The Gift of Life

Ruth Reichl acknowledges Suvir's Quickfire Challenge dish.

“This was a carnival freakshow of magnificence,” says John Currence. Who else is going to come up with lines like that one? I am really going to miss him.

But knowing there will be no more wonderful words from John isn’t the only reason my heart broke as I watched him walk out the door. That looked to me like a pretty perfect risotto –- not easy to pull off for a crowd. Cook a risotto just a tad too much and you end up with nothing but mush. Cook it too little and it crunches in the mouth. Timing is everything when it comes to risotto -– and those missing 30 minutes must have hurt. John pulled it off with aplomb –- and I’m very sorry to see him go. You can be sure that I’ll be travelling down to Mississippi for another taste of his food.

But for me the most fascinating challenge on this episode was the bug extravaganza. The whole crew was buzzing about it when I returned from the East Coast, and I just wished that I’d been there. Curtis hated every minute he spent with those bugs, but I’m not at all squeamish about them. (If you doubt this, you can watch me eat live ants and worm larva on the Laos episode of Adventures with Ruth.)

I loved the seriousness of Ruth and Mykel –- and I was fascinated by the way they deconstructed the flavor of each insect. But what I liked even more was the really interesting dishes that the chefs came up with. 

Best of all? To my mind, Suvir’s dish. Because it made me realize that the true difficulty of this challenge wasn’t that the chefs had to cook the bugs. It was that they had to kill them. And slaughtering animals is something that few chefs ever have to face. Think about it. Most people who cook –- chefs included –- begin with dead meat. Shellfish are the only live animals that routinely come into our kitchens. Clams, oysters, and mussels are so silent, so self-contained, so uncomplaining, that ending their lives is not all that traumatic. But think about how much it troubles most of us to put a lobster into a pot of boiling water. You cannot do it without being aware that a living creature is in your hands, that you hold the power of life or death. You can always decide to commute your lobster’s sentence and allow him to live.

I think that’s why this was such a difficult challenge. Bugs may be creepy crawly, but they’re also living creatures. And this challenge, ultimately, was a reminder that our own lives depend on the sacrifice of others. It’s an important lesson for a cook: Food is life itself, and it should never be wasted.

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