Smorgasbug: All you ever wanted to know about bug eating
By Paul Sterman
STAFF WRITER - August 6, 2000
It's a warm and languid Sunday afternoon, and Yvette Stegner is playing with her two young sons as she and friends picnic at San Francisco's packed Dolores Park.
The group sits on a couple of park benches, talking and laughing and soaking up the sun. On the tables are Coca-Cola, beer, pretzels and chips.
It's a quintessential summer picnic scene - except for one little detail.
The main dish is mealworms.
Not hot dogs, or hamburgers, or barbecued chicken, or bologna sandwiches. But deep fried mealworms.
With a little garlic salt and hot sauce thrown in.
The picnickers happily munch away on the mealworms, scooping them up as if they were french fries. One guy tosses his head back and deposits a whole handful into his mouth.
Later, they'll fry up a batch of crickets. And for the culinary coup de grace, one man brings a big pot of home-made spaghetti with 100 giant mealworms mixed into the pile of pasta.
He broiled the bugs rather than fried them. Gotta eat healthy, he says.
The seven adults are part of a loosely organized group that calls itself the Bay Area Bug Eating Society, or BABES. They have gathered here to talk about - and demonstrate - their interest in ingesting insects.
For Stegner, this picnic represents her baptism in bugs as food. The 27-year-old Oakland resident says she always enjoys tasting new foods, so she decided to give this a try.
``It's like when you're in college - that spirit of `Let's try something new, let's do something different that hasn't been done before,'[TH]" she says.
After trying the worms and crickets, Stegner says she likes the bugs just fine. Her 9-year-old son Eric, however, is of a different mind.
The youngster says he took a small bite of a fried cricket - and then promptly spit the rest of it out on the ground. Asked what he thought of the experience, he replies, ``Nasty!"
Eric wants to play with the insects, not eat them. He and his 8-year-old brother, Brian, sit on the grass, enthralled by a cluster of worms and crickets they have put in a plastic container.
They take the bugs out and set them scurrying on the ground.
``Don't play with your food," quips mom.
Thanks to the wildly popular ``Survivor" TV series, eating bugs is getting a lot of attention these days. The contestants had to chow down on live insects as part of the competition to see who can survive a month on a tropical island and win $1 million.
But there are also people in our midst who choose to eat bugs. Who like to eat bugs. Who cook the crunchy creatures and include them in their daily diets.
When these people say, ``Waiter, there's a fly in my soup," they're not complaining - they're asking him to add more.
The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy. Those who do it say it is safe, but advise that people cook any insects they plan to eat. That kills off any parasites that might exist.
Also, people need to be wary of where they get their insects because of people's tendency to spray pesticides and chemicals on them.
Scott Bowers, the 30-year-old founder of BABES, is a recent convert to creepy crawler cuisine. His interest began a couple of years ago, after he snagged a bunch of crickets in a Fresno field one day, then went home and whipped up a little dish of cricket snack mix.
Now the San Francisco resident is singing the praises of culinary creations like cricket curry over rice, little tarantula cakes and - his favorite - fried grasshoppers.
As Bowers giddily writes on the BABES Web site he created: ``No one can resist the toe tappin', hand clappin', exoskeleton snappin' satisfaction of entomophagy."
The bible for bug eaters is the ``The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook." Published by Berkeley's Ten Speed Press in 1998, the book was penned by David George Gordon, who says he's the world's best-known bug eater.
Gordon has talked about his culinary cravings on ``Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" and ``The Conan O'Brien Show." He convinced Conan to try a cockroach.
The writer and chef, who lives near Seattle, says bug eating is an idea whose time has come.
``You don't have to be a weird beatnik to do it," he says in a recent phone interview.
``People in general are getting progressively more adventurous about what they eat," he adds, noting that 10 years ago many thought the idea of eating sushi seemed strange.
When it comes to cooking exotic bug cuisine, Gordon's dishes are real doozies. His book includes recipes for Cream of Katydid Soup, Sweet and Sour Silkworm, Three Bee Salad, Larval Latkes, Scorpion Scallopine and Superworm Tempura with a plum dipping sauce.
If none of those dishes does it for you, how about his Termite Treats, which resemble Rice Krispy Treats only with termites as the main ingredient? There's also Pest-O: common garden weevils dabbed in a delicate basil sauce.
Asked about the tastes of various insects, Gordon says crickets taste like shrimp, scorpions taste like crabs and grasshoppers taste like green peppers.
Gordon, also the author of ``The Compleat Cockroach," has been touring across the country for the USA network in recent weeks. He's giving bug-cooking demonstrations as a way to promote the USA killer-bug movie ``They Nest."
As part of the promotion, the network held cockroach-eating contests in various cities. Participants had 20 of the Gordon-cooked creatures placed on their plates. The first person to eat all 20 won $5,000.
``That separates the men from the boys," says the chef. ``It's one thing to eat crickets - it's another thing to eat cockroaches."
If you've got a sweet tooth, maybe insect candy is more to your liking. Or cookies - Gordon bakes batches of White Chocolate and Waxworm Cookies that he says are to die for.
Hot Lix is an 11-year-old insect-candy company that has a store in Pismo Beach. Among its tasty treats: chocolate-covered ants, Cricket Lick-It suckers, and Larvets.
You won't find any of those in your office vending machine.
If the Hot Lix line whets your appetite, you can call the company at 1-800-EAT WORM for more information.
``The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook" lists bug-eating events around the country. These include the annual Insectival at Georgia's State Botanical Garden, and various events presented by college entomology departments, such as Purdue University's Bug Cafe and its Big Bug Bake-Off.
Iowa State University has an entomology club that posts recipes on its Web site for such snacks as Banana Worm Bread and Rootworm Beetle Dip. The site's address is www.ent.iastate.edu/misc/insectsasfood.
Gordon's book also provides another bit of essential information for the man or woman who plans to be regularly consuming crickets and grasshoppers: where to find high-quality toothpicks.
For many people, of course, the thought of insects being edible is nothing short of incredible. They find the idea gross, disgusting and crazy.
But bug devourers say this kind of thinking is just plain silly. For one thing, they point out, we areeating insects all the time - we just don't know it.
Ground-up bugs often get into cereal and bread during the manufacturing process, Bowers says. Bugs also are found in fruits, juices and vegetables.
The eschewing of bug food seems a particular brand of American squeamishness, say insect eaters, who add that such an attitude seems odd for a people who have no problem consuming cows, chickens and other livestock.
In other cultures around the world, insects are a regular part of people's diets, they note, particularly in places where food is scarce.
``Once you get out of the Western world, people are not even thinking about (eating bugs) as any different than eating chicken or shrimp, because it's a very good source of protein and calories," says Bowers, who studied anthropology in college and has traveled extensively.
In Mexico, says Gordon, people eat grasshopper tacos, and in Colombia fried ants is viewed as a snack akin to popcorn.
``It does seem like people (in the United States) are repulsed by the idea of eating bugs," adds Bowers. ``I think it's just cultural conditioning. It takes a lot to undo some kinds of conditioning."
Brian Fisher, the curator of entomology for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, is another one who views America's bug-eating taboo as wrong-headed.
``Throughout the history of mankind, nobody has ever been hurt eating insects, but countless injuries have occurred because of keeping bugs away from our food - in terms of pesticides and all the efforts using chemicals to keep bugs away from us," says Fisher.
The entomologist, whose research specialty is ants, has traveled to South America, Africa and other locations around the world for his work, and he's eaten insects with the people who live in these places.
Fisher has dined on grasshoppers, worms, ants and beetle larvae.
``If you stir-fry these beetle larvae, they're quite yummy," says Fisher, 35. ``I guarantee you that if you served them in a restaurant and didn't tell anyone what they were, people would love them."
Jaime Yarbrough, who brought the spaghetti-and-worm dish to Dolores Park, says he likes eating bugs for health reasons. They're high in protein, low in cholesterol and have lots of amino acids, says the 48-year-old, who estimates he prepares insect meals about once a month.
Fellow picnicker Diaz Kwan has also been bitten by the bug. Drinking beer and eating fried mealworms for the first time, he says he likes this snack.
``I'd like to see these in Jamba Juice," says Kwan. ``They're a company that's pretty progressive."
If you decide to eat bugs, the main rule of thumb when it comes to healthy preparation is simply to cook the creatures thoroughly rather than eat them raw. That way you're sure to kill off potential parasites.
Bowers says people should be careful of where they get insects. For example, gathering bugs from a public park might not be a good idea because there may be a lot of pesticide on them.
Bowers also says people who are allergic to shellfish should probably stay away from eating insects.
Pet food stores and bait shops are good places to purchase items like worms, crickets and ants, say bug consumers. For the BABES picnic, Bowers bought 50 giant mealworms from a local pet food store for less than $3.
When the group is ready to eat, he pours corn oil into his portable camping stove and heats it up. Once the oil is bubbling, he empties the batch of worms into the stove.
Then Bowers takes a pair of tongs and stirs the bugs around. When they're cooked to a crisp golden brown, he pours the worms onto a big piece of newspaper spread out on the table. And then the picnickers partake.
They ask passers-by in the park if they want to try any of the food, but no one takes them up on the offer. After a while, one man comes over and grabs a handful of the bugs from the grease-stained paper and stuffs them into his mouth. He smiles and says thanks.
It isn't clear whether the man knew what he was eating - or was just very hungry and didn't care as long as it was free.
The BABES group doesn't meet regularly. It has only had a couple of informal gatherings since Bowers formed the club in February of 1999. But he says there is a lot of interest in the BABES Web site, where information is posted and exchanged about bug eating. The site's address is www.planetscott.com/BABES.
Bowers, who develops Web sites for a living, says there are 300 people on the site's e-mail list, about half of those being from the Bay Area and others writing from all over the world.
A look at the site offers some interesting reading.
A woman named Courtney unburdens herself of a family secret: ``We have eaten grasshoppers for generations, but I am the first one to come out of the closet about it." Arthur, who is taking a nutrition course at a community college in Florida, writes that he is preparing a paper on entomophagy for extra credit. As part of his project, he bought some crickets and made Chocolate Chip Chirpie Cookies.
One man writes from Madras, India. He shares his eating experiences, telling of the delicious Mopane worm he ate in South Africa and of the special way to prepare termite dishes in India.
The bug banquet at Dolores Park is starting to wind down. Stegner's two little boys continue to play with their insects. However, they're getting hungry. Eric grabs a bowl of the spaghetti - leaving out the worms.
``You want some, Brian?" he asks his brother. ``There's no bugs."
Stegner smiles as she strokes Brian's hair, talking to him about the family's bug-eating expedition.
``See, this is something you can tell your friends about," she says. ``I bet their moms don't do this."
You can e-mail Paul Sterman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (925) 416-4842.