It never ceases to amaze me how blog topics land on my radar. My eldest son, Kiefer, earning his degree in industrial design, came home for Easter talking of his latest Experience Design project. He asked me for recipe ideas that might make eating insects more accessible to a selectively squeamish North American market. As if I’d know.
But as we talked, I started to think that a few recipes, good or not, might be putting the cart a bit before the horse for those of us who think we’re new to entomophagy, or eating bugs, although I was up for being inventive. I have to say, the only dalliance with the edible bug world I’ve been aware of having, was buying a hard candy entombed cricket lollipop for Ki when he was six years old or so – a lickable talisman for a little boy who loved bugs so much so that acquiring them wiled away many childhood hours. He and his friends, trailed nets like kites throughout neighbourhood backyards in a blur of white mesh on sticks, specimen jam jars clanking against one another in bulging pockets, the contents held for scrutiny later under a shady tree. But in truth, we’ve all been eating microscopic insect bits and bites in our consumables since forever, proving again that just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there. I reminded myself of this as I ate my oatmeal this morning.
It’s not taste barriers that need to be broken down where insect eating is concerned – it’s emotional ones. It’s hard to shake the idea that eating a bug is going to harm us in some way. And they have eyes. But then so do shrimp.
I watched a video that claimed that in 100 grams of chocolate, we’d find about 80 particles of insect material, or that in 7 ounces of peanut butter, it wouldn’t be at all unusual to find 60 bits of cockroach, or in 100 grams of ketchup, 30 maggot eggs, or a 2 maggot mash-up. The department of health allows that certain levels of insect contamination are acceptable, I’m guessing because it’s unavoidable. It’s not about cleanliness, or lack thereof, it’s that insects parts are wee and invisible to the human eye.
So, to get people on board with bug eating knowingly, me atop the list, it would seem to require that same kind of childlike enthusiasm from my son’s bug-chasing days, to realize how sustainably yummy insects-as-food might be if we gave them a shot. Widening perceptions about what we currently think is gross to eat and getting a bit more real about what it is we’re already unknowingly downing daily, without feeling faint at the prospect, seems a sensible place to start. After all, isn’t one of our very favourite syrupy sweet foods from nature simply bee vomit at the end of the day? Let’s face it – perception once again, appears to be the only reality. Or say, when in Thailand, you’re offered something touted after translation as, delicious grilled tarantula on a skewer, it might be best to think land crab, because that’s really the truth of it.
Even though two billion people already think nothing of eating insects, except to trumpet them as a delicious, and nutritious source of protein, we here in North America aren’t there yet because we’re nonchalant about having to be. We’re not experiencing third world-type hunger yet either, which for the first world bug-eater movement might seem a non-starter. But with water resources in decline, farmland encroachment by development, diminishing numbers of farmers to work what’s left of the land, as well as greenhouse gas emissions from resource guzzling livestock making methane, it’s safe to say: Houston, we’ve got a problem. Add a hefty fossil-fueled tromp to market and all points in-between and it’s not hard to see that the way we’re feeding ourselves is what author, Michael Pollan rightly calls, the omnivore’s dilemma. Crickets, grasshoppers, ants, bees, worms, beetles, scorpions, water bugs, spiders, stinkbugs, and moths, might just be the very buzz that ends up saving our bacon.
The global population is growing by 75 million people each year. We need to triple our food supply in order to feed everybody. Insects are one of the very smart how to’s for doing that.
Pound for pound, insects offer three times more lean protein than beef, and cricket-specific – contain all nine amino acids, five times as much magnesium and three times as much iron as its beef counterpart. Unlike beef, where only muscle is consumed, the whole insect is eaten – bones and organs, delivering calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc. To farm them doesn’t take acres of land, or mammoth amounts of feed and requires very little water. They also produce 80% less methane than cattle. It appears that they’re a cleaner product from processing to table because unlike animals, they’re washed before processing. Depending on the insect, the processing may be different, but the cricket for example – known as the gateway bug for its easier acceptance in new markets – is either fresh frozen after washing in readiness for shipping, fresh roasted, or ground into a nutty tasting flour that is by all accounts very tasty.
So this is where I decided to put my money where my mouth is so to speak, and set out to look for some Jiminy crickets to experiment with in my kitchen. I Googled cricket farms and found a newspaper article making mention of a producer called, Next Millenium Farms, assuming they’d be located in a place, like Denmark say, where the concept of insects as food has already taken off. As I clicked the link to their website, I wasn’t holding my breath about being able to access food-grade insects easily, or freshly, given that I assumed that this place was somewhere on the other side of the world. I toyed, sort of jokingly with the idea of waiting a few weeks for warmer weather so that I could do as my son used to with his net. I didn’t have to.
In all of the corners of the planet it could have been tucked away, Next Millenium Farms was only a mere forty-minute drive away. Reeling from my good luck, I contacted one of the three owner-brothers, and arranged for a tour with one of them, Darren Goldin. The whole arrangement was quickly made to meet the deadline of a weekly blog post that I purposefully don’t plan in advance. Darren had come down with a flu bug and being out for the count, put me in the capable hands of a fellow named, James, with encyclopedic knowledge of all things cricket.
James wisely suggested I leave my coat in the car, given the equatorial climate that hit like a tsunami when I opened the facility’s door. I regretted my sweater too, mere moments later. All of the workers wore headsets to shield their ears from the droning screech that over a million male crickets make as they rub their wings together. Females I was instructed are quiet since they don’t have wings to make noise with, and instead busy themselves, laying pounds and pounds of eggs harvested for the hatchery daily. Rows and rows of bins teamed with crickets, starting with a hatchery/nursery upstairs, and units strictly for ever-growing teenagers until they come of age as young adults and head for processing at about seven weeks old.
It was a clean, well-run place smelling vaguely like Nutella wafting from a freshly opened jar. It makes sense then that accounts of crickets tasting nutty are likely spot on. I’m promised some product by the end of the week to try by Darren who from his sick bed, mentions off the cuff that he actually lives in my village, Lakefield, Ontario – another weird coincidence.
Anyway, for next week’s blog, I’m going to continue with the insects as edibles theme and try out some cricket-based recipes, or experiment with some new ones. If I feel particularly adventurous, I might work with some happy mealworm. I’ll let you know how I get on next week.
And special thanks to Next Millenium Farms for giving me a great tour!