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 polenta, 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.
My 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.