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Afraid of Beef? Eat Bugs!

Have you tried the pest-o? It's catching on. Insect gourmets cater to kids, and a UBC prof likes a little garlic with his grasshoppers.

By Caroline Skelton 29 Sep 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Lou Kudon, a chef in Athens, Georgia, loves his job. Most of all, he loves feeding his signature dishes to kids.

"The look of delight on their faces as they discover the pleasure of downing mealworm brittle or some other similar concoction certainly makes it all worthwhile."

Kudon's specialty is "gourmet insect cuisine." He travels with his "Café Insectica" bug cooking demonstrations, teaching the world how to concoct "Banana Worm Nut Bread," "Chocolate Chirpie Cookies" and "Ant-chiladas."

Bug eating - or "entomophagy"- may be a walk on the wild and many-legged side for the "gastronomically adventurous" who sample Café Insectica's creations. It may even be the ultimate revenge for ruined lettuce plants and nibbled carrot crops. But it could also be a new solution for North Americans looking for a cheaper, safer and more efficient protein source.

If we could only get over the 'yuck factor,' a bug sector may be a welcome addition to the roster of Canadian agricultural products.

As Kudon says, "there is no such thing as Mad Cricket Disease."

How to make grasshopper fries


Ten summers ago, Dr. Murray Isman, Professor of Entomology at the University of British Columbia, found himself in the middle of nowhere with a lot of kids and a lot of grasshoppers.

He had arrived to speak to kids at a summer camp near Olympia, Washington, and brought with him a fleet of insects from the lab to perform as rather unlucky stars of the lecture. The kids watched as Isman removed the gritty bits, legs, wings and green digested plant material from the bugs, fried them in garlic and butter and produced a scrumptious batch of grasshopper fries. They were a hit.

"They tasted like French fries," Isman says.

And he's not the only one who occasionally roasts his scientific subjects. Dr. Rob Roughley, a Professor at the University of Manitoba's School of Entomology (insect science), also enjoys the occasional toasted grasshoppers, and has sampled the more exotic "Silkworm Bisque."

Though Roughley admits his "sense of adventure" drives him to try these foods, he also eats them because he believes "there is always the potential to find a better way of doing things."

According to Roughley, North Americans are ignoring an abundant natural resource of nutritious insects. Because bugs are efficient in their protein and energy use (their cold blood needs no energy to keep warm), they can be a high-protein meal - sometimes more so than the meat of warm-blooded beasts and birds.

Grasshoppers and giant water beetles, for instance, are both nearly 20% protein and contain less than one fifth of the fat contained in beef.

And while the cleanliness of bugs may seem to be an issue for some prospective entomophagists, palatable arthropods like crab and lobster live off debris and waste at the bottom of the ocean - most edible bugs munch only on plants.

Squeamish 'victims of affluent society'

So how would we harvest bugs? According to Scott Bowers of the Bay Area Bug Eating Society (BABES), bugs are cheap and humane to harvest. They feed on agricultural waste products like leaves and stems, and take up a fraction of the space of livestock.

Or they could be harvested from the crops they infest.

In Japan, for instance, grasshoppers that feed on rice crops are often harvested along with the rice, yielding a tasty second crop which is packaged and sold as "Rice Hoppers."

Despite these glowing reviews, most North Americans are still only vicarious bug eaters, squirming along with Fear Factor or Survivor contestants, but reluctant to pop a wriggling cockroach themselves.

Why the reluctance?

"We are victims of our affluent society," says Roughley. Since we have not been as hungry as other countries, we are reluctant to think outside the box.

And our position is all but exclusive - Western Europe is the only other region on the planet that won't deign to eat bugs. In the rest of the world, and as close as Mexico, bug eating is a cultural tradition several thousands of years in the making.

Eating our competitors


David George Gordon, author of the seminal Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and based in Washington State, says our North American cultural aversion comes from our own "war on bugs:" the bug versus human competition for food sources which leads to pesticides and other chemical warfare.

Eating our competitors, says Gordon, is often seen as "sleeping with the enemy."

Though his cookbook has brought to the mainstream the likes of "Three Bee Salad," "Pest-O" and "Chocolate Cricket Torte," Gordon admits this may not mean the beginning of a bug-eating trend.

"People are getting more into comfort foods, the crazier the world gets," he says, yet feels there may be an undercurrent of experimental culinary enthusiasts waiting to find the next exotic cuisine.

For instance, "sushi bars are going gangbusters."

So could bugs be the next sushi? Not any time soon, according to Gordon. As much as we're trying new things, he says, bugs have been the victims of lots of "negative publicity."

And besides, North Americans "are not used to eating whole anything" - the thought of munching on a grasshoppers may be enough to send consumers back to the cold cuts aisle.

Carol Maier, Entomologist and Owner of the Victoria Bug Zoo, says she has sensed a growing interest in bug eating in recent years. Maier hears a growing number of confessions from bug eating fanatics shy to bring their habits out of the closet. She believes there may be an underground movement of people interested in finding alternatives protein.

Yet even with this growing interest, Maier says most visitors are new to the idea of bug eating. The most common reaction to this section of the tour is the same as it's always been: "Yuck."

Helpful tips for bug eaters

If "Yuck" is pretty much your reaction, too, here's some food for thought:

Next time you enjoy a peanut butter and jam sandwich, you may be ingesting a hit of protein than you didn't bargain for - to the tune of as many as 56 miscellaneous insect parts.

A scandal of cost-cutting in the peanut butter plant? Nope, just your daily insect quotient, according to FDA regulations cited in the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook by naturalist and insect chef David George Gordon.

And now that your appetite's whetted here are some Bug Eating Tips:

1- Never eat a raw bug. Like any other raw living thing, they can carry harmful parasites. Bugs can be most humanely…er… "prepared" by freezing them
2- You can find most edible bugs, including grasshoppers, mealworms and tarantulas, at your local pet store. For more exotic pests, check the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook for a list of bulk bug suppliers
3- Contact the Entomology department of your local university or college - they generally house some seasoned bug eaters who may be able to trade recipes or tips.
4- The web is crawling with bug recipes. For recipes for traditional bug cuisine or some contemporary favorites at Iowa State University's Entomology Club page

Caroline Skelton is a writer based in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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