By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • June 3, 2016
The aperitif cocktail was mealworm puree syrup, shaken with bitter Aperol, fresh lemon juice and ice, topped off with Cava and a strip of lemon zest. Verdict: Tasty, with a slight silkiness from the worms’ fat content.
The first course: Ant eggs and Amaro-soaked crickets on a log of celery filled with peanut butter gel, atop a bed of roasted mushroom “dirt” and local greens. The ants and crickets: crunchy, and easily obscured by the flavor of peanut butter.
On and on it went, through five courses and a second, mid-meal cocktail, at Detroit Ento’s Dinner Experience, a formal meal served in conjunction with the Eating Insects Detroit conference held last week at Wayne State University.
The bartender, Kyle Thousand, did a stint at one of the region’s top cocktail bars, the Oakland, and two esteemed local chefs—Brent Foster and Phil Jones—shared billing for the meal. The idea behind the dinner, says organizer Anthony Hatinger, was to “highlight what local chefs and bartenders can do with new food products” such as crickets, mealworms, ants and larvae.
Hatinger has an interest in making that case: He’s a co-founder of Detroit Ento, an edible cricket-and mealworm-company based in Detroit. But so did attendees at the dinner’s second seating of several dozen diners; many of them worked in edible bugs, too.
There was famed “Bug Chef” David George Gordon, handing out stickers that bore his likeness and the phrase, “I Ate a Bug with the Bug Chef.” (Though Gordon was present only as a diner, he shared that he’d recently served Neil deGrasse Tyson a deep-fried tarantula. The Detroit dinner, by comparison, was a little more mild.) There was the trio of Goldin brothers from Entomo Farms, a cricket and mealworm production company based in Ontario, Canada, which bills itself as the largest edible insect producer in the western hemisphere. On one side sat Aly Moore, a self-made entomophagy food blogger atBugible.com. On the other side sat Bill Broadbent, who runs the edible-insect-product distribution website, EntoSense he founded last July. And there was Robert Nathan Allen, an energetic, bearded 31-year-old from Austin, TX, who formerly worked at Aspire Food Group, a leading edible insect company. Today, Allen heads up an educational nonprofit, Little Herds, that he founded in 2013 to boost Americans’ interest in—and taste for—bugs.
So, how did they get into eating bugs?
“My mom sent me a video about eating insects…and it was like a light bulb went off,” says Allen. “I didn’t realize how nutritious it was, and how resource efficient it was. And then I was really amazed that there weren’t more people talking about this.”
Advocates of entomophagy—the practice of eating bugs—often cite bugs’ high nutrition and low environmental impact as benefits of eating bugs. Where producing one kilogram of beef requires an average of 50 square meters of arable land, and 22,000 liters of water, one kg of crickets requires just 15 square meters and less than one liter of water, according to a Little Herds analysis of United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization data. Nutritionally, the primary selling point of insects is their high protein content. Chapulines in Mexico, for example, post 35-48 percent protein; beef, by comparison, is 19-26 percent, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Anthropologist Julie Lesnik, who runs the blog, Entomophagy Anthropology, spearheaded the conference in Detroit to not only advocate for the eating of insects, but to convene the leaders of a nascent industry. Indeed, experts and producers from fifteen countries attended, ranging from Colombia to Benin, Thailand to Canada. Panels explored the ethics of labor and animal treatment; techniques for bug production; and the potential for bug farms to provide employment as the industry expands. (Right now, says Lesnik, “the biggest companies have maybe four employees.”)
While bug farms are new in North America, other countries have a longer history with them. In Thailand, for example, crickets are routinely grown on small farms that then sell into distribution chains, says Nathan Preteseille, who works for both Thailand-basedBugsolutely, which manufactures a pasta with 20 percent cricket flour, and AETS Consultants, which promotes the use of insects for commercial fish food.
Much of the industry is focused not on producing bugs for direct human consumption, says Lesnik, but on using bugs to create or augment other foods. Black fly larvae, for example, is used as feed for both fish and chickens, which naturally consume insects. And while some bug byproducts can be used in pharmaceuticals, it’s also gaining popularity as a protein-laden additive for processed foods like protein bars.
Still, making the case that bugs can be delicious may help people get over the ick factor (see Bug Off: Why Insect Eating Is More Gimmick Than Reality.) It’s important for trained chefs to be doing meals like these, says Gordon, the “Bug Chef,” because of the power of persuasion that a good meal can offer. “You can talk about how good it is for the environment until you’re blue in the face,” he says. “But if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter.”