Vermicelli and Vermiculture

“Have some more vermicelli,” my godmother offered, forking a huge serving of pasta over my plate.

“Did you know that vermicelli, in Italian, refers to worms?” Uncle Tony asked.

I shook my head – no, I didn’t.

I like eating at their house. Between my aunt’s background in psychology and uncle Tony’s in cultural anthropology, dinner is always entertaining as well as filling.

“Yep,” he said staring at his plate of tangled noodles. “I don’t know where they got the idea.”

“Tony. Please,” Aunt Josie pleaded, “we’re eating here,”

“That reminds me,” I said. “I have to do a science-fair project on vermiculture. But I’m having trouble getting started.”

“Do it on worm psychology,” my aunt suggested, passing the breaded eggplant.

“Worms have feelings?” Uncle Tony asked.

“It stands to reason, Anthony,” my aunt replied, cutting her dancing dark eyes my way. “Wouldn’t you feel inferior if everyone looked down on you? Feel downtrodden when people walked all over your home?”

“I suppose,” he agreed. “I just can’t picture worms going to a shrink. Can’t you just see little signs all over the lawn?  Doctor is in, 5 cents. Drop-ins welcome.”

“Are you done?” my aunt asked sarcastically, pushing some artichoke frittata my way.

“I see where you’re going, Aunt. Being hermaphrodites, worms probably have a lot of gender issues to work out.”

“Maybe just the opposite. Think about it. As both a man and a woman, worms don’t have to be afraid to crawl out alone at night. No glass floor to worry about. Unisex bathrooms. No need for rainbow marches. Equal responsibility for safe sex.”

“So, maybe worms don’t need vermicologists with their little hole-in-the-ground offices, after all,” Tony cracked.

Aunt Josie stared at her husband for a long moment. “Why don’t you fellows go in the den while I clear off the dishes. We can have coffee out there.”

“The important thing,” my Uncle Anthony declared, sprawling into his easy chair, “is to find an interesting angle.”

“Like?”

“My favorite is to try to figure out how the first person came up with an idea – like fermentation.”

I nodded – go on.

“I picture a cavewife dragging home a big pile of grapes. She dumps them in the middle of the floor. Everyone digs in. Neighbors, babies stomp all around. A few days later, the cavehusband is hungry, thirsty. He scrounges around – like you in our fridge – looking for food. He spots some squashed grapes. They smell a little funny. But like I say, he’s hungry. He gets a buzz. The next year he starts the second annual wine and harvest festival.”

“You want some cannoli with your coffee?” my aunt calls from the kitchen.

I held my stomach and rolled my eyes.

“Leave the kid alone, Josie,” Uncle Tony replied for me. “He’s full. Where were we?”

“Cavemen.”

Yeah, that’s right. What about clothes? How did clothes get started?”

“You tell me.”

“Okay. This prehistoric hunter carries a deer home in a snowstorm. He slings the animal off his back and realizes he’s cold all over except where the animal was. Now he doesn’t want to put it in the pot and everyone wants a turn keeping warm. They extrapolate to other food – experiment a little – chickens, porcupines, fish. A few generations later another budding Einstein with a sensitive nose figures out that you don’t have to carry the whole animal, you can just use the skin. Ta-da! clothes are invented.”

“But what does this have to do with my vermiculture project?” I asked.

“Explain how it got started.”

“But I don’t know how it happened.”

“So who does?”

“You have to try the cannoli,” Aunt Josie insisted, swooping a tray of dessert onto the coffee table .

“Use your imagination,” Uncle Tony prompted. “Go ahead.”

I scooted forward on the couch, elbows on my knees. “Let’s see. It probably started with a guy who sold worms to fishermen out of his garage. And he had a wife, like Aunt Josie, who kept telling their only son – EAT! EAT! EAT!”

“Yeah. Yeah. That’s good.” uncle Tony chimed in. “And the kid didn’t have a dog to feed under the table, so he ends up burying all the extra food in the worm box in the bait store where he works after supper.”

“After a while,” I add, picking up the narrative, “when fishermen come back to the store complaining about a chicken wing they found in the bait container or a chunk of store bought cookie he figures that worms are vegetarians and their sweet tooth does not include bake goods with preservatives. Pretty soon the worms multiply faster than he can sell them. So he starts using his mother’s house plants.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Aunt Josephine interrupts, “I don’t follow…”

“Stay with the kid, Josie,” my uncle implores and then explains in a teacher’s voice. “House plants are in pots. Pots have dirt. Worms like dirt.”

“So, after a while,” I continue, “the mother notices that her asparagus fern is growing out the door. Her Wandering Jew is wandering all over the house. She makes the connection. Worm poop is good fertilizer.”

“Castings,” Aunt Josie corrects. “Not poop. Castings.”

“Don’t get technical on us,” Uncle Tony interjects. “We’re hypothesizing here.”

“But,” I broke in, “I need to get technical. This is a science project, after all.”

“So get technical. Who’s stopping you. Compare and contrast red worms and night crawlers. Learn the names – esinia foetida, crawlerensis nocturnus – who knows. Make a chart of all the nutrients they put back into the soil – the nitrogen, the calcium, magnesium – whatever. Back to the story.”

“So the couple now have a booming bait shop and nursery.”

“Which,” uncle Tony shouts, “they called The Bait Casting Center – we got you covered rowing or growing.”

Aunt Josie shook her head in mock disgust and headed for the kitchen. “I’m going to wrap up some left over vermicelli to take for your mother.”

I groaned.

Uncle Tony flicked his hand – Go! Go!

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