Photos by Steven Smith
Somewhere along the great corporate coastline of the North American highway system a truck driver is hitching-up his pants and sauntering across the asphalt to his rig. Behind him, golden arches eclipse the setting sun. He is an elite member of an army of civilian road warriors, transporting somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 billion pounds of meat per year to restaurants and supermarkets across the country.
According to every environmental expert out there, producing that amount of meat is completely unsustainable. The average American eats 270 pounds of meat per year, putting us in second place (behind Luxembourg, oddly enough) as the flesh-eating capital of the world.
According to the EPA, the factory farming industry is responsible for 28 percent of global methane emissions, thanks largely to cow burps. That methane, which contributes greatly to global warming, can and has caused severe droughts in portions of the country where cattle, and the corn necessary to feed them, are raised and grown. And they screw up the water supply, too. From the EPA: “Agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution was the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and lakes, the second largest source of impairments to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of surveyed estuaries and ground water.”
Long story short: We need to find viable, palatable, nutritious alternatives to traditional meat.
With that in mind I decided to replace one meal per day for seven days with sources of protein that can be purchased alive from a pet store.
At this point I should note that I’m not some granola here to chew your ear off about how fucked up factory farming is. In fact, I eat a lot of meat myself. I’m from northern Michigan, where there’s only one day in the Christian calendar year when most folks will intentionally choose fish, and I’m the type of heathen who doesn’t even abstain on that day. So this little experiment was done for my own sake, to know what sort of animal-based dishes I can look forward to when hamburgers are enjoyed exclusively by the one percent.
Before beginning the diet, I consulted my doctor to make sure I wasn’t about to spark some Contagion-type situation. As I told him about my plan, he put his chin in his hand and nodded politely, but seemed pretty unconcerned.
“Isn’t there anything I should be worried about?” I asked.
He shook his head with an offhand warning against eating mice intestines. “Make sure to take those out.”
“Sure,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to eat their poop.”
After a pause, and without irony, he told me where in town I could find the best price on regionally raised beef tenderloin.
And so, with my doctor’s blessing, I drove to the pet store to buy some groceries.
Day 1: Crickets Pancakes
Nutritional Facts: 1 serving equals 100 g of crickets. Each serving contains 121 calories, 12.9 g protein, 5.5 g of fat.
4 cups flour
1 cup roasted crickets
Place your crickets in the freezer for one to two hours, then boil briskly for one to two minutes. Strain and cool. Place clean and cool crickets on a cookie sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 45 minutes.
Remove antennae and legs gently; they fall off easily. Crush collected crickets using a rolling pin or mortar and pestle until they are ground into small brown specks. Insufficient grinding will result in their small faces peering out at you from the batter. Use flour in pancakes.
Crickets smell fishy—an aroma no doubt exacerbated by their placement in my local pet shop in thick plastic bins against a backdrop of blue fish tanks. In an effort to outwit my better instincts, I told myself that the shrimp-like aroma wafting from my hotcakes was actually almonds.
Crickets taste like almonds, if you think of almonds, and shrimp if you think of anything other than almonds. This flavor is subtle, but when you place it in a pancake drenched in syrup, it becomes amplified. I recommend incorporating the cricket flour into a savory pastry, instead. Like nuts, they add a satisfying crunch.
Day 2: Mealworm Fries
Nutritional Facts: a single mealworm can be broken down as 10.63 percent protein, 3.1 percent fiber, 420 ppm calcium, and 10.01 percent fat.
1 fresh Idaho potato (russet)
2 dozen mealworms—boiled
1 cup chopped scallions
Place mealworms in the freezer for at least one hour. Remove from freezer and boil two minutes. Slice your russet lengthwise into long slender sticks, skin on. Heat oil in a deep pan. Drop fries, meal worms, and scallions in together. Fry until worms and potatoes are golden brown. Remove and season with sea salt, chili powder, and cayenne pepper, to taste.
Mealworms aren’t exactly protein-packed and iron-stacked compared with beef, but they occupy only half-an-inch of space and require virtually no resources. Also, the little plastic container mine came in is totally recyclable, and they stiffen in the freezer, so handling them doesn’t feel perverse at all.
Everything tastes good fried, and mealworms are no exception. The deep fry and the cayenne really mask any potentially off-putting flavor, but the worms themselves have virtually no odor before you cook them, and they become light and crunchy afterward, perfectly complementing the soft insides of the potato. This was also one of the quickest-to-cook meals on my menu, which gives it bonus points.
Day 3: Mice Pie
Nutritional facts: Mice are 55 percent protein and 19 percent fat, according to Feline-Nutrition.org. Which, incidentally, has one of the most wonderful website banners I’ve ever seen. Seriously, just go check that thing out.
4 dead, flayed, skinned, and boiled mice
2 boiled potatoes
¼ cup shredded cheddar cheese
½ cup mixed veggies (in my case, from a can)
Learn quickly why beef and poultry are excessively processed and packaged (without their heads) by attempting to remove the innards from a distressingly soft, malleable creature that reminds you of how much you once loved Fievel.
Once you’ve carefully removed the salvageable sections of mouse meat located mostly around the hindquarters (use clean nail scissors if your household utensil selection isn’t equipped for gutting rodents), toss the scraps in boiling water while you prep your shepherd’s pie (boil taters, shred cheese, open the veggie can—it’s not rocket science). Bake all ingredients together for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.
Ideally, you should buy your mouse alive from a pet food store. Do NOT, under any circumstances, buy a mouse bred to be a pet for your pie. When I tried to do that the lady at the store told me pet mice are “pumped full of antibiotics” and will kill whatever animal you feed them to. Those words of wisdom may have saved my life.
Unfortunately, many pet stores don’t carry live feeder mice. Mine didn’t, and I had to scramble for a substitute. I’d read catching and eating the wild mice that run through walls and grassy fields is unwise because there’s no telling what they’ve eaten, so I decided to try a favored alternative: Arctic mice.
I chose to ignore the ominous “not safe for human consumption” label on the little blue box of dead mice the pet store kept in a subtle minifridge next to the bearded lizard’s aquarium. The frozen mouse company doesn’t want to be responsible for my choices, but those little guys were raised in a sterile lab, which is more than you can say for your average chicken nugget.
You want to believe that mice taste “just like pork!” But they don’t. Considering how little I managed to salvage from their sad small bones, the flavor of my mice was potent, almost gamey, and much more like an overripe rabbit than a pig, which makes sense, really.
I spent most of the night afraid I was dying of a zoological disease, a dire consequence according to the box. I could taste mouse in the back of my teeth throughout the next day.
Day 4: Banana Worm Muffins
½ cup shortening
¾ cup sugar
2 bananas, mashed
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
½ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup dry-roasted mealworms
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Bake in greased cupcake pan at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Banana muffins are easy as hell to make, and adding worms is quick. This time I bought the “giant” ones instead of just large. If I had planned ahead, I probably would have done it the other way around (XXL meal worms work better next to fries).
Banana worm muffins are surprisingly delicious. Mine were a bit dry because I let them stay in the oven for a full hour, which is what the original recipe called for. Stick to my abbreviated cook time, and you’ll love them. All banana flavor, no wormy texture. Will keep you full all morning.
Day 5: Battered and Fried Minnows
Nutritional facts: Similar to silversides, but packed with protein (especially in comparison with other fish). Minnows can be eaten whole, so that’s what I did.
1 dozen live minnows
Equal parts flour and cornmeal (enough to dredge each minnow completely)
According to Craig, my friendly bait-slinging salesman, minnows’ lives are best ended by adding salt to their water. This seems intuitive, but wasn’t all that efficient. My minnows persevered, and started doing this creepy lunging thing like they were eating the insides of the Styrofoam bucket. Or their fallen comrades.
I wanted to put them out of their misery as soon as possible, so I dumped them into a strainer, covered it with a plate, and plugged my ears while they flopped their way to suffocation. I recommend cutting to the chase and killing them in this fashion sooner rather than later.
Once the minnows are dead, rinse them off in cool water and dredge them in the combination of flour and cornmeal you’ve prepared and set aside in a nearby bowl. Heat oil in a deep pan, and drop the minnows in a fryer until they are golden brown. I let mine get extra crispy, which turned out to be a good choice.
By mid week my enthused confidence had waned. People, I thought, aren’t going to eat these recipes if they require Little House on the Prairie–style prep time. An exaggerated analogy, maybe, but one that our microwave-meal culture legitimizes (in 2009 sustainable food firebrand Michael Pollan wrote, “The average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation”). My deep-fried minnows were a well-timed reminder of how simple it can be to create new cooking habits. If I had known in advance the most efficient way to kill them, I would have discovered a meal that required less time and attention than boxed mac and cheese.
About halfway through, I ate one that actually tasted fishy. It unsettled me and sent me down a dark path of thinking about eyeballs and fragile fish bones. Up until that moment I had considered this meal downright delicious.
Crisp and hot. Pairs well with beer.
Days 6: Cricket Pad Thai
4 oz rice stick noodles
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp fresh squeezed lime juice
2 tsp sugar
1 cup crickets
2 cloves of garlic
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup scallions, finely chopped
1 cup bean sprouts
¼ cup fresh cilantro (cilantro tastes like soap, but if you like it…)
Crushed peanuts to taste
Combine fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice, and sugar in a bowl and mix. Heat peanut oil in a wok or skillet, and cook the crickets over medium-high heat. Scramble the eggs on the other side of the wok. Remove crickets and eggs and set aside. Add garlic and scallions and fry briefly.
Add sauce mixture, crickets, and eggs back into the wok and warm thoroughly. Cook rice noodles for about ten minutes in boiling water. Remove and drain noodles, and add to wok or skillet. Add bean sprouts and toss thoroughly. Top with peanuts and cilantro.
By day six, I’d become so old hat at buying crickets that when the kid behind the counter asked me if I wanted “cardboard or paper for these” I knew exactly what he meant and what my answer would be. (Pro tip: cardboard gives the crickets something to cling to so they don’t jump around the bag and give you the creeps.)
This was the meal I was most looking forward to, and I blew it. I was expecting the fishy flavor of the crickets to pair well with this classic dish, and I’m sure it would have. My first bite was overpowering and salty, and at first I thought the soy sauce was the culprit. It turns out that peanut oil isn’t exactly like every other oil. I didn’t see it burning, but it was. A disappointment, but also the reason I’ll probably revisit eating crickets after this experiment has ended.
Day 7: Chocolate-Covered Crickets
Semi-sweetened chocolate chips for baking
Take roasted crickets (like the ones used in the cricket flour), and dip those fellas in melted chocolate.
Day seven happened to land on my birthday, so I thought I’d treat myself to something sweet. Chocolate, much like fryer grease, can make anything delicious.
Yes. The chocolate somehow divested the crickets of their evil shrimp-like powers and turned them back into crunchy almonds again. The perfect way to end my diet.
Eating mice, bugs, and worms isn’t as bad as our first-world privilege would lead us to believe. If you have the right recipes, it can be downright delicious—even healthy. Over the course of my weeklong diet I lost 3.5 pounds. My energy level actually improved over the course of the experiment, and I didn’t experience nausea or any other forms of sickness.
Unfortunately, we’ve all inherited the habits built by a long and thoughtless series of unsustainable choices. The great cheeseburger gravy train established generations ago is pulling into the station as I write, and it probably won’t be around for our children—who would do well to develop a taste for alternative meats at an early age. While the deeply flawed system wasn’t our doing, the burden of fixing it is on us, and replacing a couple of meals a day with some tasty bugs might not be the worst place to start.
Obligatory disclaimer: Consult your doctor before eating weird stuff from pet stores.