Among the taxidermic polar bears and emperor penguins that line the walls of the Explorers Club in Manhattan, a white linen tablecloth covers a small table with plates of other dead animals. But these creatures are smaller, less furry (in some cases), and accompanied by garnishes. Last time we visited the Club, the menu featured pickled eyeballs, python patties, and spleen ragout. This time, it’s bugs.
With a human population barreling toward 9 billion people, protein (and the water, food, and land to raise the animals that provide it) will soon be at a premium. That’s where eating insects comes in. “The Western attitude is that we don’t believe in it as a food source,” says Alan Nichols, president of the Explorers Club. “But we will. This is the solution to the food problem.”
Follow along below as I do my part to work toward that solution by grabbing a plate.
Grasshopper kebabs: Free-range adult Texas Grasshoppers, marinated, broiled and served on skewers with red, green and yellow bell peppers
Lording over the table is David George Gordon. The chest pocket of his white, rhinestone-studded chef coat says, “The Bug Chef.” (The emphasis is his). I grab a skewer, swallow hard, and slide its contents off between my teeth. To be honest, the hoppers have better flavor and are more crisp than the bell peppers that sandwich them. The exoskeleton certainly has a crunch I, as a recovering vegetarian, am unaccustomed to. But I very much enjoyed the burst of juicy teriyaki goodness when my teeth got to the center. As I long as I don’t think too much about what organs have such absorbent properties. Gordon’s philosophy on cooking bugs is that you can’t try to disguise them. Don’t bury the things in ketchup or grind them up into an unidentifiable flour replacement. Let the insects shine in their saucy glory. Grasshoppers are good for you, too. According to Gordon’s “The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook,” 100 grams of these meadow- and ditch-dwellers can pack a 20-gram punch of protein (not too shy of beef’s 27 g). Plus they’ve got 35 mg of calcium (compared to milk’s 128 mg) and 5 mg of iron (almost twice spinach’s 2.7 mg).
Tarantula tempura: Captive-bred Rose Hair Tarantula Spiders, battered, fried, and dusted with garlic powder and smoked paprika
You really can find deep-fried anything these days: pickles, oreos, and even celery, which I unfortunately know from experience. And now, large spiders. The recommended method for mowing through a tarantula is to break off and snack on its legs one by one. The arachnid tastes quite like a potato chip, actually. Except that I swear I could feel the hair from its limbs on my lips. And last I checked, potatoes don’t have hair. The body portion of the spider was slightly less enjoyable, in both flavor and texture. There was a lot more fiber of some sort in there. So, like crustaceans, the legs are easier to enjoy than the body. And unlike crustaceans, you eat the entire beast, shell and all.
Next time, I’d opt for eating the spider hot out of the frier. There’s something about cooled, congealed oil with bits of fur in it that just doesn’t do it for me. President Nichols isn’t particularly impressed by this dish: “It’s like the McDonald’s of the insect world.” He says frying is one of the ways Americans make foods more edible and less nutritious. But the fact that Gordon pays $15 bucks a pop for those suckers–almost $2 a leg?!–suggests they won’t be showing up on the Dollar Menu anytime soon.
Cambodian Mole Cricket Rumaki: Traditionally harvested Cambodian Crickets with pineapple wrapped in bacon and brushed with sriracha.
As I eye these little toothpick-laden meat rolls, a member of the Explorer’s Club walks by in a bow tie and thick-rimmed glasses, proclaiming, “The crickets are easy!” After popping the whole thing in my mouth and chewing for a good long time, I have to agree. As far as entomophagy–the eating of insects–goes, these are the ones that’ll get you hooked. There is a very enjoyable meatiness to it. Unfortunately I can’t tell if the most enjoyable of flavors should be ascribed to the cricket or the bacon. The legs (or shreds of wings? or body fibers?) cling to my throat a bit, but nothing a swig of red wine can’t wash down.
Get your daily dose of bugs
While this seems like a novel menu, the Explorers Club is hardly the first entity to serve these six- and eight-legged critters. In fact, at least 2 billion people worldwide are eating bugs every single day, according to a 2013 report by the United Nations. The UN is particularly gung-ho about everyone eating bugs, because they see it as a way to offset any potential deficits in food or protein. There are more than 1,900 species of edible insect. While most of them live in tropical climes, global markets and farms for them are growing. Or, you can always fall back on more traditional bug sources, says Gordon: lab-supply sellers, pet stores, and Chinese medicine vendors.
Cockroach Canapés: Oven-baked American cockroaches on endive leaves filled with chevre and sprinkled with currants, chopped hazelnuts and shaved fennel
What’s the Bug Chef’s least favorite bug? The cockroach. Which I don’t find to be a ringing endorsement for what is already the least appetizing thing on the table. “They taste kind of funky,” he says, but “I put them out because we’re in New York.” Thanks a lot, Gordon. That relevance to the endroit makes this one a bit harder to stomach. The last cockroach I encountered was in a battle to the death in the bathroom sink of my Brooklyn apartment. As you can probably guess, I won. But I did not eat the spoils. I apparently saved that pleasure for today. Let me just say: I have never been so grateful for a glob of goat cheese.
Chapulines Con Chocolate Fondue: Traditional wild-harvested Oaxacan Grasshoppers dipped in chocolate kahlua fondue
To prepare grasshoppers for dipping, Gordon roasts them in chili, lime, and salt. It’s a tasty combination. And chocolate on top isn’t half bad. The recipe is easy, and the chef points out that getting your hands on grasshoppers can be, too. The average food item in your fridge, or freezer or cupboard has traveled hundreds of miles to get there, Gordon explains. In the case of grasshoppers, though, they don’t have to be wrangled, processed, and shipped from Nebraska. Instead, you can raise them right in your own kitchen. In fact, Popular Science has instructions and a recipe so you can build a countertop bug farm yourself.
The verdict? Bugs taste pretty darn good. If you’ve still got reservations, use grasshoppers to get into the entomophagical groove. As one taste-tester commented, “They’re like starter bugs. Just pop ’em.” That’s what the Explorers Club is all about. Be it polar explorations or moon walks, or grasshoppers on a stick, members are “Going first. Going forward,” says Nichols. It’s up to the rest of us to follow suit, so brush up on your scorpion sautéing skills and serve some bugs tonight!