Where the Wild Things Are

When the Bugs-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named Arrived

Doing battle with bugs.

May 30, 2019
Photo by Danie Drankwalter

We spend a lot of time at Food52 offering up ways to improve your home life, with inspiration for cooking, handsome home goods, and tips to keep it a beautiful, organized, welcoming sanctuary. We don’t spend a lot of time on the realities of home ownership. Well, buckle up—that’s about to change. In Where the Wild Things Are, Amanda Hesser introduces us to some of the critters with whom her family has not-so-willfully cohabited over the years, hoping to inspire you to share your own stories. Bring on the funny disasters. The rants. And the helpful solutions, too!

(This is the fifth in Amanda’s six-part series—check out her prior story here.)

In the spring of 2017, two years after The Great Moth Disaster of 2015, my husband, Tad, our kids, Walker and Addison, and I went on an exceptionally fun spring break road trip down the West Coast from Seattle to San Francisco. Because the twins were only nine, we stayed in one hotel room with the kids in sleeping bags on the floor. It was cozy and camp-like and money-saving, too!

We spent nights in Best Westerns, well-rated boutique hotels, and even an Airstream on the Oregon coast. We climbed mounds built by Native Americans, rode dune buggies across coastal knolls, played golf on a course with views of the Pacific, and went on a tour of the Boeing factory.

All smiles, for now. Photo by Amanda Hesser

A week after we returned, Walker and Addison complained of mosquito bites. They were susceptible to bug bites and their sensitive skin sometimes overreacted. These bites were a bit on the welt-y end of the spectrum, so we lacquered them with itch cream and dispatched them to school.

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“Haha -- yes, John is your man for all pest treatments! ”
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A few days later, Walker's squash coach sent him home with a message that we should take him to the doctor to inspect the bites on his legs. It always feels good to have pooh-poohed your kids’ ailments and have some distant authority figure speak up for them. The pediatrician confirmed his squash coach’s hunch; the bites were from bed bugs.

Our clothing moth infestation turned out to be child’s play compared to having bed bugs. You can’t see bed bugs. They hide in the cracks of wood furniture, in outlets, and in other unreachable slivers of space. And because they prey on you when you’re most unaware and vulnerable—while you sleep—they also burrow into the most anxious corners of your mind.

At this point, having spent years battling squirrels, rats, and clothing moths in our apartment, we were rather fragile. Tad, who is even-keeled and highly rational, had taken to emitting a deep, primal groan any time a new home-related issue arose. Years of building Food52, while raising twins, dealing with financial stresses, and losing to pests had taken a toll on me. Thankfully, there was Prozac. We kept our conversations “solutions-oriented,” as if it was a work project, not our home, our supposed oasis from unruly city life.

The first thing you learn when you have bed bugs is that they provoke even people with heaps of serotonin coursing through their bodies to lose their minds. Online user reviews for bed bug specialists feature entries like this:

“If you, like me, find yourself crying on your floor in the middle of the night coming to terms with the grossest, more invasive thing you can imagine while furiously Yelping for answers- here is your sign. These are your people!”

When I called Northeastern Exterminating and filled them in on the situation, the man on the phone said in a calm, consoling voice, “I’m sure you’re probably very upset. It’ll be okay, we’ll get this taken care of for you.” I was upset when our children stuffed too much toilet paper in the toilet and we had to spend $200 to have a plumber clear the pipe, but our plumber never treated me as if I might be on the verge of a breakdown.

The second thing you learn is that treating bed bugs requires hiring two levels of expert. There’s the bed bug inspector, whose sole job is to determine whether or not you have bed bugs and where they might be hiding. Then there’s the fixer, who does the treatments. Both are wildly expensive, but we found ourselves spending money like gamblers on tilt. Price mattered, but our precarious sanity mattered more.

Brooklyn’s most highly lauded inspector on Yelp uses a dog to sniff out the evil bugs. Jon (because everyone who comes to our rescue has to be named John or Jon) and his beagle, Sway, showed up the day after we called. Sway got right to work. We had bugs in “up to four rooms.” Our apartment is only seven rooms.

Next came the fixers—bed bug specialists/therapists—who treated the space. First, they explained, we’d need to get our apartment ready. They handed over a prep list longer than our wedding to-do list. Every clothing drawer had to be emptied and then the drawers removed from the dressers. Then all of our clothing, bedding, blankets, pillows, coats, hats, gloves, rags, dishcloths, the kids’ stuffed animals, and any other cloth belonging had to be put in the dryer on high heat for 30 minutes. Anything that couldn’t be put in the dryer had to be dry cleaned. After drying and dry cleaning, all of this material had to be put into plastic garbage bags that contained “bed bug bombs” for three weeks. The kids’ books and toys, most of my cookbooks, every chair and sofa cushion also went into treatment bags. Furniture had to be moved to the middle of rooms and outlet plates had to be unscrewed and removed. The list went on and on.

Photo by Amanda Hesser
Photo by Amanda Hesser

In the middle of this process—which Tad took several days off of work to head up—our dryer broke and had to be replaced, further delaying our progress and hopes for equilibrium.

Our kids decamped to our bedroom, where we lived for the next few weeks, and our babysitter, who’d been scarred from a childhood bed bug incident, asked not to work until the bed bugs were gone. Marooned in our bedroom, stripped of our sitter support system, we felt like lepers.

When the dryer was replaced, the repairman didn’t reattach the water line properly and the washer water tsunami’d across our dining room, turning our 19th-century walnut floor with its rare and special slat design into buckled wooden waves. Our sink faucet broke and our fridge went on the fritz. Then our upstairs neighbors’ drain flooded and ruined our recently renovated bathroom ceiling. (On the plus side, we had no rugs out to ruin since they were all in bags.)

Don't look up. Photo by Amanda Hesser
New floors, after the fact. Photo by Amanda Hesser

I was struck during this death march by how little our kids complained. For them, getting to sleep on the floor in our room was like recess, an adventurous break from the norm.

Tad and I did our best to channel their optimism, but mostly what got us through was good ol’ Yankee grit. Also known as denial.

After the bed bugs were finally gone a very long month later, we received a letter in the mail: a handwritten thank-you note from the bed bug exterminator, wishing us well in the future.

Still no handwritten note from the toilet plumber.

Check back next week for part six of Amanda’s series.
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Amanda Hesser

Written by: Amanda Hesser

Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I've written several books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte" and "The Essential New York Times Cookbook." I played myself in "Julie & Julia" -- hope you didn't blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.


Chris G. October 14, 2020
Clickbait title! Not Nice! I really expected some help:(
Fredah W. July 26, 2020
Battled bedbugs with my bestfriend it was such a traumatic time...they eat away at your mental stability....and the biting and you don't know what's biting you until they multiple arrgh ...
bksi January 12, 2020
I came back from Peru with bedbugs. It was awful. I did my research and this is what worked. And it was relatively cheap and didn't involve poisons.

Strip all bedding, pillows, anything textile that can be removed and wash in crazy hot water, dry on high. Couches beds, curtains. If you cannot wash in hot water and dry, consider getting rid of the item. If not, wash and dry the best you can.
Store the hot water textiles in your car or another neutral space. Store the cool water textiles outside if possible or in your freezer

Buy a pound of diatomaceous earth. For each bed, buy a small Coleman refrigerated 1gal drinks cooler. Buy or procure plates that are nearly flat of a much larger diameter than the cooler. Book a hotel room for the family for four nights. Buy a bunch of dry ice, enough to halfway fill each Coleman cooler. Pull all beds away from the walls or wall mounted headboards. In the early evening, put the filled coolers on the plates and put in center of each bed. Slightly crack the pouring tube so that dry ice "steam" escapes - you don't want a torrent but a small steady stream. Add an even and continuous layer of diatomaceous earth on the plate - no gaps. Add a circle of diatomaceous earth around each leg of each bed. Make sure it's not too thick but it *must* be a continuous circle around the legs and the plate. If there is any other way for a bug to crawl to the center of the bed make sure to add diatomaceous earth there too.

Do this for the six nights. Have one family member sleep in the home on night #4. If they get bitten you'll need to continue the treatment for another four nights.

Bedbugs "find" you thru carbon dioxide exhalation - dry ice evaporates carbon dioxide. Diatomaceous earth cuts the exoskeleton of the bedbug and they die of dehydration. Four to ten days is the egg laying cycle of the female.

When your family returns, keep the diatomaceous earth around the bed legs for a couple of months.

Starmade June 6, 2019
Amanda, I have learned many valuable things from you in the past about care of cast iron pans, pie crust, and the like, but though I pray I never have to use it, I can imagine this article containing the most valuable information of all. Honestly I can't believe you stopped to photograph it. Thanks for taking the time to record every moment of the horrid experience.
Amanda H. June 6, 2019
Thanks so much for taking time to share your thoughts -- I appreciate it!
martha1108 June 3, 2019
I’m so sorry you had to go through this. I thought the bed bug thing was over. The battle with moths is one I’m dealing with now, and I appreciate having the information in that article. I’m migrating to a wool-less wardrobe, but my husband has lots of wool suits, and we have lovely wool rugs I want to save. Thanks for the information!
Amanda H. June 6, 2019
You're welcome, and I hope you win your battle!
luvcookbooks June 3, 2019
I always imagine your life as perfect. These articles are so nice because they are not perfect. Plus I know to look for pest treatment specialists named John. Thank you!
Amanda H. June 3, 2019
Haha -- yes, John is your man for all pest treatments!
Shalini May 31, 2019
I had to read this first out of the whole series. I really hope we don't have them in our two bedroom apartment, I've been getting bites but see nothing! They must be hiding under the mattress and in the sockets!! Jeez. Thanks for chronicling your ordeal with them, and I like your Yankee grit. I could use some! 🤯
Amanda H. May 31, 2019
So sorry to hear this, Shalini. It's definitely worth having someone come and inspect. Hope it's good news and some less invasive creature.
Shalini June 10, 2019
Thanks!! Me too!
Jackie D. May 31, 2019
Reading all of this., my heart just cried out for you and your family. What a nightmare! Glad you got over it but , hell, what a hassle.
Amanda H. May 31, 2019
Thank you for your empathy!
Margaret May 30, 2019
If nothing else will convince you to move toward minimalism, I feel like bed bug cleanup would.
Amanda H. May 31, 2019
Very good point.
Kathy Y. May 30, 2019
Everyone have dealt with some critter or another getting into the privacy if theie homes. You don't invite them they just pop up...or hidden somewhere you don't notice until they embark their nusiance upon you become a big pest.
Smaug May 30, 2019
If you actually have these foul creatures, try googling "Richard Fagerland/bedbugs"- he's made something of a specialty of non toxic treatments.
Amanda H. May 31, 2019
Thanks for the tip -- though I hope not to ever have to deal with them again!
Christine May 30, 2019
Wow! I loved this article. Amanda, I love the way you write. Even through all the trauma it made me smile and laugh out loud. Also, I never want bed bugs.
Amanda H. May 31, 2019
Thanks so much, Christine -- writing this series has been quite cathartic!