Nutritious and Beelicious

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.)

A heap less costly than your average porterhouse, insects require less land and feed to raise than livestock. Maybe more important, according to entomologists at Ohio State University, U.S. farmers could use much less pesticide each year if people could tolerate the idea of an apple with a worm inside, or a head of cabbage minus a beetle bite.

Most of us already consume a pound or two of insects a year, ground up in our peanut butter, jam, spaghetti sauce, and other processed comestibles. A recent issue of Food Insects Newsletter states that 80 percent of the world eats insects intentionally, and 100 percent consumes them unintentionally, so perhaps we need to review the gustatory possibilities inherent in our flying and crawling friends.

Did you know, for example, that raspy-voiced singer Louis Armstrong used to drink a homemade brew of boiled cockroaches to soothe the sore throats that plagued him? At last year’ s Young Entomologists Society gathering at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the best-seller was the Cricket Lick-It, a $1.39 crËme-de-menthe-flavored candy with a whole cricket inside.

Kids are naturally curious about the issue, so Stephanie Bailey, entomology extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, planned a 4-H Club lesson that included the gory details of cleaning and preparing mealworms, crickets, and beetles from the local bait shop. (Crickets must be placed in the refrigerator immediately to slow them down, and mealworms must be cooked or frozen as soon as possible.) The kids then could dry-roast them and use them in any recipe calling for nuts, such as crispy critter treats (like Rice Krispies squares). There’ s also banana worm bread (add 1/4 cup dry-roasted army worms) and rootworm beetle dip (includes cottage cheese, lemon, mayo, 1 cup roasted beetles). The April issue of the magazine Star Wars Kids features ‘Bugs for Dinner,’ which explains where to buy grubs (Carolina Biological Supplies) and how to prepare waxworm (in a popcorn popper, rendering it a taste treat similar to ‘honey and almonds’).

Louis Sorkin, entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, recommends the fare served at the American Entomological Society’ s 100th anniversary soiree: ‘Thai water beetle tasted of citronella, the waxworm grubs were butterflied and grilled, as meaty as bacon, and the crickets in hot pepper were really tasty.’ Prepared by the capo di tutti capi of entomology, retired University of Wisconsin professor Gene DeFoliart, the meal was a great success, and DeFoliart says the tangy, roasted honeybee may replace your customary bag of Fritos any day now. In his discussion of the celebration, Sorkin mentions an important fact: Allergies to bugs can mirror allergies to shellfish and the like, so if you have trouble with shrimp, be careful around those mealworms. And the number one bug allergy is Lepidopteran (moths and butterflies), so watch those larvae, too.

If this all seems a bit academic, there’ s always the bugfood world’ s fringe element, to wit: the growing number of Web sites and groups devoted to ‘primitive living skills.’ There’ s biologist Zachary Huang’ s Bug Eating Page, where the joys of consuming live honeybee larvae are extolled, and Barbara Bonga’ s Survival Bible of an Edible World, where Bonga, the drummer for a band called Maximus, offers counterculture tips for the grunge generation: ‘When we’ re on the road, there’ s not always a Burger King around. But even when it appears there’ s nothing to eat, you’ re just not seeing what’ s in front of your eyes. I mean, a couple of locusts, a beetle or two, and you’ ve got yourself a protein-rich meal. And there’ s no beating the flavor.’

Whether this culinary trend signals a movement toward a more eco-conscious zeitgeist or a de-evolutionary step back toward the caveman, I’ m not sure. But the last word on the topic comes from, quite rightly, a chef. Mark Filippo of Cafe Meze in Hartsdale, New York, who’ s not exactly revving up the menu for curried dragonfly soup or Sonoran centipede stew (snip off the poisonous jaws before cooking), puts it this way: ‘James Beard said that we have to experience all kinds of culinary sensations, so he went into the Himalayas, cracked open a lamb’ s head, and ate the brains raw. But I’ m still trying to get my son to touch calamari. I really can’ t knock someone who eats bugs. For me, though, I don’ t know enough about it to feel comfortable eating bugs. I guess I don’ t need to experience that right now.’

I’ m with Filippo. But for those of you who are ready to try David Gordon’s larval latkes (recipe available in his cookbook), just remember this bit of dining etiquette: Serve pinot gris. According to Gordon, it’ s the only wine suitable for crawling critters.

GO FOR IT

The Food Insects Newsletter
324 Leon Johnson Hall, Montana State U, Bozeman, MT 59717-0302
http://www.hollowtop.com/finl_html/finl.html

Insects As Food?
http://www.macomb.k12.mi.us/wq/webq98/insects.htm

Iowa State University’s Tasty Insect Recipes
http://www.ent.iastate.edu/misc/insectsa%20sfood.html

From Fairfield Weekly (June 10, 1999). Subscriptions: $120/yr. (52 issues) from 1 Dock St., Stanford, CT 06902.

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