The Ant and the Grasshopper… come for dinner.

Little Herds-9651

Eating a cricket involves a leap of faith.  I made that leap, along with a hundred and fifty other intrepid eaters at the Little Herds Future Food Salon event at Brazos Hall in Austin, Texas last Wednesday night.  Crickets, it turns out, don’t taste too bad.  In fact, crickets and mealworms, in one form or another, are downright tasty.  Think crunch.  Think hazelnuts.  I’m serious.

Brazos Hall is a 19th century warehouse converted to high-ceilinged hip event space.  Rock and roll blasted from a band onstage at the far side of the room, so I didn’t catch much of what Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Little Herds, said to me,  except to enjoy myself.  Little Herds, a non-profit devoted to promoting insects as food, co-sponsored the Future Food Salon, along with Alimentary Initiatives of Montreal.  The event was equal parts education, advocacy and activism,  with exhibits on bug farming, a book-signing by David George Gordon, author of THE EAT-A-BUG COOKBOOK, displays of food products using insect ingredients (energy bars, cricket flour), and of course the real draw–insects to eat.

A quick scan about the hall revealed none of what you might fear–no one doubling over, no hasty flight toward the exits, palms pressed to mouth.  In fact, people seemed genuinely tickled.  Couples were lifting things to each others’ mouths, things too small for me to recognize at a distance, but I’m sure there were bugs involved.  Lots of laughing.  Others tasters lingered by tables, jaws working contemplatively, gazes angled up to the right, more evocative to me of wine geeks than courageous omnivores.  Does this taste buggy?  What are you getting?  I wear the same face when I walk out of Costco and try to recall where I parked my car.

My passage into the world of entomophagy, the official term for insect consumption, was eased by a canapé of Little Herds-9678polenta, topped with greens and tempura vegetables.  “Polenta!  Cricket flour!” Chef Sonya Coté of Eden East Austin shouted from behind her table, in order to be heard over the band.   I put the whole thing in my mouth without a lot of inspection, having decided in advance that eating bugs was like walking off the high dive–best done without thinking too much.  My brain and tongue immediately went to Red Alert, primed to take action at the faintest indication of anything gross.  When that didn’t happen, everybody settled down and tried to figure out what, if anything, tasted different.  I thought I detected a bit of tartness in the polenta, as though a fragment of chèvre had made its way into the mix.  The other ingredients evoked the flavor of, well, nicely seasoned tempura vegetables.  I swallowed, took a swig of beer, swallowed again.  Okay, meet the new me–Ken Rivard, locust eater.

The experience only improved on repetition, even when visually more daunting.  Author David George Gordon offered would-be book buyers a sample cup of his insect chex mix.  This time crickets were visible.  In for a penny, in for a cricket.  They were good, with a peanut taste, good enough for me to start pulling them out from the chex and cheerios to try munching them by themselves.  I shouldn’t have bothered.  Aruna Handa, the founder of Alimentary Initiatives, came by with a mixture of roasted crickets and grasshoppers, a dream dish for those who take their bugs straight.   Another thumbs up, way up.  Nutty, crunchy and redolent of shallots.  Moving on, I encountered crickets in chocolate and several energy bars made with insects.  The chocolate crickets were the only disappointment.  Not bad, just blah.  I wanted to taste what a French confectioner would make of the same ingredients, perhaps with a little sea salt.  The energy bars would give anything I’m packing in my cycling jersey these days a run for its money, especially the cricket bars with chili or coconut.  But the crunch and protein of crickets and grasshoppers paled before the gustatory pleasures of mealworms.  Mate hazelnuts to Rice Krispies, you get mealworms.  A nice contrast with squash soup, or a star in my favorite dish of the night–braised collard greens with mealworms.  I would have scarfed down entire tray of the sample spoons, except that everyone else who’d tasted them had the same idea.  The spoons disappeared as soon as soon as they appeared.

Little Herds-9668My experience surprised me.  Nothing squishy or slimey.  No ick factor at all.  The biggest barrier was the cultural taboo against eating bugs, and once I got beyond that, curiosity kicked in.  What does this taste like?  And this?  In fact, after awhile I began to experience a bit of disappointment.  Only crickets?  Only grasshoppers?  Only mealworms?  Where were the giant water bugs sold in street stalls in Thailand, where escamoles, the famed Mexican ant eggs, where the Michelin-Man Witchetty Grubs eaten raw by Australian aboriginals and said to taste of almonds, the roasted flying ants served in Guatemala with salt and lime juice?  I wanted more.

The developed countries of the West are a minority in their insect aversion.  Eighty percent the world has already pulled up a chair to the insect table.  Insects are protein rich (cricket flour is 5o% protein by weight), low-cal, low-carb, and can be raised and harvested humanely, at a fraction of the environmental cost of cattle and poultry.  The strain of feeding the world’s population today is rapidly morphing into tomorrow’s crisis.  Oft-cited by advocates in the “Ento community,” a 2013 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization asserts a startling fact in its forward: to feed the expected population in 2050 of 9 billion people current food production will almost have to double.  With agriculture as the leading driver of climate change, we need to find new sources of food.   Enter entomophagy.  If only we could get over our entomophobia.  Once upon a time polite society frowned on lobsters, eaten only by the poor or ground up for fertilizer.  Lobsters, shrimp and crab are crustaceans, and as such are–along with insects and arachnids–members of the arthropod family, invertebrates with shells.  Why do we eat “insects of the sea,” but not grasshoppers?  (An inversion, by the way of the natural order in Oaxaca, Mexico, where locals cherish chapulines, grasshoppers, but loathe shrimp.) Tastes change and broaden with time.  Who would have predicted a couple of generations ago that one of America’s most popular foods would be raw fish?  The Little Herds Future Food Salon had its eye on the future, inviting a few of the brave to taste what was buzzing just over the culinary horizon.  There’s a lot of blather these days about molecular gastronomy and how it will insert itself in our future kitchen.  My money’s on bugs.  Imagine the chant of cicadas in Provence.  One day we may hear their melodic chittering and recognize it for what it really means… dinner… dinner… dinner…  I can’t wait to try Witchetty Grubs–I bet they taste like nuts.  Ken

NOTE: Lest anyone think my visit to Texas was all arthropods and no play, I’ve included a few photos of other experiences.  I attended the Future Food Salon at the express invitation of my sister-in-law Monika Maeckle, writer and butterfly activist, whose own blog post on the event can be found here.   She used it to lure me out for a visit with her and my brother Bob in San Antonio.  Bob and I enjoyed a toothsome lunch at San Antonio restaurant Cured.  As the name implies, heaven for all things hung, dried and otherwise preserved, as evidenced by the large glass curing cabinet that confronts you as soon as you walk inside.  At the weekend we headed for the hill country for a stay at Lucky Boy, Bob and Monika’s ranch.   Unless it’s devoted to raising cattle–and Lucky Boy is not– a modern Texas ranch more closely resembles a nature preserve and we bumped about the property in a pickup truck, filling bird feeders the size of oil barrels.  Bob took me on a tour of Mason, the nearest town, where I notched up a raft of firsts–first visit to a feed store, first stop at a Texas winery, and first stop at Cooper’s BBQ, which made me vow to someday write a blog post about smoking beef ribs, although Monika’s smoked baby back pork ribs inspired an equal ambition.  While on the ranch I also got a chance to do a little amateur archeology.  You can see Bob and Monika poking around an interesting site.  I found two arrowheads.  Bugs, BBQ and arrowheads–trips don’t get any better.

50 thoughts

  1. Great post. Heard a radio programme on the BBC not long ago on the same theme – a way to feed a growing global population. And as you say it’s only us westerners who baulk. Having said that, I’ve yet to eat my first meal worm.

    • Hi, Linda–Don’t pass up the opportunity, should it arrive. Interesting and surprising. The Future Food event only whet my appetite to range further afield. What also took me aback was my complete lack of awareness about how many people are involved in this, but operating almost completely under the conventional food radar. Thanks. Ken

    • Crunchy, mostly. Almost all of the worms we ate were so small that there wasn’t a whole lot of “inside” after they were fried. I’d like to try some of the larger grubs I read about while preparing for this. Descriptions of the experience are universally positive, which is weird because you’d think someone would find the whole thing unutterably revolting. Admittedly the group at the event was self-selected, but no one I encountered had anything negative to say, except in regards to the absence of what they’d hoped to find (ant eggs, big larvae, scorpions, etc.) Anyway, if the chance presents itself, take the leap. Thanks. Ken

  2. What fun! I have a dog who gets fat every summer from eating locusts. I wonder if he’s thinking… hazelnuts! This easily could have been three posts! What are the little balls on the leaf?

    • I don’t know if humans could get fat from locusts, but I’d gladly throw a few into my diet now and then. You know, I wondered about the little yellow things myself–I didn’t notice them until after I checked my photos. I believe they’re pickled mustard seeds, but I could be wrong. Ken

  3. I enjoy some of these product names. Like the PR folks say, “get out in front of the issue”–namely, eating bugs. Ha! I like your point about lobster. When I studied abroad in spain, the shrimp, etc were served head on (as you know–but it was new to me then). I started to realize that these were really just giant insects, in a way, which is a thought I’ve been trying to suppress for a while (though rather ironic, given how much lobster costs). I guess you’d say–embrace it!

  4. I don’t know dude….bugs? I like to think I’m open minded, but I fear that unless I were in a survival situation, I couldn’t hack it. What does your butterfly activist sister-in-law say about eating insects? Good point about insects of the sea. If you really look at them, they’re kind of gross too. This is a tough one to embrace, but I’m glad you did and took pics to prove it! Lovely post as always. Always pushing the boundaries.

    • Jody and I may actually do something with this– a small event at one of the restaurants–who knows. I think you might surprise yourself, Amanda. I saw a number of couples at the event where, for whatever reason, young women were trying to get their partners to try something… and saw the change come over them when they did. It really is an eye-opener, but you have to take that step off the ledge… and trust that you really will sprout wings. Ken

    • I see your like–thank you. I’ve noticed from time to time that also happens to me on someone else’s blog. When I revisit the post, the like is there. Not brave at all. Did you ever go to a party in college where someone inhaled helium from a balloon, and then pretty soon the entire room is speaking like Mickey Mouse? (Not that I’m condoning this–just making a cultural reference.) That’s what the atmosphere was like. There was a little bit of goofy hilarity, like everyone was somehow breaking the rules… and it was okay. Had you been there, I’d bet real money you’d have jumped in the pool. Ken

  5. Hmm, now I have the entomophagy bug. Sounds intriguing, I imagine the crunchy bits could work well to perk up a salad. As for serious insect eating, maybe I just need to stop thinking about cockroaches…

  6. I’ve eaten headless crickets when I was young. My mother used to serve them to us as snacks. She would remove the heads and wings and fry them in coconut oil and garlic. We enjoyed them!

    • They didn’t bother removing the heads of the crickets or grasshoppers we sampled that night. I didn’t find it terribly off-putting. Are you talking about crickets in New Zealand? Is that a common thing there? Ken

  7. Is Monika the one in red sweatshirt? I LOVE the photo with the smoke/steam around her in that dark kitchen! It is a dramatic shot. I would love to shoot something like that!

    • Thanks–it is Monika. I like the photos, but I wish I’d been more on my toes. I was shooting almost wide open, first at ISO 500 and then 1000–which still gave me a shutter speed of only 1/30 sec. I should have said to hell with it, pumped it up to 2000 and maybe gotten some sharper-if grainier–shots. Monika standing in front of their bbq pit, on a covered stone terrace with some pretty stark lighting from above. Ken

      • I say pump up your ISO if you need to. Your camera can handle it. I shoot at 3200 (sometimes 6400) when there is no available natural light. The grain is not so obvious and you can get rid of the noise in Lightroom. Some, if not most, of my top view food shots in the blog were taken with ISO 3200 because I couldn’t be bothered with a tripod.

      • Part of the reason I shoot food with lights is because I want to be able to capture sprinkles, pours, etc. and have a decent depth of field. You’re absolutely right about the shot with Monika being able to take a higher ISO, but so many of my food shots are close-ups, I’ve hesitated to go there. Ken

      • I didn’t know it at the time, plus I’ve got three other shots in the serious which would show you how “steady” my hands are. But thanks anyway. :-) Ken

  8. I traveled in Kunming, China some years ago and there is a whole culture of eating insects as delicacy. I tried three different kinds; a worm called 竹虫, read takemushi in Japanese (Chinese would pronounce it differently) “take” being “bamboo” and “mushi” being “insect”; another was a crunchy kind like a cricket I suppose though I do not remember too clearly; and the third was maybe bees or similar?

    The Japanese eat all sorts of stuff from the sea, mostly raw, and I have to say I admire the ones who ate them first. ^^

    • One of the scientists whose research I read about commented that about 4% of any population are what is known as “intrepids.” These are the folks who try things first. Sometimes the experiment goes awry, but often it expands the diet available to everyone. I want to know who figured out fugu–and how many times did they get it wrong before they got it right? Thank you for the story about the Chinese insects. I did run across references to various bees being eating. Presumably the stingers are first removed. :-) Ken

      • Not sure why people make such a big fuss about fugu – it’s very bland – maybe because it’s poisonous.

        We could say the same (how many times people may have gotten it wrong before getting it right) about mushrooms. Some things are tempting.

    • Ha! This post has provoked so much interest from people, with responses all over the highway: “Maybe… if they were prepared in an interesting way…” and “Ugh, never!” and finally, “Okay, let’s roast up a batch!” I think a lot of it depends on your sense of adventure, and how you feel about pushing the boundaries of what you eat. Clearly not for everyone. Ken

  9. Ken, I want to trust on bug cuisine. :) I’ve avoided most insect consumption unless they came at me during cycling or running, but I have had a run-in with worms as a delicacy. Sea worms were very popular in the region of China where I taught, and I quickly overcame my initial terror of placing “worm” next to “food” after I ate a few. Garlic, ginger, and soy sauce helped.

  10. Hi Ken and Jody, I have been meaning to write a comment on this when I first read the post on my iPhone. I found it all very fascinating as I also think that bug eating is the future and as you said we are way behind the rest of the world. I think we are programmed from birth to think that it is all rather squeamish, but really we need to change our way of thinking. Only the poor used to eat oysters and lobsters and look how fashionable it is now. As you mentioned lobsters are sea ‘insects’ of sorts so why not eat land ones? I would have been a little apprehensive too but I think that after zoning out my brain on what I was eating it would probably have been ok.
    On another note throwing yourself into some archaeology on your sister/brother in law’s ranch looks very good fun indeed, although were you not a little apprehensive of rattle snakes when putting your arms in the rock (see photo above)? Sounds like a really fabulous trip.

    • I agree with you on all counts. Regarding the archaeology, I found the arrowheads at a different site on my brother’s ranch (there is something SO COOL about finding ancient stuff, here or in Europe, which you either get and appreciate, or you don’t). That’s my brother inserting his arm into that hole. It was completely blocked with dirt when we first found it–no tunnels, openings, etc. Now the space beneath that ledge, on the other hand, I was VERY CAUTIOUS when I got down there and began shining a flashlight inside, apprehensive that I was invading someone’s home. Nothing to worry about. Ken

      • Arch and anthropology is definitely my bag. Love it. Finding arrowheads is incredible and imagining the people who would have used them to survive. What a great trip. Hope your home alterations are almost finished and things can be back to normal. Best Torie

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