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Bug Me: San Francisco Helps Pioneer Insect Cuisine 

Wednesday, Oct 19 2011

Daniella Martin eats 'em up. Yum. Photo by Kimberly Sandie. Hair and makeup by Ellyse Bernales. Animation by Andrew J. Nilsen

Mónica Martínez bills her Don Bugito food truck as a "pre-Hispanic snackeria." A 36-year-old Mexican immigrant with high cheekbones and raven hair, Martínez doesn't have a chef's résumé. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and is, at best, a journeyman cook. Yet her fare benefits from a few authentic, and unusual, ingredients.

The San Francisco resident's tacos are built on handmade tortillas of blue corn masa, and topped with pasilla chiles and a sauce of cilantro, mint, and parsley. Then there's the traditional element that most distinguishes her food.

"The idea of Don Bugito is inspired by pre-Hispanic cuisine," Martínez says as she rolls a moist clump of masa between her hands at La Cocina, a nonprofit organization at 25th and Folsom streets that offers commercial kitchen space and business consulting to cook-entrepreneurs. "So most of the ingredients are pre-Hispanic: peppers; tomatoes; obviously, insects."

Martínez drops a handful of pallid worms, similar to those a child might feed a pet gecko, into a frying pan, where they sizzle and take on a caramel-colored sheen.

Along with crickets and meal worms, these wax moth larvae anchor the menu at Don Bugito, which debuted on Aug. 20 at the San Francisco Street Food Festival. The Mission district event was staffed by 60 vendors and attended by tens of thousands of foodies, reflecting the explosion of interest in street food in the Bay Area culinary scene.

Martínez managed to hold her own with this discerning crowd: By festival's end, she had sold all her dishes. When the food truck commences permanent operations, which she says will happen by next month, it may be the first eatery in the country devoted exclusively to preparations involving insects.

Entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs, remains a popular culinary habit in developing countries. Residents of the Mexican state of Oaxaca are famous for their taste for chapulines, or dried grasshoppers. In Thailand, Lethocerus indicus, the giant water bug, is consumed with gusto.

But for many in Europe, or countries settled predominantly by people of European descent, the idea of eating bugs triggers a gross-out reflex. Insects and arachnids are not for eating; if anything, they are to be kept as far away from our food as possible. One of the last prominent forays that entomophagy made into American popular culture was on the television game show Fear Factor, where contestants had to prove their mettle by eating live bugs without gagging.

That might be changing. Entomophagy has long been a cultist hobby among entomologists, inspiring offbeat conferences and festivals featuring such dishes as deep-friend tarantulas and cricket jambalaya. Now a small group of cooks and activists is trying to draw a broader audience for entomophagy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the local history of pioneering food fads, a number of them are based in the Bay Area.

"I think it's legitimate to say right now that San Francisco is a hotbed of insect cuisine," says David Gordon, a nationally renowned entomophagist and author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook.

Interest in entomophagy has also surged because of advocates' ambitious claims about the ecological benefits of putting bugs on our plates. As the environmental damage caused by large-scale, intensive animal husbandry becomes more apparent — a 2006 United Nations study found that industrial livestock operations contribute heavily to pollution and global warming — insects appear to be an efficient and virtually inexhaustible source of protein. The name of San Francisco entomophagist Rosanna Yau's company and website, MiniLivestock, hints at bugs' potential to solve long-term problems with our food supply.

Despite such enthusiasm, questions persist about entomophagy's widespread viability. With few reliable sources and virtually no distribution infrastructure for edible insects, bugs remain quite expensive, at least when measured pound-for-pound against other kinds of meat. Little is known about the health hazards of food insects, though scientific research in California has found that their knack for absorbing environmental toxins could make them a potentially dangerous treat. At present, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has almost no regulations for edible bugs.

A more fundamental issue concerns not logistics and health regulations, but culture and cuisine. Is it conceivable that lots of people would ever want to eat bugs on a regular basis? Could crickets be the next sushi, or are they a six-legged flash in the pan?

Before speculating on insects' prospects in the kitchen, it's not a bad idea to establish what they taste like. Daniella Martin, a San Mateo resident who runs a website devoted to insect cookery,, and writes about entomophagy for the Huffington Post, is a helpful authority on this subject. On a recent afternoon, she welcomed SF Weekly to her parents' home in the wooded hills between Menlo Park and Half Moon Bay to sample a bug smorgasbord.

At 34 years old, with green eyes and brown hair that falls just below her shoulders, Martin has the effusive but contained good manners of a stand-and-stir cooking-show hostess. She has worked in marketing and education administration, and discovered her passion for food insects in college while doing anthropological research in Mexico.

In the intervening years, she has pursued entomophagy as a hobby of increasing seriousness. She currently broadcasts a bug-cooking show on YouTube, and is putting together a proposal for a television series that would explore entomophagy in cultures around the world, with an emphasis on cooking techniques.

"What is really needed right now is a cooking show," Martin says, sporting a pink apron and setting up an unusual mise en place of wax moth larvae, bee larvae, scorpions, crickets, stink bugs, and grasshoppers next to the stove. "I don't want to alienate my male colleagues, but [people] need to see a woman cooking bugs and smiling and not being squeamish."

Martin prepares her favorite dish first: a canapé of fried wax moth larvae, diced oyster mushrooms and crème fraîche that she calls "Alice in Wonderland" because of the caterpillar and mushroom elements. Her method of preparing larvae is idiosyncratic: A cardinal rule of bug cuisine is that almost everything, even worms, should be cooked until crisp. "Most people will tell me, 'If I'm going to have an insect, it better crunch rather than gush,'" says Dave Gracer, an entomophagy advocate and food-insect supplier based in Providence, R.I.

By contrast, Martin cooks her wax worms slow and low in butter. The larvae and mushrooms blend to a virtually indistinguishable texture, color. and taste, soft and golden, their woody and earthy notes offset by the cream's silky tang. The bee larvae, fried and combined with lettuce and tomato in an entomophagist's BLT, are similar. "They taste like little, nutty, mushroomy raisins," Martin muses. This doesn't seem like eating bugs at all.

The crickets, grasshoppers, and scorpions are different. The animals' exoskeleton lends an unavoidable crunch to the dishes in which they are incorporated, reminding eaters, bite by bite, of what's in their mouths. But the texture is less jarring than the atypical flavor of the bugs' carapaces, which is not immediately appealing to the unaccustomed palate.

The exoskeletons have an iodine aftertaste redolent of the naturalist's laboratory. Yet when combined with other familiar flavors — Martin serves up a grasshopper on a slice of apple drizzled with honey — the taste of any bug recedes into the background. Like shrimp, crabs, and lobsters, insects impart a flavor that is mild and easily combined with other ingredients.

The comparison with ocean- and river-dwelling arthropods is one that often comes up in conversation with entomophagists. The animals share similar physical traits and belong to the same phylum. Some insects will even trigger shellfish allergies. "You have to scratch your head, from a logical perspective," says Zack Lemann, chief entomologist at the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans. "Why do we eat shrimp and crawfish but not their brethren on land?"

Lemann's facility, which opened in 2008, includes an interactive exhibit in the form of a cafe called "Bug Appetit." Visitors to the museum can sample a wide array of freshly prepared bug dishes. The idea, Lemann says, is to make insects more appealing to the layperson by presenting them as a potential food source. So how has Bug Appetit gone over with paying museum patrons?

"The short answer is that there is every reaction within the spectrum you might imagine," Lemann says. While some people refuse outright to eat bugs and others dine on them readily, he says the "vast majority" of people are of the "I didn't expect this, but I'm game" camp.

Wooing this bloc of entomophagy agnostics on a wide scale is a foremost goal of bug-eating advocates. To do so, activists talk less about insects' culinary merits and more about the broad effects entomophagy could have on human agricultural and environmental practices. In an age of growing consumer obsession with ethical and sustainable food sources, they argue that bugs are about the most ecologically sound food there is.

The environmental benefits of turning to bugs as food are most apparent, entomophagists maintain, when the nutritional benefits and environmental costs of insect gathering and farming are considered side by side with those of large-animal husbandry.

Cows are an inefficient means of converting grasses or grains into protein, consuming at least 10 pounds of silage for every two pounds of meat they produce. Insects, by contrast, are among nature's most efficient feed converters. The same 10 pounds of plant matter will support roughly seven or eight pounds of crickets, according to Frank Franklin, a retired pediatric gastroenterologist and nutritionist who teaches at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama. Insects don't emit ozone-depleting methane gas, and consume a low volume of water, compared to large mammals.

Bug farms also seem to obviate some of the ethical and environmental problems that plague industrial agriculture. There's nothing wrong with keeping many insects together in close quarters. Despite Western associations between insects and filth, many food bugs have exceedingly pure vegetarian diets — wax moth larvae, for instance, can subsist on nothing but bran and honey. Contrasted with the diets of say, farm hogs or ocean-dwelling crustaceans, that starts to look pretty good. "I like to point out that lobsters and crabs eat trash and feces and dead animals, and grasshoppers eat salad," Gracer says.

Insects are equal and in some ways superior to large mammals as a source of the protein and nutrients we seek from meat. Larvae like those cooked by Martin and Martínez are high in the healthful omega fatty acids now being widely purveyed through dietary supplements.

"It's as complete a protein as the protein in cow's milk," says Franklin, who has studied entomophagy and is convinced that mass-rearing food insects could alleviate nutritional deficiencies among children in developing countries. "They've been eaten for eons, so we know they're relatively safe," he says. "They can live on just about anything, they reproduce very rapidly, they produce a high-quality product, and they produce lower greenhouse gases" than livestock operations.

With all this to recommend them, why haven't insects gained widespread acceptance as a protein source? For one thing, they're not cheap. Almost no infrastructure exists for the large-scale production of food insects, let alone the kind of agricultural subsidies that bring inexpensive meat to our supermarkets. Bugs' resulting scarcity makes them, strangely enough, a luxury pantry item. Gracer says it's difficult to buy wax moth larvae, one of the most easily and commonly raised types of food bug, for less than $25 per pound.

Not everybody buys into the image of insects as a no-downside food. A study published in 2007 in the American Journal of Public Health determined that dried grasshoppers imported from Oaxaca were "highly contaminated" with lead from abandoned mines and the pottery they were cooked in, leading to lead poisoning among Latino children in Monterey County.

"Insects like grasshoppers and those with hard outer shells are great bio-accumulators, and in the case of being in leaded surroundings, they were accumulating lots of lead, and they were contaminated at extremely high levels," Margaret Handley, a UCSF professor of epidemiology and biostatistics who participated in the study, wrote in an e-mail to SF Weekly.

Concerns about such possible contamination led the San Francisco Department of Public Health to start looking last summer into La Oaxaqueña, a popular restaurant selling chapulines in the Mission District. Health inspector Kenny Wong says proprietor Harry Persaud said he could furnish some documentation indicating his grasshoppers came from a safe source in Mexico, but decided to not import more of the bugs. The restaurant closed down soon after the health department's inquiry began. Persaud could not be reached for comment.

Wong says that he and other health inspectors at the state and local level are going to need more guidance from federal authorities if insects' popularity as an edible product continues to grow. "People are taking it more seriously as a food source, so we need to look at it," he says. "The thing is, I can't look at it just as an inspector. It needs to be looked at from way up on top."

Even if a regulatory framework for edible bugs is established and an arsenal of delicious insect preparations developed, entomophagy advocates face a final hurdle: the deeply ingrained cultural aversion to insects as food that probably led you to grimace at the thought of eating a scorpion.

The more one thinks about it, the less rational it seems. What are the differences, really, between a shrimp and a grasshopper, a wax worm and escargot, caviar and ant eggs? (The latter are consumed in Mexico as a delicacy called escamoles.) Entomophagists have tried to re-brand the land-based arthropods with various cute names, such as "land shrimp" or, in Martin's formulation, "terra prawns." (She says she was told it sounded too similar to "terrifying prawns.") None of it seems to stick.

"Fundamentally, our problem with insects is a problem with critical-thinking skills," Gracer says. "We just assume they're bad because everyone has always told us they are."

Theories abound about the roots of that legacy. Bug-eating hasn't always been verboten in the Western world. As Gordon points out, no less a figure than John the Baptist subsisted on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Somewhere along the line, that tolerance for entomophagy was lost.

Some argue that pest insects became vilified as competitors for our primary agricultural food sources. Others speculate that Europe's temperate climate didn't offer the wide range of edible bugs that might have hooked its residents on entomophagy, like the people of Mesoamerica or Southeast Asia. Another view holds that industrial pesticide companies provoked mass revulsion toward insects in the second half of the 20th century with spooky ads about the evils of cockroaches, termites, and other bugs.

Emmet Brady, who runs the Oakland-based Insect News Network, says that our distaste for insects as food is rooted in the Western world's gradual withdrawal from and discomfort with wild things generally. "When spiritual traditions began to clamp down on nature, view nature as evil, insects were one of the easiest symbols of nature to demonize," he says. Of course, that doesn't explain our continued acceptance of, and reverence for, such symbols of nature as venison and wild salmon.

Yau, of MiniLivestock, tried to address and overcome anti-entomophagy sentiments with her final project in the graduate design program at the California College of the Arts. Her thesis, Minilivestock: Exploring Rhetorical Methods to Promote Consuming Insects as Food, examined different ways of processing and packaging mealworms to make them more palatable to American consumers. Among the innovations featured were a mill, similar to a pepper grinder, for crushing dried worms, and energy bars made with ground bugs and granola.

On a recent afternoon, Yau, 28, sat in a coffee shop in SoMa — the neighborhood where she now works as a designer at a tech company, in addition to her entomophagy projects — and explained that while her bug-branding efforts met with some success, she's reticent to get behind some of the more enthusiastic claims entomophagists make on behalf of insects as a viable global food source.

"I don't think I'm qualified to say insects are going to save the world or anything like that," Yau says. "Telling someone to do something because it's good for them" isn't enough, she says. "They're not going to do it unless they feel an emotional connection." That will probably require the advent of bug food so tasty, and so unlike other dishes, that people will crave it, and not just experiment with it.

Here in San Francisco, Martínez is trying to make that a reality. At La Cocina, she serves a reporter what will be Don Bugito's signature dish: wax moth larvae tacos. She spoons the crisp worms over beds of blue-corn tortillas and green salsa. A bite yields a crunchy texture and a mild, fatty flavor not unlike that of pork rinds.

"To me, it tastes like chicharonnes,"Martínez says.

For now, that might be enough to win Don Bugito a stable of adventurous foodie fans. But for the entomophagy movement to truly arrive, cooks and activists will have to convince people to turn to insects for their own sake. It's a moment that won't come until wax moth larvae are the preferred food of the hungry and hungover, rather than of dilettantes who can tolerate a worm that tastes like fried pork.


About The Author

Peter Jamison


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