Pancho Prieto makes his living collecting escamol—ant larvae—on the high plains of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. For the past twenty years, the 57-year-old has anxiously awaited the harvest season, when he can venture into the desert and pilfer eggs from ants’ nests. Sitting with his family around a bonfire, kids and adults alike watch and participate in the cleaning of the escamol while they recount anecdotes from that day’s harvest. The women describe their worry while waiting at home for their husbands and children, watching as ice fell from the sky. None of them had ever seen snow before.
It was March of 2016, and light snowfall painted the mountains of the Potosí highlands white and silver.
Prieto and his family had scavenged about four and a half pounds of ant larvae that day, well below their expectations. The year’s cold weather slowed the ants’ reproductive cycle, so the escamoleros had to begin their harvest three weeks later than usual. Collecting the larva has become the economic linchpin for entire families in the Potosí highlands, where the climate is fierce and economic opportunities are scarce. By collecting ant larva, families can earn approximately $8,800 pesos ($502.66 USD) each year. With the previous season’s earnings, Prieto constructed an extra kitchen. This year, he will pay for his granddaughter’s quinceañera celebrations.
As with any culinary specialty, the origin of the product matters. The larva of the ant comes from the humblest corners of Mexico, but during the journey from the deserts of San Luis Potosí to Mexico City, the product becomes a luxury good: the caviar of the desert.