By Sharon Jacobs, NGM staff
I have a confession to make: I’m scared of bugs. I still routinely ask friends and family members to dispose of creepy crawlers for me. I got more than a little freaked out during the animated Pixar movie A Bug’s Life. And when I spotted my first cockroach outside of National Geographic last summer, I could only stand staring, dumbstruck.
So it may seem somewhat strange that I recently volunteered to go to an insect discussion and tasting — yes, tasting — hosted by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Washington D.C.
For moral support, I brought along coworker Mel Kramer, who is a self-described “not-very-adventurous eater.”
Yep — one reporter with a mild case of insectophobia and one who mostly eats cereal — we were definitely the best people to cover this assignment.
The point of the event was not necessarily to eat bugs, though that was certainly a big draw. It was to teach us — the mostly bug-adverse general public — just how delicious insects are and how they can be used to supplement humans’ diets around the world.
We learned that two billion people already eat more than 1,900 species of bugs, from giant spiders to chocolate-covered ants. Another two billion lack sufficient animal proteins. We heard Marcel Dicke, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, explain that it takes far less feed to raise insects than livestock, and they pack a protein punch. Besides, we all eat bugs anyway—up to 500 grams of them each year, Dicke told us.
(Find out which insects are most popular to eat.)
I can’t argue against the ecological sustainability of using bugs as food. As a semi-vegetarian, I also understand the health benefits. But like many Westerners, I’ve been psychologically conditioned to not munch on creatures I can kill with a shoe. (Though, to be honest, I prefer to capture bugs in a large jar and deposit them in the backyard while screaming.)
After the lecture, it was time to get down to business: there was guacamole dusted with crickets, ground mealworm-based Dutch pancakes, and cicadas skewered with asparagus to eat.
We started off with crickets.
Sharon: The roasted, spiced crickets reminded me of baked kale, only with wings, legs, and eyes. They’re flaky and crunchy, and they disintegrate into little bits from the first bite. I’d still take kale over crickets, all day, any day. But this was the easiest bug for me to eat—crickets are so perfectly bite-sized, and whatever taste their bodies had was overpowered by the salt and spice they were cooked in. We first ate our crickets solo, then as a guacamole topping—which was a nice textural bait-and-switch but a bit of a mental scramble. Guacamole, to me, is a picnic food, and I’ve often seen bugs land on bowls of guac. But I do not generally eat them.
Mel: Jiminey, this was a hard one to start with. We were told ahead of time “not to watch the bugs” because that would make them easier to swallow. But it’s impossible to hold a bug in your hand that you’re going to eat without thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is about to go into my mouth.” Which it did. I will say that the cricket itself did not taste like much. It had been basted in a spice mixture, as Sharon noted. But the texture. I could not get over the texture and the idea of wings in my mouth. (Note to my dentist: You should be proud. I flossed for hours last night.)
Next up: mealworms.
Sharon: Looking at a pinch of mealworms in my hand had me feeling like I’d landed in The Lion King scene where Simba learns to eat grub—slimy, yet satisfying!—but cooked, they’re actually quite crispy and airy. And unlike the crickets or cicadas, I did not feel like I had residual bug parts in my mouth after swallowing. Baked into Dutch pancakes and served with blueberries and whipped cream, the mealworms were hardly noticeable. Just a slight nutty aftertaste. This one I would eat again—not everyday, but maybe for special occasions.
Mel: I ate one mealworm. It was spicy and reminded me of the time I accidentally ate a shrimp’s head. But this mealworm wasn’t so bad. Sure, it left a greasy residue on my fingers. And no, I wouldn’t bring a bag of mealworms to a movie theater. But I’d try one again, particularly if it was sour cream and onion flavored.
The coup de grace was cicadas.
Sharon: Our cicadas were de-winged, de-legged, and speared on a toothpick. I am not ashamed to admit I covered mine in aioli so I wouldn’t have to look at it. I took a bite, and suddenly my mouth was filled with exoskeleton. Really, cicadas are so big—the crickets were as small as a raisin, while the cicada was the size of a prune—that when you eat one, you end up with a bunch of pointy slabs of body all over the place. University of Maryland entomologist Michael Raupp told us he eats cicadas alive. I am not sure I will be able to look at one again.
Mel: I’m glad cicadas only emerge from underground every 13 to 17 years. That’s about the length of time you want to wait in between eating them.
(But if you really want to try, here are some cicada recipes.)
So, can average Americans be converted to entomophagy? Judging from our experience: Only sort of.
Sharon: It was easier for me to eat bugs when they were ground up like a proper ingredient (à la mealworm pancakes), and harder when they still looked like bugs. But I was surprised at how smoothly they went down—except for that cicada, which almost turned me off of insects for good. Maybe I have reached a point in my bug-fear journey where if the best way to make them go away is to swallow them, I will take it.
Mel: Here’s my prediction. If pies are the new cupcakes, and cakepops are possibly the new pies, then in 3 to 5 years, we’ll be seeing cicadas as the new cakepops. Just let me cleanse my palate first with an ant sorbet. On second thought, maybe I’ll just stick with cereal.