…do you have any pasta? You know, with maybe an exotic white sauce? Bowtie pasta maybe? Bowtie is a pretty exotic pasta…
Ed: No pasta is exotic…or daring…unless it’s Spaghetti-os. Now that stuff will kill you.
Me: You must have an iron stomach. Has anything you ever tried made you vomit, or sick?
Ed: Nothing has ever made me vomit, but I will admit I have had trouble with a couple of different dishes. Anything eyeballs gets me, it’s the squirt when you bite into it…like a cherry tomato. If it has to be eaten alive, like larva or spiders, that can be a little daunting at first. I will actually give you a secret there…if it’s a spider, eat it quick or it will wiggle around in your mouth looking for escape, and if it’s a larva, try not to bite down on it. It’s best to swallow them whole as much as possible.
Me: (retches a little) Thanks for the tip, Ed. By the way, no more tips please.
Ed: Why don’t you try the maggot cheese. It tastes like a peppery Gorgonzola, only it has live maggots on it.
Me: Yeah, only it has live maggots on it. No problem. Thanks, Ed.
Ed reaches into the bowl of Beetle Larva and grabs one. He holds it up for me to see.
Me: Yeah….really nice. I bet it was a good year for bugs.
Ed: It’s not a fine wine.
Ed bounces the larva on the palm of his hand twice and then pops it in his mouth. He gives it four big chews and then opens his lips and sticks out his tongue to prove to me that he has eaten it all.
Ed: It tastes kind of nutty.
Me: You look kind of nutty…um…and you got some….leg? …stuck in your teeth…
Ed: Thanks. Since you are being a wimp, try the casu marzu with some saltines.
Ed hands me a half package of saltines with the top of the wrapper twisted together for freshness I presume. I would hate the taste of my maggot cheese to be spoiled by stale crackers. I untwist the wrapper and take one of the crackers and pop it in my mouth. After four quick chews, I open my lips and stick out my tongue, just like Ed did.
Ed is not impressed.
Me: Fine. Here take your stupid crackers back.
I pinch off a piece of the cheese with the squiggly maggots on top and pop it in my mouth. The smell of gym socks hits my nose first, then a burning sensation on my tongue. It does taste like a piece of Gorgonzola cheese, but has been left under the refrigerator for a week.
Me: (coughing) Nailed it!
Me: It’s…good. And by good I mean, not good.
Ed: Most of this stuff sucks. I don’t know how anyone eats this stuff or why it’s considered a ‘delicacy’.
Me: I think the word delicacy translates to: Get tourists to try disgusting foods and laugh at them.
Ed: I think you’re right.
We head out of the set and I stop at a vending machine to get some water, Listerine, and a vomit bag. Ed’s is a job I don’t envy, nor do I think I have the stomach to handle.
But then again, I also thought eating my Grandma’s meatloaf was a brave adventure.
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