David George Gordon, also known as “The Bug Chef,” has shared his love for cooking insects through demonstrations in thirty-two states and four foreign countries. The Seattle-based chef and naturalist is the author of nineteen books, including 1998’s The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook.
The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook has just been revised and re-released by Ten Speed Press.
Around the world, an estimated two billion people regularly eat insects, which are part of the cuisines of many cultures, reports the United Nations. At least 1,900 insect species are thought to be edible (see “U.N. Urges Eating Insects; 8 Popular Bugs to Try”). (Scientists suggest that they be well cooked, because some insects can harbor nematodes or other parasites that can cause problems.)
National Geographic spoke to Gordon about his recipes and his passion for eating insects.
How did you get into cooking bugs?
In 1996 I published a book called The Compleat Cockroach, on everything you wanted to know about cockroaches. In working on that I found out a lot about cockroaches as medicine and food around the world.
So in 1998 I did a cookbook on eating bugs [the first version of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook]. I thought it would be a fun way to get that information into peoples’ hands without giving them a big scholarly text. That was before Fear Factor and all these bizarre food shows.
I worked a year in my kitchen developing recipes, and that’s how I became the go-to guy for eating bugs. Fifteen years later, the book is out again in a revised, updated form.
The original book was kind of wacky, but now there is a lot more scientific credibility to the whole notion of why we should be eating insects. The new book is more elegant and sophisticated.
(Watch video: “Food: Eating Insects.”)
How long have you been eating bugs?
I could trace that back to about 1995 or 1996. I went to an insect fair in the Seattle area, where one of the booths was serving Chex mix with crickets in it. It reminded me of snacks from Japan with little dried fish, but this was the first time I had eaten a bug. I was surprised that I liked it.
I have a recipe in my book for oven-baked cricket party mix, which was inspired by that. Crickets are a wonderful bug to get started on because you can buy them from a pet store or bait shop, freeze them, and then cook with them. They are available year round and are reared in fairly sanitary conditions.
I have them about once a week or every other week, sort of like a “meatless Monday.”
I also have bags of grasshoppers I bring out for snacks when people are visiting.
Should people collect bugs from their own backyards to eat?
People should avoid collecting bugs from their own backyards because there is a good chance people are using pesticides, so if you eat those bugs you are taking in small doses of pesticides. If you are going to collect bugs I advise going far from civilization.
If you harvest every bug you can find from one area it could make a dent on the ecology in that area. I recommend the one in five rule: collect one but only if you can find five others from that species. But for the most part I tell people to eat stuff that is raised commercially. Insects have been raised for decades for pet food and fishing bait, and only in the last year or so are people rearing insects expressly to feed people.
Why should people eat bugs?
A recent [United Nations] FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] report talks a lot about the benefits of raising insects as a food source for people. We’re in our infancy with that. In many countries that are heavy consumers of insects, like Mexico, they are wild harvested—think of the grasshoppers that are commonly eaten there called chapulines.
The United Nations is saying that it is very wasteful to raise cattle. It takes something like 16 pounds of grain to get one pound of beef and thousands of gallons of water, which shows how expensive it will be to feed the planet with conventional meat [see “The Hidden Water We Use.”]
But the environmental impact of raising grasshoppers is much less. Mealworms don’t require any water, they get it from breaking down carbohydrates.
The other thing I was amazed at is how much cattle raising results in greenhouse gas emissions, it’s more than cars and motorcycles combined. If we raised insects instead of cattle we could cut greenhouse gas emissions between 20 and 60 percent.
(Related: “For Most People, Eating Bugs Is Only Natural.”)
What’s your favorite bug recipe?
The one I like best is white chocolate and waxworm cookies. If I did a blind taste test you’d want a second one. They aren’t really worms, they are little white caterpillars that eat the wax from a honeycomb. Here’s an animal eating honey and wax all its life, what’s not to like?
When cooked in a cookie they taste like pistachios.
Any other crowd pleasers?
I make a dish called Orthopteran Orzo, it’s orzo pasta with cricket nymphs [Orthoptera is the insect order that contains grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts]. Time magazine called it my signature dish. It’s easy, can feed lots of people, is nutritionally balanced, and it tastes really good.
One of my favorite stories from all these years of doing cooking demos is I had a kid who kept coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths, of Orthopteran Orzo. Finally, I asked him, “Don’t they feed you at home?”
He said, “This is way better than anything my mom makes.”
(Video: Eating Weaver Ants)
How do you get people to eat bugs if they are skittish?
In my book I want to make the bugs prominent. Grounding up bugs is an easy way to get people to accept the protein, but I want people to know they are eating bugs.
There is a strong visual component to what we like or don’t like. There was that study that showed people wouldn’t drink milk if it were dyed green, for example. Some people say they don’t want to eat bugs if they are staring back at them.
So I like dipping things in tempura batter and deep-frying them. Fried mealworms look like Cheetos. Chocolate covering is also concealing, like in the photo on the book’s cover.
People have a terrible attitude toward bugs in the U.S., they think they are gross, dirty, germy, etc. But I don’t think any of those things are true. People won’t eat a grasshopper but they’ll eat the pink slime in chicken [tenders].
There is an escalating level of difficulty in preparation and in acceptance, with the hardest probably being my grasshopper kabobs or deep-fried tarantula.
How is your deep-fried tarantula?
Tarantulas are actually quite good. For many, eating spiders is a hurdle to overcome. They are a step beyond insects.
But their body armor is chewy, not crunchy like with most insects. There is lots of meat in the legs. It tastes sort of like a seafood, kind of like a soft-shelled crab.
I love the photo of your amaretto honeypots, how did you come up with that?
Honeypot ants are wonderful but very hard to obtain. They live in the desert and hang the honeypots from the ceiling in their colony, as a place to store nectar. In order to get them you need to dig down deep, around four feet. For the first batch I got someone had used a backhoe.
The batch I used in the book I purchased from a guy who raises ants indoors. I spent $100 on six ants. They are delicious, kind of like caviar but they taste like honey sticks.
Another interesting bug to eat is cicadas, because of their emergence on the East Coast. I have a recipe for using cicadas as a pizza topping. They live underground 13 or 17 years and when they first come out they molt, so for four or five hours they are like soft-shelled crabs. Those are a great delicacy, but you have to time it just right to harvest it.
Some people say cicadas taste nutty, would you agree?
After they’ve been roasted they taste sort of nutty, but they also taste sort of greenish, like asparagus.
Your three-bee salad looks really interesting, but should people be worried about the stingers?
I like to go after the stingless drones. The trick is to befriend a beekeeper. First, larval bees when they are still in the honeycomb are a real delicacy. Second, beekeepers will often raise stingless bees in a separate hive, because they are more attractive to varroa mites, and can draw them away from the colony.
But venom, like in a bee or scorpion sting, is a protein. Your body has an allergic reaction to that protein. But if you cook it, it denatures the protein and it is not a venom anymore. In China you can order a plate of scorpions, and they arrive with their stingers. They are safe to eat, and it’s considered good medicine. I got a million of them.
Scorpion claws and tails have nice white, long stringy meat that tastes like crab. That’s not surprising because scorpions evolved in the oceans.
Are you able to make a living cooking bugs?
For the most part, yes. I am a science writer by training. I’m working on another book, and I do cooking demonstrations.
Any final thoughts?
People have such strong feelings about food. They are much happier eating the synthetic junk from fast food chains than insects.
David George Gordon will be cooking bugs in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at the Da Vinci Science Center on July 27. See his website for additional dates and locations.
This Q&A has been edited.
Recipes for Cooking Your Own Insects
Gordon has shared three recipes from his new book The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook. Let us know if you try any of them!
Yield: 6 servings
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, thyme, and tarragon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
12 frozen katydids, grasshoppers, or other large-bodied Orthoptera, thawed
1 red bell pepper, cut into 11/2-inch chunks
1 small yellow onion, cut into 8 wedges
1. Mix all ingredients for the marinade in a nonreactive baking dish. Add the katydids, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
2. When ready to cook, remove the katydids from the marinade and pat dry. Assemble the kabobs by alternately skewering the insects, bell pepper, and onion wedges to create a visually interesting lineup.
3. Brush the grill lightly with olive oil. Cook the kabobs 2 or 3 inches above the fire, turning them every two or three minutes and basting them with additional olive oil as required. The exact cooking time will vary, depending on your grill and the type of insects used. However, the kabobs should cook for no longer than 8 or 9 minutes.
Three Bee Salad
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup (about 40) frozen adult bees
1/2 cup (about 60) frozen bee pupae
1/2 cup (about 60) frozen bee larvae
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 ounce bee pollen granules
Lettuce for serving
Nasturtium petals or other edible flowers for serving
1. Bring two quarts of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the adult honeybees and return to boil for 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bees from the water. Pat dry with paper towels and allow to cool.
2. To the same water, add the honeybee pupae. Repeat the procedure for cooking the adult bees (but watch how you pat these little guys with the paper towels!), also allowing the pupae to cool.
3. Repeat the same process with the honeybee larvae.
4. In a large bowl, combine the vinegar, oil, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the cooked adult bees, followed by the pupae, then the larvae.
5. Immediately before serving, add the bee pollen granules, stirring the mixture to ensure that the granules are evenly distributed.
6. Serve on a bed of lettuce, decorated with the nasturtium petals, a bee-utiful touch for this bee-atific dish.
Deep-Fried Tarantula Spider
Yield: 4 servings
2 cups canola or vegetable oil
2 frozen adult Texas brown, Chilean rose, or similar-sized tarantulas, thawed
1 cup tempura batter (page 84)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 medium egg
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1. To make the batter, beat the egg in a small mixing bowl until smooth. Slowly add the cold water, continuing to beat until evenly mixed. Add the flour and baking soda and beat gently until combined; the batter should be a bit lumpy.
2. Let the batter sit at room temperature while heating the oil.
1. In a deep saucepan or deep-fat fryer, heat the oil to 350°F.
2. With a sharp knife, sever and discard the abdomens from the two tarantulas. Singe off any of the spider’s body hairs with a crème brûlée torch or butane cigarette lighter.
3. Dip each spider into the tempura batter to thoroughly coat. Use a slotted spoon or your hands to make sure each spider is spread-eagled (so to speak) and not clumped together before dropping it into the hot oil.
4. Deep-fry the spiders, one at a time, until the batter is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Remove each spider from the oil and place it on paper towels to drain.
5. Use a sharp knife to cut each spider in two lengthwise. Sprinkle with the paprika and serve. Encourage your guests to try the legs first and, if still hungry, to nibble on the meat-filled mesothorax, avoiding the spider’s paired fangs, which are tucked away in the head region.
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.