Would You Like Flies With That?

Photo by Justine Quart

Photo by Justine Quart

Our reporter goes face to face with Bay Area bug cuisine

By Lexi Pandell

I glance down at the small, toasted cracker in my hand and feel my stomach tighten. Perched atop a garlicky spread are three lightly browned grasshoppers. Their tiny wings have been removed, but otherwise the insects are very much intact. Six beady, black eyes stare straight back at me.

This is round two. My meal began with a Thai-spiced protein bar made from cricket flour, a powder created by pulverizing the roasted insects in a food processor. To my surprise, it tasted ordinary, and, to my relief, the only unexpected texture came from small slivers of coconut. But just as I felt a surge of bravery, I was handed the next hors d’oeuvre.

After a moment of hesitation, I nibble into one of the grasshoppers. The garlic masks any other flavor, and I start to relax. I finish the cracker. But as I swallow I feel something stuck in my molar. I pry a spindly leg out with my tongue.

I’m consuming this multicourse bug feast because I want to find out if insects are destined for the average American diet. Although entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, is common in about 80 percent of the world, it’s just recently that the trend has crept into Western cultures at hip, niche restaurants. At the same time, the environmentally conscious have begun to consider bugs as a highly sustainable product. As we become increasingly aware of our planet’s limited resources to feed a growing human population, we find ourselves paying closer attention to the long-term impacts of our food. But are we up for this crunchy, new option?

My mission to test our willingness to change, as well as my own intestinal fortitude, is why I currently find myself in a plush library in San Francisco’s University Club with 30 Stanford alumni, chomping on grasshoppers. The attendees, who range in age from 20 to 50 or so, each paid $45 for the chance to eat a bug-based dinner—and maybe even pick up some facts about entomophagy from the evening’s chefs, Treena Joi, a middle-school teacher and bug aficionado, and Daniella Martin, author of the increasingly popular blog Girl Meets Bug. As I observe the roomful of educated, upper-class diners laughing and boldly plunging in, I start to wonder if this is a trend with legs.

But deep down, I have to admit that I was grossed out by the thought of eating the same creatures that make me squeal and dash for the nearest shoe when I find them in my home.

But I almost immediately answer with an emphatic no after swallowing a chip slathered in mealworm hummus. The creamy dip has a familiar taste, but the whole worms mixed in cling to my throat. I dart out of the room for a glass of water.

It’s well established that Americans, the world’s most gluttonous consumers, eat three times more meat than people in other countries. Raising massive amounts of livestock contributes to deforestation, water degradation, and air pollution from methane—emissions generated by cow farts and burps, among other things, which are so plentiful they are now a major greenhouse gas.

Our meat-obsessed way of life is unsustainable, which is why serving insects appeals to those searching for an environmentally friendly food source. It takes 1,000 times less water to produce a pound of edible insects compared to a pound of beef. Plus, insects require hardly any land to farm, can be raised locally rather than in factory farms, and create far less waste than traditional meat sources.

Bugs are also high in protein and low in fat. Many insects have even more iron per ounce than beef and, when properly cleaned and cooked, might also be safer than some of the meat we consume. Because humans are genetically distant enough from our small, invertebrate friends, there’s almost no chance we can catch “Mad Grasshopper Disease.” The diseases that afflict cold-blooded crawlers are unlikely to mutate and be transmitted to warm-blooded humans.

As someone who’s dedicated to locally sourced, organic food, I was sold on many of the pro-bug arguments. But deep down, I have to admit that I was grossed out by the thought of eating the same creatures that make me squeal and dash for the nearest shoe when I find them in my home. Like my fellow Americans, I was raised to deplore most creepy-crawlies in any form. Yet insects are treated as delicacies in places like Colombia, where ant larvae are served in theaters like popcorn, and in Mexico, where vendors sell roasted grasshoppers with chili and lime on the streets.

Chefs are attempting to appease Western fears of a bug-only entrée by blending them into traditional dishes, from wax moth larvae tacos to grasshopper gelato. A Californian named John Heylin launched Chirp, a company that sells cricket flour in bulk online. Heylin uses his product, which he compares to powdered jerky, alongside wheat flour to make power bars, bread, fruit leather, and even cupcakes. “The flavor is hidden,” Heylin says of the taste, which some compare to nuts or hay. “Depending on the ingredients, we can hide it even more.” There are other, meatier options, too. Entomophagists in the Netherlands have developed a hamburger supplemented with grasshoppers. The patties taste like beef but make a smaller environmental impact.

Joi and Martin both say it is only a matter of time before such dishes are a part of typical American fare. “Eating insects is fun,” Martin says. “They taste good. They are packed with nutrients. They have clean diets, short lifespans, and reproduce quickly. What’s the downside?”

I contemplate that question as I examine my current serving, a pumpkin bisque with fly pupae. Really, will average Americans ever intentionally eat flies in their soup? Sure, it may be healthy, but that’s hard to keep in mind as I submerge my spoon and bite into the small, black pupae. They pop open like grainy seeds. As with many of the other options, it doesn’t have a distinctive taste. But it’s the gritty consistency I can’t ignore.

My favorite dishes of the evening are earworm tamales, with sweet corn kernels that hide the consistency of the soft bugs, and a wild-rice pilaf paired with wax worms. But my courage fails when I bite into the “super worm” served on a small polenta round. The worm is thick, two inches long, and impossible to chew through. And I don’t even try the African katydid or nsenene, which is more than an inch long and looks like a shrimp with large, bulging eyes.

The shrimp lookalike calls to mind another food that was once foreign to our culture: sushi. Despite the fact it had been prevalent in Asia for centuries, eating raw fish was simply not appealing to the American masses. It wasn’t until the California roll, with two familiar foods in crab and avocado, debuted in the ’80s that sushi was deemed palatable. Today, sushi bars are everywhere. People in cities order salmon eggs and sea urchin as they do steak and potatoes. And, even in smaller towns, sushi is often available at grocery stores.

All of this gives me confidence that eating insects will eventually become more trendy, if not universal—but not any time soon. Some Americans might be willing to pay extra for cage-free eggs or experiment with raw fish, but I doubt many are ready, or willing, to swap Big Macs for mealworms. It might take a food shortage or escalating global temperatures to push us out of our comfort zones. Then again, that may be exactly what’s around the bend.dots-1


Oatmealworm Cookies

Adapted from Danielle Martin’s Girl Meets Bug blog

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons of cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup of creamy peanut butter
  • 2 cups dry quick-cook oatmeal
  • 1 cup dry roasted mealworms
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Instructions

  1. To roast the mealworms, put live mealworms in a freezer for at least a few hours so they die peacefully. Then, rinse them gently in a mesh strainer
  2. Transfer them to a lightly oiled baking sheet. Cook in the oven at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes, or until golden and crunchy (will smell like roasted nuts). Be careful not to burn them. Periodically turn or shake pans to ensure uniform roasting. Set roasted mealworms aside
  3. In a large saucepan, bring to a boil: butter, sugar, milk, and cocoa, and boil for 1 min
  4. Remove from heat
  5. Stir in peanut butter and vanilla
  6. Stir in oats and mealworms
  7. Drop into cookie sized heaps on wax paper and let cool until set

Stir Fried Cricket Curry Over Rice

Adapted from the Bay Area Bug Eating Society

Ingredients

  • Rice
  • Curry Powder
  • Vegetable Oil
  • 1 Can Coconut Milk
  • One Clove of Garlic
  • One Half Onion
  • Chili Peppers
  • Various seasonal vegetables
  • 3 dozen crickets

Instructions

  1. To prepare crickets, put them in a freezer them for at least a few hours so they die peacefully. Then, rinse crickets gently in a mesh strainer and set aside
  2. Cook rice in a separate pot
  3. Heat oil in a skillet or wok
  4. Add onions and peppers; heat and stir until onions are brown
  5. Add garlic. Heat it, but be careful not to burn the garlic
  6. Next add vegetables and crickets and stir
  7. When all of the vegetables and crickets are finished cooking, stir in coconut milk and curry
  8. Serve over rice