Do I have an ant in my teeth?
This is not something I thought I'd ever say. But I never thought I'd eat a bug, either.
Sitting down for BugsGiving last week, taking bracing sips of my gin-and-cricket cocktail, I couldn't really believe I'd had the nerve to walk into the room. My tablemates sensed my trepidation about the 15-course meal that lay ahead: "First time eating bugs?" someone asked. Um, yes.
BugsGiving was the centerpiece of this year's Brooklyn Bugs Festival, which took place over the span of three days at the Brooklyn Kitchen. I only attended the single event, which aimed to "highlight dishes that reimagine Thanksgiving using edible insects as the primary source of protein." Overseeing the festivities was Brooklyn Bugs' charismatic maestro, Chef Joseph Yoon, and his partner for the evening, Chef David George Gordon, who wore a toque blanche adorned with antennae.
I was in over my head. I knew it as soon as I saw the centipede doing ellipticals in a plastic container near the check-in booth. It was my cue to find the bar, ASAP.
Oh, and have I mentioned yet that I'm a vegetarian?
While I was raised not eating red meat, I became a full vegetarian more than a decade ago when volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center. One of my jobs involved plucking and preparing chickens for owl and eagle consumption, chopping intact chunks of cow into digestible bites, and helping with the skinning and cleaning of deer. Preparing meat that still looked like animals made me realize Americans' alienation from the sources of their food, and the enormous ecological toll our unchecked gluttony takes. I decided I didn't have the right to eat anything if I couldn't kill and prepare it myself.
I have no such reservations about killing bugs.
In 80 percent of countries, people eat insects, with more than 1,600 different species making their way past some 2 billion people's lips. Thinking it's gross to eat insects is North American prissiness; if I lived in Central or South America, Africa, Asia, or parts of Oceania, it wouldn't have been such a big deal. That being said, I don't think those parts of the world are exactly eating the "cricket gougères" and "haricots verts with roasted beets and chapulines" featured on our BugsGiving menu. That part was all Brooklyn.
Still, it's a little surprising that eating bugs hasn't caught on in the U.S. yet. Researchers at Oxford found that 100 grams of bugs has more protein, calcium, and vitamins than 100 grams of chicken or steak. Crickets specifically have 12 times as much vitamin B12 as salmon. Insect oil is thought to be a healthy source of elusive omega-3 fatty acid. Cockroaches could be the next superfood!
Insects are also absurdly sustainable and have little impact on the environment. In a landmark report in 2013, the United Nations proposed bugs as a promising remedy to food scarcity, a crisis that will only balloon with climate change.
But ... what is it like to actually eat an insect?
My first bug of the night was cricket, ground into a fine dust and mixed into a gin-based cocktail that I poked suspiciously with my tongue before confirming the powder was tasteless (then I guzzled, careful to dodge the intact-cricket garnish). Buzzing from my liquid Jiminy, I moved onto the night's appetizers, the first of which was mealworm fritters. After encouragement by more adventurous eaters, I took a bite. It was ... crunchy? Mostly it tasted like a normal fritter, so long as I ignored the very visible mealworms poking out. Maybe I could do this.
Next I was handed a hornworm on a skewer. If you've never seen a hornworm before, imagine a light green version of the cartoon caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, with stubby, fleshy little legs. This one was impaled on a small stake, charred, and drizzled with an optimistic zig-zag of chipotle. I put it in my mouth and chewed hastily. Some hornworm accidentally swished onto my tongue. It was cold, almost crablike, mushy. "Hornworm is good!" I actually said out loud, my own personal eureka. I no longer knew myself.
Next we munched through elite corn salad with chinicuiles (another species of edible caterpillar) and earthly Manchurian scorpions perched atop lotus root chips. Each had a pronounced seafood-like texture; scorpion, it turns out, is closely related to lobster. Many insects have aquatic cousins; Justin Butner, a self-proclaimed "insect agriculture cheerleader," who was sitting at my table, told me he was allergic to crickets, to which I rudely spluttered, "How did you find that out?" Well, because orthoptera are closely related to shellfish, and allergies to one likely predicate allergies to the other (another enthusiast I met, Dave, had once sought to market crickets to people as "land shrimp").
More food arrived: A pear salad topped by a teeming pile of Changbai ants had a slight citrus taste and was most notable for inducing the feeling of chewing on a cactus, the spiky sensation coming from hundreds of tiny legs. Fluffy cricket gougères had me speculating about the viability of cricket chouquettes, and we pinched large black ants off sweet chimp sticks with our teeth, their formic flavor overwhelmed by the swell of fennel. Then came dinner: Grasshoppers peeked out of orzo and were speared on kebabs. Delicious garlic smashed potatoes were flecked with superworms. Green beans, roasted beets, and grasshoppers piled onto my plate. I was doing fine until my eyes landed on the cockroach-topped cranberry relish.
Being a New Yorker, I've waged many a war against cockroaches. This one required another drink. Only once properly numbed to what I was about to do, I stuffed the entire bug in my mouth. I chewed ferociously. I made it out the other side.
Dessert appeared in the form of fantastically complex Sal de Gusano (moth larva) marshmallows with Sombra Mezcal and a bowl of ice cream topped by powdery cricket granola — now no problem for me. The finale was a treat of figs with gorgonzola, honey, and wasps.
To mix metaphors, I was taken hook, line, and sinker. I'm not sure what the insect-equivalent is to pescetarianism — entotarianism? — but I want to be that, I decided. Not everyone was as excited about my discovery. "Brush your teeth really well, okay?" my boyfriend delicately requested. "OMG" my mom wrote back before she stopped replying to my pictures. "I ate bugs tonight! And I liked it!" I announced to my Lyft driver, who, probably fearing for his safety, kept quiet.
By the next morning, my enthusiasm had ... flagged. I woke up to excruciating stomach cramps and nausea. After banging off an email to my boss (the gist of which was "NOT COMING INTO WORK, POISONED BY BUGS"), I curled up for several miserable hours. I couldn't figure it out; was I incompatible with my new favorite food?
I only realized later that it might have been my vegetarianism that did me in. Because bugs are up to 75 percent protein, my guts were rebelling: "Making radical changes to one's diet is going to throw the digestive system for a loop, at least in the beginning," confirms More. And while nibbling lobster has previously made me queasy for hours, I hadn't put my reaction together with the shellfish allergy warning on the bottom of every menu. In other words, stuffing yourself full on BugsGiving is perhaps not the wisest way to reintroduce meat into your diet.
I'm not discouraged, though. After getting over the mental hurdles, which was no easy feat, I realized bugs really are good, at least when they're cooked right. The reasons I'm a vegetarian can still be honored by an entotarian lifestyle. Plus — it's delicious, like eating seafood without worrying about overfishing or bycatch. If I continue to ease six-legged snacks into my diet, I think I can make this work.
Step by step. Cricket by cricket.