By Chef Matthew O'Connell
In years past, you went to the ballpark with your family and grabbed a few hot dogs, some peanuts and cracker jacks. Options were limited. While these staples still define stadia across America, the culinary landscape within each has changed. No longer are you limited to a flaccid slice of pizza or lukewarm chicken strips. Now you will find such delights as the Twister – a cone of bread filled with crab mac and cheese – at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the Po Man – a pierogi enveloped smoked kielbasa topped with sauerkraut – at Progressive Field in Cleveland, or Texas Snowballs – brisket balls battered, deep fried, and enveloped in powdered sugar – at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Interested?
Well the culinary team at Safeco Field in Seattle has taken it one step further. While most organizations have opted for bigger and bolder – mostly deep fried – treats to tempt their fans, the innovative culinary team at Safeco (who once upon a time brought sushi to baseball and inadvertently started a ballpark revolution) now want to bring you bugs. For the 2017 season, the Mariners stadium has been offering a cup of toasted grasshoppers with a chili lime seasoning. Executive Chef Manny Arce’s whimsical decision to offer these has been such a resounding success that the Mariners regularly sell out before the first pitch even hits home plate and have sold over 18000 orders to date. As edible insects intrigue in the unlikeliest of places, what does the future hold for tasty creepy crawlies? How deep does the ant hill go?
Before we developed agriculture to effectively farm our food, we had to hunt and gather what we could to survive and bugs likely represented a large part of our nutrition for millennia. Readily available and easy to find, mankind feasted upon insects as a source of protein comparable to that found in modern soybeans as well as a good source of healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Although much of the modern world has fallen out of love with bugs, entomophagy - the consumption of insects as a food source – is practiced by 2 billion people in 80% of the countries on Earth. Today, you will find roasted chapulines (grasshoppers) in markets and taquerias across Mexico and Central America, deep fried scorpions at street vendors in Thailand and Southeast Asia, and stewed Mopane worms in homes throughout Zimbabwe and Southern Africa. Notably absent from this list, however, are the modern Western cultures of European descent.
Attempting to decipher just why they lost their taste for bugs isn’t exactly simple but there are several theories that largely boil down to resource availability and scarcity. These theories hypothesize that increased resource availability due to advances in farming in more fertile regions over the ages decreased the need for their inhabitants to seek out other sources of nutrients in the form of insects. Regions of the modern day world where nutrient availability is still scarce are thus much more likely to still have insects as an important part of their diet. In addition to this, the fear that bugs instill from their biting, stinging, and general creeping around doesn’t encourage any but the most adventurous eaters in the West.
Despite the fact that edible bugs have long been a taboo for Americans, the recent uptick in marketplace availability of these critters is noticeable. Websites pandering to people’s insatiable culinary curiosities now offer cricket samplers seasoned with a variety of spices, scorpion suckers, and agave worm salt for more flavorful margarita. Restaurants have also embraced the novelty to delight their diners.
The Black Ant in NYC offers black ant guacamole and grasshopper crusted shrimp tacos while GYST Fermentation Bar in Minneapolis recently offered a 4 course tasting menu revolving around edible arthopods. Suppliers throughout the culinary industry have begun to offer mealworms and larvae in the same catalogues that used to be just spices and dried fruit and vegetables. Cricket flour, prized for its protein content, is being utilized by startups across America in baked goods, protein bars, and tortilla chips as a healthy snack alternative. No longer limited to the worm in the bottom of a mezcal bottle, Americans are beginning to truly embrace the insect as a food source.
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By now, you may be thinking, “No way, buddy. This trend won’t last. I won’t ever eat bugs.” That’s fine but you may want to consider a few things before making up your mind. First, traditional livestock farming is incredibly inefficient and environmentally unfriendly. With an increasing population and finite resources in terms of water and land, we will need to find less costly and more environmentally conscious protein alternatives. The land and water used to raise one cow dwarfs the demand to bring an equivalent amount of cricket protein to market.
In addition to this, greenhouse gas emissions and harmful runoff caused by livestock could be curtailed by an increased reliance on insect protein. Second, humans are constantly looking for healthier foods to prolong their lives. With insects, humans don’t have to worry about the health risks associated with red meat while still maintaining a protein rich diet. Third, simply, is cost. To produce one kilogram of beef requires roughly 10 kilograms of feed and 8350 liters of water. To produce the equivalent protein in crickets requires 1.7 kilograms of feed and 8 liters of water. You don’t have to study at MIT to see where I’m going with this. The cost efficiency associated with cricket and other insect farming alone should continue to push its market forward.
Edible insects may not be for everyone - I’m sure that my grandmother wouldn’t ever be able to stomach the idea no matter the preparation – but that doesn’t mean that this trend should be written off so easily. As many cultures have found, bugs can be delicious and nutritious so why should we dismiss them because of their appearance and reputation? The answer quite simply is that we shouldn’t. They may never be quite as popular as a medium rare ribeye fresh off of the grill but the potential culinary applications are myriad and the benefits that they do offer are too great not to explore.
Check out the articles below for more information about what's going on with edible insects: