When Liz saw the nature of the surprise Einar had waiting for her back at the shelter, she half-regretted insisting that she help him get that final tree home, thereby expediting the trip. Large winged ants, even if roasted as he was suggesting, hardly constituted her vision of the ideal snack—at least not so long as anything else was even remotely available. Something about the wings, the multitude of little legs and the way the things would surely crack and crunch when she bit them…well, it would not be the first time she had eaten insects, and as Einar had pointed out those other times, it was just protein. Fairly highly concentrated protein at that, and no way was she going to act anything less than excited about any food source Einar happened to bring in, just then. He was trying, and she could try, along with him. Still, the half-dormant little creatures, beginning to wake and wiggle a bit in the warmth of the shelter, did not strike her as terribly appetizing, and she wished there might be some way to stick to the leftover rabbit and moose stew.
Will possessed no such reservations, watching the winged ants in fascination and, after seeing his father snack on a few, whole-heartedly throwing himself into the hunt. Fingers nimble and eyes not too far from the ground, Will proved a better snatcher and eater of insects than either of his parents might have anticipated, Einar finally stepping in much to Liz’s relief and pulling him away from the log before he could entirely decimate its population of large winged ants. While she did not mind his trying one or two—the ability not only to forage but to eat and enjoy the results of said scavenging was, after all, essential to the life which lay ahead of him—it seemed wise to limit the little one’s first taste to a few insects only. Especially seeing as he was relatively new to the consumption of solid foods, in the first place.
Liz shook her head, corner of her mouth turning up at the sort of conversation she imagined mothers must have with one another down there in civilization, as they wheeled their too-clean, almost-sterile little children around the neighborhood in monstrous contraptions of plastic and steel which precluded the necessity—and greatly reduced the likelihood—of any actual frequent human contact between mother and child… What was your baby’s first solid food? They would ask. Yogurt? Applesauce? Mushed up sweet potatoes out of a little jar? And she would stop and think for a moment, maybe adjusting Will’s position in her parka hood before responding, oh, let’s see…was it a little taste of raw rabbit liver that his father gave him after a successful hunt, or some fresh moose marrow that he gnawed out of a bone we gave him to play with? One or the other, but I can’t remember for sure which came first.
At which time the other mothers—silly, civilized creatures—would open their eyes wide and make exaggerated gagging faces and go away before she even had time to mention that if you mean really solid stuff though, stuff that requires teeth, I guess it would be the time his father brought home an old aspen log and was going to use it as part of the roof, but changed his mind when he discovered that it was all full of tasty, crunchy winged ants, snacking ants, and Will got to pick those out of the rotting wood with his fingers and try them…
The Civilized Ladies were running by that point, tripping over one another in a mad dash for their strollers in whose Giant Cargo Compartments lay large stocks of Hand Sanitizer, Chemical Wipes, Germ Spray and all the other barriers with which they sought to prevent the slightest contact between their pampered offspring—poor pale things with their underdeveloped immune systems and stunted senses of adventure—and anything real or dirty in the world… Liz, laughing aloud, handed Will another ant, munched a few herself. Surely it couldn’t be so bad as all that, even down there in civilization. Could it…?
Einar was staring at her, glint in his eye and a hint of a crooked smile as he wondered what she could be carrying on about, and what could have led to such a dramatic and sudden change in her attitude towards the waking, wriggling snack in the aspen log.
“Well, better get on with roasting those things…unless you’ve really taken a liking to them that way, and would prefer leaving them raw!”
“Oh no, no need to do that. I’m sure they’re better roasted like you were saying. But you know, they’re not bad at all just like this! They taste kind of like…almonds. With a little hint of licorice.” She took a few more. “I could certainly eat them just like this.”
“Almonds with licorice. Never heard bugs described that way before, but guess I do see what you mean. The licorice flavor would come from the formic acid that all ants have to one degree or another. It’s ok to have some of it, but too much wouldn’t be good, so best to cook anything in the ant family if you’re really going to eat it in quantity. Heat neutralizes the acid.”
“It neutralizes the…” laughing again, tried hard to choke it back, not wanting Einar to think she was laughing at him, but she couldn’t help herself, thinking again of her imagined conversation with the Other Mothers, and how they would react to her telling that one must boil ants to neutralize the acid, before consuming any significant quantity. She was in tears by then, laughing too hard to stop, and Einar, somewhat confused, just shook his head, stirred up the fire and set a flat rock to heat for roasting the ants.
“If I’d known winged ants gave you such delight, I would have done my best to come up with some sooner…”
Which set her to laughing all over again. “Oh, it’s not the ants! It’s just…” she took him in her arms, startling him by squeezing so hard that he was pretty sure it bruised his backbone, but he didn’t care. “We really are blessed to be out here living this life together, you know? You, me and young Snorri, here. There’s nowhere I would rather be. Nowhere I’d rather have him grow up.”
Einar just smiled, offered her a handful of ants, by then roasted a nice golden brown. “If you thought they tasted like almonds before, just try them now… Gonna be pleasantly surprised.”