For anyone who's even slightly unsettled by the thought of creepy-crawly creatures slithering down their throats, this has been a rough week.
In an effort to get behind the very idea of entomophagy—and we're talking whole bugs here, not some fancy cricket granola—we've enlisted the advice of insect-cooking expert David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and chef-de-cuisine at the annual Explorers' Club dinner in New York.
For the final installment of our Cooking with Bugs series—having already covered cooking crickets and grasshoppers, scorpions, tarantulas, and ants—we ask Gordon what to do with waxworms. Who doesn't love worms in their food?
MUNCHIES: Hi, David. So, we've gone from eight-legged creatures to ones with no legs—or at least stubbly little ones. How should we eat waxworms? David George Gordon: They're actually not worms at all—they're the caterpillars of a little moth. What the moth does is it lays its eggs on the honeycomb of a beehive. When people are doing beekeeping, and they take those frames out of the beehive and left them off to the side, all of a sudden these moths get on it. They lay these eggs that then hatch into these caterpillars that eat the wax and the honey. Their entire lifecycle is about eating wax and honey, so you'd expect they would taste good just from that—and indeed they do. When you freeze them and bake them on a cookie sheet, for instance, they have an almost pistachio flavor. They come in sawdust when they're packaged. If you go to a pet store or a tackle shop, you can buy them. Remove them from the sawdust, which takes forever, and then freeze them. And then I mix the frozen ones with cookie dough and make white chocolate and waxworm cookies. That's one of the recipes in my book.
When you say they take forever, does that mean you can't just wash them? Well, I've tried a couple of different strainer. The waxworms themselves have a sticky layer to them, and I want to make sure I'm not serving wood chips. I have to hand-sort them; for the Explorer's Club, I did 4,000 of them.
How do you like to cook them? We made waxworm quesadillas for the Explorers Club, but they're great for braising. You could probably braise them with anything and they would impart [that flavor]. I have a recipe in my book that's basically putting them into a wasabi-sugar glaze, and that's really good.
So there are a lot [of options] on the [bug flavor] spectrum. You have the acid flavor of the ants, and these guys are more on the sweet end—that almond-like sweetness.
So you're less likely to use them in a savory dish? Yeah, that's right, definitely. It's funny, though. I think the only reason people aren't farming them large-scale right now is because they take a little more work—they're a little more delicate, their shipping requirements are probably a little more rigorous, and this whole business of sorting them out of pine chips or whatever they are in is pretty labor-intensive. But they are pretty much what I think of as the best-tasting of the bugs.
What's the one thing that people should know if they're going to start cooking with bugs? I think there are two things at play here. One of them is that people just have terrible attitudes about bugs. "They're germy and disgusting and gross"—none of that's true. They don't have any more germs than your housecat, and any germs they have are not likely to live on you because they're adapted to live on a cold-blooded invertebrate. So I'm a little more wary of the ATM keypad than I am of handling bugs.
People need to get their minds right and realize that, without insects, our planet would come to a screeching halt in a matter of week. We need pollinators, we need decomposers. They're food for a lot of other animals. Despite the fact that we think we run the place, it's really the ants and the smaller stuff that does. That to me is step number one.
Step number two is more chefs need to start embracing and using bugs in creative ways. The thing that's frustrating me right now is that a lot of people are getting into the business of making cricket flour chips or granola or what have you. A lot of them are right out of college and they really have not been focusing on food. I see a lot of what I consider dumb choices—I've seen people taking mealworms, which to my mind taste like mushrooms, and putting them on ice cream as a topping. No, thank you, it's not going to work. People who are knowledgeable about food and food pairings and preparation need to start getting in there big time and developing some more dishes that I bet will come out really well.
As for sourcing them, you can just go to your local pet store or go out into the wild, right? Actually, if you look online, I bet you'll find lots of places that sell bugs for human consumption. There is a company in Thailand that can sell you anything, from giant water bugs to tarantula spiders. But they have dried some them so they can ship them, and to me they're a little more like cardboard. That's the only one I'm not a big fan of. But some of their other products are pretty good—that's where I got the weaver ants.
Are locally sourced bugs a better option, then? As far as the health department or the FDA goes, anything that is wild-harvested is not safe to eat. I'm not really sure how they figure out what they're ruling on; some of the stuff coming in from Thailand must be wild-harvested.
But to me that is kind of a capricious decision. I mean, 90 percent of the seafood I eat is wild-harvested—Alaskan salmon or halibut. We've obviously made the decision that that was OK. There's actually a whole lot going on, trying to educate various health regulators about what to do with insect as food, because for the most part they're not regulated at all.
What would you say to people who are still squeamish about bugs? I have a friend who is an oyster grower here in Washington State, and he has his own little booth selling oysters. There are all these people who just can't [eat them]. Well, you should just make a vow to yourself to try one oyster a year, and one year you just might like them. So, if you make a vow to try one tarantula spider leg a year, you'll be in good shape.
We'll have to get blindfolded first, but maybe one day. Thanks for speaking with us, David.