Allow me a moment of unrepentant boasting: while all you poor bastards have been suffering through early March — also known as the frosty armpit of winter — I’ve been vacationing in New Zealand with my family.
That’s right. Southern hemisphere. It’s still summer here, and I’ve got the awkward tanlines to prove it.
Like all of my family vacations, the main focus has been food. Though I managed to convince my mother on New Zealand’s worth as a destination with a few well-placed sentences — “Penguins! Hobbits! Riding horsies on a beach!” — we’ve done as much eating as sightseeing in the North and SouthIslands.
The ambiguous highlight of our culinary travels had to be the Wild Food Festival in Hokitika, on the South Island’s western coast. It’s a celebration of strange-ass meat, annoyingly attractive people in stupid costumes and alcohol consumption. It also featured terrible cover bands playing 80’s mullet rock and flyovers by the New Zealand air force. It was pretty much everything I love and hate at the same time.
The first thing we saw when we came in was a tent with a pile of half-rotten lumber in front of it, with several beefy men sporting axes and rugby players’ thighs hacking at various logs and stumps. They were plucking grubs out of them, plopping them on plates and then offering them to a crowd that was simultaneously fascinated and horrified. I had a jibbering NOPE NOPE NOPE moment, watching the inch-long grubs squirm on the wooden platters — “Tastes kind of woody,” a woman behind me remarked, smacking her lips — and ran straight to a hot dog vendor.
I’m not proud.
After sharing the foot-long bratwurst with my sister (she put ketchup on it, and I had to explain how she had just desecrated that tube of meat by Chicago standards), I went over to a tent offering “Red Hot Dicks, Eyeball Surprise, and Broken Hearts,” probably in a misguided attempt to regain some pride.
I may have a hard time with invertebrates, but I’m fine with eating random bits of mammals. I signed up for one each of eyeballs, cow hoof and a Thai chili, all dipped in chocolate and speared on bamboo skewers. The hoof was gristly, the eyeball tasted oddly metallic (though that might have been the fondant) and burst unpleasantly (but also unsurprisingly) in my mouth. I pawned the chili off on my sister, who took a bite and then spat it out, running over to douse her burning mouth with elderberry soda. (Tasted soapy to me, but it was far from the worst thing I put in my mouth that day.)
“Bird’s eye chili,” she gasped. We’d assumed it was a jalapeño. “Holy shit. That’s just rude.”
Having regained my sense of adventure, we perused the rest of the booths, trying whitebait salad, a colostrum meringue, breaded and fried shark, marinated kangaroo and crocodile bites, and salami made from deer and tahr. None of it left much of an impression. Crocodile does, in fact, taste like chicken. Kangaroo is a dark meat, a bit like venison, slightly gamy. Fried shark didn’t taste much different to any other kind of breaded and fried white fish. Salami of any sort pretty much tastes like salami.
My sister and I did eventually go for a round of hu-hus, the grubs that the rugby players had been digging out of the rotten logs by the entrances. I chose to have one that had been battered and deep fried, while my sister ate a barbecued one.
“Tastes like a cold french fry,” she commented after hers. I looked at mine again, nearly threw it at some passing drunk dressed as Fred Flintstone, then stuck it in my mouth.
In the same tent, there was a booth offering insects for consumption in various forms: chocolate-covered satay, live and in jello shots. After watching some bros in front of us chomp down a few live grasshoppers — and nearly losing myself to another horrified moment of NOPE NOPE NOPE — I girded my loins and ordered a jello shot. I figured as long as I didn’t have to chew it, I probably wouldn’t vomit.
I was mostly right: no vomiting, but I did gag a time or two.
Meanwhile, my sister was staring at her chocolate-covered beetle. “I can see its legs,” she said. She took a nibble: even I could hear it crunch.
It was time for a palate cleanser, by which I mean, it was time for more booze. I was charmed by the signs offering moonshine, claiming that it would “cure any side effects of wild foods,” next to a drawing of a woman passing gas. The shot, which tasted like someone had mixed up some schnapps and goldschlager, was administered directly into my mouth via a drenching gun.
Meanwhile, in the line for barbecue, a wasted twenty year old dressed as (Where’s) Waldo kept slurring and repeatedly hi-fiving my sister. Behind us, a cover band was ripping through Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Exhausted, sunburnt, drunk and clutching my bloated, distended belly, I was caught in the odd ambivalence for humanity I get in these kinds of situations. There’s a kind of beauty in witnessing this oblique, self-destruction through gluttony and one-upmanship: my sister and I ordering ribs despite being full to bursting with ten different species of meat and four different kinds of alcohol; the Kiwi bros and brosephines venturing out dressed as Power Rangers, Smurfs, Crayola crayons and Hooters waitresses; all of us clutching plastic cups of beer and cider, daring each other to eat wood grubs. It was impressive and melancholy. Someday humanity might spread out among the stars, where we’ll probably be daring each other to eat alien grubs on distant planets, nodding along as Jon Bon Jovi tells us yet again to hold on to what we’ve got, ‘cause it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.
“Get some fruit punch with vodka,” I told my sister. Then we sat in the shade and stuffed ourselves full of barbecued ribs.