Birds do it.
Isn't that enough? Must we, the sophisticated species, eat insects too?
Most emphatically yes, says David Gracer, an otherwise ordinary college-level writing instructor from Providence, R.I., who was showing off his bug cuisine at the Academy of Natural Sciences last Saturday. His part-time business, Sunrise Land Shrimp, aims at getting people to eat insects.
Pound for pound, Gracer says, insects contain higher percentages of protein than our more conventional food favorite, the cow. Thus an insect-based diet is a healthful, sustainable diet.
"Since most of humanity has eaten insects for most of our history on the planet,
eating insects is more unusual than eating them," Gracer says.
Gracer faced off against the Audubon Institute's entomologist, Zack Lemann, in a Creepy Crawly Cuisine Cook-off at the academy's Bug Fest. Performing before a gathering of wide-eyed youngsters and adults who covered their eyes, the two self-taught chefs prepared delicacies with not-so-secret ingredients for a panel of three volunteer judges.
The menu featured Cricket Bread With Goat-Cheese and Giant-Ant Spread; Crispy Cajun Crickets; Cicadas and Apples cooked in brown sugar and honey and served kabob-style on skewers; and Water-Bug Ice Cream.
You still with me?
Of course, I had to try something. So, for the record, the meat of the water bug is salty and surprisingly fruity, but I would not go back for seconds. The Chocolate Chirp Cookies, however, were delicious.
"Look at all this muscle mass," Gracer said, filleting water bugs while kids squealed and parents averted their eyes. "You know, water bugs are not roaches," Gracer said defensively. "They're related to stink bugs."
And that makes them more appetizing?
Gracer's aim is to entice the palate.
"I don't coat insects in chocolate because that makes it a novelty. I want insects to be dinner."
Lemann says he'll be happy if his Chocolate Chirp Cookies prepared with roasted crickets (see accompanying box) get people to appreciate insects' contribution to our ecosystem. His Crispy Cajun Crickets are so simple that no formal recipe is needed. (Also, see box.)
But where does one get cookable crickets?
Lemann displayed cans of crickets from Thailand and caterpillars from sub-Saharan Africa. But Acme, Super Fresh, Giant - most of the major supermarket chains do not carry crickets, canned, fresh or frozen.
Lemann, who cooks like this every day at the Audubon Institute's new Insectarium in New Orleans, suggests ethnic markets or pet stores that stock insects as pet food. Or, catch your own.
Gracer, who founded Sunrise Land Shrimp as an educational forum in 2005, says he became intrigued with entomophagy in 1999, when he received some larvettes as a birthday present. Anyway, now he's at work on a cookbook. The job is slow going because he lacks the necessary culinary training to create and write recipes, Gracer says. He hopes to connect with a talented chef.
"The cricket flour really has potential," he says. Made of one-quarter cricket, the flour is high in protein and works well in recipes for muffins as well as fresh pasta.
Like celebrity chef Mark Bittman, Gracer is a minimalist: "Insects should not be tarted up with other flavors," Gracer says, toasting wax worms in a nonstick skillet. "They're delicious as is."
Lemann calls crickets "the rice of the insect world. Everybody eats them!"
Insects can be substituted in most recipes that call for nuts or fruit, Lemann says. But shouldn't the panel of judges have the last word?
They included Fox29 television reporter Julie Kim, who claimed to be recovering from food poisoning; 11-year-old Andrew Kang from Bethlehem, Pa., who will apparently eat anything not nailed down and say it's "pretty good"; and Temple University student Suwathna Reel, 22, born and raised in Thailand, where crispy critters are their soft pretzels.
But even Reel, when confronted with Giant Ant Spread on Cricket Bread, Reel took one bite and said, "Some people might be into it."
See, that's the key - whether they can take a second bite. For Kim, the ants were the hardest to swallow. Perhaps if they have been finely ground, like the crickets in the bread.
But Kang declared the ant dish delicious, even after learning these were queen ants, imported from Colombia - also called big-butt ants because they store juices in their bottoms.
"It tastes salty at first," Kang said, "But then all this juice comes out. . ." The rest of his words were obscured by groans from the audience.