Nutritious and Beelicious

For protein, calcium, and shock value, munch some creepy critters


| November/December 1999


I was always a strange child. At about age 6 or so, starved for peer approval, I accepted Patty Figler' s challenge to eat a chocolate-covered ant and a roasted bee, procured at the local gourmet food store. Both ants and bees came packaged in tiny silver cans, and probably cost more than a year' s allowance, but Figler and her friends persevered. At the appointed hour, on my birthday, the posse arrived, cans of bugs in hand. They watched; I crunched. All that remains of the memory is the chocolatiness of the ant and the salty, potato-chip crispiness of the bee.

Did the act of bug eatin' --entomophagy, in polite circles--ensure my position as alpha female in the hierarchy of my lower-class, ragtag ragazzi? Not quite. I suppose most of us would rather be eaten by bugs (think of walking through woods in summer) than eat them ourselves. But insects have traditionally offered astounding food value to Homo sapiens unfettered by cultural taboos, or the ick factor. What we eat is 'something you pick up at a certain age from parents and friends,' David Gordon, naturalist and author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 1998), told USA Today. 'It' s learned behavior.' Why wouldn' t a person who can gobble a lobster, a notorious bottom-feeder, prefer one of its cleaner, land-based cousins?

Food historian Waverly Root re-minds us in Food (Simon and Schuster, 1980) that the crickets in Thailand and Oaxaca, Mexico, are the 'most luscious of all.' In 1885 the granddaddy of entomophagy, Vincent M. Holt, pointed out in his book, Why Not Eat Insects? that 'insects are by far a more wholesome and less tainted source of food value, as they live entirely on vegetable matter.'

Famous bug eaters in history include the French astronomer Lelande, who ate spiders (which aren' t really bugs, but arachnids); Mohammed, whose wives sent him trays of locusts as presents; and St. John the Baptist, who is said to have chowed down on locusts as well, albeit with a wild honey sauce. Curiously, locusts--unlike other insects--are kosher, according to Leviticus 11:22, where they' re OK' d along with grasshoppers as decent nourishment.

Our Eurocentrism becomes apparent when we peruse the list of societies where crawling cuisine is traditional: Peruvians collect dryopoid beetles to be ground and used as peppery sauce; Mexicans in Guerrero eat stinkbugs, said to taste like mint or cinnamon-- although Peter Menzel, co-author of Man Eating Bugs (Ten Speed, 1998), likens them to 'aspirin saturated in cod liver oil with dangerous subcurrents of rubbing alcohol and iodine'; and throughout Africa, beetle grubs and caterpillars are a common repast. In the Philippines, a stir-fry of katydids, dragonfly larvae, and greens keeps hunger at bay, and celebrations in Papua, New Guinea demand sago grubs and giant waterbugs roasted over an open fire. (According to entomologists, roasting brings out the flavor.) According to Bizarre magazine, the Chinese eat insects for virility. Aussies favor Oecophylla (ants to you and me, mate) when they' re out in the bush. They bite off the abdomens, which allegedly taste sweet and tart and quench thirst. And, finally, there' s Gustavo F. Morejon of the Wildlife Monitoring Project of Cuenca, Ecuador, who waxes rhapsodic over a recent dish of 'wonderful, tasty and amazing' white beetles (cooked with pork and vegetables), courtesy of the University of Kentucky' s entomology Web site (www.uky.edu/Agriculture/Entomol ogy/). I guess if they were good enough for Mighty Joe Young. . . .

Closer to home, many entomologists are serious about the potential of insects to nourish a planet already struggling with overpopulation. For example: 100 grams of crickets contain 121 calories, 12.9 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of fat, 5.1 grams of carbohydrates, and more iron and calcium than most meats. The same size portion of ground beef has 288.2 calories and 21.2 grams of fat (though 23.5 grams of protein). And pound for pound, the giant water beetle wins the nutritious-but-not-entirely-delicious category, with 19.8 grams of protein, 43.5 grams of calcium, and 13.6 grams of iron per serving. (Just how one calculates a serving size of beetle, I' m not sure.)