They’re eaten by people living in 80 percent of the world’s nations. The festival wants the U.S. to catch up.
Editor’s note: We kicked off our first annual Food Loves Tech event last summer in Chelsea—here’s a recap. We’re bringing a taste of the food and farming future back this year, but just across the East River at Industry City. This story is part of an ongoing series about technology’s effects on our food supply.
I’m sitting at a table at The Brooklyn Kitchen with chefs and scientists and we’re filleting waterbugs. Yes, waterbugs. This one, a different species from the ones so ubiquitous in New York City, is much bigger than what you might picture. Like a bird. Or, as a friend pointed out, a Volkswagen Bug. And now it’s filleted and I’m about to devour what might possibly be the world’s smallest morsel of a steak.
Chef Joseph Yoon developed the Brooklyn Bugs festival — a “celebration of edible insects” — with the hope of normalizing the consumption of bugs among the unconverted in the States. Yoon invited a bevy of entomophagy (insect-eating) experts from across North America to join him for three days, across four venues, to discuss the future of the bug-eating movement and the revelatory health and environmental benefits of eating insects and arthropods.
On the first day of the festival, I head over to Kinfolk 94 in Williamsburg to hear speakers such as cricket farmers Ryan Goldin (Entomo Farms), Joseph Skipper (Seginus Farms), Vincent Vitale (Aketta) and Juan Manuel Gutierrez (Merci Mercado), who makes products out of grasshoppers.
“Crickets have a low carbon footprint,” says Goldin. “Not only do they contain all nine amino acids, but they have high levels of zinc, B12 and copper.”
I learn that they’re eaten by people living in 80 percent of the world’s nations, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) strongly believes that incorporating them into our diets isn’t simply healthy, but it’s also vital for improving food security.
Breaking for a lunch prepared by Nhà Minh, I’m able to try a few crickets, which have been incorporated into dishes such as daikon scallion cakes and vegetable patties. I take a small bite of patty, trying to think about all of the health and social benefits. Nutty, with a very subtle umami.
“Want to try something a little bolder?” asks Yoon, pointing down at a heaping plate of dark, shiny bugs. Taking a deep breath, I grab a small scorpion from a pair of chopsticks Yoon extends, place it gently on my tongue and bite down. Crunchy, yet yielding, with a slight fishy taste. Not bad. Better, perhaps, than some species of crab.
By the time dinner is served by Yoon’s catering outfit, Dinner Echo, my head is filled with information about insects as meat replacers, how to affordably incorporate crickets into one’s daily diet and the role of insects play in many cultural traditions around the world. Piling my plate with cricket gougeres, silkworm pupae mac and cheese bites, and cricket bolognese lasagna (with sauce made by One Hop Kitchen, and which is — shh, don’t tell — every bit as good as my mother’s), I’m a little shocked to find that I’m having a swell time pushing my dietary boundaries.
Yoon laughs, “I eat bugs because it’s fun. I’m still learning. I’m testing my palate. If it helps to eat it with lobster and meat, then I’m all in.”
Truly, it’s dinner on the second night of the festival, hosted by David George Gordon, author of Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, that is the most thrilling, and each of the nine courses prepared by Dinner Echo dazzle. June bug fritters; a scorpion sushi roll; an unexpectedly rich, thick silkworm pupae and braised short rib with pico de gallo; and a red gusano worm and sea bass crudo, a simple, elegant dish with the added zing of a slightly spicy sal de gusano by Merci Mercado.
Black ants over seared shrimp are, without a doubt, my favorite dish of the evening. I smell the ants before they arrive to the table. One of my dinner companions, Greg Korniewicz, a high school geology teacher at Robert F. Kennedy High School in Flushing, describes the aroma as woody, like mushrooms. Their taste, however, is unexpectedly like mandarins, each one a bright, slightly acidic citrus burst.
I’m reminded of something Gordon told me earlier in the day: “to get people to eat bugs, they have to taste good.” Well, I’m eating all manner of bugs, and most of them are delicious. I’m still thinking about this as a plate arrives laden with cellophane noodles, over which is perched a single dark brown, oily-looking, giant waterbug. A behemoth. I’m rather horrified, but to my left sits Louis Sorkin, a scientist over at the American Museum of Natural History with a passion for entomophagy.
“Waterbugs are true bugs,” explains Sorkin, “and they are not the same as cockroaches.” Feeling a little skeptical, I stare at my cockroach-looking beast. The difference, Sorkin continues, is that “one has a beak while the other has mandibles.” I’m nodding, interested, but this information doesn’t help make the bug more palatable. It does, however, help me form a deeper relationship with what is about to become my food by demystifying some of its no-longer-frightening parts.
Across the table, entomophagist David Gracer leads us through the process of filleting our waterbugs, a species with the lovely name water scorpion. It’s like being in a butcher stop — if cows, chickens and pigs were smaller, leggier and definitively more show-stopping in all their wing’ed glory.
“It’s got fibers just like crab meat,” says Gracer, filleting his waterbug with a pocket knife. “But it doesn’t taste like crab meat.”
With a slight flick of his knife, the deed is done. “That’s a steak,” he says, extracting the smallest fillet I’ve laid eyes on. “A bug steak.” He hands it to me and I pop it into my mouth.
Next to Gracer, Korniewicz, who is now an apprentice bug butcher, fillets his own bug. “That’s actually good,” he says. “It tastes like pork rinds.” Chewing on mine, I have to agree.
While I don’t plan on preparing waterbugs any time soon in my own home, I will definitely order some cricket flour and other prepared, packaged products so that I can incorporate them into my existing diet. The health story on its own is compelling, but as an environmentalist with an interest in food security, eating insects also becomes a moral, ethical and social issue that I don’t want to ignore.
As the dinner draws to a close, Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. D.J. Spooky, who delivered a talk about the future of food just the day before) tells the throng: “This is a revolution. These aren’t just chefs,” he says, nodding toward Yoon and Gordon, “but social catalysts.”
“As a D.J.,” he adds, “I can say that this is definitely the funkiest meal of 2017.”
Indeed. The room erupts in clapping and cheers, and I look around, satisfied, knowing there’s at least one new convert already craving seconds.