Random AsidesScience

How to make sure you are never invited to a potluck again. EVER.

Ah, the Holidays. The season when introverted curmudgeons like me….are fairly miserable and awkward, actually.  I’m not good enough at small talk to do well at holiday gatherings:

“What are you doing for Christmas?”
“Um….lamenting the over-commercialization of your imaginary savior dude’s birth? And avoiding my family?”

Over the years, I’ve perfected a way to free myself from the stress of having to whip up a special dish for the obligatory office potluck.  I’ve carefully developed a reputation for insect cookery. I casually make sure everyone in the office knows this.

Since I’m in a new job this holiday season, I made sure to loudly ask my coworkers where the bait shops are in our town.  I need a bait shop for the key ingredient in my traditional holiday John the Baptist Bread, you see.

This bread’s name comes from a passage in Mark 1.6: “And John was dressed with the hairs of a camel and with a belt of skins around his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”  I skip the camel hair part–I have quite sensitive skin–and substitute in roasted crickets, since locusts are hard to come by in Connecticut in mass quantities.

You grind roasted crickets into flour (a coffee grinder is excellent for this, but you will find the odd antenna in your coffee later on) and mix it with lots of honey to make a very nice little cake.  It’s actually quite delicious.

This year I already have gotten word that I don’t have to do any roasting or baking, though. I achieved my goal of being dis-invited to the potluck early–I’ve been instructed to bring only a bag of chips and dip. In sealed containers.  WIN!

I don’t just eat insects to fuck with people (although that is an entertaining side effect). Entomophagy, or insect eating, is actually quite common in the world.  Insects are the ultimate sustainable agriculture, requiring far fewer resources than other forms of livestock, and they produce fewer greenhouse gas-causing emissions per pound of protein. And they are delicious!

I like to cook with insects to make people think about why they would be excited if I brought shrimp cocktails to the potluck, but horrified if I brought them a grasshopper curry.  Both are arthropods, and frankly grasshoppers have a more appealing lifestyle. For some reason, Americans don’t think of insects as food, although an estimated 40% of the world’s population eats insects on a semi-regular basis.

This graphic shows in a nice visual way how most of the food that goes into a cow…does not become part of a cow. It ends up in a little steamy pile behind the cow, since they aren’t terribly efficient at converting grass or corn into cow meat or milk.  Insects, on the other hand, are just as protein rich as a cow or a pig, can be bred under your bed (I haven’t seen your bed, but I’m betting you don’t have pigs under there), and have a high profit margin.

efficiency of food production

Note that the meat processing is where a lot of the profit comes from–which is why what farmers get paid and the price you actually pay at the store are sometimes extremely different.    The nice thing about insects is that there isn’t a whole lot of post-mortem processing to do, other than perhaps removing the wings.  You don’t need a professional or sharp pointy tools to carve a grasshopper rump roast.

Insects are a great way for subsistence farmers to make some cash–and raise nutritious food without a lot of land, water, or resources.  100 grams of caterpillars can provide all of an adult’s recommended daily protein, along with iron and several important vitamins.  That’s a lot cheaper and more sustainable than a steak!

So, while I have been excused from bug cookery for the upcoming potluck, I do still have a secret evil plan to expose my co-workers to entomophagy and convince them it’s cool.  I found some big-ass ants on sale.

Seriously, that’s their name: Big-Ass ants.  In Colombia, where they are harvested, they are “hormigas culonas.”  Big-Ass Ants are leafcutter ants  (Atta laevigata), and have long been eaten in Central America.   I had some queen leaf-cutter ants, Atta texana, earlier this year courtesy of Dave Gracer when I came up to interview for this job.

(What? You don’t arrange clandestine cookery of edible insects when you have a faculty interview? Huh.)  The ones Dave cooked for me were awesome–they had kind of a nutty Chex Mix taste. I could totally see snacking on those like popcorn.

So, when I saw these toasted ants on sale, I made an impulse purchase.

Alas, I did not read the fine print carefully, and so was a tad disappointed when my smallish tin of ants arrived.  I have photographed them here next to an Altoids tin.  They don’t quite have the wonderful taste of the texana ants–they are a bit dry and dusty–but still have a lovely nutty taste.  And they do indeed have a lot of junk in their trunk–it’s just about all butt, with a tiny head and legs attached.

It turns out that the Altoid tin is exactly the right size to carry all the ants in–so that I can put it in my pocket and offer up ants as an appetizer at the staff potluck.  I am trying to figure out what dip might best go with them–I think hummus would actually be pretty good, with the ants substituted for pine nuts.

Fat Bottom Ants, you make my rockin’ world go round.


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I love you bug girl! Entomology rules! So does messing with the hairy primates! :) I have to try the John the Baptist bread sometime!

  2. If I go back to eating animals, entomophagy is definitely on the, uh, menu. That recipe looks pretty awesome.

  3. As a phylogeneticist, I’m proud to say that I have maintained my arthropodophagical* consistency, as I eat neither prawns nor insects. Indeed, within the metazoa, I have just two primary rules. I eat nothing within the primates, and nothing more distantly related than the birds.

    Speaking of which, although well short of your crickets, chickens are much more efficient at turning feed to meat than cows or pigs. (In fact, as a child I did the combo, by enabling the chickens to eat the crickets. This was also when I came closest to arthropodophagy**. The story involves a water tank, and the rest is best left unsaid.)

    Also, you have something of an implicit assumption that, feed-lot-style, the feed is being delivered to the animals. Particularly on hilly terrain, there are major advantages to a self mobile, self-feed-harvesting feed-to-meat converters whose location is largely controllable with the aid of a sheep dog.

    * Current Google hits on this word: 0
    ** Current Google hits on this word: 2

    1. Actually, the majority of production in the US is confined feeding, so it is a reasonable assumption.
      However, for cows, their efficiency is related to a huge constellation of factors, which being on pasture doesn’t really change. (especially the genetics!)

      (recent pub on efficiency of cattle, and how to manipulate it)

      1. Where I come from, confined feeding is very low, probably zero, for sheep and cattle. (But I think still high for pigs and chickens.) Much of our farmland it topologically unsuitable for cropping.

  4. Alas, my limited experiences eating insects have not been good ones. Once in Puebla Mexico, I tried grasshopper tacos. The grasshoppers had been seasoned and pan fried. The texture was not good. It was like eating spicy eggshells.

    In Zimbabwe I tried fried mopani worms. The mopani worm (_Gonimbrasia belina_) is a large catepillar commonly eaten in southern Africa. They serve them in a bowl and eat them by the handfull ala potato chips. I did not care for them. They tasted like lawn clippings (obviously due to the catepillar’s leafy diet).

    So I’m 0 for 2. However, I guess I could give them another chance.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Bug. I love to eat odd things when I travel or all the time. Seriously though, where is the grasshopper curry recipe?

  6. Nice cookies, but I hate to tell all you botanically challenged people this, but John the Baptist was not eating insects in the wilderness. Locust refers to leguminous trees of many types (black locust, honey locust) and in this case a locust otherwise known as carob whose pods have a sweet edible fleshy tissue surrounding the hard little seeds that are used as a unit of measure of weight (carob = carot), a common survival food on the middle east. This means crickets are not suitable substitute, but chocolate chips are.

  7. When it comes to such scholarship best to rely on the scientific experts, in this case Michael Zohary, Plants of the Bible. As for nutrition, remember legumes are very good food. The rabbi Shimeon Bar-Yohai was said to have been sustained for 12 years on carob alone (Talmud), but the later reference in Matthew is more uncertain because of the similarity in Hebrew names: hagavim (locust)& haruvim (carob), although the word used in Luke for what John ate in the wilderness was “pods” not “hoppers”.

    1. Look, I can supply more peer reviewed literature like the link in my comment above. The only difference is they come down on the side of the answer of bugs. The paper I chose to cite I think is a reasonable one, since it comes to the conclusion that there is no consensus.

      Really, though, is there any point in playing the “my experts trump your experts” game when this is about the diet of a FICTIONAL person?

      1. I was wondering when that last bit was going to come up. Kind of like arguing over what Harry Potter ate at Hogwarts… ;)

  8. I’m pretty sure John the Baptist was a real guy. He founded a religion that competed with early Christianity (Mandaeism), and which persists to this day. That’s why the nonsensical story about John baptising Jesus is in the Bible-it was an early and mostly successful attempt to coopt the Mandaeans.

    Note that locusts (the critters) are one of either two or three insect-derived foods specifically allowed by kosher rules. All other “crawling things” are forbidden. (The other two: honey and manna, if you believe the hypothesis that manna was lac insect secretions.)

    Maybe it’s my having a (tiny fraction of your) biology background myself, but insects as food never bothered me. Doesn’t even make sense in my head. To quote my favorite comic strip: I’ll eat anything that used to be alive.

    1. Oh yes, and there was some real Jew that got into some trouble with Romans that might have been named Jesu.

      But…the stories we tell about them? Fictional.
      If there were documents these people wrote them selves, or documents written concurrently, then these arguments might be worthwhile.

      There is an amazingly huge literature on all of this–in particular arguments about what is and isn’t Kosher. But it all just seems like dancing on the head of a louse to me.

      I use the John the Baptist story to get entry into Christian mythology, since the vast majority of folks I interact with are Xtian. But I am not advancing it as any sort of reality, or having any scientific fact.
      It’s just a useful story.

  9. I’m pretty open to trying to incorporate insects into my diet more (I have tried a few novelties like those Big-Ass Ants and I actually liked fried meal worms), but I currently find it expensive and confusing. Is there a good book or other resource out there I could read? I don’t know where to get started on finding safe sources, etc.

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