I grew up on dirt roads surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. I’ve always embraced this part of myself, the background of a rural life. For many years I referred to myself as a “country boy,” but at age sixty, that designation might be a little farfetched. It’s hard to call yourself a boy when you have gray hair, bifocals, a pot belly, and are half deaf to boot. But “country man” doesn’t have the same connotation. What I am is a guy who lives on fourteen acres and stays away from town. I love my wife and rely on her tremendously, but I do treasure the times she leaves the house. She seems to like human beings. They certainly like her.
Most people grow up in small towns, suburbs, and cities. Their concept of rural life is informed by depictions on TV and in movies (false and terrible), books they have read (fewer set in the country are published each year), and vacation trips to exotic rural destinations. Americans have become tourists of nature. You can always spot the visitors to a river town, a ranch, the Delta, or the mountains—they’re the ones dressed in clothes that look like movie ideas of what country people wear. Broad plaid shirts, expensive boots, even the occasional set of suspenders. Nothing is broken in. Some clothes still retain the horizontal marks where they were folded at the store. Belts are the final confirmation—way too narrow, with no tell-tale scrape from a knife clip.
When city people learn about my background, they make a variety of assumptions. My general appearance encourages them because my hair often resembles what’s known as a mullet. In my youth, such a style had no name. It was a pragmatic haircut for the woods—short in the front so it wouldn’t catch on limbs and briars, long in the back to keep rain out of my shirt collar. I drive a truck, live on a dirt road, and wear boots year round. Town folk often suspect that I possess arcane skills with a chainsaw, an axe, and tourniquets, and might be able to hypnotize snakes. The primary assumption is that I am what’s known as a “sportsman,” meaning a hunter and a fisherman.
In the spirit of disclosure, I have not walked in the woods with a firearm since I left the hills of Kentucky. My technique for fishing is to bait a hook, cast the line, and watch the bobber until I get bored—about forty seconds. There’s always something better to look at: sunlight on the water, drifting clouds, or birds in the sky watching me watch them. Frankly, the word “bobber” is misleading in its optimism. Most of the time it doesn’t do any bobbing at all. It just floats, and will eventually drift into a snag. Usually I prop my rod on a forked stick, then roam the bank looking for attractive rocks.
As a child in the hills I gathered nightcrawlers at dusk after a light rain, carrying a flashlight and a bucket. In Mississippi my method for harvesting nightcrawlers has been distinctly ineffective. I thought I’d lost some essential woodcraft, but my neighbors tell me it’s the same for them. This part of the country does not readily offer nightcrawlers. I resolved to purchase worms, which seemed to be an act of rural betrayal. It’s like work gloves—if you need to wear them, you probably shouldn’t be doing the work.
The closest store to my house sells gasoline, propane, ice, barbecue, beer, milk, Pringles, Vienna sausages, saltines, and an array of Little Debbie snacks. Once a week they have corn dogs—pretty much my favorite day ever. A low shelf holds two child-size life jackets, bright orange and covered with dust. They’ve been there for at least three years because children here learn early to fend for themselves. Mississippi parents protect their kids by waiting until their eighth birthday for a first gun. (In Kentucky, we arm children at age six.)
The store’s biggest section is dedicated to fishing gear. For two dollars, you can buy a quart of dirt in a Styrofoam container and twelve nightcrawlers. The worms are long enough that you can wrap your entire hook with one and still leave an end trailing in the water, or you can tear each worm in half and double your fishing time. As a cheapskate, I usually go for the latter. (The record for earthworm length is twenty-two feet, found in South Africa in 1967. They’re still fishing with it.) Recently I asked the store clerk about the provenance of the nightcrawlers. He said they came from Canada.
This fact astounded me and I nearly dropped my Honey Bun. The closest Canadian town is Windsor, Ontario, which is eight hundred miles away, and I wondered what the profit margin was at sixteen cents per worm. Expenses included labor, containers, trucking, border fees, and gasoline. How was it possible to make money with all that transportation? Did fluctuating fuel costs affect the price of nightcrawlers? Do worms trickle down with a change in the economy? If the USA ended NAFTA, would worm prices soar?
Fortunately, my personal library is extensive enough to include a 1959 book by Earl Bell Shields called Raising Earthworms for Profit. My copy is the thirteenth edition, from 1971. The introduction is called “By Way of Introduction” and claims that the book has sold thirty-five thousand copies. The author photo shows Mr. Shields sitting with three dogs and a shotgun in front of a pile of firewood. (There is no later reference in the book to dogs or hunting.) Chapter titles include “Everyone is Fascinated by the Earthworm Story” and “What is a ‘Domesticated’ Earthworm?” Helpful tips abound for raising them and protecting them, and include an examination of the perpetual concern: to go with hybrid or purebred? The section that captured my full attention covered “Earthworm Vending Machines,” a business opportunity that was still in the preliminary stages. A man named Voris Sanderson in my home state of Kentucky built a worm-vending operation that relied on the honor system—customers put fifty cents in a slot and took a small box of worms. He reported that in three and a half years, only four cartons were stolen.
My perusal provided me with more information than I thought was possible. In the interest of space, here’s the crucial fact—worms are extremely cheap to raise. The start-up cost is minimal, consisting of a bin with a lid, some dirt, and two worms. Eventually you will have castings, which you can sell as well. I wasn’t familiar with the term “castings” but found a long-winded definition that referred to the residue excreted from the alimentary canal. Apparently worm manure is the richest fertilizer on the planet. Worm farmers sell castings at a premium, which would certainly offset the cost of shipping live worms to Mississippi from Canada.
The more I read, the more I considered getting into commercial earthworms. Buckets of dirt would lead to buckets of cash—selling worms, selling the dirt itself, and selling the doo-doo. All you need is two worms to start. Luckily, earthworms are hermaphrodites, so you don’t have to worry about pairing the sexes. Just get hold of two worms and they’ll figure out the rest, like teenagers.
The history of North American worm culture is phenomenally interesting. In the old days no worms lived here, having been wiped out by the glaciers about twenty thousand years ago. (According to Emmy-winner Jack Pendarvis, a new movie is in development for the Ice Age franchise called Wiggle Room, starring Squirmin’ Herman.) Modern worms traveled to the USA on boats from Europe in the fifteenth century—as stowaways, not paying customers. Even then there was an anti-worm bias which still holds true today, except in California.
Unlike the pioneers of yore, the original worms acclimated without killing off everything in sight. These immigrants were more akin to Puritans and Quakers—willing to live with and learn from the natives. Historians speculate that worms by their nature are not warlike and will share territory, which allowed them to flourish in the New World. With no large military budget, the worms devoted their energy to burrowing their peaceful expansion to the west. The rest of the time they reproduced willy-nilly with all and sundry. Their primary objective was to sleep late and avoid the early bird.
Regardless of fiscal care, long-term thought, and a smart business plan, there is always risk in business. The enacting of a worm tax, for example, or a nightcrawler plague. Worse, another glacial age would destroy their habitat. Nevertheless, the eager entrepreneur shouldn’t worry too much because even if you go broke, you won’t starve. Worms are edible and highly nutritious. They are eighty percent protein and packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for cholesterol. Even better, you eat the whole darn worm—no pesky bones or cartilage to fool with, no messy gutting and skinning, no garbage for disposal.
Consumption of worms is widespread throughout the world among many disparate cultures, particularly in Canada. (The French confine themselves to eating snails.) This tradition extends to contemporary America, especially with children. My son ate worms. As a child I ate them when I felt left out or had my feelings hurt by other kids. Worms were an early comfort food. Eventually a folksong emerged from the hills based on my predilection. Untold fortunes have been made from the song and I never saw a penny of royalties!
Nobody likes me
Everybody hates me
Guess I’ll eat some worms
Short fat slimy ones
Long thin curly ones
Ooey, gooey, fuzzy worms!
Yes, that song is about young Chris, known affectionately as “Chrissie” and “Worm Boy.” These days in Oxford, Mississippi, I’m at least accepted, possibly liked, and have not eaten a worm in several years—since quitting my job in Hollywood, where nobody liked me. Nevertheless, I keep my favorite recipes at hand in case an episode of social insecurity arises.
As with all food, the key to worms is preparation. There are two approaches. You can feed them roughage to clean out their system, a relatively brief process, depending upon length of worm. A more sanitary way is to simply boil the worms until the water is clear. This may take ten minutes, or multiple boilings with new water—cook’s choice! They are good for appetizers, main meals, or desserts. You can dehydrate the worms, grind them down, and add them to flour. I like to mix my chopped worms with onion, garlic, and rosemary, then form small patties and fry them. This technique produces what are popularly known as “sliders,” because worms are slippery creatures. (Sliders are yet another thing I invented for which I’ve received no royalties.)
In 1976, Patricia Howell won the First Annual Earthworm Bakeoff Contest with her recipe for Earthworm Applesauce Surprise Cake. She was from Minnesota, near Canada, and the contest was sponsored by a farm in Ontario, California. By the way, a surprise cake resembles a regular cake until you cut into it and out spills the surprise. Sort of like getting an invitation to a party in Nevada and finding out it’s thrown by the Donners. Surprise!
My wife is from Texas and is pretty tough. She also has staunch ideas regarding what transpires in the house, and what happens outside. We are often at odds over this, and I always lose. For example, she keeps her dogs indoors, which is a violation of my country principles. She also likes to turn the air conditioning to a chilly temperature, then lie on the couch beneath a blanket—with dogs. None of it makes sense to me. But she doesn’t understand why I don’t wear gloves when cutting and stacking firewood that gives me splinters.
Worst of all, she sees the garage as a place to park her car, not to raise earthworms on a massive industrial basis. As a result of her peculiarities, my commercial enterprise ended before it began. I was stuck with a bucket of dirt and two worms that snuggled and cuddled. This is how dreams die—killed by a garage.
EARTHWORM APPLESAUCE SURPRISE CAKE
(from Mother Jones, May 1977)
Mix together the following:
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 3 eggs (well beaten)
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. each: salt, nutmeg, ground cloves
- 1 1/2 cup applesauce
- 1 cup earthworms (dried)
- 1/2 cup chopped nuts
Pour the mixture into a greased baking pan and bake at 325 degrees for 50 minutes. Remove, cool, and serve.
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