On April 21, 2016, David George Gordon spoke with Joshua Foer as part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Gordon, who is a science writer, is also known as “The Bug Chef.” He often travels around the country to put on live cooking performances that promote the nutritional value of insects. He is the author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, as well as other books about whales, cockroaches, and Sasquatch. The conversation that follows has been edited for brevity and meaning.
Joshua Foer: When most of us eat bugs, it’s by accident and usually precipitates a gag reflex. We think bugs are gross, but that’s not the case in most of the world.
David George Gordon: That’s right. In our culture it’s like, “Get that damn thing out of the house!” But in Japan, for example, kids have pet beetles, and they take good care of them. I’ve even heard of kids burying their bugs that have died of old age in the backyard. In our culture, a beetle wouldn’t even make it into your bedroom, let alone be a prized possession. Around the world, particularly in countries that still have some connection with their indigenous roots, people eat insects. In Mexico, for example, they eat little caterpillars called gusanos de maguey. They eat chapulines, which are roasted and seasoned grasshoppers that are quite good. They eat all sorts of stuff—crickets, ant eggs, you name it—that are all pre-Hispanic foods that were eaten before settlement by Europeans.
How many varieties of insects are humans eating today?
The food-and-agriculture program of the UN came out with a magnificent report that lists all the different insects people are believed to eat. It’s something like 1,900 species. That’s a pretty extensive list. And that’s just what we know is already being eaten. Even among my friends, I’m always getting letters like, “Hey, is it okay to eat tent caterpillars?” There’s a lot of experimentation going on even in the United States, so that list might be an underestimate. It’s interesting: There are nearly 2 billion people worldwide who eat bugs, and to most of them it’s just another food group. It’s like going out and having green beans.
So how did you become the rare Westerner who is interested in eating insects?
I write for a living. In 1995, I was working on a book called The Compleat Cockroach, and that book had everything you could possibly want to know about cockroaches, including things like cockroaches in the movies, and what the song “La Cucaracha” is really about, that sort of stuff. There was a section I added about cockroaches as food and medicine, and that really opened my eyes. Most of the information was in science journals—either anthropology or entomology journals. After a while I had a folder full of stories about edible insects around the world, and I got really curious: Why don’t we eat bugs? What’s our trip? Once I got more information, rather than write a scholarly text, I thought a cookbook would be a really cool way of getting my message across.
Do you eat cockroaches?
Oh, yeah. Although I have to say, they don’t taste that good compared to other bugs. Cockroaches have kind of a chemical taste to them. That’s the bug itself; it’s not from people spraying them with roach spray.
How do you prep a cockroach to eat it?
Similar to crickets. First, I freeze anything I’m going to cook. It doesn’t really affect the flavor or the quality of the food, and it’s a humane way to kill the bugs. They’ll go in the freezer, drift off into a deep sleep, and never wake up. Once I’m done with that I can take them out. In the case of cockroaches, I usually soak them in lemon juice for a while to remove the waxy coating on their body that helps them slip through cracks and crevices. Then I spread them on a cookie sheet, or use them in a sauté. One time I made chili with them. But like I said, they’re still not among my favorite flavors compared to things like grasshoppers or crickets. Grasshoppers have almost a green, peppery taste to them. Crickets are sort of like tofu: They absorb the flavors of the food they’re in. But if you just eat a lightly roasted cricket, it tastes kind of like a shrimp chip.
What is the tastiest recipe in your book?
Things like grasshopper kebabs are great. The one that’s become sort of my signature dish is cricket nymphs mixed with orzo pasta. I use cricket nymphs because they don’t have their wings yet, so they’re less crunchy than the grownups.
Where does one get cricket nymphs?
I used to buy them from the same people who would supply pet stores or bait-and-tackle shops. Some bugs I get through the live-invertebrate trade. The people who supply insect zoos, for example, can sell me the same things—like scorpions, which are quite tasty.
Wait—what do scorpions taste like?
They taste sort of like soft-shell crab. They have long white meat in their tails and claws; like a little lobster, basically.
Nowadays there are people who sell recipe-ready crickets that have been raised organically for human consumption. So usually, depending on what I’m looking for, I’ll buy from a large commercial farm or from one of these smaller farms that have emerged in the last few years.
So that must mean this is catching on.
Food trends are weird. The model people use when talking about eating bugs is sushi. Sushi was almost nonexistent thirty years ago in the US. Now I see sushi stands in the Midwest, hundreds of miles from any ocean. They’re everywhere. So yeah, it’s an idea that’s definitely spreading.
Is there an environmental argument for eating bugs?
Probably the biggest thing is how wasteful it is to raise cattle, or any of our conventional protein sources. Cattle are not very efficient at converting the food they eat into meat. Estimates vary, but some experts believe it takes up to 460 gallons of water to produce just a quarter-pound of beef. In this era where water is becoming quite precious, that seems really obscene. There’s also the danger where if you’re eating mammals like cows or sheep—even chickens, for that matter—because they’re warm-blooded animals, that their diseases could leap to people. That’s what mad cow disease was all about, or bird flu: The same viruses were being exchanged between humans and animals. Although there hasn’t been much research done on this subject, the risk of this happening with insects is less likely. And it turns out that if we started raising grasshoppers instead of cattle we could do a lot for global warming. For example, the UN report estimates that livestock rearing is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, which is a higher percent than the transportation sector.
What about nutritionally? Can you get everything your body needs from eating bugs?
Yes. You know, pound for pound, dried grasshoppers have almost the same amount of protein as lean ground beef. And you’re not getting the fat that you would by eating a hamburger. You know those omega-3 fatty acids we like to get from fish? We can get comparable amounts of it from mealworms. The other thing is vitamins and minerals. Termites are really rich in iron and calcium. In general, most insects are a good source of zinc.
So this seems just mind-numbingly obvious that we should all be eating lots more bugs. Except that most of us find them disgusting.
Well, first of all, people have really strong feelings about food in general. And getting some people to try anything new is usually an uphill battle. This is compounded by the fact that people think insects are kind of a hassle. They’re pests. I wrote my book thinking I wanted to show people that insects and their kin were more than something to swat at.
Well, except for those of us who keep kosher, we do eat lobster and we do eat crab, both of which are also arthropods, like insects.
When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, you know, the tide pools were literally crawling with lobsters. They actually used them to fertilize farm fields; they’d just plow them right into the soil, they were that poorly regarded. Lobsters were even served regularly as prison food. So it’s been a recent sell job that emerged around World War II that turned lobsters into a delicacy. The last one I had cost $50. I wonder what the Pilgrims would have thought of that. It’s kind of an amazing turnaround.
So for people who are squeamish about eating insects, what’s the best way to get them to try it?
Well, there’s a little bit of a disagreement right now in the bug-eating community about how to introduce newcomers to the world of edible insects. Most of the people who are launching start-ups are using cricket powder in some capacity. There are tortilla chips called Chirps that have cricket flour in them, there are energy bars. I think what underpins this trend is the fact that it’s less frightening to eat these products if you don’t know there are crickets in them. Then again, people say crickets are the gateway bug. Personally, when I wrote my book, I really wanted bugs to be prominent, and I’m kind of in your face about it, because I do think it’s about attitude. I want to confront people on their attitudes.
Do you think entomophagy will catch on?
I actually don’t like the term “entomophagy” because it’s a scientific term that sets it apart from other foods.
What would you like to call it?
Oh, “bug eating,” I think. I’d love for someone to come out with a really gourmet term for it. You know, if you go out for a steak, you don’t say, “I’m going to go out and engage in carnivory.” You say you’re “going to eat a steak.“
How do you think insects will end up having their lobster moment of being transformed from pest to delicacy? Given the newfound interest in conscious, ethical, farm-to-table eating, it feels like the logical next step.
A lot of things need to be done. One of them is working with chefs to develop great recipes. The food can be as environmentally sound as you want, but if it tastes like cardboard, people aren’t going to line up to try it. So I think, first of all, insects need to be highly valued by restaurant chefs. You know, in Mexico, they call ant eggs Mexican caviar—it’s expensive, too. But I don’t see people serving that anywhere in the States.
Not even at Mexican restaurants in the US?
That’s right, probably because the ant eggs themselves are unstable. They don’t defrost well, so shipping them is a hassle. But it also just hasn’t been developed as an industry. So right now we’re stuck. Most of what we’re raising are crickets, mealworms, waxworms. All of those insects have been raised for pet food for fifty years, so it was easy to figure out how to raise them for human consumption.
How much of your diet is constituted by bugs today? Do you eat them at every meal?
I usually have something around for when friends drop over, like chapulines. Dried ants are quite tasty, so I might have a little bowl of them around to snack on. As far as actually sitting down to a meal of bugs, that doesn’t happen often, partly because bugs are expensive.
It feels like they should be the cheapest food that you could get.
There’s not a large market for them. If I want to buy a tarantula spider, I’m basically buying it from the same people who supply research labs or classrooms or what have you. They’re about $15 or $20 apiece.
I should not be surprised to hear that you eat tarantulas.
I like tarantulas a lot. They’re one of my favorite foods.
How do you prepare a tarantula?
You take the tarantula after it’s been frozen and defrosted, cut off its abdomen—that’s just a fluid-filled sack, nothing of value—and singe off its hairs. I use a little Bic lighter for that. Then I put them in tempura batter and then I deep-fry them.
Are there any bugs that you will not eat?
It’s funny. The thing about eating bugs, there’s a dialogue between your brain and your stomach. When you’re looking at a food, particularly if it’s unfamiliar or strange, your stomach is going, “Are you sure you want to eat this?” and your brain is going, “Yeah, yeah, it’s great. Go ahead.” Well, if you have a dialogue for too long, you get sick to your stomach. I always point out that your stomach has veto power. If it doesn’t like it, it can throw it back up.
After working on my book for a really long time, I finally got to a recipe for fried green tomato hornworms. Tomato hornworms are about two-and-a-half to three inches long, and they’re green, of course. They look like something that would make you sick. When I ate them, they tasted like pesto. I liked it a lot. But it was the visual thing that really started getting on my nerves.
The only other one that really gives me the creeps is a recipe for either South American or Southeast Asian centipedes. They’re about ten to twelve inches long. And when they’re alive they wiggle around and I can’t wait for them to go in the freezer because they move around in this creepy way. They’re magnificent predators—I’ve seen them catch and eat four crickets in one shot. But they also have a chemical taste to them. So while I like to use them sometimes for the shock value, I don’t think they have much culinary value.
If you were going to leave people with one dish that they should go out and make themselves, what would it be?
Any of the cricket dishes. Orzo and cricket nymphs, in particular. It’s fairly easy to obtain all the ingredients: Just place your order for crickets online. You can prepare it in a wok, and it’s like a warm cricket salad when you’re done. It’s genuinely delicious. So that’s the one I’d be cheering people to try for starters. But it’s also kind of ludicrous to think you’re going to have an entire meal based on insects. It would be like going out for a chicken dinner and having chicken soup and chicken appetizers, and then for dessert having chicken or whatever. I think bugs mixed with other foods is the way to go.
Are there other strange cuisines you think we should be trying out?
I want to convey that I’m not just this ghoul who likes to eat weird stuff. I’ve had people make the assumption that I would like to eat duck embryo or what have you, and I’m like, “No, not really.”
So duck embryo is over the line for you.
Yeah, exactly. I’m pretty traditional with my diet with the exception of bugs.
Well, let’s talk a little bit more about that.
Even my own family, my stepkids are really big on squishing bugs in the home, and I say to them, “They’re not going to bite you or eat you. You’re too big. They’re actually eating the bugs in our home, so don’t do that.” But they just have this aversion to them. My other least favorite word is the C word: creepy crawlies. Creepy to whom? I see it all the time, even from people who study bugs. If one flies on their microscope they’ll just swat it. It’s like we have a real ambivalence toward bugs, even among professionals, which kind of cracks me up. People just need to realize that there’s some good stuff going on here. Whether you’re eating them or just appreciating them. And I’m actually seeing this starting to catch on.
So bugs will become our friendly companions, as opposed to these nasty pests we don’t want to have anything to do with?
It’s ironic because we need bugs for plant pollination and food for animals big and small. Also for recycling waste and dead stuff and putting it back into the soil. I read that if all the bugs were suddenly to disappear, our planet would come to a screeching halt. Too many of our biological functions rest on the shoulders of those little guys for us to be so demeaning toward them. And that’s really my big cause—to get some dignity for these creatures, even if I have to do it with comedy or shock value or whatever.
Or by eating them.
Well, that’s the shock value—and the comedy, sometimes.
Deep-Fried Tarantula Spider
Yields 4 servings
- 2 cups canola or vegetable oil
- 2 frozen adult Texas brown Chilean rose, or similar-sized tarantulas, thawed
- 1 cup tempura batter
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- In a deep saucepan heat the oil to 350° F
With a sharp knife, sever and discard the abdomens from the two tarantulas. Singe off any of the spider’s body hairs with a crème brûlée torch or butane cigarette lighter.
Coat each spider in tempura batter. Use a slotted spoon to make sure each spider spreads out and is not clumped before dropping it into the oil.
Deep-fry the spiders, one at a time, until the batter is lightly browned, about one minute.
Remove each spider from the oil and place it on paper towels to drain.
Use a sharp knife to cut each spider in two lengthwise. Sprinkle with the paprika and serve. Eat the legs first and, if still hungry, nibble on the meat-filled mesothorax, avoiding the spider’s paired fangs, which are tucked away in the head region.
- 1 medium egg
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Beat the egg in a small mixing bowl until smooth. Slowly add cold water, continuing to beat until evenly mixed. Add the flour and baking soda and beat gently until combined; the batter should be a bit lumpy.
Let the batter sit at room temperature while heating the oil.