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Bug Me: San Francisco Helps Pioneer Insect Cuisine 

Wednesday, Oct 19 2011
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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.

E-mail Peter.Jamison@SFWeekly.com

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Peter Jamison

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