Buccaneer Cuisine: Breaded Palm Grubs

While working on my book on the food of the buccaneers, I came across this beautiful example of seventeenth-century fusion cuisine from the works of Jean Baptiste Labat:

Roasted palm weevil grubs served in contemporary Peru, courtesy of wikimedia commons

“I was made to eat vers de palmiste, an insect that is found in the heart of these trees when they are cut down. These worms are the thickness of a finger and about two thumbs in length, and I can find no better comparison than a piece of capon fat wrapped in a very soft and transparent skin. One does not notice any noble parts in the bodies of these animals, nor entrails or intestines, not even if the animal is cut in two and inspected with a crystal magnifying glass. The head is black and attached to the body with no indication of a neck.

The manner of preparing them is to stick them on small wooden skewers and to turn them in front of the fire. As they begin to heat, they are powdered with a breading (croute) of grated bread, salt, a little pepper and nutmeg. That powder retains the fat it soaks up. When they are cooked, they are dressed with orange or lemon juice. This is very good and delicate food once you have overcome the repugnance one normally feels at the idea of eating worms, more so if you have seen them alive.

There is also another manner of preparing them, which is to put them in a casserole or small earthenware pot with wine, spices, a bouquet of herbs, some leaves of allspice, and orange peels.

These vers de palmiste or palm grubs were most likely the larvae of the Central American palm weevil Rhynchophorus palmarum. They were very likely part of the Native American diet since pre-Columbian times the same way that related species of palm grubs were and are eaten in Central Africa and Southeast Asia. The European tradition, though, makes almost no culinary use of insects and has a strong taboo against eating them which Father Labat clearly shares in the form of his “repugnance”.

Given the lively culinary interest evident from his work, it is not surprising Labat tried them. He would eat anything that didn’t actively jump off the plate. What is more striking is the preparation: The grubs are breaded with a spicy panade, a very European tradition that has no parallel I know of in either Africa or Central America. Alternatively, they are cooked in wine with spices and fine herbs, another European way of doing things. This matches the way New World ingredients were often adopted in Europe itself: They were taken up and used the way familiar, similar things were. Obviously more than one European, including those of high enough status to afford imported wine and bread, decided that if you were going to eat worms, you might as well do it properly.

None of this means that the buccaneers ate palm grubs, but it is hard to argue they would not at least have been aware of the option. We know they harvested cabbage palms while ashore, and the grubs are frequently found inside these plants. It is not likely they had the wine and fine herbs on hand to make a proper ragout, but roasted, breaded and spiced these are easy to imagine eaten in a buccaneer camp.

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