I am neither an avid gastronomic adventurer of the mad-scientist or TV food show host variety nor a very tough customer when it comes to things creepy, crawly, and wriggly occupying my kitchen, let alone my dinner plate. But since I do love eating a fairly wide variety of foods and I read about them enough to stumble on a few I’m more than willing to try along the way, I find occasion to be reminded that many of the things I do like or love to eat and drink might just be as strange and off-putting to others as their regional special treats or foods, especially those born and developed over generations of poverty, hunger, privation, and desperation can seem to me. Both times and people in them change, and so do our tastes, as a result. If I were to have a time machine, my first inclination might not be to hop in and create world peace, but to dash off to a fortuitous point in history that’d suit my greedy appetites, like perhaps the era when lobster was considered throwaway food to the rich and worthy only of a pauper‘s table.
Because, after all, my Southern countrymen are not wrong in revering a diet full of tasty crayfish, also known as crawfish, crawdads, or among some Southerners, mudbugs. And the latter nomenclature is perfectly apropos: I find crawfish delicious, too, but when I think about it, I’m well aware that crustaceans, some of my very favorite foods, are indeed also arthropods, just like crickets and grasshoppers, I realize that I might be exceedingly silly in my selective squeamishness about eating insects that are popular in many other cultures and cuisines. So much meaning lies in the tiny spaces between name and nation, between attitudes and recipes and what we’re used to seeing on a plate. Yes, I am very happy I can buy bags of crawfish tails, ready to put into Étouffée or gumbo or perhaps just cleaned and piled on buttered bread with a squeeze of lemon juice and washed down with a cold beer, even though I can look right there in the heap of cooked crawfish and see perfectly clearly that I am about to serve and devour a bag of bugs.
I’ve told you how obsessed I can be with the very thought of all sorts of magnificent sea treats that have the obvious connection with their land-borne arthropod cousins: classic northeastern lobster rolls, Dungeness crab in virtually any available form, tempura prawns, San Francisco style Cioppino loaded with crustacean charms, Steak Oscar, Vietnamese shrimp rolls. My eyes almost roll back in my head as I swoon the minute I get thinking of such glorious stuff.
None of it has to be especially fancy, either, though I’m still a little iffy about eating the bugs of the aquatic world raw, let alone their turf-tied relatives. Unless and until you convince me you’re a five-star sushi chef or an aboriginal expert in your local insect cuisine, I will still tread lightly around these treats. But a quick roast, simmer, or—often my favorite with the smaller fellows, as it can make even their exoskeletons not just crispy enough to eat but quite delectable as well—deep fry, and suddenly what I was inclined to swat away as a nuisance might have me stalking it with equal vigor. The arthropods themselves don’t often require complicated prep, merely great care in avoiding unintentional eating of the cartilage and other bits that are either too hard to bite or to digest. Steam. Pick apart. Eat.
So I devote more of my attentions to figuring out just which fantastic vehicle I crave for giving full reverence to their tender and fresh attractions, which altar is the one on which I’ll lay their treasure before I eat. Cooked and chilled entirely naked [yes, the seafood, people], with a mere squeeze of lemon or a nip of cocktail sauce to highlight them? Piled high on a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich? Gracing a bracing Louis salad (so wonderfully easy at home)? Or one of the perpetual best and most over-the-top fatteningly satisfying, mac and cheese with name-your-crustacean-favorite?
Last week, the latter was the choice of the day, so that I could serve dinner to a roomful of friends who were all arriving at different times and I could keep the meal mostly warm with all of the comings and goings but it didn’t have to stay sizzling hot. Somehow, macaroni seemed apropos anyhow, for a table with an international crew of diners passing around both dishes and jokes in a variety of languages. I base my macaroni and cheese recipe on the ever-fabulous Amy Sedaris‘s paean to arteriosclerosis, because it’s ridiculously yummy and quite flexible, but also given its flexibility, it’s never exactly her recipe either.
In my house, it means that to my al dente pasta I add equal (large) amounts of Monterey Jack cheese, which I did have on hand; a good sharp cheddar (Tillamook extra sharp white, my go-to choice); a buttery, very mild but also smoked cheese (sometimes smoked Gouda, but smoked fresh mozzarella, this time). Along with the vast quantity of butter and other dairy—mine: 1 part heavy cream, 1 part whole milk yogurt—in the mix, I add several eggs to bind it all a bit better. Then I throw in the seasonings. Amy’s is generally an unseasoned casserole except for salt and pepper; mine has a combination of my perennial favorite, smoked paprika, plus ground mustard, a good grating of fresh nutmeg, and a little cayenne pepper. Once I’ve grated the cheeses, stirred in the eggs, cream, and yogurt and the spices, I spread it all in a big glass casserole dish and sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan cheese and heat it slowly at a low temperature in the oven until the top just begins to brown.
A very handmade dish, since my most effective food processor is a pair of clumsy tools at the ends of my arms. All of that intensive cheese grating, at least, worked off enormous quantities of calories so I wouldn’t have had to worry about the wickedly high number of them in the dish. Of course, mac and cheese is a completely calorie-free entrée, as everybody knows. Just ask any self-respecting insect you happen to find swimming in the residual butter at the edge of your plate. I’d let you test mine for proof if the seven of us hadn’t wiped out the entire quantity in no time flat. Even the bugs couldn’t get there faster.