“Oh, look, this one is hiding,” Isela Islas Montiel says as she digs into the tiny tunnels at the bottom of a rotting agave leaf. Like kids in a schoolyard, we wait as cherry-red chinicuil worms, the larvae of the Comadia redtenbacheri moth, are pulled from their hiding places. “They feed on the magueys and they attack the weakest and smallest,” Montiel explains, gingerly pulling the worms from their burrows with the needle-like tip of a maguey leaf. Careful not to cut or damage the worms, she drops them one by one in a cone fashioned from a tender agave leaf.
The sky is a clear, cool blue on the Saniz farm in the far northwestern tip of Mexico’s Tlaxcala state, where Montiel and her husband Alejandro Sánchez Acosta grow wheat, corn, and barley alongside their primary crop, agave, which they mostly use to produce pulque, made from fermented sap. The morning rain has finally let up and the sun glints off the surrounding countryside that can be seen for miles from the farm’s hilltop position. On every side of us are rows of agaves, also called maguey, their languid leaves arching gently toward the sky until their weight pulls them downward. There are 12,000 agave plants on the Saniz farm; 40,000 if you count hijuelos, baby magueys.
We’re here to dig for worms, but this isn’t just some tourist attraction; these little devils are a key ingredient in several regional dishes. “In reality they are an infestation,” says Montiel, “but an infestation that you can eat.” When the larvae hatch each September, Acosta and Montiel collect a handful at a time, not only because they enjoy the unique taste — a smoky, oily pungency — but also because they consider the act of harvesting and eating the worms an important part of the traditional diet of their families. They fry the worms in their own fat to get them ready to grind for salsa or use them to garnish a dish that Acosta describes as perfect hangover food: “It’s a stew made with a plant called malva, a wild green. We cook them with squash blossoms, zucchini, raw fava beans and then throw the worms on top. That, and a glass of pulque, and you are all set.”
“One of the most everyday ways of using the chinicuiles is making the famous and traditional worm salt,” says Irad Santacruz Arciniega, a local chef in Tlaxcala, who notes that eating insects has long been apart of the Mesoamerican diet, going back at least a millennium. “Another is just to fry them or toast them in their own fat, put them in a tortilla, and make a taco. [Some people make] salsas de chinicuiles or salsa borrachas that have tomatillos, onion, chile, and sometimes pulque.”
Like Santacruz, many chefs recognize the potential of cooking with chinicuiles. Their interest is two-fold: using an endemic ingredient that shines a spotlight on traditional cooking, and incorporating the worms into nouveau dishes to wow and surprise diners. You won’t find chinicuiles at your corner taco stand just yet, but worms, along with other local insects, are on the radars of the country’s more experimental kitchens. “In some restaurants I have seen them as garnishes atop guacamole or [mixed] in butter and then there are restaurants that are using them in desserts, with chocolate, in bonbons and that’s a new way to eat them,” Santacruz says. The worms are lining up with some modern dining trends as well. “The consumption of the chinicuiles is also fashionable because of the rise of mezcal, since the best way to complement a good mezcal is with worm salt,” Santacruz adds. “They are also a superfood, like all insects, and are valued for their nutritional content. I think that in general, eco-friendly food and ingredients, free from chemicals and pesticides, [are becoming more popular].”
But even as chinicuiles have become more popular among chefs, many farmers are losing interest, both in the worms and in the traditional harvesting practices they represent. As far back as Montiel and Acosta can remember, their families planted and processed agave here. A few miles from their land are the Tecoaque archaeological ruins, where excavations indicate that people in this region have been processing agave and drinking pulque for over a millennium. “Here in this town, everyone were tlachiqueros,” the Nahuatl word for pulque-makers. “Everyone knew how to scrape the plants. Everyone made pulque. But that generation has started to die out,” says Acosta. “There are only a few of us left that know how to work with maguey. Unfortunately the young people don’t want to learn. This work, growing maguey, will eventually disappear.” There are now only three local farms that still grow agave in addition to Saniz.
Harvesting worms requires a lot of work. Farmers must identify infested plants by their yellow leaves, pull them from the earth, gently crack them open at the root, and retrieve worms that have burrowed into the base. During our hunt, we find about 20 chinicuil worms in two plants, enough for a salsa, says Montiel, but not much else. If they need to be stored for a later date they are either sauteed and saved in the fridge or frozen, as it’s almost impossible to store them alive for more than a few hours.
The worm hunt is only one step in the decades-long work involved in planting, raising, and harvesting maguey. Plants asexually produce hijuelos, which must be replanted to produce another generation. When the plants reach around 4 years old they can be pruned for pencas, fresh-cut, slightly toasted maguey leaves that swaddle hunks of lamb or goat meat to make soft, buttery barbacoa. Since the farm takes advantage of every stage of the plants’ growth, pencas are cut conservatively to maintain each plant’s integrity as it grows. They can also harvest a waxed paper-like membrane that covers the leaves, called mixiote, used for the dish of the same name, consisting of small steamed packets of meat and chile sauce. Once the agaves are between 10 and 12 years old, Acosta “neuters” the plant by removing its heart, then scrapes the hole for several months to produce the plant’s sap, aguamiel — literally, “honey water,” which can be enjoyed straight, boiled into agave honey (as Montiel does), or fermented into pulque. After that the plant dies, but death is not the end. The Saniz farm dries the leaves and piñas for firewood, animal feed, or organic fertilizer.
All that work doesn’t immediately yield a profit. Interested customers do reach out to Acosta, but they often fail to understand the value of the worms and the work they require. “This guy from Monterrey called me and said, ‘You have chinicuiles?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, they cost 2,500 pesos,’” or about $150, Acosta recalls. “And he’s like, ‘What? No way! I’ll give you 800 pesos.’ And I said, ‘Then go find them somewhere else.’” They are far from a regular income source for the farm.
“In Tlaxcala cuisine there is a mole, one of the region’s most celebrated, and one of the most expensive because of the amount of worms it requires,” Santacruz says, but the chef wouldn’t have it any other way. Part of the worms’ exclusivity and price is precisely their seasonality; these are a limited-edition delicacy, generally available for a short window from the middle of August to the end of September. “This new wave of popularity is helping folks like Montiel and Acosta charge a fairer price, but I think we have to continue the work of informing and educating that trends can mean that ingredients like this are overproduced or exploited. And the overconsumption of ingredients like this can bring disorder to the ecosystem. It’s so great that people are eating them, trying them, but we have to do it in a rational way.”
Acosta and Montiel are hoping that visits like ours will provide some extra income, but even if they can’t make much profit off the worms, there are other potential upsides. The chinicuiles act as a great mascot for agave farming to outsiders, elevating the image of agave. They may also help turn the tide within the community, reminding some of their neighbors of the advantages of maguey beyond a quick buck.
Locals say they’re under pressure from larger economic interests to give up agave farming and pulque production. Some feel pressured to cut down agave in favor of quick-yield crops like barley and GMO corn. Acosta and Montiel have heard of others clearing land to create pass-throughs for gas pipelines, which crisscross the region. Acosta believes his neighbors are convinced that not only is agave production no longer profitable, but also socially beneath them. “They think it’s degrading,” says Acosta.
“They believe it’s the work of slaves,” Montiel adds. “[They say], why would I be a tlachiquero? They are ashamed [of the work].”
It’s not just a matter of heritage. Montiel and Acosta have watched how clear-cutting has impacted the local ecology over their lifetime. Gazing across a vast expanse of orderly rows of agave, Acosta explains that without the plants the farm’s soil would erode rapidly from the wind and intense rain from May to October. He points to distant patches of barren land where magueys have been cleared for comparison. The quick crops that have replaced maguey production like barley and corn aren’t drought-resistant and don’t give much back to the earth they grow in.
“Maguey counteracts the forces of climate change,” says Montiel. “It withstands drought, provides the earth with necessary nutrients, and transforms carbon dioxide into oxygen, even more so than trees.”
According to Laura Trejo Hernández, a Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México researcher investigating agave biodiversity in Tlaxcala, the magueys also provide a habitat for reptiles, amphibians, insects, and mushrooms. They also create barriers around crops that keep grazing animals out and serve as a windbreak. “[Clear-cutting] agaves means a loss of biodiversity and ecosystemic services that provide quality of life and wellbeing to humans and other organisms,” says Trejo. “They are extremely ecologically important both in the wild and in traditional agricultural systems.”
Some farmers also use insecticides to target pests like picudos del maguey, a kind of weevil that can devastate an entire crop. But the weevils have only become a problem, Acosta says, because farmers used to collect their larvae, nixtamal worms, to eat, just like chinicuil worms. Almost no one does anymore.
“If I used insecticides and herbicides,” says Acosta, “we wouldn’t find any [worms] on the land at all.”
Montiel adds, “And that’s despite the fact that we have neighbors so close [using insecticides] that float in the air.” But insecticides also kill pollinators like bees, which Acosta and Montiel say are not just important for the maguey but for the environment in general, including their other crops.
While agaves reproduce asexually through hijuelos, they can also reproduce sexually if left to bloom. “I leave some plants to flower, like that one there that is starting to come up,” says Acosta, pointing to a crooked agave flower stem in the distance, starting to reach for the sky. “[It’s] for the bats and for the bees. There has to be pollination.” Cross-pollination leads to greater biodiversity and stronger plants in the future that resist disease and insect infestations more easily. “People think I am completely crazy, but we brought back the fauna here. Before, there wasn’t any.”
When the sun hits its highest we sit down to pork and chicken mixiotes, heart of agave tacos, and salsa made from chinicuil worms. Their taste immediately transports me back to nights spent drinking mezcal and eating orange slices dusted with worm salt in Mexico City. The mixiote has a rich pasilla chile flavor and the meat is so tender it falls off the bone, the mixiote membrane giving it just a hint of earthiness. Montiel passes around tangy requesón cheese with agave honey drizzled on top for dessert.
In front of a mixiote or taco smothered in smoky salsa, on one of the last agave farms in the area, Montiel and Acosta’s reverence for the chinicuiles — despite the work they require — makes sense. The worms are just one very small part of the life of a maguey and one small part of the food the plant produces. They’re a pest and an opportunity, important to the local ecology and regional cuisine. Without farmers like Montiel and Acosta who harvest them instead of eradicating them, their distinctive flavor would surely disappear from the Mexican culinary lexicon. That would be a shame, and part of a slippery slope: Stop safeguarding endemic flora and fauna for a moment, even an apparent pest, and you may lose myriad benefits to the land, ecosystem, and culture.
As Cruz puts it, “I think people are starting to think a lot more about what they eat. And that simple act of thinking about what we are eating is helping us to decide what types of food are best for us.”
Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma.
Sergio Henao is the owner of Bolero Basement Cafe and occasionally takes photos as Carey’s sidekick. Both are based in Mexico City.