By Anna Maria Jakubek
Chiles and Chocolate is a Park Slope restaurant that serves authentic food from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Salmon marinated in orange juice, green pepper stuffed with chicken and cheese and Mole Negro with grilled veggies. But there’s one item that really jumps out: fried grasshoppers. For a dollar you can get a bowl of them to go along with your guacamole and chips.
“Green. Mushy. And bits of tomato. And legs. Grasshopper legs,” said Valente Villarreal, a waiter at Chiles and Chocolate. He was born in Mexico but grew up in Brooklyn. He says the owner gets the grasshoppers from Mexico, already fried and seasoned, and very much dead. Villarreal opens the container and shakes its contents.
“Do you hear that? They’re jumping right now. I’m trying to pick out a big one,” said Villarreal.
And then he sinks his teeth into one.
“Here we go. Crunch. It’s very crunchy,” Villarreal said.
The grasshoppers are about an inch in length and half that wide. They’re spicy and red from the chili seasoning and they taste like the lime juice they were dipped ini. They’re really not bad, not bad at all. Villarreal says grasshoppers are as popular in Oaxaca as potato chips are over here. Bugs are also part of the diet in other countries. In Japan they eat wasps, in South Africa it’s giant caterpillars, and in Bali dragonflies are on the menu.
But in our culture, insects aren’t food. Gabriella Petrick is a food historian at NYU.
“And there are many things – like, you know um a pencil! – Not food. Probably not a good idea to eat a pencil. Or grass. Or you know there are many weeds in your lawn – as long as you don’t put chemicals on it, you could pick and eat, but we don’t do it, because we ascribe a different category to that,” said Petrick.
She says that in the U.S. this practice of eating bugs will never fly. There’s a social hurdle: people judge you on the things you eat.
“So if you’re eating bugs or you know grasshoppers and the people around you think it’s vile and disgusting, you’re going to bealienated. Food is a social expression as well,” said Petrick.
In other words, you are what you eat. And no one wants to be thought of as a pest. Yet, bugs are actually good for you. Really good for you. The sixteen hundred or so edible varieties are rich in protein, minerals, vitamins and other nutrients. They have lots more protein than you’ll find in beef. They’re also better for the environment than other meat. That’s why some scientists and foodies advocate that we Westerners get on the bug diet. Arnold van Huis is a tropical entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He’s been researching edible insects for over a decade and urgently believes they’re the answer.
“We cannot go on like the way we are doing just because of the growing world population and most of people are going to eat more mat and we just don’t have enough agricultural land to make this possible,” said von Haus.
He says all it’ll take is a paradigm shift.
“You often see if people don’t know that they’re eating insects, they may find it delicious. At the moment you tell them it’s an insect, they start vomiting. Just to show that it’s completely psychological,” said von Haus.
In fact, we don’t think about this but we’re actually eating insects already. According to a spokesperson for the FDA, it’s impossible to produce food completely free of pests. The agency publishes a booklet that lists the max number of insect and vermin parts allowable for each type of food. This Defect Levels Handbook, as it’s called, is scary to flip through. 100 grams of chocolate – or just a little over two standard Hershey’s bars – can have 60 insect fragments.
And there are other arguments for why our take on bugs doesn’t make sense. David George Gordon, a.k.a. “The Bug Chef” is a science writer and author of a cookbook of bug recipes. He routinely does bug cooking shows across the country, and likes to point out how arbitrary our food habits are.
“I always say to people ‘what’s so glamorous about eating one of these? They look kind of like reptiles,” said Gordon.
Gordon remembers an 11-year-old boy who went back for four or five helpings of cricket and orzo pasta at one of the cooking events.
“And I was kind of teasing him – I said, ‘don’t they feed you at home?’ And he said, ‘this is way better than anything my mom ever made.’ So that was kind of, that’s like my greatest testimonial right there,” Gordon said.
The benefits of eating insects are definitely there. But while we may convince our minds, winning over our stomachs is another matter.