I don’t know about you, but for me, the idea of relying on insect-based food evokes post-apocalyptic starvation scenarios. Plus, it just seems gross. But I’ve been trying to get over this visceral disgust for some years now, for reasons both adventurous and environmental. Like it or not, eating certain bugs (or Soylent Green-like processed versions of them) may be in the cards for much of the world in the not-so-distant future. And that’s not necessarily a scary thought. Mealworm “flour” is fast becoming widely available and has demonstrable health and environmental benefits.
The gastronomic potential of the massive cicada horde—known as Brood X—that recently spread across much of the East Coast after 17 years living underground has been all over the news and blogosphere. According to a recent Washington Post article titled “My Name is Max and I have a Cicada Problem,” a dachshund named Max was eating so many of the insects that his through-the-roof protein consumption was resulting in him taking massive bowel movements all over the house. The solution, after many failed approaches? A muzzle.
Now, obviously, using dogs as a gauge for what humans will find tasty has its limits. I mean, dogs tend to enjoy eating cat feces, which are decidedly foul and can contain toxoplasmosis. However, I also recently heard an NPR piece where Ari Shapiro, the host of “All Things Considered,” interviewed Dr. Cortni Borgerson, a professor of anthropology at Montclair State University and “cicada enthusiast” who revels in the preparation and consumption of pan-fried cicadas. She recommended harvesting the bugs from an area that would not have been sprayed with insecticides or pesticides and then looking for ones that have recently molted and are more pale, hence softer. According to Dr. Borgerson, you then simply coat them in a bit of oil and stir-fry until crunchy. She also noted that cicadas are arthropods, so those who suffer from shellfish allergies should pass up these potentially tasty snacks.
Cicadas, and many insects for that matter, are naturally high in protein and prebiotic fiber and low in fat. In short, they are a superfood. But can our society-at-large overcome the gross-out factor and start chowing down on bugs—and not as a mere novelty, but as a sizable component of our diets?
Eating insects is actually pretty common already in many places. And while these practices may have gotten their start out of desperation or in the remote past, today many people choose to snack—or even feast—on bugs. Indigenous Australians throughout much of the continent still prize the so-called witchetty grub, a catch-all name for the wood-eating larvae of several moth species. They can grow to the size of an average middle finger and have been turning up with some frequency on the menus of fine dining establishments for decades now. At markets in Thailand, I’ve seen grasshoppers, worm pupae, scorpions and even tarantulas on offer to be fried, salted and snacked on. These are clearly sold as novelties for thrill-seeking tourists, but they are also consumed by locals. (Though it seems that the tarantula is more of a domestic hit in Cambodia than Thailand.)
In Mexico chapulines, grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium, have been a key food source for millennia. Once fried and salted, they make for a delicious accompaniment to a few beers or micheladas. I also have pleasant memories of feasting on wasp larvae in a ranchito outside of Miahuatlan, Oaxaca. While sipping on a fresh-out-of-the-still Madrecuixe mezcal, the accomplished mescalero and farmer, Hermogenes Vasquez, pried a wasp hive off his roof, chucked it onto some coals for a bit, fished it back out and doused it in salt and lime juice. The wasp larvae were both crunchy and buttery, with a mild yet rich flavor somewhat reminiscent of soft-boiled eggs. Also worth trying if ever visiting a palenque are the red and white larvae that often inhabit agave plants. After being smoked they take on an intense earthy flavor and are said to imbue the eater with virility.
But a caution: If you want to begin your own field research, don’t just harvest and fry up whatever bugs you may find. My first foray into insect gastronomy was in preschool or thereabouts, with an ant that tasted sweet and somewhat peppery. The next time I gave it a shot in a different locale, the ant tasted vile, and an acrid, metallic taste lingered for what seemed like the better part of an hour.
Here in New Mexico, please be sure to avoid black widows and brown recluses. Children of the earth should be left well alone too, if not just because of the horrible screams they emit when being harassed. And while a wide array of grasshoppers will be ripe for the plucking throughout the summer, none are of the same genus as those consumed in Mexico. It’s worth consulting an expert before cooking up whatever sort are hopping around in your yard.
So, while you may not be ready for a plate of raw grubs, you can get roasted and salted chapulines, imported from Oaxcaca, at one of the produce stands at Carrasco’s flea market on Old Coors (when in stock). I recommend them with some very cold Mexican lagers … or a nice glass of limeade. And if that is still a stretch, chocolate-covered ants are available online. I am quite certain that they are the milder variety and not one of the many vile tasting species that turned me off from this whole enterprise before I’d even started grade school. Plus, they’re covered in chocolate.
This very morning, while starting to write this piece, I went out to dump some organic refuse into the compost and noticed a mass of writhing fly pupae covering a watermelon rind. There were dozens of them. I did some quick online research to see if they were edible and after all signs pointed to the affirmative, I put on a brave face and went to go select a few plump ones to fry. But when I lifted the lid back up and saw a German cockroach scurry over the off-white grubs, I recoiled, gagged a bit and resigned myself to failure in this particular venture. Maybe it will take some sort of apocalyptic event for unprocessed insect consumption to catch on in the north of North America.