Edible bugs take flight in Baltimore

For The Baltimore Sun
What has six legs, no spine and honey mustard flavor? Edible crickets at MOM's Organic Market.

If the constant chatter about food trends bugs you, just wait for this one. It's got legs to stand on and has taken flight in recent years.

We're talking about the demand for edible insects like crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms as a source of protein.

A section at the new MOM's Organic Market at the Rotunda in Hampden is dedicated to sustainable protein products containing bugs like honey mustard crickets, power bars with cricket protein powder and chocolate chip cookies made with cricket flour. It's the only MOM's location that sells the items.

"It makes sense to give people as many choices as we can to get protein," said Lisa de Lima, vice president of grocery at MOM's. "We want people to think responsibly about their protein intake."

Before the store opened in April, de Lima traveled to Mexico and tried edible bugs. "I thought, "Wouldn't this be cool to put at MOM's?'"

The bug aisle has been so successful that MOM's will start rolling out products containing bugs in its other 15 stores in upcoming months, de Lima said.

Rob Gelhaus of Bolton Hill, a longtime fan of crispy critters, is especially fond of the store's salt and pepper mealworms. "I like to eat them for a snack," he said. "They're delicious."

Ever since a 2013 United Nations report declared the benefits of eating bugs (a practice called entomophagy), Americans have started paying attention to the crawlers' possibilities as a food source. The study found that insects are a nutritious alternative to chicken, pork, beef and fish and that many are high in calcium, iron and zinc.

One result of the findings was a sort of bug-con symposium in May on "Exploring the Culture of Insects as Food and Feed" at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The conference was promoted as the first such gathering in the U.S. to discuss the gourmet insect market. It included a five-course meal featuring edible insects with drink pairings.

But the transition to bug eating isn't always easy for apprehensive diners, who can only think of "Fear Factor" TV contestants ingesting squiggly specimens.

"Bugs really evoke fear and disgust that cause a negative connotation," said Sara Foresman, a nutritionist at the University of Maryland Medical System. "It scares people."

But Foresman points out how bugs would help increase global food supplies. "Insects are efficient at turning what they eat into edible body mass," she said. "They are a healthy, nutritious alternative to staple protein sources."

She cites the U.N. study to support her comment: "Insects emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs and require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing."

Despite the benefits, Foresman realizes consumers might be skeptical at first.

"We're not talking about going into your backyard and eating live worms," she said. "Prepare them in a way that would be appetizing."

She suggests roasting them and using them as croutons or tucking them into a dish like chili. "They can be cooked, fried and boiled, and are delicious," she said. "It's not just for people who are adventurous eaters. It's a sustainable and affordable food option."

For instance, the honey mustard crickets at MOM's are $4.99 an ounce, and the salt and pepper mealworms cost $5.99 an ounce. To put it into perspective, a half a bag of crickets, more than enough for snacking, comes to $2.40.

Or maybe you'd rather drink your bugs. That's how they do it at Clavel, the Mexican-inspired restaurant in Remington that specializes in mezcal and tacos.

The bar serves its popular mezcalita—"our margarita," said owner Lane Harlan—with chapulines salt, made with ground grasshoppers.

"We put it right on top of the drink instead of rimming the glass," she said. "It has a really nice mouth feel and has an umami flavor."

Grasshopper salt is also sprinkled on the fruit used for some of the mezcal flights. "It gives it a lot of flavor and depth," Harlan said. "It's like a palate cleanser."

The restaurant uses gusano, or agave larva, salt on a drink called Zandunga, a mezcal cocktail with fresh carrot juice, tamarind and lemon.

A lot of customers are unaware of what they're imbibing.

"They're at a mezcaleria. They know they're going to try something new," Harlan said. "They don't even know what it is. Then they're like, 'Whoa.' "

She eventually would like to add a dish to the menu with coarse ground grasshoppers sprinkled on top of guacamole. "That's something I've had in Oaxaca [Mexico] and really enjoyed," she said. "It has a kind of crackle."

In July, Charm City Farms in Baltimore, an initiative to turn vacant lots into gardens and to offer nature programs, will present a new "MicroHerding Insects" class. It will teach participants about various bugs, how to set up a habitat to raise them and ways to cook with them.

Instructor William Padilla-Brown, a social scientist from New Cumberland, Pa., said the class will start with a cultural history of bugs. "Then, it will be hands on with insects I've worked with and are easy to breed," he said.

Expect to get up close and personal with crickets, mealworms, beetles and even roaches.

Eric Kelly, who runs Charm City Farms, is no stranger to eating bugs. "Crickets and mealworms are some of my favorites," he said. "Other cultures around the world eat bugs, and it's not that foreign to them."

In fact, 20 percent of the world's consumers eat insects, according to the U.N. report.

Kelly's favorite preparations include tossing mealworms into a stir-fry or baking them and adding them to a salad.

"You've just got to get over the crunch," he said. "The flavor is mild enough and pleasant enough."

Plus it's good for the environment. "Don't get me wrong. I love a steak," Kelly said. "But the way we're doing beef now is not good. We waste a lot."

For cooking with insects, he refers to "The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook" by David George Gordon, who uses the moniker "The Bug Chef."

Gordon, who lives in Seattle, was in town last year talking to students at Frostburg State University in Western Maryland.

"Students are super receptive to new ideas about food," he said in an email. "They're among the most adventurous bug eaters that I've encountered."

Gordon also appreciates his role in teaching collegiates how to navigate a kitchen.

"Many of them are still learning to cook," he said. "I like showing them how to get the most out of a cricket, a grasshopper or a spider."

Perhaps it is the next generation who will lead the way for a bug revolution in the U.S. So far, entomophagy hasn't appealed to a lot of taste buds.

"It's just not part of the American diet," Harlan said. "If you go to Mexico, they would be squeamish eating what we eat. It's what you grew up with."

Kelly thinks people will soon jump onto the bug bandwagon.

"It's kind of cute," he said. "And it's up and coming."

If you go

Charm City Farms will host a "MicroHerding Invertebrates" class on July 31, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., in which participants learn to set up small habitats to take home with their choice of crickets, mealworms or red wiggler worms. The class includes a demonstration on cooking with edible insects, and takes place at the farm's Brick Barn, 1310 Hillman St., across from Green Mount Cemetery. $40. Visit charmcityfarms.org for more information.

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Sheesh! Kabob

12 frozen katydids, grasshoppers or other large-bodied Orthoptera, thawed
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 small yellow onion, cut into 8 wedges
Marinade
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, thyme and tarragon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper

Mix all ingredients for the marinade in a nonreactive baking dish. Add the katydids (or other insects), cover and marinate in the refrigerator overnight

When ready to cook, remove the insects from the marinade and pat dry. Assemble the kabobs by alternately skewering the insects, bell pepper and onion wedges to create a visually interesting lineup.

Brush the grill lightly with olive oil. Cook the kabobs 2 or 3 inches above the fire, turning them every two or three minutes and basting them with additional olive oil as required. The exact cooking time will vary, depending on your grill and the type of insects used, though the kabobs should cook for no longer than 8 or 9 minutes. Serves 6.

—Recipe courtesy of "The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook" by David George Gordon

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