What’s The Gateway Bug?

If we’re serious about making insects part of the Western diet, there needs to be a better pitch.

eating insects

These are chapulines and they are delicious. (Photo: Arturo Peña Romano Medina/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

One of my favorite cocktails in Los Angeles is a mezcal-based drink served at Rivera, a high-end pan-Latino restaurant not far from the Staples Center. The smoky Oaxacan spirit is mixed with lemon, lime and orange juices; there’s a lemon leaf tucked into the ice cubes, and pomegranate seeds scattered over the top. Those ingredients alone would make a fine drink, but it’s the final touch that makes it distinct: a savory salt that coats the rim of the glass. Not only does it play up the saline quality of the mezcal, like a salt rim does for a margarita, but it brings up the delicious dirt-like flavor that, even more than the smokiness, makes the spirit stand apart from its agave-distilled cousin, tequila.

This magic ingredient is chapulin salt—a brown powder made predominantly of the dried, pulverized bodies of Mexican grasshoppers.

Rivera is one of the first restaurants I dined at in a professional capacity during the two-plus years I spent as the Los Angeles editor of Tasting Table. It was also the first time I willingly ate an insect. There were countless other work-related meals that followed, and a small but not insignificant amount of them (maybe five?) involved eating bugs. After that first, furtive sip, I got over the creepy-crawly-ness of eating insects, because they’re actually pretty delicious.

But if there’s a through-line that connects my fairly limited bug-eating experiences, it’s alcohol. Specifically, mezcal.

Researching a story on the spirit at Guelaguetza—an old-guard Oaxacan restaurant that’s been given an air of hipness by the origial owners’ twentysomething son and daughter—Bricia Lopez, said daughter, brought me an order of chapulin tacos. Unlike that Rivera cocktail, these were not a milled grasshopper affair; we’re talking full, buggy carapaces, legs and all, wrapped in corn tortillas. Like many of the wild-maguey mezcals served at the restaurant, the Lopezes bring the grasshoppers directly to L.A. from Oaxaca. And since what grows together goes together...

I was reminded of these boozy, buggy encounters while reading Silvia Killingsworth’s New Yorker post about a protein bar from Exo, a company that’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter to launch a line of healthy, cricket-flour-boosted snacks. Crickets, as she points out, are astonishingly high in protein, and there are enough persuasive eco-arguments to support eating them and their insect brethren for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to be sold on the idea.

But how do the bars taste? Killingsworth gives them something less than a full-throated endorsement.

Two weeks ago, I tried some Exo bars, made from raw almonds, dates, coconut, honey, cricket flower, and cacao. Unwrapped, they looked like any other densely packed, vaguely cocoa-flavored protein bar: shiny, molasses-colored, and desperate to be confused for a brownie. The taste was rather the sum of its fruit-and-nut parts: chewy, chocolate-tinged, and not too sweet, but with no discernable cricket element.

Which is all fine and good, but the protein bars sound more like something you’d choose to eat solely because they’re good for you—good for livestock, good for the world—than for any culinary merit. Exo bars don’t sound like something you might crave or something you would snack on while having a drink—be it a beer or a shot of mezcal. And if the F.A.O. and other organizations that spend their time thinking about ways to mitigate a global food crisis are serious about insects as a protein alternative, the pitch needs to be more convincing then hey, it’s good for you and the world!

Which is why I think the gateway bug may not be a bug at all—it’s booze. Because if a salty, crunchy snack is exactly what you want to eat while sipping a beer, then why not have it be grasshoppers?  

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