Monday, July 23, 2007

A matter of taste

Something not addressed thus far in these posts: how do the insects taste?
One kind of answer deals with the details – dry-toasted cricket tastes like sunflower seeds; katydid like toasted avocado; palm grub like bacon soup with a chewy, sweet finish. Weaver ant pupae have practically no flavor, while the meat of the giant water bug is, astonishingly, like a salty, fruity, flowery Jolly Rancher. People are usually amazed by it.

The other kind of answer is more theoretical and conceptual: often, insects taste the way that people expect them to. After all, they’re absolutely outside the norm for us and it’s considered freakish to eat them. If insects were delicious then we’d all know it and we’d eat them, since we like delicious food. Whereas if insects are perceived [however incorrectly] as dirty, disgusting, disease-bearing vermin, the chances that they’ll be deemed delicious are pretty low.

Last March David Letterman had an exotic foods expert on the show; the occasion was a banquet at The Explorers Club. There was a long table set up with a slew of weird foods – giant hissing cockroaches were visible, but the short segment did not include that tasting. Letterman tried boiled ostrich egg, eyeballs, rattlesnake, and a bunch of other stuff. Both along the way and at the end he proclaimed them all horrible. Given that these foods were part of a lavish banquet given every year at a prestigious institution, the culinary preparations would not be in doubt. Rather, it’s likelier that Letterman (and, by extension, a lot of people) tried the food expecting it to be awful and this created its own outcome.

This is part of the challenge that I face. In my experience it’s not very often that those people who are willing to try an insect find it delicious. Three possible reasons for that occur to me: 1, that the insects are simply not good-tasting; 2, my cooking skills are not very good; or 3, the afore-mentioned culturally-based predilection toward the rejection of bugs as food.

On the other hand, the most frequent response I get from a taster at one of my events is, “Gee, that’s really not so bad.” This is actually encouraging, and part of me thinks that I should be quite satisfied with that reaction. I’m not. The goal must be to have people amazed at how truly tasty the insects are. I fault my cooking skills, or lack thereof, and I’ve resolved to partner with chefs so that I can bring my abilities to the next level, and do the insect ingredients justice, at last.

Friday, July 20, 2007

It's not super-stardom, but...

It's gratifying nonetheless. A charming young lady at that Newark event had written me up in her blog:

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Basics 3: Other resources [online]

It's been useful to remind myself that I'm not the only Westerner out there advocating for entomophagy. Brings to mind that John Lennon song: 'You may say that I'm a dreamer,' and so on. There are other voices shouting in the wilderness. Here's a listing of them; first entomophagy, then insect-related in general.
The ultimate source of information online regarding the edibility of insects. Includes: entomology; nutrition; general research; cultural aspects; societal reactions; etc, etc.
Further articles and content from The Food Insects Newsletter (FINL)
LOTS of good info, but no images. From what I've gathered, this is one of the earlier websites created. It was gone for a while, but it's back. Wrought by one Aletheia Price, who was 17 at the time. Includes recipes. I believe that a good deal of the same content can be found at
Hailing from the Seattle Area, David George Gordon is the most renowned entomophagist in the country. He's written a slew of books on various kinds of "bugs," including a cookbook; the site includes one or two of the recipes therewithin.
Representing the good people at B.A.B.E.S., the Bay Area Bug Eating Society (which may or may not be currently active). The site's creator is Scott Bowers, who has traveled to various parts of the world in order to eat their insects. Includes recipes.
Various images of people eating insects.
From the University of Kentucky

Other insect recipes

Raising mealworms and crickets

[Highly Helpful] General Insect stuff:
This last one is a really cool project to gather a lot of information centered on the insect hobbyist, including a lot of good insect-rearing help.

A Colony Attacked

This might not seem a dramatic image. It was the site of a great catastrophe, at least from the perspective of the carpenter ant colony that lived there. I am what befell that colony.

I'd first turned over the log on impulse, and replaced it carefully when I found a seething mass of large, winged black ants. I returned the next day and a few times after that over the next four or five days. The ants were members of the genus Camponotus, a.k.a. carpenter ants. I've known for some time that people have eaten these ants here and there; supposedly lumberjacks in 19th Century Maine ate them to avoid scurvy.

I'd envisioned a "clean kill," meaning a labor-efficient harvest wherein I could harvest the insects only. It didn't work out that way, mostly because the ants had no interest in being harvested and therefore tried to run away very quickly. And it's true that that seething business rattled me; I knew that the ants couldn't hurt me, it was just that as I was scrambling to collect as many as I could, this is what I ended up with:

A whole lot of wood bits, dead leaves, and some soil, with a good deal of ant-made sawdust. It required a good deal of processing. I would've liked to document this process, but the sad truth about both this blog and much of my work in entomophagy is that I do a lot of it alone so there's no one to hold the camera.

I had about six or sevent containers from my various raids; some had this litter from the forest floor; in others it was mostly sawdust from inside the log. I found that sifting the mix in large bowls worked quite well, reminiscent of the old-fashioned wheat-from-chaff technique. All of this in order to get to the prize: the pupae.

Of course I'd collected a heck of a lot of ants too, and I was most interested in them also, despite my slight concerns about Wolbachia -- an endosymbiont that wouldn't do me much good if it was in my system. Here's the ants with a few bits of wood [toward the end of the sifting].

And here they are again -- the queen (one of many; methinks the colony, having done well for itself, was about to send a whole raft of winged alates into the the world); some drones; and the necessary workers.

I find the ants quite beautiful, dead or alive. And working on prepping them as food emphasized what I'd felt when I was collecting them at that log -- a touch of guilt.

I thought of the colony as a society or a machine consisting of living parts, each of which pursues its function for the greater good of the whole. This conception is on my mind quite a lot, and it's something that I'm pretty sure I wouldn't find in hunting magazines (if I read them, that is). A "real" hunter, as represented in such publications, respects his or her mission and goal; respects the quarry and the landscape too; honors the kill, but doesn't succumb to any feelings of guilt about having to kill. After all, hunting is simply the involvement of the meat-consumer in the process of getting the meat, and therefore the hunter is more authentic than someone who simply lets others do the killing, and merely picks up the wrapped and sanitized Styrofoam tray in the supermarket. There's a lot to be said about that perspective.

I appreciate the times when I feel this way, which I sometimes do. Other times, though, I have other feelings. When I was collecting cicadas off the trees in New Jersey in 2004 I thought a lot about the fact that these insects had been underground for 17 years, all in order to emerge and mate and die. All of that time in preparation for procreation -- arguably, the prime evolutionary function and purpose of every organism. And here I was, getting in the way of that. Granted, it's not much of a stretch to say that I was acting like any other predator. The mass emergence strategy of these multiple billions of cicadas was an evolutionary response to my actions as much as it was to the actions of birds, snakes, skunks, raccoons, bats, etc. The cicadas are a temporary banquet. "Go ahead," the vast numbers seem to say. "Eat all you want. We'll make more anyway. All of your efforts cannot make much of a dent in our overall numbers." How generous. Yet I remember the mixed feelings as I scooped up dozens of handfuls of live adult, newly-winged cicadas and the just-emerging nymphs into the large ziploc bags that went straight into the large icy cooler.

And so it was with these ants. A nation is attacked by something with greater technology. I don't really need to kill the ants, since I have lots of other foods that I could eat. But I'm trying to make a point here with entomophagy. It's just like other kinds of hunting, right?

Another kind of hunting these days has been for dragonflies (and the odd grasshopper along the way). It's the opposite of 'anting;' for one thing, it requires stalking and netting the individual insect, and so it would seem to be less labor-efficient. Given the way that I've executed this ant project, though, it's a toss-up.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Basics Part 2: Tasters

My programs have been full of people who had to wait their turn to eat insects, and since we can't have you doubting me on that here's a more-or-less random gallery of tasters trying dishes at events from the last year or so.

Here's the scene at the Newark Museum's BugMania2. I was serving at the far tent.

This is Sarah, who really did enjoy her insects. I'm pretty sure that her grimace came from the fact that the cicada (barely visible between her teeth) was a little chewier than she'd expected.

One might ask whether images like this are good for the cause, given what an ordeal it looks like for her. But this may just be the face of someone readjusting her ideas about food, and getting used to a new concept -- after all, the vast majority of participants have never before deliberately eaten an insect -- one that, a week before or even 30 minutes before, seemed repulsive. So that's great progress then.

Besides, this blog is about what it's like to operate an edible insect company; therefore I'm not interested in pretending as though there won't be difficulties along the way. I'll blog the good and the not-so-perfect, like the resistance that inevitably comes..... Though Sarah was a great sport.

Visting with students in the Boston area.

Both Mom and Son tasted the crickets and/or cicadas; that day there were several kids -- and some adults -- who asked for seconds. I'm pretty sure he was one of them.

I never got this guy's name, but just look at that facial expression! He knew how to enjoy a good bug.

And once more: the look of YUM.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Basics Part 1: Presentations of the Past [and upcoming]

So far I've mostly focused on the recent acquisitions of fancy exotic insects, and it's been great to share that. Yet my "business history," if I can use that phrase, has centered more on simply feeding the public the crickets and other insects that I can get on a steady basis. Sometimes I tend to take these insects for granted; they're far from boring, and it's time that I featured them.

But before I go into detail about those bugs I'll focus on the people part of all this. These are the educational programs [and other notable business-related activities] I've done thus far. My website doesn't yet feature the entire list -- I'll put that on the list of things to do...


10/6: Peabody Museum of Natural History - Yale University; New Haven CT


3/7: ESA [Entomological Society of America] Eastern Branch Conf.; New Haven CT


3/17: AS220 Gallery; Providence RI
3/20: ESA [Entomological Society of America] Eastern Branch Conf.; Harrisburg PA
7/31: EcoTarium; Worcester MA
9/10: Dennison-Pequotsepos Nature Center; Mystic CT
10/9 Roger Williams Museum of Natural History; Providence RI
11/9: Menunkatuck Audubon; Guilford CT


9/15: Centers for Nature Education at Baltimore Woods; Marcellus NY
9/16: Helmer Nature Center; Rochester NY
10/7: Powder Mill Ledges Audubon Refuge; Smithfield RI
10/31: La Laiterie; Providence RI
11/17: Community MusicWorks; Providence RI
11/25: Jamestown Philomena Library; Jamestown RI
11/26: EcoTarium; Worcester MA


2/21: Radio Show Interview, WNRI; Woonsocket RI
3/10: Portsmouth Public Library; Portsmouth RI
3/15: Shipment, Tonight Show with Jay Leno; Burbank CA
3/17: Peace Valley Nature Center; Doylestown PA
3/18: ESA [Entomological Society of America] Eastern Branch Conf.; Harrisburg PA
4/17: NY Entomological Society; New York, NY
5/24: Cranston-Calvert Elementary School; Newport RI
5/24: Broad Meadow Brook Audubon; Worcester MA
6/09: Newark Museum; Newark NJ
6/25: Shipment, meeting of the Washington Entomological Society; Washington D.C.
8/01: Radio Show Interview, WNRI; Woonsocket RI
8/05: Farmer's Market; Mystic CT
8/12: NOFA Conference; Amherst MA

9/6: Powder Mill Ledges Audubon Refuge; Smithfield RI
9/29: Centers for Nature Education at Baltimore Woods; Marcellus NY
10/13: Central Square Festival; Cambridge MA

I bolded the last few listings because at this point they're coming up.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

ANOTHER new edible insect in the mail! The Big Ants

I've been sitting on this pretty amazing news for a little while now, getting ready to blog it, as the kids say. First I’d gotten the chapulines (picked up another 4.5 pounds from the Mexican market just today), then the cicadas, and then these big ants. By the Fall I hope to receive two or three other kinds of insects.

I’d contacted a member of, a pretty cool group that posts images of North American insects and other arthropods; identifies the species, collates geographical information, etc, etc. My contact lives in Texas and had posted images of leaf-cutter ants – specifically the alates, meaning the winged reproductives that some types of colony-living insects send out at specific times. In this case that would be, more or less, in the second half of May.

These ants [in the genus Atta] are cherished delicacies in Colombia and other places between there and the U.S. Were it not for concerns about slowing down these posts with lots of extra text I’d cite some intriguing stuff about the Spaniards, when they arrived in what became Colombia, scorning the local caviar, as it was thought of, only to attempt seizing control of the ant colonies once they got a taste for the insects. This decision provoked an uprising from the natives. Those interested in reading this for themselves can find it here.

Though at first that Texas connection wrote that -- had missed the brief emergence-time of those winged queen ants, word later came that -- had been successful after all! Very exciting news.

At length the large box arrived [note my foot for scale, and that I've cleverly obscured the sender's address on the shipping document]

inside was a Styrofoam cooler,

and inside that was OVER TWO POUNDS of ants.

They’re beautiful, impressive insects.

The real question, though: how do they taste? The morning after I got them I laid a few down on a hot iron skillet. I tried both winged and wing-free individuals; unlike those of the cicadas, these wings really did get in the way. The flavor is very nice; surprisingly mild.

I’ve tried these ants before – pre-packaged [and quite expensive.] The flavor is very intense, almost harsh. I’ve heard that fresh off the vendor’s cart in Colombia they’re heavenly (and, again, quite expensive). The ants are still enjoyed today, and are called “hormigas culonas,” or ‘big-bottom ants’ due to their impressive abdomens.

Given that I've greatly enjoyed these ants in other settings, I'm pretty certain that I can make them taste even better.

This item is just the kind of thing that those few discerning customers ask for; the ones who want more from life than the standard crickets and mealworms. When this happens I'm ready.

Also worth mentioning: I've seen one or two websites centered on the harvest and preparation of these ants in Colombia. Not altogether surprisingly, these sites are in Spanish, which I cannot translate. So getting some help with that would be great...

On the other side of the plate are the mopani worms; they shall have their own substantial post at some point.... Boy, would I love to get a source of those!!

As for the Texan ants: my source mentioned having some ideas for, hopefully, an even bigger harvest next Spring.

The Support of Paper

The package that arrived from Japan; hopefully there will be other packages of materials concerning entomophagy. As much as I'd like to get actual processed insects from around the world [no live ones, please -- at least not yet. That would be a logistical and legal nightmare that I'm not at all ready for], starting a good library of information will be a great start.

Inside were two offerings: a wonderful book on insects and their varied environments around the world...

Check out the 'warrior-mantid' pose. Many kinds of mantids go through this display -- you might call it a bluff except that they're quite capable of doing some damage with their raptorial fore-limbs. It's not hard to find accounts of mantids killing and eating birds and other surprisingly large prey.

The other contents of the package: within the large envelope, the entire first incarnation of The Food Insects Newsletter, clearly the best repository of information on entomophagy. The Newsletter was founded in 1988 by Gene DeFoliart at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After 22 issues [3 per year] it was taken over by Florence Dunkel at the University of Montana, where another 12 issues were published. This second phase of the FINL seems to have ended as of July 1999, though that may well change at some point.

I've long been fond of the Newsletter's logo. It gave me inspiration for my own company's graphic...

Within the sphere of those who know about or have some curiosity about entomophagy (which we know has never been a particularly popular subject) this publication is quite well known. People have asked me about the FINL at several of the events that I've run, and when the subject of entomophagy comes up on the ENTOMO-L listserv, for example, the Newsletter is always mentioned. It's a real shame that this resource is not currently available.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Tale of Nick

The story of Nick.

In mid-April 2005 I posted a classified ad on a site devoted to insect-collecting. I’d been lurking there for some time, uninterested in their discussions of cherished pinned specimens, etc. This was the ad:

Wanted!! Edible Insects! Educator seeks reliable, safe sources of processed edible insects from around the world. Will arrange permits, etc with you [not difficult]. Orders between 1 and 2 kilos desired, though this is negotiable. The insect products should be dried or canned. NO PRESERVED SPECIMENS, as they are not edible. NO LIVE SPECIMENS.

That’s what brought Nick into the picture. My non-partnership with Nick Kugbeadzor of Accra, Ghana was like other things in life.

At least some of what I’m going to say from here on out may seem a little ridiculous, at least in the light of 20/20 hindsight.

Eventually other things became clear to me. For example, shipping only one or two kilos would be very expensive, and I didn’t know the first thing about the permits I’d alluded to. In the bigger picture, it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe there were good reasons why no one else had been importing mopane from Africa.

I remember it seeming like magic; in fact it was a form of seduction. He was enthusiastic and optimistic; he was playing me like a $2 fiddle, and I completely failed to see it. But I take some comfort in the fact that a huge number of people are routinely swindled out of their hard-earned money, and many of them lose far more than I did. So a little contextualization helps.

I’m not telling how much I sent. This is because everyone would have his or her own reaction as to what constitutes a lot of money. Some would be awestruck that I had sent so much while others would think it a small loss. It was neither; but it was a considerable sum from my point of view, and that’s the key variable.

[[[UPDATE (of sorts)]]]
It’s now late November, 2008, and perhaps I’m committing a breach of blog etiquette by messing with chronology but I can explain. I’m just now replacing this entry, having removed it at Nick’s request, which was many months ago. He said that the post would damage his reputation (HA!) and that if I removed it he would make things right between us. Sounded good to me, so I complied.
A longer version of this entry – which might well be complete with an excerpt of our IM exchanges – will hopefully find a home in the book I plan to get published.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Next Bug: cicadas

Cicadas are the insects people hear more often than see; they're the loud buzzing sound we may associate with summer. When we see them, it's often as a flash -- they're super fast flyers. But they're not so fast when they emerge; they crawl out of the ground in their nymphal shells, climb up a tree or some other nearby vertical [like one's legs, if one stands still for a while], and struggle out of their skins. After that it's still a long while before they can fly. And all of this time is when you can scoop them up by the pound.

Some species live only one year; the periodic cicadas are better known due to their staggering emergences. A predator-response strategy has led the species to stay beneath ground for either 13 or 17 years (depending on the particular species) and then come up more or less at the same time. This allows a range of creatures to eat as many as they want and still allow a good percentage of the insects a chance to reproduce.

And here's a single one:

In 2004 the "famous" Brood X emerged in many states on the Eastern Seaboard; I drove down to Princeton, NJ; slept in my car on campus during Memorial Day weekend; and harvested eight or nine pounds of cicadas from a few massive beech trees on the Princeton campus. I've been serving them -- sauteed or dry-toasted -- to the public ever since. A few images of that event are on my website.

This year it was Brood XIII's turn. They were locally numerous in the Chicago area, and since I couldn't get out there I contacted a professor of Entomology, who knew of a few graduate students -- my official "THANKS" go out to James (Jamie) Zahnisser and his crew of friends -- who were willing to collect some for me. The cicadas arrived a couple of weeks ago.

After a little rinsing, I packed them into the freezer (as I've said before, I've got an understanding wife).

Though the bowl design features "pasta," we should note that insects are basically the protein source of a meal.

Cicadas are found worldwide and are a very popular food. Heck, Aristotle wrote that the last earth-bound stage, before the animal breaks through its thin brown shell, that's the tastiest. He loved them.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Summer of New Bugs: The Chapulines

Chapulines are the name for "Grasshoppers" in Mexico, where they are a pretty popular kind of food -- the most popular insect food, though there are several other insects consumed there as well. This part of the story of my business starts with Chapulines because they came first chronologically. I've got two varieties now; the larger ones are from the state of Morelos, and I got them last October. Unfortunately the source is pretty much non-renewable, though I have some hope that I can get more of them. They're dry and crunchy and really good.

The second kind I got more recently; the first batch was almost a month ago. They're from Oaxaca -- the next state over from Morelos and the part where chapulines are best-known and most popular throughout Mexico. I'd learned that YES, there is legal importation of Mexican grasshoppers from Mexico -- they're exported to just a few places, including a town about 40 minutes from where I grew up. So I called up the store, and on my way to visit Mom I dropped by to pick up their last pound of 'hoppers, which they had put aside for me.

A variety of grasshoppers are collected and sold in Oaxaca, and in fact these insects seem to be culturally notable (there's a saying that goes something like, "Those who taste the Chapulines will always return to Oaxaca") but they seem to be known for the little tiny ones not much bigger than rice grains, which is what the market in NY sells:

In the basket or plate, these little ones have the appearence of shredded dried beef (though, granted, when you examine them up close, they look rather insect-like). In the mouth they're somehow both meaty and crunchy. They're sold cold and damp, whereas the larger ones are as dry as crackers. They're also considerably spicier than the larger ones. I have plans to buy a good deal more of the second variety, since I hope to have customers. In fact I've introduced this very tasty food to two restaurants in Providence (they haven't quite committed yet, but the proprietors are quite intrigued, so... fingers crossed!)