David Gracer eats bugs. Not any old crushed, oozy, sidewalk kind of bug, but insects selected just like any other food — for sustenance and taste. He eats them sautéed, filleted and roasted. And he thinks you should eat them, too.
At a time when “reality” television shows regularly force contestants to consume creepy-crawlies for shock value, Gracer is one of a small but growing number of people earnestly working to transcend the yuck factor. By day, Gracer teaches expository writing at the Community College of Rhode Island. By night, he stalks America’s elite chefs with an electric wok and Tupperware stuffed with six-legged critters in an attempt to convince them that consuming insects is both pleasing to the palate and good for the planet.
Of course, man has eaten bugs most of his existence. The Greeks and the Romans ate them. John the Baptist partook, and yes, locusts are even kosher. Many cultures in Asia, Africa and the Americas still raise insects as livestock or gather them through foraging. If Gracer and his peers have their way, the United States will soon join them. It will be home to domestic insect farms, employ arthropod husbandry experts and begin processing insect “mini-livestock” into food — breads made from insect flour as well as whole bugs in various life stages like pupae and larvae. After all, if Americans love shrimp and lobster, why won’t they eat their terrestrial cousins?
Already, some high-end eateries have made the jump to serving insects. Typhoon, a Pan-Asian restaurant at Santa Monica Airport, regularly sells out of its six-legged appetizers like Singapore-style scorpions with shrimp toast and “Chambi Ants” — potato strings with a sprinkling of the tiny black picnic pests.
On a recent afternoon, I watched Gracer and a chef at a gourmet ice-cream shop in Cambridge, Mass., sample Thai giant water bug and chapolines, the diminutive Mexican grasshoppers. The water bug, a creature the size of your thumb, with a mean-looking proboscis, yields a thimbleful of meat the consistency of crab and has a surprisingly powerful citrus aroma. After importation and preparation, its flesh can cost hundreds of dollars a pound. The more modest roasted chapolines resemble russet pipe tobacco and deliver a chitin-rich crunch. Neatly prepared and placed in plastic food containers, they look tame, symmetrical — even tasty. So what are we afraid of?
Florence Dunkel, an entomologist and editor of The Food Insect Newsletter, says: “For most Americans, fear of insects is a social aversion. It’s not rational. People in other societies were introduced to bugs at an early age. It’s just not the way we grew up.” Which is true, but most of us associate insects with disease. Mosquitoes cause encephalitis; deer ticks bring bull’s-eyes and Lyme disease; and we regard cockroaches as unclean.
But how dirty are they? As it turns out, not very. While insects carry an abundance of microbial flora, they do not regularly harbor human pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. Put another way, insects don’t seem any more prone to disease than cows, pigs, chickens or fish, all of which need to be raised and cooked properly. It can also be argued that these insects boost the nutritional content of what we already eat. Bugs compare favorably to traditional livestock in available protein and fatty acids; for some vitamins and minerals, they better them by a wide margin.
In the kitchen at Toscanini’s Ice Cream, David Gracer plunged a spoon into various insect-and-ice-cream concoctions. Wielding a grasshopper covered in burned caramel, he said: “Insects can feed the world. Cows and pigs are the S.U.V.’s; bugs are the bicycles.”
Provocative as that sounds, insects do meet the test of environmental sustainability: they create far more edible protein per pound of feed as cattle. Moreover, given world consumption trajectories, scientists warn that a complete collapse of global fish stocks is possible in the next 40 years. We might want to hedge our bets. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that the concept of bugs as food is getting serious consideration from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Later this month, it will stage a workshop called “Forest Insects as Food: Humans Bite Back” in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Among the questions to be addressed: Why douse fields with pesticides if the bugs we kill are more nutritious than the crops they eat?