9.1 billion people will be roving this overcrowded planet by 2050. Millions are already starving and the number of the permanently hungry seems likely to expand
Defrosted bugs about to become dinner. From left to right: wax worms, mealworms, three-week-old crickets, locusts, and a Chilean rose tarantula.
The UN’s Commission on Population and Development estimates that 9.1 billion people will be roving this overcrowded planet by 2050. Millions are already starving and with climate change destroying farmland and populations exploding, the number of the permanently hungry seems likely to expand. So it doesn’t hurt to start getting acquainted with other methods of protein intake, especially entomophagy (aka eating bugs).
Apparently, the more than 1,500 edible varieties of insect are generally richer in protein, vitamins, and essential fatty acids than most types of meats. Most important, breeding them for sustenance requires only a fraction of the natural resources required to produce livestock and crops.
Finding our looming culinary future stomach-turning, I decided to challenge my spoiled Westerner’s sense of disgust by inviting some friends over for a lip-smacking bug banquet. I kept telling myself, “It’s no biggie, these little critters are eaten in most parts of the world; even the French have gladly been gobbling down ants au chocolat and escargot for centuries!” But inside, I was bugging out.
Clueless as to whether I should buy the bugs dead or alive or how to cook them, I asked the famous bug chef and author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, David George Gordon, for advice. David has spent the past 15 years traveling the US, holding insect-cooking classes where he wears a chef’s hat with antennae and serves his dishes with a smile and a cheery “Bug appétit!”
The author cutting cricket antennae. If they’re longer than a quarter of an inch, eating them will feel like you swallowed a hair.
David told me the reason most Westerners find bug eating appalling is because they didn’t grow up with it. “If someone offered me an egg and I’d never had one before, I’d find it weird,” he said. Taking into account that eggs are hen menses, he does have a point. After giving me thorough bug-cooking instructions, our conversation ended with how he thinks we’ll all eventually adapt to worm, locust, and spider cuisine. “We’ll most likely consume bug-protein products, similar to the soy ones available today,” he said. “The cows, chickens, and pigs we eat are the products of hundreds of years of selective breeding. We could, in a similar way, be raising super-large insects with more meat and less body armor.” Imagine buying a bag of giant cockroaches bred for their meat like they were salt-and-vinegar potato chips. You might think it’s gross right now, but in the near future insectivorous humans may look forward to such a treat. It won’t be long before the dinner scene in Temple of Doom will make viewers’ mouths water.
1 cup of thawed mealworms
2 slices of mature cheddar cheese
½ teaspoon of chili powder
3 tablespoons of fresh pesto
Heat oven to 200º. Cover mealworms in flavorings and then bake for about 10 minutes.
David told me the easiest way of getting ahold of bugs, which you usually must buy alive, is from a local pet store that sells live food for reptiles and other exotic animals. The most humane way of killing these cold-blooded critters is sticking them in the freezer for more than 48 hours where they peacefully drift off into a frozen sleep from which they never wake up.
On my way to the pet store, I tried to come up with valid excuses for needing so many different insects and the store’s biggest tarantula. When I got there, however, the woman behind the counter acted as if my request were the most normal thing in the world and directed me to a shelf at the back. To get there I had to pass the reptiles. I watched with horror as a big, ugly salamander wolfed down a whole grasshopper in less than a second and then stared at me, with his weird little dead face pressed to the glass. If I hadn’t already been uneasy, this would have done the trick.
TRIPLE-DIP LOCUST AND TARANTULA TEMPURA
1 cup of cold water
1 cup of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
10-15 thawed locusts
1 thawed tarantula
3 cups of frying oil
Suggested dips: tomato salsa, mango salsa, and aioli
Beat egg in a bowl with very cold water and add flour. Dip locusts and tarantula in the batter and stir-fry for about 2 minutes. Serve with dips.
I proceeded to the transparent-plastic live-food boxes stacked on a nearby shelf. They were filled with mealworms, crickets, locusts, and wax worms crawling around in sawdust. I tried to stay calm and focus on choosing the healthiest-looking boxes, like I do when buying fruit or vegetables, but it was sickening. Finally, I just grabbed a box of each and walked up to the counter. “I’ll have these and that big tarantula to the right,” I said to the attendant. She gave me her card and said to call her if we needed any care instructions, which made me feel guilty. On the bus home I sat with the plastic bag by my feet, fighting irrational thoughts that insects were crawling up my legs, forcing me to constantly brush my calves off.
By the time I got home I was almost in tears. “Let’s have a look at them first,” my boyfriend said, as I was about to shove the bag into the freezer. I placed the boxes on the kitchen bench. The tarantula, probably suspecting its looming fate, had hidden its face behind its fluffy legs, looking all cute and frail. We named him Jeff and, for a second, considered sparing him and keeping him as our pet.
20 thawed wax worms
½ bar of dark cooking chocolate
1 cup of strawberries, chopped
½ glass of champagne
1 teaspoon of mint, chopped
Roast wax worms in a preheated 350° oven for about 10 minutes. Melt chocolate in a bowl wetted with boiling water. Dip the wax worms in melted chocolate and refrigerate for at least half an hour. Soak strawberries and mint in champagne and serve together.
1 cup of orzo
3 cups of vegetable broth
½ cup of grated carrot
½ cup of finely diced red and yellow pepper
1 tablespoon of butter
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup of chopped onion
1 cup of frozen two- or three-week-old cricket nymphs, thawed
2 tablespoons of chopped parsley
Bring broth to a boil, then stir in the orzo and cook for 10 minutes. Drain any extra liquid and mix in carrots and peppers. In a separate skillet, melt butter and add garlic, onions, and crickets. Sauté until the onions are clear. Mix it all together, including any liquid, top with parsley, and serve.
Two days later it was time to prepare the bug banquet. When I peeked in the freezer, the little guys were covered in frost, but once thawed, they looked very much alive, only motionless. A couple of curious friends came over to help and offered emotional support in the shape of a bottle of sauvignon blanc, which goes as well with bugs as seafood (the two are closely related). After the initial “EEEEEEEWs” and hyperventilating on the floor, we steeled ourselves and started picking up the defrosted bugs from their sawdust-filled coffins and rinsing them in the sink. Touching them made my throat feel all funny, a sort of tickling sense of disgust. Some of the locusts were half-eaten; before falling into a permanent sleep they seemed to have reenacted the scene from
Alive where the plane-crash survivors gnawed on their dead companions’ meaty parts. We kept telling ourselves, “Locusts are just land-living shrimp, only less gross because they don’t eat shit,” but this failed to convince us.
You have to burn the hair off tarantulas before eating them or they’ll tickle your throat in a bad way. Tarantulas have a strange taste, similar to shark, and the carapace is filled with soft, tasty meat. The legs, however, are a bit chew-y and filled with white gooey stuff.
The menu for the evening started with oven-baked mealworms and tempura locust, Orthopteran orzo for the main course, and chocolate-covered wax worms for dessert.
Like any other meat, bugs need to be cooked to avoid getting parasites. We started by covering the mealworms in pesto, cheddar, and chili powder. Once in the oven, they gave off a succulent and reassuring smell, but when I took them out, the worms were still wiggling from the heat (don’t worry, they were dead) and I nearly dropped the tray. My friend Tobias grabbed a worm, and his “Yum!” convinced the rest of us to do the same. Indeed, the scary-looking crispy mealworms had a weird almond-and-potato taste that went great with the flavorings.
Encouraged by the tasty worm snacks, we didn’t make a big deal out of biting into the tempura locusts—it was like eating shrimp covered in batter, but with edible shells. The next dish, recommended by David George Gordon, consisted of orzo, veggies, and crickets. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that appetizing, mostly because it reminded us of food that had been left out for so long it’d been infested with insects. It was hard to distinguish the flavor of the crickets, so we had one by itself and it tasted somewhat similar to chicken, only soft and mushy. Be warned, the legs tend to get stuck between your teeth!
Before dipping our dessert in chocolate, we sampled a roasted wax worm au naturel. If you can get past its unappealing resemblance to larvae, it’s like eating soft, sweet pistachio nuts. They were actually tastier without the chocolate.
Overall, the tempura tarantula and oven-baked mealworms were the best items on our menu, but the wax worms were pretty good too. While we didn’t lick our plates clean, at least we know what to expect when eating bugs becomes a necessity.
Recipes adapted from The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook by David George Gordon, published by Ten Speed Press