Some Notes On Keeping, Cooking, and Eating Our Six-Legged Friends
I'm a vegan, but I'm not a very good one.
Unlike those lucky ectomorphs who thrive airily on lentils and brown rice, my ravenous, carnivorous muscles send red alerts to my subconscious when I've dipped below what they deem is a sufficient protein intake. Skimping on the seitan means my dreams will be interrupted by public-service announcements about charbroiled steaks and endless trays of deviled eggs. I know that beans, nuts, grains, and soy deliver all the protein my body needs, but tell that to my contented stomach after I've inhaled three cans of sardines. There's two sides of my eating life, the Saint and the Omnivore, and they're locked in constant struggle--the Saint on one shoulder, daintily nibbling at her roasted autumn vegetable plate and spirulina shake, the Omnivore wiping tallow off her madly grinning, cheeseburger-devouring jaw. But I'm happy to say the Saint wins 90 percent of the time, and on those occasions I feel good about at least trying to eat in a way that's respectful to my health, the earth, and all living beings that don't cross my lips in a moment of weakness.
Then that know-it-all Barbara Kingsolver had to kill my buzz. A friend lent me her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which documents her yearlong experiment in growing all her own food, consuming nothing that was shipped to the supermarket via refrigerated cargo planes and tractor trailers, and getting off the fossil fuel-guzzling treadmill of modern food production. Yeah! I'm thinking as I'm reading, totally sold on how frequenting farmers' markets and turning up my nose at supermarket pineapples and coconuts will save the earth and make me a better person. Then she got to the part about raising her own chickens for eggs and--gulp--meat, and then this paragraph knocked me on my tahini-padded ass: "Meat, poultry and eggs from animals raised on open pasture are the traditional winter fare of my grandparents, and they serve us well here, in the months when it would cost a lot of fossil fuels to keep us in tofu. Should I overlook the suffering of victims of hurricanes, famines and wars brought on this world by profligate fuel consumption? Bananas that cost a rain forest, refrigerator-trucked soy milk, and prewashed spinach two thousand miles in plastic containers do not seem cruelty-free, in this context."
That seriously pissed me off. Maybe I don't like the rug of vegetarian moral superiority yanked out from under my feet, but what infuriated me the most is that she's got a point. If I'm going to be serious about reducing my impact on the earth, I've got to reconcile my own voracious appetite for protein with the impossibility of either beheading my own chickens or farming my own soybeans. And that's when I started thinking about eating bugs.
When you examine the data, eating insects looks like the solution to all our food-supply ills. Insects are cheap, plentiful, nutritious (full of protein and trace minerals, with only a smidgen of unsaturated fat), and raising them is ecologically sound. It takes 100 pounds of feed to raise 45 pounds of cricket meat, as opposed to the incredibly wasteful ratio of 100 pounds of grain to every 10 pounds of beef. Also, raising insects doesn't require a landscape-bespoiling, water-guzzling, manure-caked feedlot--just an aquarium with a lid, plus food and water. Practically every culture and every nation in human history has eaten insects, either intentionally as main dishes or as stowaways in the grain supply. Hey, even the Bible (Leviticus 11:22) says eating some kinds of bugs is A-OK.
You've still got to follow some rules, though. Avoid bugs exposed to pesticides, bugs already dead, and bugs from unsanitary conditions. That rules out the belly-up cockroaches from under your sink, if you need me to tell you those things. If you have a seafood allergy, best to avoid bugs, too, since the chitin that makes their exoskeleton is the same stuff in shrimp and lobster shells. And don't eat just any species--stick to the tested and true favorites such as ants, grasshoppers, silkworms, and (yikes!) anthropods such as scorpions and tarantulas. Other than that, you're in the clear.
I still had to resolve my moral unease about eating living things. An insect is practically a plant, right? Cows and chickens may be capable of emotional attachment and reasoning, but an insect doesn't even have a brain, just a fused set of nerve cells governing reflexive routines such as eating and moving. Just to check, I called the Vegetarian Resource Group on Cold Spring Lane and asked if it had a position on eating bugs. John Cunningham, the consumer research manager, summed up its position succinctly. "Insects are animals, and we don't need to eat animals to survive." Ouch. To do this experiment, I'm definitely going to cross over to the vegan dark side.
I figured I wouldn't try anything fancy--no scorpions or tarantulas on my first time out--so I contacted Clay Ghann, the president and chief executive officer of Ghann's Cricket Farm (ghann.com) in Augusta, Ga., about whether he knew if I could eat his crop. He admitted he didn't know, but it probably wouldn't hurt me. "Ever watch Fear Factor?" he wrote in an e-mail. "If those folks haven't died from the crap THEY eat, I'd guess that crickets and mealworms--especially when grown under the controlled conditions of our facility (one of the largest in the world)--are fair game."
Ghann's offers crickets, mealworms, and phoenix worms. Mealworms are the larvae of the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor, an animal that gets its very name from its ubiquitous presence in human grain supplies for centuries. Between mealworms and phoenix worms, the latter looked more appealing, since they're bigger and fatter and have more calcium (something vegans always need), but phoenix worms are the larvae of Hermetia illucens, the black soldier fly. I uncovered a few documented cases in medical journals of black soldier fly intestinal myiasis, which is when undigested larvae make your intestines their new home. That probably wouldn't be likely to happen to me since I'm most definitely going to freeze them dead and then cook them, but I decide not to take the chance. I bought 250 live crickets, 500 mealworms, some feed supplies for the crickets, and waited for the mail to arrive.
The crickets arrived overnight delivery from Augusta, in a mesh and cardboard container packed with 250 adult live crickets, chirping merrily like an entire summer night crammed into a small box. My first job as bug farmer (as the printed instructions on their delivery box suggested) would be to transfer them to their new home as soon as possible, so I set out a tray of Critter-ade (a hydrated polymer that looks like chunks of very sturdy clear gelatin--the insects get hydration by sucking liquid out of it) and Ghann's Hi-Calcium Cricket Diet (a fine grit that tastes like very mild dog food). (Yes, I've eaten dog food. The Omnivore leads me into strange explorations, if you haven't already noticed.)
Then came the big question--how do I transfer 250 leaping, chirping crickets from one carrier to the other? This struck me as an outdoor activity, so I went out on the patio of our apartment complex and prayed the building manager wouldn't stroll by that very moment. I frantically shook the crickets into a plastic bag, and then poured them into a plastic bug carrier that I immediately realized was too small. Crickets that had previously been cheery and content were suddenly silent as they scrambled over each other in a seething crush of antennas and legs, each desperately trying to claw to the surface for air and foothold. Horrified by what I'd done, I dumped them back into the box, but the Critter-Ade and Cricket Diet dumped out with them, so now they were stressed, maimed, and covered in a fine sneezing dust of feed and globules of polymer. Desperate to end their suffering, I threw the box in the freezer and slammed the door, reflecting on what I'd done. In an effort to find a more humane alternative to mammal meat, I'd managed to create an overcrowded facility that wouldn't pass any free-range standards, and torment, terrify, and ruin the last moments of 250 of God's creatures. Nice going, Violet. Anyone have a kitten they need me to kick?
Chastened by my botched attempt at a cricket farm, I approached the mealworms more cautiously. I shouldn't have worried. Unlike the airborne crickets, the mealworms nestled sedately in a plastic tub, wriggling agreeably inside the bran meal that provides them food and shelter. I dumped them into the now empty insect carrier and the bran gently undulated to cover the bottom in a few moments. I prepared a portion of Cricket-ade and a few slices of organic carrot for them, and they quickly started munching on their meal, the slices of carrot bobbing gently on the surface of the bran like a beach ball making its way across a stadium concert field. The Ghann's web site warns to keep the mealworms in the fridge, lest they start pupating and turning into adult beetles, so that's what I did. Because they're so small, you have to eat a little of the bran they're in, too, but I figured that was no hardship. When it was time to slaughter them, putting them in the freezer was no more dramatic than putting a box of cereal back in the cupboard.
The advantage of keeping mealworms for food over crickets was rapidly becoming clear. Visually, mealworms are a step up from noodles, whereas there's no getting past the bugginess of crickets. Mealworms eat vegan food; cricket chow contains animal by-products. Crickets must be kept at room temperature, where their soothing and sprightly chirps nag at your conscience. Mealworms, on the other hand, live in the fridge, cementing their position as food in your mind. If you can eat Rice Krispies, you can eat mealworms. And even if you can't, mealworms can be toasted, pulverized, and combined with flour in baked goods like breads or cookies. (Mmm, chocolate chip mealworm cookies--that'll be a conversation starter at the next bake sale.)
But the final test would be in the eating. I met up with fellow City Paper foodie Henry Hong and his equally adventurous buddy Cory Donovan in the kitchen of Henry's restaurant (Suzie's Soba, on Calvert Street). Henry thoughtfully brought some kick-ass soju, figuring we'd need a little courage, and after a few shots we got down to business. I threw a handful of thawed crickets in a smoking-hot oiled wok, added salt, tossed them around until I could see and smell some caramelization on their shells, and dished them out. They looked pretty tasty on the plate, but admiring bugs as food and actually eating them are worlds apart.
A funny thing happens when you're about to eat an insect for the first time. Your hand involuntarily jerks back a few times on the way to the plate, as if your brain is saying, "Whoa, cowboy--you sure you want to eat that?" There's a pregnant moment when you're about to pop it in your mouth, a feeling that there's no turning back from this culinary rubicon. Then you leap into the abyss . . . and land in a big feather bed. Crickets taste good.
They have that singed, crispy protein flavor that's essential to the bouquet of pork rinds, with a delicate, savory sweetness that's not unlike what we associate with shrimp, except without the salt water/iodine tang of seafood. Legs and antennae that looked like they have all the mouthfeel of steel wool turn out to be a nonissue. (The only distinctive oddity is the texture of the flesh inside, which is definitely solid but not in a single chunky unit, like shrimp. Tearing open a cricket before eating revealed why: When cooked, the innards coagulate into thousands of tiny flexible needles, like miniaturized basmati rice.) Our faces registered with astonishment at how good they were as we popped another toasty, savory handful in our mouths.
Feeling flush, we moved on to the mealworms. I suggested cooking them in a jun (a Korean scallion pancake), and Henry whipped up some batter. Again, not bad. The pork rind-y flavor of the mealworms (more pronounced than in the crickets) disappeared almost completely into the overall flavor, and the only thing we could really detect was how the bran gave the jun a hearty whole-grain bread sweetness. Then Henry threw the remainder of the crickets into the wok, added slivered hot pepper, cilantro, sake, and a handful of other ingredients to make a Szechwan-style cricket hors d'oeuvre (visit citypaper.com/go/eatbugs for the recipe). These were definitely the most delicious, but at this point we just picked at the plate.
Here's the hard truth about eating insects: Your limit is about a dozen. You can put them in casseroles, you can fry them up in pancakes, you can gussy them up like haute cuisine and serve them with shots of soju strong enough to anesthetize a horse, but at some point your brain intervenes and, without any overt retching or revulsion, you just decide you've had enough. Even the most unsqueamish carnivore, the kind of person who shlucks down raw oysters and happily chomps his way through liver and sweetbreads would hesitate at the heaping two cups of crickets you need to approximate the protein value of a skimpy hamburger patty.
So is eating insects the magic solution to the protein needs of our planet? Not quite. Raising them is doable but a little tricky, eating them even more so, and the benefits and drawbacks are about neck and neck. Maybe on a large scale, boosting the insect portion of the American diet is a good idea--can you imagine low-fat, high-protein Mealworm McNuggets?--but for the home cook an edible insect farm is a fun, eccentric experiment, not the start of a sustainable food source. And I know the helpful folks at Ghann's Cricket Farm (where the slogan is "Take a kid fishing--it just might change your life. . . and theirs!") wouldn't understand this, but I feel that consciously killing an animal for food--even one as dimwitted and robotic as a cricket--has cheapened me. As omnivore's dilemmas go, I realize this one is pretty pathetic, but something in me has changed, and maybe not for the better. If anything, my experiment in bug eating has made me a more dedicated vegan, now that I know what it means to close that freezer door. A decade from now, if I'm in a very progressive restaurant and I see crickets on the menu, even though I know how good they can be, I won't order them. Well, the Saint won't. But the Omnivore might.
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil, like corn,vegetable, or grapeseed (not olive)
1 clove chopped garlic
1 heaping teaspoons minced ginger
2 teaspoons chopped dried asian chile peppers (or fresh, but dried works better)
2 cups crickets
1 or 2 finely chopped scallions
1 handful chopped cilantro
soy sauce or salt
Place frozen crickets in a colander and thaw briefly under running cold water. Drain.
Heat oiled wok or large nonstick skillet until smoking hot.
Moving quickly, add garlic, ginger, and peppers to oil, and saute vigorously for 15 seconds (avoid burning the garlic),
Add cricket and sauté for about 30 seconds. Add soy sauce/salt, black pepper to taste. Add a drizzle of sake.
Add scallion and cilantro, sauté briefly for another 15 seconds. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
Remove from heat, add a drop of sesame oil, toss briefly, and plate.
Serve to six-eight brave friends.
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