Insect-eating enthusiasts were out in full force on Tuesday night for a five-course “bug banquet” held at the The Black Ant.
While chowing down on agave-worm tostadas at the Mexican eatery in the East Village, I chatted up experts and entrepreneurs who are trying to circumvent the ick factor and make bugs a regular part of the American diet. But who in their right mind would ever want to eat an insect beyond that one time your friend dared you to swallow a beetle when you were eight?
A whole lot of people, actually.
Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, told about 40 attendees of the “BioHackersNYC Bug Banquet: Entomophagy for the Masses” that at least two billion people around the world eat bugs as a normal part of their diets.
Just before beginning his talk, Sorkin made his way through the crowd and handed out live caterpillars called tobacco hornworms. He said if we cooked and ate them they would taste just like green peas. (I was happy to learn hornworms were not on the night’s menu. My hornworm helped me take notes — he was my friend.)
Eatings insects comes with its advantages. Nutritionally, bugs pack punch — crickets, for example, contain every essential amino acid, considerable amounts of iron and zinc, and about as much protein as beef. When it comes to sustainability, some — like the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization — are saying entomophagy
could help to ameliorate the global food crisis. Raising insects requires dramatically fewer resources than traditional livestock like cows, and insects can be raised on waste streams such as food waste.
They also taste good. Or at the very least they blend seamlessly as an ingredient into Mexican food. The guacamole made with black ants — one of The Back Ant’s signature dishes — simply tasted like really good guacamole. I could say the same for the chicken enchiladas doused in back ant mole, the corn soup made with grasshopper, or either of the other two dishes served.
The only time I really felt like I was eating bugs was when they brought out a big box of chapulines, spicy fried grasshoppers which are commonly eaten in the Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Eating bugs is a big taboo to break in the United States,” Sorkin later told me. “But there are enough people willing to try it and enough companies out there that I think it could catch on.”
One of those companies is Brooklyn-based Exo, creator of the
Exo cricket protein bar, whose co-founder Gabi Lewis spoke and handed out Exo bars at the dinner.
While he was still in college, Lewis recognized how difficult selling the idea of eating bugs to Americans would be. He ended up looking toward sushi as a model.
The California roll, which was originally created by a Los Angeles-based sushi chef, helped ease Americans into the idea of eating raw fish, an idea most people found repulsive. Exo cricket protein bars are intended to have the same effect, but instead of salmon sashimi, Lewis wants to ease Americans into the idea of eating bugs.
Exo protein bars are made with ground cricket flour and come in four flavors: blueberry vanilla, apple cinnamon, cacao nut, and peanut butter and jelly. I sampled the latter two — they tasted like, well, proteins bars. And that’s the point.
By using bugs as an unobtrusive ingredient, the idea of eating them becomes less repulsive, likening the chances of greater adoption of insects into our diets.
John Durant, founder of Paleo NYC and author of the book
The Paleo Manifesto, also spoke at the event, particularly about disgust.
“Things that typically tend to gross us out our vectors of disease, and sure some insects are vectors of disease,” Durant said. They can also be poisonous, he added. But less than a hundred of the 10 million known species of bugs are known to be poisonous, and because bugs are so far removed from humans on the evolutionary tree, there’s very little risk of transmitting disease.
“The disgust reflex is hugely context specific. The Chinese think cheese is gross,” Durant said. Yet, the Chinese don’t have the same qualms with bugs as we do. Insects are a regular ingredient in Chinese medicine, Sorkin pointed out earlier in the night. They make wine in China out of red ants, he said. They’re even planning to feed their astronauts mealworms.
If all this talk about entomophagy has given you a hankering for bugs, swing by The Black Ant at 60 Second Avenue between East 3rd and 4th Streets. Oh, you’ve already been? Check out any of the other seven other restaurants in New York City that (intentionally) serve up bugs.
Interested in bleeding-edge technology and ideas that advance human health? Check out BioHackersNYC, the group behind the Bug Banquet, and their MeetUP page, where you can find and sign up for future events.
Before you embark on your own bug-eating adventure, I’ll leave you with one more thing: Louis Sorkin’s wonderful tie.
Louis Sorkin is awesome. Love the tie.
Lou is a trailblazer and I am proud to know him.