SHOULD WE EAT BUGS?

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High in protein, low in fat, delicious, ubiquitous: why not eat bugs? A unique gourmet meal has Salma Abdelnour reconsidering her insectophobia ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

New York City may be less bug-ridden than swampier towns to the south, but it still presents challenges for the insectophobe. Multi-legged critters large and small find their way into every kind of residential space (skyscrapers are no less vulnerable). Vanquishing them might involve anything from an army of exterminators to a late-night call to an ex, Annie Hall-style. But on a recent night in Brooklyn, two dozen New Yorkers with varying degrees of insectophobia gathered to face down the creatures in an altogether unusual way.

Marc Dennis, a local artist, had invited guests to a dinner party in an enormous loft space with spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline in the industrial-chic Dumbo neighbourhood. This being Dennis, who recently launched InsectsAreFood.com and whose crisply detailed paintings of bugs have been acclaimed in Town and Country magazine and the Chicago Tribune, the dinner had a very specific theme.

eat bugsAround 7pm, as his guests began to arrive, Dennis stood behind the counter in the gleaming stainless-steel open kitchen and removed a few dozen Thai Jing Leed crickets from a bowl of Lapsang Souchong tea, where they had been soaking for nearly an hour. He then piled them on a pan to roast in the oven (pictured); meanwhile, on another tray, he laid out neat rows of roasted bamboo worms, then began chopping yellow, red, and green bell peppers into a colourful stack.

On this night, none of Dennis's guests—mostly sculptors, photographers and other friends from the artsy Dumbo scene—had been to one of his Bug Biters dinners before. He had set himself the formidable task of winning the crowd over to entomophagy, or bug-eating. “Insects can be tasty,” Dennis explained, confirming what less-squeamish populations in South-East Asia and Latin America have known for centuries.

Besides, he said, "People can fall into a rut when it comes to food.” We tend to get our protein from the same old sources—meat, fish, dairy—while an entire delectable kingdom lies untapped. But for Dennis, entomophagy is not just about the flavour: Bugs, he insists, are a much more sustainable protein source than meat. If more people learned to love insects—or love eating them, anyway—pesticide use would be radically reduced, and much of the environmental damage associated with industrial animal farming could be prevented. As a bonus, he pointed out, "bugs are low in fat.”

Dennis's obsession might sound like a canny, attention-getting gimmick, but he and insects have a long history together: "I was always that kid who would sneak away into the woods and lift up rocks and look for bugs. And I was also that kid who would eat the bugs." Since graduating from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he has made a career out of painting birds and insects, among other things. But his insect paintings are the most popular, consistently selling out at exhibits in New York and worldwide, most recently at a solo show at the Hirschl and Adler Modern gallery in Manhattan (which will present another exhibition of Dennis's works in February 2010). "To me, insects are where sushi was 20 years ago."

bugsHaving set out the hors d’oeuvres, Dennis began glancing around to see if anyone was sampling his handiwork: thinly sliced rounds of cucumber topped with shaved ginger, a dollop of Thai chili paste and a whole roasted, tea-infused Jing Leed cricket. A few guests were gingerly placing the morsel as far back in their mouths as they could reach, taking pains to avoid touching the bug with their lips, tongue or teeth. Some made their way to the back of the crowd, the better to disappear entirely, and stood watching. The bravest munched on the bug-topped cucumber as if it were just another amuse-bouche.
 
"If I wasn't really thinking about it, I could be eating shrimp," said Richard Gary a Dumbo-based photographer and close friend of Dennis’s. "It has a little crunchiness to it. But I need to have that whole mix of ingredients in there. I couldn’t have eaten just the cricket." Gary said he almost skipped the dinner altogether. "At first it kind of freaked me out, mentally and visually. I told Marc, ‘I love you, man, but I'm not going to do it.” 

Dennis was persistent in getting Gary and other reluctant friends to show up: "I figured if I provide enough layers of taste in each dish, and give guests an intimate and enjoyable experience, they'll want to be part of it. And they'll want to have that story to tell.” He likes using the Jing Leed crickets, which he ships in from a supplier in Thailand, because he finds they have a more pleasing texture and taste—"they remind me of sunflower seeds"—than many other insects. Their fairly uncomplicated appearance also makes them easier for first-timers than, say, cicadas (which Dennis loves) or other more frightful creatures.

Next up on the menu: roasted bamboo worms dipped in wasabi and arranged in an innocent-looking snowflake pattern. Tiny and nearly innocuous, the slightly salty, crispy worms found a more eager audience than the cricket-topped cucumbers. "They make a great beer snack," Dennis said cheerfully. "I've had people over to watch the Super Bowl and I've served roasted worms, and people eat them right up." Gary agreed: “These are pretty damn good. They remind me of those little French fries that come in a can.”

eat bugsSoon Dennis began plating the main course. On each guest's dish he ladled out fried rice and a stir-fry made with bell peppers, broccoli, scallions, chilli paste, and still more roasted Jing Leed crickets. By this point, most people in the room had tasted at least one of the creatures—even if just a millimetre-sized bit of wasabi-coated worm—so attempting the stir-fry seemed a little less daunting. And fortuitously, the bugs could be wrapped up in the soft, wide strips of caramelised onions that Dennis served on the side, or buried under heaps of fried rice. When washed down with big gulps of wine, the Jing Leeds could feel, to a distracted eater, almost like crunchy fried vegetables or baby shrimp.

Samuel Nigro, a sculptor friend of Dennis’s, gamely took on the challenge and, after a few bites, made peace with his plate: "This stir-fry is like eating a seafood gumbo. There's all sorts of stuff going on. I like that the emphasis isn't on the insects only.”

It was now time for dessert—except there wasn’t any. Dennis had been too anxious to prepare one, what with all those entomophagy sceptics to win over. At his next Bug Biters dinner, he plans to serve one of his favourite treats: ginger ice cream sprinkled with pulverised crickets. Or he may bring out his pecan and caramel cricket pie, which he once took to a pie social (to the consternation of the event's organisers but the delight of braver attendees).

One of Dennis’s guests volunteered to make a dessert run, and came back with frosted chocolate and vanilla cupcakes; these disappeared immediately. But in what may have been a first in New York City dinner-party history, a few guests said they felt disappointed not to find crushed bugs in their dessert.
 

Picture credit: Marc Dennis

(Salma Abdelnour is a food and travel writer based in New York. Her new website, www.salmaland.com, offers tips on where to eat in New York City.)