Bugging Out: Culinary Tips From an Amateur Insect Chef
Camren Brantley-Rios doesn’t see the mealworms topping his nachos as bugs so much as “creepy-crawly superfoods.” Well, he still sees them as bugs, but that’s an unavoidable reality when they’ve been poking out of his breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the past 12 days.
The Auburn University public relations student is almost halfway done with his monthlong challenge to eat insects at every meal, which he’s documenting on his blog 30 Days of Bugs. This isn’t a dare, he didn’t lose a bet to a ’Bama fan, and it’s not a piece of performance art—Brantley-Rios is doing this so others will do the same.
It’s a widely held belief that more people eating more bugs would do a lot of good. In 2013, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations advised that the Western world adopt eating insects as a way to curb global food insecurity. Crickets produce half the amount of biological waste as cattle, they have more protein than salmon, and, since they naturally live in close quarters, they can be raised in a cruelty-free environment that takes up little space. Which all sounds fine and good until you’re staring down a stack of cricket pancakes. Brantley-Rios is trying to make such buggy, leggy dishes more approachable through his blogging.
When I spoke to him on the phone, he had just finished a wax worm grilled cheese for lunch—his latest creation in a line of bug-filled college-food delicacies.
“I really wanted a grilled cheese sandwich today, but I wasn’t going to put crickets in it—because it would ruin the texture—so I went with wax worms instead.” He explained it so reasonably that I almost felt stupid for thinking crickets would be appropriate for a panini.
Brantley-Rios has officially risen to amateur-expert status in the bug-eating world, so he’s given us a few cooking tips and listed his favorite dishes from the challenge.
Brantley-Rios likens their crunchy texture to popcorn and says they sauté well at high heat. “Mealworms are a little bit crispier; they’re not very fatty, like wax worms,” he explained. They also have 23.1 grams of protein per 100 grams of mass, which is more than turkey, chicken, and salmon.
Mealworm Chow Mein
“It was pretty good. The mealworms kind of blended together with the chow mein and vegetables, and it wasn’t overpowering by any means. They taste really good with soy.”
Mealworm and Mushroom Soup
“It really worked, because mealworms have the same earthy taste as the mushrooms—the flavors just melded. It looked like it belonged there.”
Avocado Omelette With Mealworms
“This was from my first day of the challenge, so it’s just kind of special to me. They really don’t taste like sausage though.”
“Anything you use shrimp for, you can use crickets,” Brantley-Rios said, referring to them as “shrimp of the land.” He also mentioned that tarantula and crab are said to share a similar flavor, and that lobster was once known as the “cockroach of the sea.”
Chipotle Cricket Bowl
“Crickets go really well with Mexican flavors too. I’ll go to Chipotle and get a bowl, but instead of meat, I put my own crickets in there that I season with chili powder and lime.”
Garlic Butter Cricket Scampi
“Anything you use shrimp for, you can use crickets—they’re actually called shrimp of the land. They kind of have a seafood flavor to them, with a little bit of earthiness.”
Cricket Flour Cookies
“I had these cookies from Bitty Foods that were amazing. I don’t really bake, but I want to eventually make cricket muffins. That would be awesome.”
“I kid you not, they work with anything.” Unlike mealworms, wax worms have a fattier and more silken texture, which lets them blend into dishes without interrupting the texture, Brantley-Rios said. They’re also the most calorically dense of the bugs he’s been eating, at 273 calories and 22 grams of fat per 100 grams.
Wax Worm Chili
“I made this chili last week that was amazing. The wax worms almost acted like the beans in a way.”
Wax Worm Tacos
“After seasoning them with onions and taco seasoning, me and my friends just totally grubbed out.”
Wax Worm Grilled Cheese
“They’re really soft, so while I was eating it, I couldn’t even tell that there were worms in it. It just tasted like a grilled cheese.”
What separates Brantley-Rios from every deliberately edgy chef selling ant-egg tacos at $6 a pop is his sincerity and simplicity. As he tells it, “I wouldn’t call myself a chef at all; it’s really just me winging it in the kitchen.“
By immersing himself in this journey with no prior knowledge, kitchen training—anything, really—Brantley-Rios is normalizing bugs in an important way. He’s showing that eating insects isn’t some distant future, soylent green–type science experiment, nor is it an exclusively third-world practice borne from necessity. It’s something anyone with a frying pan and a baseline level of culinary adventurousness can—and should—get down with.