Anna Mraz dunked a dainty, Vietnamese summer roll in a ginger-tamari glaze, a glass of Neiderburg Chenin Blanc at the ready to complement the roll’s hint of cucumber. As she opened her mouth to take her first bite, the squat, spongy butt of a silkworm pupae poked out the top. With a wary glance, she bit down anyway, chewing a little quicker than usual.
The U.N. reports that 2 billion people in 80 percent of the world’s nations practice entomophagy (eating insects) as part of subsistence diets — or fried or dried as treats — mostly in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Australia. Edible insects are plentiful (1,900 insect species have been documented as such), healthy, environmentally friendly and economical. But are they pleasurable?
On a sweltering evening in July, close to 50 of Philadelphia’s bravest eaters, including Mraz, came to Morris Arboretum to determine just that, tasting foods made with crickets, silkworm pupae, mealworms, bamboo worms and — the shining stars — hissing cockroaches. "Bug Crawl: Food and Drink Pairings for the 21st Century" was curated by the Arboretum to intrigue, certainly, but also to educate, to challenge the “ick factor” and ultimately to reach beyond the novelty of entomophagy and present the case for making insects part of the American diet.
“The greatest biodiversity here isn’t you and me. It’s not the carrots and the clover,” says Robert Gutowski, Director of Public Programs at the Morris Arboretum, motioning toward the lush landscape around him. “It’s what is in those trees.”
Insects are all around us, but we usually see them as a nuisance, a disgusting threat to our food supply instead of a part of it. Ideas about food are largely learned. If we are never taught the merits of eating insects and never see it done, why would we eat them?
“I’m always attracted to foods that are healthy and high in nutrients,” says Mraz. Many insects are rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc. Fried grasshoppers have triple the protein of beef. Flour made from insects — like the ground meal worm dusted on french-fries at the Bug Crawl — has more complex protein than wheat, barley or corn flour.
Insects also have a comparatively low environmental impact, emitting relatively few greenhouse gases and little ammonia, and requiring significantly less water than cattle. Additionally, insects consume organic waste and do it very efficiently; 100 pounds of feed yields 45 pounds of crickets (compared to just 10 pounds of beef).
Neither of these cases for eating insects was on the mind of one teenage Bug Crawl-er. Trucking along with his mom between tasting stations, he was eager to eat something totally gross. The insect fries were fine, he said, but this adventurer wanted to sink his teeth into three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and two antennae.
“The weirdest thing I ever ate before this was a hot dog,” he quipped. The second was ostrich.
Looking at insects as anything more than a novelty food may require the evocation of something undeniably important when it comes to food: pleasure. This was the aim of the culinary mastermind behind the event, Chef Josh Hunter of Company’s Coming Catering. He wanted the night’s dishes — like the tomato-basil-and-bamboo worm bruschetta — to contain “flavors people would be familiar with and receptive to, flavors that would complement the insects they would feature.” (The bamboo worms were nutty, like a pine nut in a pesto.)
Another strategy to make eating insects palatable is to hide them the way a parent might try to hide broccoli in brownies. In two of the five dishes at the Bug Crawl, the insects were curiously out of sight; you would never know there were crickets in the fritters with coconut curry dipping sauce unless someone told you.
Mraz’s boyfriend, Matt Wicks, said it best: “It tastes like regular food.”
One could argue that ingredient-shrouding is a poor strategy to evoke pleasure. Like the recent resurgence of interest in knowing where our food comes from, who grew it and how, acknowledging that you’re eating an insect — and being okay with it — could make the gastronomic experience fuller.
The true test of this theory came at the Hissing Cockroach station. There was no attempt to hide the flat, oval-shaped body perched on top of a wooden skewer like a lollipop. The only accompaniment was a small piece of red pepper supporting the underbelly and a spoonful of teriyaki sauce. One by one, hesitant hands grabbed the end of the skewers. Determined expressions were followed by ones of slight panic as mouths opened, shut and chewed. Though most eaters seemed rather pleased with their feat, it’s safe to say that few experienced pleasure. Perhaps it was due to the cockroach’s foul aroma. Most eaters disliked its texture, and spit the incredibly crunchy protective shell into cocktail napkins. There was talk that perhaps we were eating them wrong, that the cockroach should be peeled like a shrimp.
Amidst the uncertainty, Bug Crawl participants chatted about how to bring insect-eating to the mainstream. Some wondered if it was even legal to have an insect farm. The Arboretum purchased the insects for the event from Fluker’s Cricket Farm in Port Allen, Louisiana — the closest insect farm to Pennsylvania — but the insects were primarily raised for reptile feed. In fact, regulations on producing insects for food aren’t very clear, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is calling for more research to untangle such questions (while fiercely promoting global adoption of eating insects). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t even have regulations in place for intentionally raising insects for human consumption. But there are guidelines for acceptable levels of insect fragments in processed products like canned apricots and peanut butter. So, if the notion of eating bugs in the future makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you can take comfort knowing that you probably eat them already.
Story by Julianne Mesaric