Food for Thought
The Insectivore’s Dilemma
If you’ve ever had a plate of shrimp or Alaskan king crab, you’ve eaten bugs, or, more precisely, arthropods. Leggy things with articulated shells and no bones and tiny little mouth parts that are always moving. Just because they’re swimming in the ocean instead of crawling across the dirt doesn’t magically make them more palatable than insects.
At least, that’s what the chefs for this year’s Creeping, Crawling Cuisine dinner would like you to think. In fact, they’re so sure that they can convince you to get past your ingrained squeamishness about eating insects, arachnids and other invertebrates that they’re throwing a gala banquet featuring a veritable bug buffet.
I was skeptical when I heard about the feast. Were their culinary skills so advanced that they could make a fat, chitinous grasshopper or a writhy little mealworm appetizing? Considering this year marks the third-annual “bug dinner” event at the BioPark, there must be something to it.
After exchanging a few emails, the BioPark agreed to whip up a preview meal for me. So, on a sunny fall afternoon with only metaphoric butterflies in my stomach (so far), I began a slow walk from the parking lot to the Shark Reef Cafe.
Inside, I was met by Annie Fedora, general manager of Taste of the Wild Catering, who plans the meals for the CCC dinner. With her was Jessica Jakubanis, senior keeper of arthropods for the insectarium that will soon be installed beside the aquarium and botanic garden at the BioPark. Behind them, I could see a table spread with food.
As they welcomed me, a young couple entered the restaurant and made their way to the table. “Is this for us?” they innocently joked, not noticing the more exotic ingredients. The waiter discreetly steered them away to the other side of the restaurant as I sat down with Fedora and Jakubanis.
The meal before me consisted of pizza, meatballs with pasta, and mini-hamburgers. Each appeared ordinary. But crickets were entombed in the cheese of the pizza, mealworms seemed frozen in the act of wriggling out of the meatballs, and the patties of the mini-burgers were made of snails.
“This year, we wanted to go out a little further [than just arthropods],” Fedora said, pointing to the burgers. “We’re doing a kind of escargot thing. These are snail sliders.”
I tried to delay the inevitable by asking questions. Fedora told me she and the director of the BioPark came up with the idea for the event two years ago “after a few martinis,” as a way to promote the annual arthropod exhibit at the botanic garden. They were pleasantly surprised at how many people attended, she said. Fedora said she still finds it difficult to reconcile the cleanliness of a kitchen with the batches of sometimes live bugs brought in for the dinner. Her least favorite dish so far was chocolate-covered scorpions, she said, and she’d like to expand the dinner to include other exotic “creepy” animals such as snake and iguana.
Jakubanis, who has a Master’s degree in biology, said she was always the kid “with millipedes in my pockets.” She told me that many of the arthropods are raised on site at the park and that Ralph Charlton, curator of the insectarium, catches some himself around the state. She pointed out that the bugs are “purged” to eliminate off-flavors. I asked what she meant by “purged.”
“Basically, starved,” she said.
“Do you feel ever feel bad for the insects that get cooked up?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Well, maybe a little bad. But I feed crickets to tarantulas all day long.”
She never ate bugs before the first dinner, but she’s always up for trying “whatever.”
“And this is ‘whatever,’” she concluded.
The conversation faltered, and I realized that I couldn’t procrastinate anymore. “I guess I should try something,” I muttered, reaching for a slice of the pizza.
Looking at it close up, it was impossible to ignore the fact that crickets encrusted the surface, their legs and half their bodies cemented into the cheese. I closed my eyes and bit.
It was, well—it was pizza. A good pizza, if a little cool after our extended conversation. Other than the crunch of their exoskeletons, the crickets were undetectable. “Not bad,” I said.
“The look on your face!” Jessica laughed. “It’s classic!”
The mealworms in the meatballs were similarly benign. Again, the meatballs themselves were expertly cooked and contained spicy goodness you’d expect in a fine Italian restaurant. There was just an added texture. The worms had a bit more body than the crickets, and their crunch was followed by a ricotta cheese-like creaminess and grassy flavor.
Finally, I turned my attention to the snail sliders. I’d never eaten escargot and wasn’t sure what to expect. Add to that the fact that my 4-year-old son recently acquired a ‘pet’ snail from our garden (shout-out to Snaily-Snae and her continuing adventures in the rose bushes!), and I found myself more hesitant to try this dish than the others.
“They’re really good,” Annie encouraged me.
“The problem is the thinking,” I said, mulling over the appropriateness of calling a snail sandwich a ‘slider.’ “That’s what’s getting in the way here. It’s a psychological block.”
I silently asked Snaily-Snae for forgiveness and took a bite. And regretted it. It wasn’t that the slider was bad, but while the other dishes were simply crunchier versions of their non-insectoid counterparts, this ‘slider’ tasted nothing like beef. It tasted, I was forced to conclude, like snail: firm, buttery and slightly garlicky. The texture, of course, was all wrong.
I put the slider down and considered it for a moment. Then I lifted the bun off, picked out one of the snails and popped it in my mouth. I considered it on its own merits, removed from comparison to a burger. “You’re right,” I said. “This is good.”
After finishing my unusual lunch, I walked to my car knowing I’d crossed a threshold. I had eaten bugs, despite my cultural upbringing and childhood warnings not to put them in my mouth. And they were fine. Not that the bugs themselves were delicious or tasty (though the food around them was)—they’re not amazing gourmet treats that we foolishly deny ourselves due to long-standing taboo. But they were certainly not terrible. They were inoffensive, I concluded.
Would I eat bugs again? Sure, under the right circumstances. I won’t be harvesting them from my backyard, but if I went to a friend’s house and found a plate of sautéed crickets in front of me, I’d probably go ahead and dig in.
It would be rude not to.
Creeping, Crawling Cuisine
Sunday, Nov. 4, 6 to 9 p.m.
ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden
2901 Central NW
Tickets: $25 (advanced purchase required. Ticket sales end at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1.)