There was a three or four-day period where I was really determined to start cooking and eating bugs.
A student at Auburn was getting national attention for eating insects with every meal for a month, I had just read the UN Food and Agriculture Organization report urging the developed world to adopt insect eating for its environmental and health benefits, and I had some really dope chapulines—fried grasshoppers—at James Beard Award-winning Guelaguetzaa in LA.
I was all about it, and I was a dick to people who weren't. It's just, like, an arbitrary cultural barrier man, it's just the missing link in the protein chain man, sorry that I actually give a shit about global food security.
Wanting to walk my self-righteous talk, I ordered 1,000 mealworms from a local insect farm in Compton with the intention of frying up some bugged-out tacos de adobada.
I came home one day and there was a box sitting in front of my door with a label drawn half-assedly in magic marker that read "CAUTION: LIVE ANIMALS." I reached into one of the air holes to pick it up and a rogue mealworm that somehow escaped from the plastic bag started inching its way up my hand, leaving a trail of yellow slime. I was so weirded out that I threw the box in the trash and stomped on the additional dozen or so worms that slipped out of the package and were wriggling around on the carpet.
I'm generally mindful about what I eat—and I want to get to the point where I'm cool with sautéing up some mealworms for a casual weekday lunch—but in that moment, I couldn't get over the mental block that millions of other Americans have when it comes to eating insects. Call me ethnocentric; call me a wuss—but turning a thousand living, breathing, writhing invertebrates into food is easier in theory than in practice.
Luckily, the Connecticut-based quick-serve chain Wayback Burgers is offering up a gateway bug for would-be entomophagists like myself: the Cricket Oreo Mudslide milkshake. It's made with vanilla ice cream, cookie crumbles, coffee flavoring, and 24 grams of protein worth of Peruvian chocolate cricket protein powder. This thousand-calorie sugar bomb could be the missing mainstream link that gets people who—like myself—still can't shake that tingle-down-the-spine feeling when it comes to eating bugs.
David George Gordon, a.k.a. The Bug Chef and author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, thinks Wayback's approach may not be the best strategy to get people on board with the creepy-crawleys. "My whole philosophy is to get people into eating bugs, and not by totally hiding them," he told me over the phone. "That's like getting people into eating vegetables by grinding them up and burying them in a meatloaf."
Gordon thinks the key to opening people up to the possibility of eating insects is getting trend-setting chefs on board. He notes that lobster used to be considered the "cockroach of the sea" as late as the 1940s until a clever marketing ploy rebranded them into the fine-dining staple that they are today.
Unlike lobsters, which have caused overfishing concerns in the Gulf of Maine, there are myriad environmental reasons to root for bugs to enter the mainstream food supply. Crickets produce 80 times less methane than cattle and half the amount of biological waste and because they naturally live in such close quarters they can be raised in a cruelty-free environment that takes up little space.
Insects can also play a key role in maintaining global food security: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded the cricket flour company All Things Bugs a $100,000 grant to develop an insect-based infant formula that could be distributed in famine-afflicted areas.
Even though Wayback Burgers' cricket shake is a bold-faced gimmick—it was rolled out alongside a beef jerky-flavored Slim Jim shake—it's also rooted in populist appeal. The concept was originally introduced as an April Fool's joke, but the online response was so overwhelmingly positive they decided to do a one-day test-run at a store in New York. After garnering national media attention and a line of customers around the block, the burger-chain decided to ramp up its supply from Oregon-based Cricket Flours and take the shake nationwide on July 1.
I recently tried the cricket Oreo mudslide shake and it's pretty good. It holds its own with any fast-food milkshake, and—apologies for sounding like a pretentious foodie douche—the earthiness of the cricket powder even tempers the sweetness of ice cream and coffee syrup. The environmental efficacy is just the metaphorical cherry on top.
Though the bugged-out shake itself won't solve food insecurity in developing nations or put the kibosh on America's agriculture-related methane emissions, its success shows that there's a growing market for insects in the food world and bodes well for the future. That's something both Wayback Burgers and The Bug Chef can agree on.
"There are more and more people eating bugs all the time in America—and not just through cricket powder but through whole bugs themselves." Gordon said. "I'm always seeing people getting started with their adventure into entomophagy, so it is definitely a growing movement."
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in July, 2015.