Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Friday, June 30, 2006

All We Need Is Some Cyanide

Two of the more memorable accidental word-substitutions my sister has made during this 'vacation'.

Amanda: Did you see the news? A terrorist was canonised.
Me: What?
Amanda: Oh. Did I say 'canonised'? I meant, 'incarcerated.'

(Drinking Shirley Temples at a restaurant)
Amanda: Hey, we should make these at home. All we need is some cyanide!
Me: Cyanide?
Amanda: Oh. Did I say 'cyanide'? I meant, 'grenadine.'

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Incredible Edible Insect!

At The Bone Room, (the natural history store I work at), we sell a selection of insect sweets: hard-candy with ants, scorpion lollipops (technically, those are arachnids, not insects), chocolate-covered ants, and chocolate-covered crickets and mealworms.

On your humdrum, average-joe day, the sweets are located in a corner, and attract customer attention, but not very much of it: the occasional "ewww" or "cool"; the brave soul every now and then who purchases one "just for the hell of it"; the clumps of kids who spend ten minutes daring each other to eat some.

However, a recent event called "Chalk and Chocolate" on our boutique-store infested street had various restaurants and stores proferring special chocolatey goods in exchange for tickets which could be purchased at specific locations on the street. Noah's Bagels was selling chocolate cake and bagels. A Chinese restaurant was selling chocolate wontons. A Japanese restaurant was selling chocolate sushi. And we, of course, trotted out our chocolate-covered insects, displaying them prominently at the counter.

Needless to say, they drew a lot more comments than they usually do. The most common question was, "Are these REAL bugs? They can't be REAL bugs!" To which we would reply, "Oh yes, they can."

2nd most FAQ: What do they taste like?
Answer: Actually, you can't really taste the bugs, but they add a nice crunch. They just blend in with the chocolate. And they're a good source of protein.

Estimate: for every four customers who were totally grossed out, (not to mention thoroughly unconvinced by the signs I had made that morning: "THE INCREDIBLE EDIBLE INSECT"; "AN INFESTATION OF FLAVOR"; "BUGALICIOUS!"), one customer enthusiastically handed us two tickets in exchange for a small box of buggy bliss.

But all this anecdotal information about an obscure and quasi-pretentious fun event spanning a small stretch of Northern Californian road has a point. It's leading up to a question. An all-important and earth-shattering question which could alter the direction of life as we know it. The question being, "Why don't we eat insects?"

As many entomophagy-promoters will tell you, "insects are nutritious and delicious." There's certainly a lot of them. According to one study in 1990 by a Holldobler and a Wilson, ants and termites alone may account for up to 33% of all terrestrial animal biomass. A more conservative Finnish study placed the number at 10%. (Incidentally, according to another post on a super reliable "Google Answers" forum, krill make up twice the biomass of the human population.) Insects also reproduce very quickly, easily, and take up less space than cattle or sheep, making them ideal for farming. They also pack quite a nutritional punch for such little guys. Entomologist May Berenbaum notes that beef contains 1,240 calories per pound, but dried crickets contain about 1,270 calories per pound, and a certain species of grasshopper (Melanoplus sanguinipes) contains about 1,365 calories per pound.

So the entomophages are right about insects being nutritious. But really, are they delicious? I've eaten insects (on purpose) on two occasions in my life, and although I was epicurious to try them, they hardly struck me as an epicurean delight. The first time was during my volunteering stint at the Oxford Museum of Natural History Entomology Collections. I was in charge of serving up deep-fried crickets to wandering patrons. These were wild crickets which we had kept in large garbage bins filled with fresh lettuce for a few days, to make sure that they weren't eating anything we wouldn't want to be eating. (Don't put that cricket in your mouth! Who knows where it's been!) Then when the day of feasting arrived, we would scoop up a batch into a bowl, pour boiling water over them to kill and sterilise them, and bring them out into the hallway to be deep-fried in a public wok and seasoned with a little soy-sauce and ground pepper. (We also had some very plump scarab-beetle larvae, which James the curator told me were meaty and delicious, but unfortunately could not be cooked because we only had three of them.) What did the crickets taste like? They tasted like burnt bacon, or burnt anything for that matter...not very much substance, and not like french-fries at all. But perhaps I overdid them. It's hard to tell when they're black to begin with.

The second time was when I had just started working at the Bone Room, and purchased a box of chocolate-covered crickets and mealworms for myself. Again, not particularly impressive. They were crunchy, but I couldn't taste anything beyond the chocolate.

Perhaps it's just a cricket thing. I've heard from my mother, who has eaten ants in China, that ants have a subtle spicy kick to them. (And why not, since they have six legs to kick with?) As I said, James told me that eating a scarab beetle larvae feels like you're biting into a piece of meat. I'm sure the more sizeable insects--large locusts, big waterbugs (as they eat in Thailand)--probably have a distinctive taste of their own and rely less on seasoning for their flavour.

I tried to find good insect recipes on the net, but many were recipes where the insect was simply slipped into a perfectly normal recipe, almost as an afterthought ("Let's make chocolate-chip cookies and slip in some cricket chunks while we're at it.") This site with recipes for sauteed mealworms in garlic and unadorned roasted crickets doesn't seem too bad, although they do seem to do the "oh yeah, add insect" thing for their Oatmeal-Bee Cookies. Two cookbooks sound promising: Creepy Crawly Cuisine by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy (featuring fine-dining delights such as Stink Bug Pate) and Eat-a-Bug Cookbook by David Gordon (Larval Latkes, anyone?

And here's a recipe for Banana Worm Bread from the Iowa State U. Entomology Club website.

Banana Worm Bread
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 bananas, mashed
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup dry-roasted army worms.
Mix together all ingredients. Bake in greased loaf pan at 350 degrees for about 1 hour.