In southern Venezuela, the Ye'kuana people gather them from the mud around streams or dig them up from the floor of the highland forest. They're gutted and boiled and eaten — or smoked and sold at prices three times that of other smoked meats.
What is this lucrative, forageable fare?
"It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly ... creatures." That's what Charles Darwin said about earthworms. His quote applies to parasitic worms, too. This week Goats and Soda looks at the import of the lowly worm. Follow along at http://npr.org/wormweek.
"These edible worms are as much a part of the food supply as chicken is [in the U.S.]," says Darna Dufour, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado - Boulder and a colleague of Maurizio Guido Paoletti, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Padova in Italy. He's the co-author of a paper on the "Nutrient content of earthworms consumed by Ye'Kuana Amerindians."
There are plenty of nutrients to write about. Earthworms are a wriggling superfood. They're high in protein and have high levels of iron and of amino acids, which help break down food and repair body tissue. They also contain copper, manganese and zinc.
Earthworms are a source of calcium as well — on a par with the amount in fresh cheese or cow's milk, says Dufour. "That's a boon in the Amazon "because they don't have the kinds of sources of calcium that we [here in the U.S.] do," she says.
The Ye'kuana aren't the world's only worm eaters. The Maori people of New Zealand eat earthworms; in the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, earthworms are a delicacy.
If you're thinking — or, involuntarily, saying — "eww" right about now, you're not alone.
"Earthworms: On the one hand, ubiquitous, on the other hand, uughck," says Daniella Martin, author of Edible: An Adventure Into The World Of Eating Insects And The Last Great Hope To Save The Planet. She's eaten worms as well as bugs — including fried worms and worms that are turned into candied jerky. She describes the taste as distractingly earthy — which makes sense, as it's dirt that earthworms eat.
"In my experience, bugs taste like their diet," she says. "So whatever the bug has been eating, frequently they will taste somewhat like that." The same goes for worms, says Martin.
The taste factor is an obstacle to bringing earthworms into the diet of people in countries where food is in short supply and malnutrition is a problem.
"You would be foolhardy" to try and "introduce" edible worms if the people in question have never eaten them before, says Katharine Kreis, a director at PATH, a global health innovation organization, who works to improve nutrition worldwide. Foisting an unfamiliar food on an unwilling population will probably fail in her opinion.
That's also the view of Valerie Stull, co-founder of MIGHTi, a collaborative research project on edible insects and global health, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Worms might actually be better suited as feed for other protein sources like poultry or fish, she says.
Still, worms — or wormlike creatures — will always have their fans. The chubby, striped mopane worm — eaten in northern and central Zambia as well as parts of Zimbabwe — is considered a delicacy. As are silkworms, a popular food in China.
But these aren't technically "worms."
"Most of these [edible] worms are actually caterpillars or the larva of other insects," says Stull. "Taxonomically speaking, earthworms, rag worms, and even leeches, fall under the phylum annelida, whereas true insects fall under the phylum arthropoda."
If you're personally curious about the taste of a worm — or are looking for new adventures in eating, there are a few options.
Thailand Unique, a Thai company specializing in unusual edible critters, sells dried earthworms as jerky.
Or you could just do it yourself. One option is to look for a vendor raising worms with human consumption in mind, monitoring any dirt they eat to make sure it wouldn't contain substances that are hazardous to humans.
Or you could harvest worms from the backyard. "You have to think about what's in your soil, " advises Martin. "If you're not sure then I really wouldn't recommend eating something that eats your soil."
But if you're determined to dine on homegrown worms, you can collect a batch, then feed them cornmeal for a day or two to purge them of their usual diet, she suggests.
Then boil for 10 minutes, ideally three times. (Sidenote: according to Eat the Weeds, a blog about foraging food, boiling multiple times helps rid the worms of their mucus, so this part is kind of up to the diner.) From there, you can grind them into meatballs, saute them with onions and mushrooms or fold chopped boiled earthworms into ground beef for wormymeatloaf.
And for dessert, there's always ... gummy worms.