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Eating bugs may be on the rise, but artful preparation is still required

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    Don Bugito serves up dishes of edible insects, and even on top of desserts in its San Francisco-based food cart. (Don Bugito)

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     (Audubon Nature Institute, New Orleans)

If Zach Lemann had his way, the appropriate response to, "Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!" would be, "Apologies, sir. I’ll have the chef send out more."

"Who looked at that end of a chicken, watched an egg come out, and said, 'Now, that’s what I want to eat!'"

- Zach Lemann, entomologist, Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium

The revulsion many feel toward entomophagy—science-speak for eating bugs —is so universal it seems innate. Nonsense says entomologist Lemann, who asks when was okay to eat honey, "which is essentially bee barf?" 

"Who looked at that end of a chicken, watched an egg come out, and said, 'Now, that’s what I want to eat!'" 

Choosing what’s "right" to eat, he says, is a learned behavior.

Lemann, director of guest and visitor services at New Orleans’ Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium not only curates the facility’s creatures, he also eats them. As executive bug chef in the facility’s Bug Appétit demo area, he whips up “Crispy Cajun Crickets” and "Boiled Waxworm Mango Chutney." (Not to fret, The Tiny Termite Café serves normal food.)

Lemann prefers five-week old crickets. They’re adult-sized (i.e. satisfying) but still wingless because "wings can get leathery, hard to chew."  With cockroaches, always remove wings, legs and antennae. People enjoy "a nice presentation" and appendages tend to fall off and "make the plate look messy."

There’s another bonus. "No one minds steak or popcorn stuck in your teeth after eating, but people find a spiny leg or stray antennae and it’s just not the same thing," he says, at last finding common ground with most people. Removing them helps people expand their "gastronomic horizons," says Lemann.

Insect meat is on the rise. It’s an inexpensive source of low-fat, high-quality, vitamin-and-mineral-packed protein, so it’s unsurprisingly popular in developing countries. While people eat bugs because of limited access to poultry and livestock, Lemann points out that they also enjoy them, and not just in the developing world. The Dutch appear to be the first Westerners to let insects crawl onto their menus. Mark Cashoek’s Specktakel restaurant in Haarlem, Netherlands offers special all-insect meals.

Insect-eating advocates say that cultivating edible locusts, crickets and mealworms (aptly called “mini-livestock”) could stave-off world hunger. Plus, they have a much smaller carbon-footprint than traditional meat sources says Professor Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Netherlands' Wageningen University. His 2010 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization policy paper points out that mini-livestock emits 10 times less methane than typical livestock, generates 300 times less nitrous oxide and much less ammonia.

Summary

Where To Find:

Hotlix: &quotThe Original Candy That Bugs,&quot in Pismo Beach, Calif. offers a wide variety of scorpion, cricket and mealworm lollipops. Ships internationally. Will fill custom orders.

Don Bugito food cart: On-the-go insect food in San Francisco.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: &quotBug Fair&quot May 18 -19 will feature both bug exhibits and bugs to eat.

Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium: Bug Appétit, cooking demos by Zach Lemann.

Compelling, but the fact remains that Americans eschew "Fear Factor" cuisine. It’s a competitive issue says Gary Hevel of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who’s eaten bugs. "We both eat the same crops and we don’t like them eating our food and affecting our economies," he says. We also avoid them he says, because we can afford to. But while we may think we’re dining pretty high on the food chain in reality we’re dining close to the bottom, practically every day.  

The FDA’s "Food Defect Action Levels" are maximum, allowable levels of natural and unavoidable "defects" (i.e., insect parts, rodent hairs) for food. Food at or below the established average is good to go. For chocolate, that’s 60 insect fragments per 100 grams. For peanut butter, 30 insect fragments per 100 grams. Attention beer lovers: the FDA deems 2,500 aphids or less per 10 grams of hops acceptable.

And if you haven’t eaten the above but have ever eaten red candy, worn red lipstick (or kissed someone who has) or had a pre-April 2012 Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccino, you’ve ingested dried and pulverized South American insects called cochineals.

David George Gordon, science writer and author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook (Ten Speed Press) believes that bug-taste alone could create some converts. Lobsters and cockroaches are pretty similar, he says. Both have “outer body armor,” both live in “cracks and crevices” and creep out nightly “to eat dead stuff.” Scorpions taste like crab, he says, baked waxworms like pistachios. His Three Bee Salad has bee larvae (pupae and adults), Spin-akopita (24 wolf spiders), Cockroach à la King (24 American cockroaches).

Shaking out Roach Motels or picking snacks off fly-strips is a no-no. Carolina Biological Supply sends high-grade insects in sealed containers (no instantaneous infestations). Gordon recommends freezing upon arrival.

When cooking, remember that insect meat is encased in exoskeletons. Think contents under pressure. They’re like water balloons and will explode if exposed to high heat. An apron is a must, says Gordon. (Never, ever microwave insects.) Skewering while grilling solves combustion issues by relieving pressure and prevents critters from slipping through the grate. A two-fer.

Gordon’s favorites are flour-dredged and butter-fried tarantulas, prepared soft-shelled crab-style. “Nicely chewy,” he enthuses. “They’re primo because they lack regular insect body armor.”

Just remember to singe-off the tarantula hair before cooking.

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