There are many environmental reasons to eat insects. But first you have to get past the ick factor.
By Peter Frick-Wright
Photo illustration by Aaron Goodman
You have to be careful not to overcook scorpions. The exoskeleton traps steam, and they're messy when they pop.
"But get it right," said "Bug Chef" David George Gordon to the swarm of curious faces gathered to watch him work, "and they taste like soft-shell crab."
It was Halloween night. I'd trekked across Portland, Oregon, for a bug-cooking demonstration at Paxton Gate, a store that owner Andy Brown describes as "a natural history museum where everything is for sale." Feats of unusual taxidermy covered the walls. There were piranhas, peacocks, and baby lambs mid-frolic. Owl pellets filled a glass jar in one display; another held mouse skeletons sitting upright in tiny royal costumes. It was nightmarish and wonderful, rewarding for the curious but troublesome for the squeamish. Much like what we were about to do.
Bearded and jovial, Gordon calls himself a chef even though he's not associated with any restaurant. He began collecting insect-based recipes in 1996 and two years later published The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, which includes tonight's two demonstration recipes: tempura-battered mealworms and scorpion scaloppine. Both were made with limited seasoning, Gordon said, because he didn't want to overpower the taste of the insects. Dessert, however, was chapulines (fried grasshoppers) dipped in chocolate. They tasted like chocolate.
I wanted to enjoy eating bugs, I truly did. I've eaten pig ears, sheep intestines, and cow brains, but always in other countries, among other cultures. Here in Portland, however, my stomach turned when I found a side table topped with cups of cricket-laden Chex Mix, and I hesitated before popping one into my mouth. As I crunched it in my back molars, the crispy layer of chitin burst open, exposing a soft but not quite gooey interior. It was like a peanut butter-filled pretzel with legs. The taste was subtle and vaguely citrusy, but I didn't allow myself to dwell on it. Instead, I swallowed hard, as if taking a pill, and focused on denying the grasshopper round-trip privileges.
Others in the costumed crowd seemed to be having similar struggles. "I can't do this. I just can't do this. Aaargh," exclaimed a teenager dressed as Wonder Woman.
"That tastes . . . different," said a grimacing cowgirl chewing on a scorpion.
But not everyone was put off. "They have such a neutral flavor profile that it's tough to figure out what to do with them," said Jason Fritz, a local chef nibbling studiously off to the side. "Maybe some sort of confit. It almost makes me want to source some of this stuff and play around with it."
At the front of the room, Gordon was playing around with a group of kids.
"Some people not only eat chicken," he said, showing them a rubber chicken, "but also the stuff that comes out of its butt."
Their eyes widened.
"Eggs!" he yelled.
He's been doing this for 15 years.
"I use cooking demonstrations to get people to think about their food," Gordon later told me. Only over the past five years, he said, have people started taking seriously the idea that bugs can be an everyday source of protein.
Nothing overcomes the bug/barf barrier like the combination of hunger and ready availability.
To illustrate, Gordon pulled up some pictures on his phone. The cover of his 1998 cookbook, released when eating bugs was a true novelty, is wacky: Gordon scooping up a tarantula with a spatula. But the cover of the reissue that's coming out this July features a skewered grasshopper elegantly placed atop a bowl of chocolate against an all-white background. "You can see how it's transforming," Gordon said. As an ingredient, insects are starting to get some respect.
In many other parts of the world, of course, entomophagy—the technical term for eating insects—is old hat. It's largely North Americans and Europeans who continue to link insect ingestion to barfing. But at the culinary vanguard, insects are undergoing an evolution from gross to exotic to commonplace. Copenhagen's Noma, which has been recognized as the world's best restaurant three years in a row by Restaurant magazine, announced last year that it's undertaking a formal study of bugs in order to "create a gastronomic argument that will make insects an acceptable food in the Western world."
Although Noma's intellectual efforts probably won't make bugs more appetizing to the everyday shopper anytime soon, something else is pushing insects onto some plates. Call it the ecological imperative. As protein sources go, bugs may be more sustainable than almost anything else in our diets. Since they don't waste energy generating their own heat, they can be (depending on the species) four times more efficient than mammals at turning feed into protein. Insects also seem to account for fewer greenhouse gases than the livestock we traditionally consider delicious. One life cycle assessment of mealworms showed that they produce 29 percent less carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of protein than chickens, 32 percent less than pigs, and 81 percent less than cattle.
Still, even those who find such statistics compelling don't appear to be rushing to make mealworms a regular part of their diet. Carbon-output charts rarely sway appetites. Until someone can convince us to eat insects by choice rather than out of gourmet bravado, ecological arguments might as well be shouted at the bugs themselves.
Entrepreneur Pat Crowley accepts that challenge.
When I called him last fall to chat about his new cricket-based energy bar company, Chapul, we ended up discussing Lakeside Cave, a remote archaeological site on the desolate western shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake that once contained a minor ethnobiological mystery. He wanted to visit it, he said. Did I want to join him?
A few weeks later, we set out from Salt Lake City very early in the morning, braced to spend most of the day searching for the cave. We'd come prepared for almost anything—except the ease of our hunt. Not long after breakfast, we stood on the shore looking into Lakeside Cave's dark mouth.
We'd trekked here because in 1984, when archaeologist David Madsen had dug into the cave's sediment floor, he'd found the remnants of 5 million grasshoppers. Puzzled at first, he soon found bits of 'hopper in some dried human feces nearby. The bugs had been for dinner, it seemed, but their sheer number sounded impossible. He assumed that catching grasshoppers was tedious work. How had they gathered so many?
The answer came a year later when some of Madsen's friends who were hiking the shore of the Great Salt Lake came upon huge piles of grasshoppers washed up on the beach, sun-dried and seasoned by the lake's brine. Madsen estimated that there were as many as 10,000 grasshoppers per foot of shoreline, deposited in windrows up to six feet wide and nine inches tall.
Then Madsen calculated the energy expended in gathering the grasshoppers and compared it with the energy they provided. Lakeside Cave dwellers would have been able to gather about 200 pounds of grasshoppers per hour, he wrote in Natural History magazine, with the bugs yielding 1,365 calories per pound. Even if he had somehow overestimated the rate of return by a factor of 10, he figured, the only thing as calorically rewarding as eating grasshoppers would have been finding 43 Big Macs stacked on the sand.
When Madsen removed the lake's uncommon bounty from the equation, he still found that gathering bugs by more traditional methods—like herding them into ditch traps or streams and scooping them out—compared favorably to most forms of hunting.
Though grasshoppers may not have been the most delectable edibles in the West, they were among the easiest food sources to find. And nothing overcomes the bug/barf barrier like the combination of hunger and ready availability.
This trip to Lakeside Cave was a sort of pilgrimage for Crowley, since his business exists to convince people to eat more insects. His Chapul energy bars look and taste like healthy cookies but are mostly made of crickets. He hopes they can do for entomophagy what the avocado-laden California roll did for sushi—make the unfamiliar palatable to everyday Americans.
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