Before you know it, entomophagy, or insect eating, will be a familiar media topic. Fancy Paris restaurants already feature insects as novelty food items. High-end chefs in New York prepare dishes of scorpions and tarantulas that cost upwards of $100. Bloggers, like Daniella Martin of Girl Meets Bug, share their experiences and expertise with preparing insect meals. Seattle chef David George Gordon promotes insects-as-food at food fairs along with his Eat-A-Bug Cookbook. Don Bugito is a San Francisco food truck business serving you-know-what.
Semi-retired University of Arizona entomologist Carl Olson, known as the Bugman, used to regularly dish up insects to his students as part of his courses. Changing public perception of this class of creatures has been a lifelong pursuit for a man who still works the temporary entomology job he took 38 years ago. “They are animals. They have tiny hearts, a respiratory system, a digestive system. They are like us.”
It’s a hard sell, even for someone so knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. “We have,” he says, “been conditioned to get out the insecticide at the sight of a bug.” How do crawlies like crickets or mealy worms get rebranded as dinner fare? Olson starts with the facts. “Insects are a healthy source of protein, low in fat, low in cholesterol.
“We’re so tunneled in the way we look at things—it’s amazing what other countries have learned from the bug world.” Olson sees the issue as, “How can we culture insects to put them into production for food?”
UA graduates Pat Crowley and Seth Davis have more than a suggestion. “Join the Revolution” is the slogan for Chapul, the first business to offer cricket-powered energy bars. With Ruth Arevalo and Dan O’Neill, they started their company out of Salt Lake City with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $6,000 beyond its requested $10,000. The partners spent time in Tucson grinding crickets into their confections and selling their fare at the Loft Farmers’ Market.
Phoenician Crowley says the first response to Chapul’s product is often the learned revulsion the thought of eating bugs evokes in most faces. But he says Tucsonans just took it in stride. “‘It’s about time’ one woman told me. Others said, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ That’s the kind of response that keeps me going.”
Crowley’s interest in bugging the planet about its food habits comes out of his UA degree in watershed management. “I saw how much water goes into raising food for our food. Seventy percent of arable land is used in this production.” Chapul now donates 10 percent of profit to water conservation in the Southwest.
“Insects convert grain and grass into edible protein as much as 10 times more efficiently as cows and pigs, and are rich in key nutrients such as omega-3 acids and low in fat,” he says—and they do this on a 10th of the water needed by cows.
Although 80 percent of the cultures in the world include insects in their diets, when it comes to bugs on our Western plates, most arthropods, or insects, have a serious image problem. There are, however, a few, such as the water bugs we know as lobsters, crabs, and shrimp that have been successfully rehabilitated. Consulted about how cultures develop food preferences, UA anthropologist Brackette F. Williams says, “Get rich people to eat them. It worked with lobster.”
It seems that people are much more agreeable to the idea of eating bugs if they don’t see the bugs. It also helps when the public is reminded that we already eat bugs with the amounts of insect parts that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits in foods like peanut butter and frozen vegetables. (There are currently no FDA regulations governing growing insects for human consumption.)
Baja Arizona has a climate suitable to bug farms, or insectaries. While none catering to human consumption has opened here yet, it could be just a matter of time. The bugs and workers will need to be cooled in our summers and heated in the winter, but the up to five temperate Sonoran Desert months will help make such an enterprise viable.
With a long-time ambassador named Jiminy, crickets are the darlings of edible insect enthusiasts.
A seminal Austin business offers a model for how cricket farming is done (and is looking for partners in the Southwest). Harman S. Johar hatched his fledgling insect protein enterprise out of his Atlanta dorm room closet less than four years ago. He was invited by nonprofit entomophagy promoter Little Herds’ Robert Nathan Allen to set up in Austin. The two co-founded World Entomophagy, an edible bug processing company that has current capacity to produce a few million organic-quality crickets a week. Much of the product so far is cricket flour. “It’s easy to blend with other products. People say it tastes like regular food,” Johar says.
All insects are cold-blooded. When the crickets are about five weeks old, before they develop wings (which can leave debris in human teeth), they are harvested by a gradual lowering of their ambient temperature, lulling them into natural stasis. It’s the same principle native peoples used when they gathered crickets and grasshoppers slowed by the cold in the early mornings. In the insectary process the temperature continues to drop to freezing.
Frozen crickets are transported to the processing plant for cleaning and random testing for contaminants, and then washed, dried, and roasted. Three and a half ounces of cricket retail at $9. “The products are expensive because the process is labor intensive,” Johar explains.
Educating the public and Western cultures to accept insect consumption as a staple and as “normal” is one of the goals of Little Herds. “We can’t continue to eat meat the way we do. Insect production improves nutrition across the world. We don’t have to put them on a skewer. We can adopt them into our food in approachable ways. They don’t have to look like bugs,” Allen says.
Norah Booth is an omnivorous writer living in Tucson. Her most recent articles and interviews have appeared in Poets & Writers, Tucson Weekly, and OccupiedTucsonCitizen.org.
Yield: 8 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
32 tomato hornworms
4 medium green tomatoes, sliced into sixteen ¼-inch rounds
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
16 to 20 small basil leaves
1. In a large skillet or wok, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add the hornworms and fry lightly for about 4 minutes, taking care not to rupture the cuticles of each insect under high heat. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
2. Season the tomato rounds with salt and pepper to taste, then coat with cornmeal on both sides.
3. In another large skillet or wok, heat the remaining oil and fry the tomatoes until lightly browned on both sides.
4. Top each tomato round with 2 fried tomato hornworms.
5. Garnish with basil leaves and serve immediately.
<em>Reprinted with permission from </em>The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook,<em> Revised by David George Gordon (Ten Speed Press, © 2013). Photo Credit: Chugrad McAndrews.</em>
Yield: about 3 dozen cookies
Reprinted with permission from The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, Revised by David George Gordon (Ten Speed Press, © 2013). Photo Credit: Chugrad McAndrews.