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Bug Me: San Francisco Helps Pioneer Insect Cuisine 

Wednesday, Oct 19 2011
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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.

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Peter Jamison

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