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Getting Behind Cricket Cookies 

Wednesday, Jun 3 2015
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When the taster bolts after trying a cookie with cricket flour, it is not the best sign for a hot new food category. At age 7, he's the target eating demographic.

Observing an animal before it becomes a meal often means some "up close and personal" time with a squawky chicken or a jumpy salmon. I target crickets as the au courant ingredient for energy bars (Chapul), and cookies (Bitty Foods). But my transparency about baking ingredients at home contrasts with the near-total opacity of the industry that's supplying me with them. All my polite, professional requests to observe food-grade European domestic house crickets (Acheta domesticus) and banded crickets (Gryllus sigillatus) have yielded only denials. Getting in to see the crickets where they are raised and processed is tougher than getting through customs with my raw milk cheese.

Charles Wilson, the co-author (along with his mom, Susette) of the comprehensive cookbook All Cricket, No Bull is also founder and CEO of Cricket Flours. His favorite crickety recipes for families? Spicy baked peppers, a "salad dressing with nutrients," and a hazelnut liquor cake. Wilson got into cricket flours when he had health problems and wanted alternative protein sources. He says that 1 pound of 100 percent pure cricket flour contains 5,500-6,000 crickets, a fact that would impress my son — assuming I can ever get him back to the tasting table.

Anyway, a cricket factory visit is a no-go. Andrew Brentano, the co-founder of Tiny Farms, a company that uses data to make insect farms scalable, says there are some similarities between his facility and a barn. For example, crickets have that tell-tale barnyard smell during their first six weeks of life. Brentano says that a cricket farm also has greens, water sources, and jump-around space. (And yes, the crickets chirp when it's warmer out, which is why summer evenings are al fresco concert opportunities for the insects.)

Later this year, Tiny Farms will have a new production facility in Oakland.

"Can I visit?" I ask Brentano, expecting another firm no.

He gives me a polite "probably not," adding that my presence could actually harm the crickets.

"You'll be in scrubs to prevent pathogens from coming in," he says. "We are not dosing the crickets with antibiotics, and give a lot of attention to the integrity of the environment."

It sounds like Willy Wonka's fears of contaminating the Fizzy Lifting Drink room, but the details of domestic cricket production keep causing uncomfortable pauses during interviews. Talk of nondisclosure agreements demonstrates that secrecy is strong. This is a serious business area with ties to the press-shy pet industry, via the practice of feeding crickets to animals. The human food trend accelerated with a 2013 U.N. report calling for the consumption of edible insects ("entomophagy") to secure global food in the near future but as of now, nothing's opening up about how the world will phase in its new protein source.

It's easy to eat crickets in Southern California and Texas, as well as Mexico, where they are served chupaline style. In Thailand, outdoor markets brim with bins full of them. Abroad, crickets are a widely accepted way of getting protein no matter what one's age. Even Denmark's Noma, frequently cited as the world's best restaurant, has a dish made from sorrel leaf and cricket paste that caters to sophisticated adult palates. Stateside, the low-fat, sustainable source of high protein with a low carbon footprint has a halo effect for adventurous foodies, CrossFit buffs, and kids who want bragging rights from their buggy cookies.

Legally, crickets are considered livestock and the production is so new that the process is patented by Bitty Foods, a San Francisco company that — surprise! — tightly guards its secrets and access to its famous culinary director, Tyler Florence.

My interview request is met with this reply: "I have to check with his handlers, he's very busy and not the focus of our company."

That may be true, but it'd sure help to know exactly how Florence approaches recipe development, friendship with Mexican cuisine guru Rick Bayless aside. Is Florence's cookbook tour keeping him that busy?

I want to see the inside of Bitty Foods, because its cookies are billed as all the rage with the elementary school set. My promise to get the company a copy of anything written for this story to review about the factory visit is met with, "No, we really can't," from co-founder Leslie Ziegler.

The food world has its share of secrets and intrigue, and Bitty Foods' cricket processor — also known as a co-packer — has strict NDA agreements in place. Customers cannot show or disclose anything about how the crickets are frozen, boiled, dehydrated, roasted, or milled. Ziegler does disclose the oh-so-secretive process is similar to roasting coffee and that the crickets are frozen to put the bugs to sleep because "we like to be very humane."

Frozen, like the rest of this story, I can only imagine.

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Mary Ladd

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