From Alabama to Colombia: Big-Ass Ants Don’t Taste Like Chicken

Travel Features Colombia
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Paste reader, I am about to eat—real-time, right now, as you read—a big-ass ant. And I’m going to tell you exactly how a big-ass ants tastes, chews, smells and goes down the gullet.

We buy Hormigas culonas, literally “big-ass ants,” in Bogotá from aggressive street vendors. They rush cars at stop lights and push plastic bags of big-ass ants through open windows while they yell “big-ass ants!” at drivers.

The logo on the bags displays a smiling queen ant with a big ass and a yellow crown. She waves hello with one limb. With her others, the big-ass queen strides like an Olympic speed-walker, clearly going places. Crawling the plastic package are repeated advertising words deliciosas deliciosas deliciosas etc., and elsewhere, in bright red letters, Pruébame! (Try me!) The big-ass ant pack also carries a health advisory … Proteinas! Nutritivas! (Protein! Nutrients!) … and the word Santandereanas. This means big-ass ants come from Santander, a Colombian state best known for tough women, but also for big-ass ants.

The kicker? The package bears a green badge with white lettering: “100% NATURAL”. A buyer can be sure he’s getting 100-percent natural ants. Not artificial big-ass ants, with Stevia or MSG or genetic modification. No, señor. It’s 100-hundred percent natural ants with real big asses. Nothing less.

My bogotana family proudly presented me, their constantly amusing gringo, with my first-ever package of edible ants. It occurs to me at this writing that I must be as hilarious to these Colombians as Sofia Vergara is to her modern U.S. TV family. Legends are born here on days I mistake a bar of soap for a piece of tasty Colombian cheese. Or when I ask at breakfast, in my best Spanish, for testicles instead of eggs.

After graciously receiving my special gift, I crawled around the internet doing a little research. I like to know my food before I gnaw my food. It turns out people in South America have been eating Atta laevigata, the big-ass ant, for centuries. This variety of tropical leafcutter takes a nuptial flight in rainy season. The poor schmucks who harvest these flying creatures get bitten a lot—big-ass ants have big mandibles too. But it’s worth it to collect the majestic queens, with their fantastic steatopygiac endowments, to fill colorful packages sold on Bogotá street corners. The captured queens first have their wings plucked … then, sad as Anne Boleyn, they get soaked, salted, and roasted.

Local legends ascribe aphrodisiac powers to big-ass ants, and a bride and groom in Santander might receive ants as a wedding gift. (I’m thinking big-ass ants would look pretty cool sprinkled over a white wedding cake.) According to Wikipedia, the Industrial University of Santander tested big-ass ants for nutritional value. They turn out to be health food—virtually fat-free, with very high levels of protein and lots of roughage.

Still, one rightly asks, how do they taste? And that brings us, Paste reader, to the magic moment.

Full disclosure: I have eaten an ant before. More than once.

No kid grows up in Alabama without, at some unexpected moment, crunching down on a fire ant that has flown or crawled or fallen or hatched or in some occult manner mysteriously appeared from nowhere on a sandwich or a deviled egg or a honeybun or a Vienna sausage or a chitlin or just, ouch!, exploding on your tongue like a taste bud gone ISIS.

Fire ants, as you might guess, taste hot. Formic acid burns, and then burns some more. Fire ants have devised a very creative way to keep other creatures from eating them. You bite one, then you hear something in your head not unlike a guitar string breaking, then pain comes rolling down like a mighty river.

If the memory of biting down on a fire ant gives pause, then imagine my trepidation at eating a big-ass ant. If a single tiny fire ant can ruin an afternoon, could an ant 20 times that size ruin a whole month?

But, there’s no turning back now. I promised, Paste reader, I would ingest a big-ass ant as I wrote this column for your reading pleasure. Still, I’m stalling for time. I need, for some reason, to give the big-ass ant package further inspection. The transparent flip side carries no labeling, and I can see more than 50 dried ants, round and dark as old cranberries, and about the same size. If you have severe myopia, they don’t look unappetizing.

To my relief, none of the big-ass ants move when I open the bag. I can now make out, however, little appendages and antennae. It crosses my mind that I could floss tonight and find a serrated leg between my teeth. And what—exactly—fills the swollen abdomen that gives the big-ass ant its colorful name?

Well … we only live once.

To experience full ant flavor, I have chosen to put two at once into my mouth and then chew slowly. I’ll savor them the way a gourmand savors, say, a fine $600-a-pound Pule cheese made from Serbian donkey milk.

I sniff my bag of ants. I smell something very much like the aroma from a newly opened bag of pork skins. Distinctly meaty, smoked.

Okay, Paste readers. The squeamish may now be excused. The Gringo Gourmet shakes two big-ass ants from the package into his palm. Well, two and one-half ants. Two whole ones and one swollen ass that somehow separated from the guest that brought it to the party.

I take a breath.

I wish the little things didn’t still have those legs and antennae.

Still … the gringo mouth opens wide … and big-ass ants fly in.

My immediate first impression? Salty. Roasted flavors. Smoky, with some hint, again, of chicharrones, pork skins. Not bad. Better than fire ants. But there’s one little thing. As the burst of saltsmoke flavor fades, the molars continue to crush and grind little pieces of ant. Mandibles. Legs. Thoraxes. Anatomical parts that only other big-ass ants know by name.

I want to chew something more than ant fragments, so I pour out two more whole big-ass ants. One appears to have died praying, its fervent little hands clasped under its chin. The other holds something brown gripped tight between its legs.

I’m not even going to look.

Again, the mouth floods with salt water, plus notes of smokehouse jerky, smoldering leather. Again, little pieces of big-ass ant hang around after the thrill is gone. Think when the popcorn is chewed, that husk-and-hull residue. Those little legs.

Honestly? On a scale of one to 10, I give big-ass ants a four. I see how people could eat these. And why they would, with all that nutrition. (And 100-percent natural!) Still, I’m left with a sobering thought: The old saying goes, “You are what you eat.”

I just looked in the mirror. For the first time in my life, I wondered, “Do these pants make my butt look big?”

Photo: Thomas Shahan, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.