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Cowboy Cricket Farms has already received several letters of intent for large orders of whole and powdered crickets from companies in Mexico, the United States and Canada. One outfit in Canada that produces beef substitutes has expressed interest in ordering as much as 3,000 pounds of frozen crickets monthly. Cowboy Cricket Farm will be Montana's first bug-food entity, but the availability of finished foods containing edible insects is creeping ever closer. Insect treats and meals have enjoyed a certain vogue in cities like New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. You can order a grasshopper stir fry at La Calaca Comelona in Portland, or slurp a cricket powder milkshake at Wayback Burger in several of the chain's Washington restaurants. Online, you can find a variety of ready-to-eat insects, from Exo's cricket protein bars to bags of freeze-dried buffalo worms from EntoPure.
James says he and Kathy were inspired to start farming crickets by MSU's Florence Dunkel, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and an international expert on edible insects. Working with MSU Catering, Dunkel hosted the 29th annual Bug Buffet in February, where nearly a thousand people gathered to chow down on orzo cricket salad, quesadillas with honeycomb moths, larval latkes and several other dishes featuring insects. The Bug Buffet aims to help people overcome their psychological aversion to eating insects by providing tasty treats like chocolate chip wax worm cookies, but the event also emphasizes insect farming and its minimal environmental impacts.
A similar event is planned in Missoula for April 21. The Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium's "Bug Appétit!" fundraiser features a menu of three dishes containing mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers. The recipes were researched and prepared by Burns St. Bistro chef Walker Hunter, one of the popular Westside eatery's co-founders. "We're trying to weigh the sensationalism with actually being good," he says of the menu. Chef Hunter has agreed to whip up a preview meal for me, which is why I am sitting here eyeballing this mess of roasted grasshoppers, thinking about that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where a turban-topped dinner guest gleefully slurps the goop out of a Thin Mint-sized beetle like he's sucking the head of a crawfish.
The comparison isn't that far off, actually. It's no coincidence that crawfish are also known as mud bugs. Shellfish and insects aren't that different from each other, says Glenn Marangelo, development director of the MBHI. By way of example, he points out the physical similarity between lobsters and scorpions. "We consider lobster to be a delicacy," he says, "but people are grossed out by bugs."
Evidently, these arthropods are alike in more than just appearance. People who have allergies to shellfish can also have a reaction to insects, says Marangelo, so they should also avoid eating bugs altogether. The allergen is thought to be found in chitin, the material that makes up the exoskeletons of segmented shellfish and insects alike.
Jen Marangelo, Glenn's wife, is the executive director of the MBHI and runs the daily operations of the Insectarium. Their collection of live arthropods from around the world, from giant hissing cockroaches to a Chilean tarantula named Rosie, draws a steady stream of school tours during which "bug ambassadors" answer questions and show off the stock. But given that their mission is to "inspire the appreciation and understanding of insects," isn't the idea of serving bug-based dishes at a fundraiser akin to raising money for a zoo by grilling up zebra steaks and hippo chops? According to Glenn, appreciation includes accepting bugs as food.
"Insects are already a crucial part of our world. Maybe bringing that into our food culture dovetails with that. Now maybe when people see them, instead of getting creeped out, they'll salivate."
I'm not exactly drooling as I grab the taco off the plate. The grasshoppers were chosen by Hunter after he learned that chapulines, as they're known in Mexico, have been a popular food in many parts of that country since pre-Hispanic times. Using them for taco filling, he says, was a no-brainer. "If people hate it," he says with a smile, "blame Oaxaca."
I keep that in mind as I open wide and shove the taco into my mouth. Prickly appendages tickle my tongue as I chomp. The taco, layered with cotija cheese, salsa fresca, cilantro and a dollop of tangy guacamole, is crunchy yet chewy, a mouthful of goodness that's unlike anything I've ever tasted. There's a vaguely nutty flavor to the grasshoppers, with a hint of citrus. Not bad. I'm chewing a mouthful of the critters and I notice that their legs don't crumble between my teeth like I was expecting. They're not brittle, but fibrous and wiry like the stem of a dry maple leaf. The hoppers are dried and roasted, so at least there's nothing gooey to contend with. The homemade flour tortilla is the perfect vehicle for the savory grasshoppers, providing a fluffy complement to the chewy brown bugs.