Girl Meets Bug Meets The Doctors

I was invited to participate in a very cool “Truth Or Dare” segment on The Doctors: the Truth is, insects are a good source of protein, but do you Dare eat them? Dr. Ordon did!

Ripley’s Bug Fest

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Hollywood, CA had me in to host their first annual Bug Fest. I served crickets, scorpions, mealworms, stinkbugs, grasshoppers, tarantulas, silkworms, Madagascar Hissing cockroaches, and even a giant waterbug!

Hundreds of people showed up to taste a bug. If they ate a super-scary bug, they got to enter the museum for free!

Episode 2: Fried Scorpion!

It was delicious! It tasted very much like soft-shell crab meat.

The Ethics Of Entomophagy

As an entomophagy advocate, very occasionally I hear from people who are appalled not at the idea of my eating insects, but rather at my eating certain species which they deem to be, well, superior. Tarantula-lovers in particular tend to be up-in-pedipalps about it, even though this is a species regularly consumed in places like Cambodia.

I completely understand this perspective; after all, we Americans have no problem picking up ground beef at the supermarket, but the day that supermarket begins selling a different ground mammal meat — say, puppy for instance — a picket line would appear so fast it would make your ethnocentric head spin.

As a student of anthropology, it would hardly be fair of me to ascribe to such food-animal ranking. Once, while staying with a family in China, I was served dog for dinner.  Now, I adore dogs: I’ve worked with dogs, read dog-training books the way other people read Dr. Spock,  feel womb-pangs toward puppies, etc. But barring a religious belief, it would have been quite rude to turn down my host’s offering, so naturally, I tasted it. It wasn’t my favorite flavor; I found it tasted much like that very specific essence of wet dog, and because in my mind that smell was associated with “household pet” I didn’t find it appealing. However, I could just as easily imagine someone else associating the taste of beef with a household cow, and while I love dogs and would prefer not to think of them being used for meat, I can’t ethically say that one animal is better than another. (Although, ask me again after a tribal chief offers me a bite of human — I still haven’t worked out what I’d do in that situation.)

What I do find interesting and quite surprising is that the more I eat bugs, the more I respect and admire them. I regularly coo to live insects when I handle them. When I raised hornworm caterpillars, I took pictures of their development not only out of fascination, but also out of an almost-maternal affection, which made harvesting them somewhat difficult.

I think these feelings have to do with the fact that I am involved with the entire process, from collection (hunting) to preparing (killing) to eating.  I say a prayer over all my insects before I freeze or cook them, thanking them for their service. I imagine this is more than most people do before they bite into a hamburger.

And yes, I also occasionally hear from vegetarians and vegans who ask the obvious question: why not stop eating meat altogether? The truth is that while vegetarianism is a legitimate solution for many people, it simply wouldn’t work in all situations and environments. There are places where hungry people live that lack sufficient arable land and resources to generate enough protein via vegetable sources. Lack of protein is one of the key problems that plague hungry peoples, and significantly contributes to brain development or hindrance thereof.

Edible insects have the potential to close this gap in nutrition in a sustainable way, and this is the main reason I am interested in helping to create a larger market for them. By creating a larger market, we can help show influential  organizations that edible insect programs are feasible, and generate funding for what could be a real solution to a problem that has plagued our species for centuries.

Crazier things have been attempted. Why not try bugs?

The Biggest Little Bug Shop In America

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting the owner of perhaps the most extensive live insect store in the country, known to his clients as Ken The Bug Guy. Along with his adorable family, he was the main host of the short-lived-but-fabulous Buggin’ Out series on the Science Channel, two episodes of buggy-awesomeness that I highly recommend you watch. At one point, his two year old daughter handles a large live scorpion (sans stinger), affectionately  named Stumpy.

I drove over an hour out to his shop in Concord, CA — all the while amazed at my luck that it was only that far to get to such a place. Ken’s shop is the number one bug-supplier in the US,  which is why they rarely have time to answer the phone. I realized that if I wanted the real skinny on this bug business, I’d have to show up in person.

Ken’s shop is small, but packed to the brim with bugs of all sorts, as well as cool supplies like blacklights (for hunting scorpions, which fluoresce), insect anatomy models, bug jewelry, ant farms, etc., etc. It’s also piled high with crazy insects you wouldn’t want let loose in your house.

I initially approached Ken with caution, not certain he would be on board with the whole entomophagy thing, but I figured he spent much of his time feeding insects to other insects, so it was worth a shot. Like a good businessman, Ken was gracious to me and my goals, and was incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. He brought out some very impressive species for me to eye-sample: Domino cockroaches, giant cave roaches, millipedes, wind scorpions, tarantulas of all shapes and sizes (with prices ranging from $10 to $600), and scorpions of all colors and levels of venom, some with a deadly sting. To be blunt, it was frickin’ rad. I must admit that I dropped an uncharacteristic amount of money there, and walked away with a veritable smor-bugs-bord.

Although the majority of the bugs I bought are meant for eating, I was particularly drawn to one of the Rose Hair Tarantulas, and I’ve decided to adopt her. She is a real beauty, with an iridescent pink carapace, and leg hair as soft as bunny fur. I can’t believe I am actually adopting a spider as a pet, but it’s amazing how quickly invertebrates can crawl into your heart. I can’t wait to buy her cool stuff for her terrarium and go out and catch her some crickets. I guess we’re two of a kind, as we’re both enthusiastic entomophagists.

Thanks, Ken The Bug Guy. Thanks a LOT. ; )

Top Chef Masters Cook Bugs!

I just saw the Top Chef Masters Edible Insect challenge, and it was great! I was particularly interested since I’ll be competing in a similar bug cook-off at the LA Museum of Natural History’s 25th Annual BugFest this May.

The chefs were given five bug-gredients to choose from: earthworms, hornworms, crickets, darkling beetles, and scorpions. Then, with no prior knowledge of how these bugs taste, they were given 20 minutes to create delicious dishes. A challenge indeed!

The chefs chose some very creative ways to prepare the insects. Many of them chose Asian-inspired recipes and salads. The guest-tasters were the stars of Discovery’s wilderness survival show “Man, Woman, Wild”, and on the whole, they seemed to really enjoy the various dishes — particularly Hugh Acheson’s fried tempura crickets with a carrot and sunchoke puree (helping him win $5k for his charity). In fact, there were only two dishes they didn’t really like: George Mendes’ hornworm-coconut soup, and Suvir Saran’s chaat (chickpea salad), which he served with a side of live hornworms. Because of his religious beliefs, he said, he was prohibited from taking a life, and asked the tasters to cook the hormworms themselves, with a hand-torch. Yum. Also, from the very beginning, Mendes was clear about his negative view of insects; perhaps it came through in his food?

Apparently, Curtis Stone, the host of the show, said it was his least-favorite episode.

“I always say this was a good gig, but that part was awful,” said Stone. “I still have memories of biting into the worms and feeling their grit.”

Luckily, I had the chance to respond to this in Monica Gaske’s AOL news article:  http://www.aolnews.com/2011/04/03/bug-appetit-celebrity-chef-curtis-stone-to-eat-worms-beetles-a/

Fried Earthworms (photo via BBC News)

The truth is, not all bugs are yummy, just like not all other meat-animals are yummy. Earthworms in particular need to be processed properly before they will taste good. The grittiness Stone experienced was likely due to their still containing remains of their diet, which is, well, dirt. Earthworms move through the soil, swallowing and extracting certain nutrients, and then excreting the rest. They help keep soil mixed, and their digestive process  actually helps convert certain organic matter so that plants can assimilate it.  They are quite literally little processing tubes for dirt. Usually, it is necessary to boil earthworms for a while to remove the traces of dirt inside them, but after that I hear they can be quite tasty. They are eaten regularly in certain cultures: the Ye’kuana Amerindians of the Alto Orinoco of Venezuela, for instance, eat a very large species they call kuru, which is high in protein, iron, and calcium.

Perhaps if the chefs had more than a few minutes to research these insects and their individual flavors, Stone would have enjoyed the segment more. But given what they had, based on the taster’s reactions,  it looked like they did fairly well. I hope I can follow suit in May!

Recipe for Caterpillars With Groundnut Sauce from the Congo Cookbook

Ingredients: 

2-3 lbs dried caterpillars

2-3 tomatoes

1 onion

1 chopped red chile pepper

2-4 tbs palm oil

2 tbs groundnut paste (homemade peanut butter)

 First, soak the caterpillars in warm water for a few hours, then rinse and drain. Crush and mix together the tomatoes, onions, and pepper. Heat the oil in a deep pot. Fry the tomato/onion/chile pepper mixture. Add the groundnut paste, diluted with water. Stir. Add the caterpillars. Simmer for thirty minutes. Serve with boiled Plantains, or Rice.

Whole Foods Bug Ranching April Fools’ Day Joke: More Premonition Than Prank?

Ha ha, Whole Foods. Very funny.

Yesterday, on Friday, April 1st, the Whole Foods website homepage featured an ad for “Insects Raised With Compassion: Our true partnerships with farmers and ranchers allow us to offer the highest quality, tiniest meat on the planet,” as well as a bug-ranching guide for the 6-legged protein source (see above). Whole Foods was just kidding around here, but they may not be far from the truth — this could be a reality within the next 5-10 years.

No doubt the joke originated from all the recent news articles about the benefits of edible insects. As you may have read, the UN is formally considering a policy paper on edible insects as an as an alternative to livestock, which currently occupies 2/3 of the world’s farmland and generates 20% of all the greenhouse gases causing global warming. Insects require far fewer resources (up to 5 times less food and 900 times less water), less land space, and contribute less greenhouse gases to raise a comparable amount of protein.

Mopane Caterpillar by David Gracer

In the USA, the idea of selling edible insects at a grocery store is absurd, but this isn’t the case in many other cultures — nearly 80% of the world doesn’t swat bugs off the menu. Consider the mopane caterpillar in South Africa, which fetches a higher market price than beef.

Dirk-Jan Visser for The New York Times

Or the Dutch Costco-like superstore, Sligo, which now offers “Bug Nuggets,” and “Bug Sticks”: containers of dried mealworms, buffalo worms and locusts.

Clearly, there is a real-world precedent here, not to mention the fact that the FDA allows an astonishingly high level of insect parts in all processed foods. That’s right, everything from peanut butter to pasta is likely to have some insect bits in it. Chocolate alone can have up to 60 insect fragments per 100 grams. Whole Foods essentially had it right: they do technically offer edible insects in all of their stores — as does every other grocery store in the country.

Don’t freak out, though. Edible insects can be quite good for you. They are high in protein, low in fat and carbs, and provide many essential nutrients such as calcium, iron, and potassium, as well as Omega fatty acids. In fact, one of the ways farmers increase Omega fatty acids in eggs is by supplementing the chickens’ diet with insects.

Ultimately, the idea of Whole Foods partnering with bug farmers, or selling organic dried insects may not be such a crazy concept after all — it may in fact be more of a premonition. Let’s not forget, sushi was once a pipe-dream and a source of ridicule, too; now it can be found in nearly every city in America.

Maybe by next April Fools’ day, the idea of eating bugs won’t be so funny.

I Like Big Bugs (And I Cannot Lie)

Seriously the greatest parody ever by my friend and mentor Zack Lemann, and Jayme Necaise from the Audubon Insectarium…great lyrics!

(The Insectarium was featured on Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe!)

AOL News: Girls Gone Bug-Wild

Bug-Eating Ladies Speak Out for        Insect Cuisine

bug eating women,

You never forget the first bug you eat. In fact, it seems just like yesterday to Daniella Martin.

“It was 10 years ago when I was getting my anthropology degree and studying pre-Columbian food in the Yucatan region of Mexico,” Martin reminisced to AOL News.

Back before Christopher Columbus’ arrival, the amount of big game in that area was very small, so the locals relied on insects for their protein in bugged-out dishes like “chapulines,” a tasty treat from the Mexican state of Oaxaca that combines dry-roasted grasshoppers with lime and chile.

Edible insect advocate Daniella Martin loves creating insect treats, such as a scorpion cupcake made with a flour of ground-up crickets.

“I actually was in Oaxaca and, as a lark, I purchased a small bag of chapulines,” she said. “I started eating them and was immediately surrounded by street kids eating off my table.”

This might have bugged some people, but Martin found it to be a wonderful form of cultural immersion and it put a bee in her bonnet about the concept of insects as food.

“There is no shortage of good logical science behind the idea of insects as food,” she said. “They’re a good source for animal protein and can be easily implemented in regions where it’s hard to grow crops.

“However, insects have terrible PR — they need rebranding!”

Martin is hoping to do just that by becoming “an edible insect advocate.”

One of her projects is Girl Meets Bug, a website where she offers cooking tips on the proper way to prepare larva tacos. She is also part of a loose-knit cricket-eating collective of women who are trying show that bug eating isn’t exclusive to 8-year-old boys daring each other on the playground.

“People in America have a knee-jerk reaction to bugs; they’re beneath contempt,” she said. “Women especially are seen as squeamish of insects, but if you see a woman enjoying them, it changes that perception.”

Martin sees four reasons women especially should be eating bugs: They are easy to prepare; they’re cleaner than most meat; they’re already in most processed foods anyway; and, most important, they taste great.

“I use cricket flour when I’m baking, and wax worms are especially good in stir fries,” she said. “When I do cooking demonstrations, if people smell the food and taste it, I have a 75 percent conversion rate — and not a single bug left.”

Even better: Eating insects is not a deal breaker with the guys she’s met.

“It’s never a deterrent, even when I bring it up on the first date,” she said.

Designer Rosanna Yau is another woman who has designs on getting Americans — especially American women — to eat more bugs and did a thesis on whether elements such as branding or packaging would make the concept more palatable.

bug eating women,

William Hu
Rosanna Yau is studying ways that design might help influence Americans to be more open to eating insects such as mealworms.

“The biggest challenge is identifying a cultural identity with a product,” she said. “Do people identify with insects? How do the people likely to eat insects see themselves? As foodies? As adventurous?”

Right now, the biggest markets for boosting bug-eating are “first adopting foodies,” the folks most likely to jump on something that seems new or different, and people who are familiar with ethnic cultures where insects are eaten.

People like Yau herself.

“Chinese people eat weird food all the time,” she said with a laugh. “Once in Thailand, my family ordered a plate of scorpions. I only got a bite because they were devoured by my little brother and sister.”

However, many Americans are squeamish about eating bugs, especially the women that Yau says need to be reached if they are to become as common as sushi on the cultural menu.

“There’s a stereotype that girls are freaked out by bugs,” she said. “But I didn’t see that as the case when I did cooking demos with mealworm cookies and chocolate-covered insects. What I saw that the moms would drag the kids away.”

Yau has theorized about creating brands for foods, such as “Opoda,” which is an offshoot of the word “arthropod,” the word for creatures with crunchy exoskeletons, and experimenting with transparent packaging that would let people the product, but admits that we may be a few decades from converting the populous into insectivores.

“The question is now, how do you sell something that people aren’t sure they want?”

Dianne Guilfoyle may have the answer: by having it provide a solution for problems presented by other products on the market.

Guilfoyle is working on Bug Muscle, a nutritional supplement for bodybuilders made from the phylum of various bugs.

“The exact amount of bugs can differ, but it’s 80 percent crickets and grasshoppers,” she said.

The product’s patent is still pending, but Guilfoyle is confident that Bug Muscle will muscle its way onto the market by the end of the year, mainly because her target market — bodybuilders and cage fighters — is looking for something different than what is on the market.

“It’s an alternative to products that are made with whey or soy, which can cause man boobs,” she said.

Because athletes can set trends in fashion and food, Guilfoyle says this market is the key to making bug-eating mainstream — and that eating insects is a necessary part of our future.

“Look at the impact farms have on ecosystems,” she said. “Insects have much less. As the population increases, we will have to rely on insects for our diet.”

Martin, Yau and Guilfoyle are hoping to get their fellow Americans to eat bugs, but Martin says the group whose support will help the most may be the folks who don’t eat meat at all.

“Vegetarians aren’t excited about people eating bugs any more than any other kind of living animal,” Martin admitted. “However, if we can create an alternative market for the insects that destroy the most crops, we will use less pesticides.”