Bugs—a lot of people eat 'em and it's chill. Not me, though. That's gross.
This pretty much summed up my attitude about eating insects, which are enjoyed as a delicacy and staple the world over but are also fodder for extreme reality TV gross-out challenges in North America. That is, until last Friday afternoon.
That day, I went to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, or CNE, where the obligatory cRaAaAzY food for this year's installment of the annual midway fair was bugs. And I was going to eat a whole bunch.
The CNE is about as close to my idea of hell as any physical place can be—schtick, smarm, and loud, pasty families all watched over by the glistening condos that line the Toronto waterfront. In a way, it's the perfect venue to debut what some are calling the "future of food," since bugs are a plentiful source of protein and easy to farm sustainably. By 2050, scientists are warning that there will be too many people on Earth to feed with current farming practices, and so the UN suggested in a 2013 report that we all start eating insects.
Considering that, even in the face of an impending climate apocalypse, there are still people out there who haven't even started recycling, I was seriously doubtful about such proclamations' ability to get the average person to start scarfing larvae.
What better litmus test whether critter cuisine could ever enter the mainstream, than testing it out on Toronto's unwashed masses? Including me, obviously, and not just because I've cultivated a fine layer of grit over the course of Toronto's surface-of-the-sun summer.
I couldn't have picked a worse day for my meal—30 degrees celsius and humid. The only thing I felt that I could stomach was water, forget about anything with more than four legs. Still, I trudged into the food building on the fairgrounds, where the dozens of ovens, fryers, and throngs of people had made the temperature almost as hot as the sun-drenched outdoors. Most everyone was carrying food: chocolate eclairs stuffed with steak and provolone, and tortilla chips covered with bananas, Nutella, and icing sugar. I wouldn't go for that kind of fare even after hoovering up the biggest bong rip of my life, but it still sounded one hell of a lot better than what I was about to consume.
The food on display was the kind of twisted excess that the CNE is now known for, the product of years of gastronomic one-upmanship, and so shock factor is nothing new for the fair. But the scene outside the Bug Bistro, where I'd soon be dining on piles (literally piles) of insects made me wonder if they'd gone too far this time. Despite all of the people around me clearly enjoying a lot of what the food building had to offer, the foot traffic outside the bistro mostly only halted long enough to gawk and say with just a hint of condescension, as one young woman did, "Ew, I couldn't even work here."
The media was having a field day, though. Several people holding news cameras dropped by just long enough to get a close-up of the verminous meals, while normal (read: non-media) people milled about looking totally disgusted. Only a few brave souls went up to the counter to actually order something, at least while I was there.
The menu was relatively simple, if you forget about all the arthropods and worms: tacos, spring rolls, a hot dog, a smoothie, and a free-form take on key lime pie. Five items. Gordon Ramsay would be proud. All of it was either made almost completely out of crickets and mealworms—beetle larvae—or, like the tacos and hot dog, had a healthy pile of crickets sprinkled gratuitously on top. Some dark part of me was just a little disappointed, since this all looked to me like totally normal food, just…. With a lot of bugs thrown on there.
Bug Bistro chef and CNE food veteran Mark Jachecki told me that he originally tried to make a hot dog completely out of crickets, but it was "horrible" because of how little fat was in the bug meat. Yeah, that was probably it. Just a bit too lean.
Instead, Jachecki told me that he decided to go with a "less preachy" approach: familiar foods with good-sized handfuls of crunchy crickets on top, to ease folks into their entomophagous experience.
"The health benefits of bugs are fantastic, but sustainability also," Jachecki said. "There's a lot less greenhouse gases compared to any other kind of protein production, and you use a lot less water."
Personally, I love living on Earth and would be just chuffed to see life on this planet not be extinguished by a climate disaster anytime soon, so that's nice. But more important to me in the moment was what I was about to taste.
"I've heard a couple things," Jachecki said. "Personally, I taste a nuttiness with a little bit of bitterness to it. I've heard some people say that [the crickets] taste like sesame seeds, and we're not using them in their raw state, they're all toasted. People like things that are crunchy and savoury, so it's going well."
With that in mind, I was ready to dive in. To get the full insect-eating experience, I elected to order a three-course meal: tacos to start, a hot dog for the main course, and finally a nice key lime pie with crickets on top and a Pocky stick thrown in for good measure.
Jachecki clearly wasn't interested in disguising what I was about to eat. It definitely looked like a pile of crickets on top of some otherwise delicious and totally normal-looking tacos. I imagined that I was crossing a rope bridge and thought to myself, "Don't look down," as I took a big, greedy bite.
It was alright. The taco itself was nothing special, but still pretty tasty. The crickets really did add a nice crunch, and it helped that they were coated in a lot of chili-lime seasoning and marinated in tabasco sauce. It was totally fine. It wasn't even great, honestly, just fine. Drop a handful of barbeque-flavoured bacon bits on a taco and you've got a pretty close approximation of what I ate.
I followed the taco up with a bite of my hot dog, and had a similarly inoffensive experience. For dessert, I dipped a stick of Pocky into a pool of sweet lemon custard, cream, and a few spicy tabasco crickets. Again, it was good. Not amazing, but a tasty snack nonetheless. I'm a sucker for sweet and spicy.
Just like crossing a rope bridge—something that doesn't come easily to someone with a deep-seated fear of heights like myself—the only time I felt queasy about what I was doing was when I looked down. If I were totally oblivious to what I was eating, I can safely say that I would have enjoyed it without reservation, save for the yet-unmitigated gross-out factor of having to pick a stiff cricket leg that just wouldn't go down with the rest of it off of your tongue.
Maybe there's something to this whole "future of food" thing when it comes to eating bugs, after all.
Then again, if climate change and booming population trends continue apace, we might not even have a choice.