Bugs: the other other white meat

By
Friday, November 14, 2008

The queen leaf-cutter ant Atta Texana is a very special find. She sees daylight only once a year, counts herself among the largest ants in the animal kingdom and, when lightly toasted, has a sweet and nutty flavor with a crisp, bacon-like texture.

David Gracer orders them by the pound and eats them by the dozen. He eats them for taste, for nutrition and for planet Earth. And he wants you to join him.

Eat bugs, save the planet

Gracer is about the closest thing there is to a professional eater of bugs. When he’s not teaching English at the Community College of Rhode Island, he runs seminars advocating the practice of entomophagy – that’s enta-MOFF-ajee – through the business he runs out of his East Side home.

If our mothers turn out to be right about being what we eat, Gracer is surely the creepiest, crawliest arthropod in all of New England.

He hides it well, though, as I learned when I joined him at home for lunch on a recent afternoon. Save for the green bug stickers on the bridge of his thick-rimmed glasses, the 43-year-old husband and father seems like a pretty regular guy, or something near enough.

He’s pulled out all the stops for our meeting, including a table full of his favorite insect miscellany. He’s laid out his most prized specimen jars, books on creepy crawly cuisine and a box of Larvets – the “original worm snax” and the first insects Gracer ever tasted.

Oh, and bugs. Bags of bugs. Jars of bugs. A can of bugs. “Like most canned insects,” he says, “they’re really not great.”

Why bugs? Gracer would like to say he doesn’t need a reason, but he’s come up with a few – the most pressing of which is that our lives depend on them.

According to Gracer, insects are an “elegant” solution to the global food crisis the doomsayers keep talking about. They have lower environmental footprints than barnyard animals and pack more nutritional bang for their resource-consuming buck.

“Insects can out-compete any animal in terms of food,” Gracer says. “Efficiency in feed, land, water, space, time, manpower, machine power, chemistry – it’s all incredibly higher for insects.”

Professor Emeritus of Biology and entomologist Douglass Morse says Gracer’s story probably checks out. Insects are “exotherms” and get their heat from the surrounding environment, while the birds and mammals we’re used to seeing on our dinner plates are “endotherms” and have to heat themselves up.

“Birds and mammals essentially have internal furnaces,” Morse says. “And it costs a lot of energy to run that furnace.”

Gracer pulls out a chart comparing the nutritional value of various insects with more conventional foods like poultry, beef and eggs. The bugs appear to outperform their furrier counterparts almost down the line.

“Caterpillar’s not better than chicken in every category,” Gracer says. “Just most of them.”

This morsel of information checks out, too.

“If you were to compare the bugs with animal products like meat, they would compare very favorably,” says Assistant Professor of Medicine for Research Mary Flynn, a nutritionist and dietician.

Flynn says not all the essential nutrients are available in insects, but they could substitute for meat products just fine.

“Could you live on them to grow? Could you live on them to maintain your tissue? Sure,” she says, so long as you supplemented your diet with a sizeable portion of greens.

But what really does it for Gracer is that insects are no different from the more conventional Western food sources, a secret many developing nations have known for millennia.

“The insect-eaters on planet Earth outnumber the non-insect-eaters,” he says.

One global problem he sees is that Westward-looking developing countries kick the bug-eating habit once they can afford to, so as not to be perceived as “primitive.” The vicious cycle suppresses acceptance of entomophagy, and Gracer has even given it a name: “acquired food source bias.”

Last February, he presented a paper at a United Nations conference in Thailand called “Forest Insects as Food: Humans Bite Back,” where he advocated for greater economic development of insects. He hopes to raise the profile of entomophagy in the developed world to encourage the practice where it is most needed.

To that end, Gracer has come up with a few clever lines and marketing gimmicks to make entomophagy more appealing. He points out that insects are the evolutionary cousins of crustaceans, which belong to the same taxonomic phylum, arthropoda.

“Insects are to the land what shrimp are to the ocean,” he says, an analogy that inspired the name of his company, “Sunrise Land Shrimp.” He recognizes that it’s no Chicken of the Sea, but it gets the job done.

In fact, Gracer’s favorite question to ask prospective bug-eaters is whether they have a shellfish allergy, which would extend to insects and underscores the point that bugs aren’t all that different from regular food.

He pauses, looks me in the eye and asks his favorite question.

‘Filet mignon’

Gracer boils a pot of water and fires up the stove. He reaches into his refrigerator, pulls out two freezer bags full of dark lumps and sets them next to the queen leaf-cutter ants on the table.

On the day’s menu are the ants, some cicadas and a particularly menacing giant water bug the size of a business card – “we’re going to fillet that one,” Gracer says.

He puts five or six each of the cicadas and leaf-cutters in a frying pan to warm them up. Normally he’d roast them, he says, but lately his broiler’s been burning things.

The water bug is caked in salt and needs to be hard-boiled before it can be enjoyed.

Once everything is prepared, he presents the meal, which he has organized by species on a plate.

The queen leaf-cutter is first up. Her wings are tough, I’m told, so I remove them first. Then, down the hatch.

Nuts, I think. It’s hard to place, but the paste that fills my mouth after the first bite tastes like a mixture of strongly flavored nuts, maybe almonds. The crisp skin is a little harder to swallow, and feels gritty on the tongue. A glass of water washes it all down.

Next is the cicada. This one’s all edible, so down it goes.

The consistency is about the same as the ant, but the taste is a lot fresher, like something green. “Grassy, yet smoky,” says Gracer. The wings mostly disintegrate in the mouth, so there’s not much bug left after the first swallow.

Finally, I stare down the giant water bug, eye-to-compound-eye. Gracer quickly decapitates it and makes a “squish”-inducing cut down the mid-line. He opens up what appears to be its shoulder, where most of the meat lies in the bug’s large thoracic muscles.

The entire bug-worth of meat would probably fit on a penny, but the stuff costs connoisseurs hundreds of dollars a pound on the market. Gracer calls it “the filet mignon of the insect world.”

One bite and I can tell why. A pinch the size of a grain of rice delivers an overpowering flavor of a sharp, salty fruit. “Perfumey,” Gracer adds.

The rest will be to go.

‘Deck chairs on the Titanic’

Gracer has no illusions about how he is perceived.

He was once a guest on a radio show to discuss his eating habits, when a woman called in and asked if he’d ever had sex with a woman.

“I have a daughter, and I’m pretty sure she’s mine,” he recalls saying.

The woman was incredulous and asserted that she would never sleep with a man who does such things.

“Well, then count yourself lucky that you’re born now instead of 80 years from now,” Gracer recalls telling her, “when you might not have the luxury of those feelings.”

Gracer seems at his best when he’s thinking about the future, be it 80 years or just a few months, when he plans to acquire office space and maybe even quit his day job as a professor.

“I have big dreams,” he says. “But thus far I am a novelty item.”

Among those dreams is developing a line of insect-related products, including bar snacks, protein supplements and “culinary curiosities.”

He’s already found some success. On his advice, Wickenden Street’s Blue Elephant now serves crickets and silkworm pupae in many of its dishes, and last February he locked antennae with Stephen Colbert as a guest on “The Colbert Report.”

Despite the big plans, Gracer remains grounded in the things he loves best – his work and his family.

His wife, Kim, and his five-year-old daughter, Sonia, “don’t eat insects, unfortunately,” but support him in his vision. He’s also nearing completion on a Homeric epic poem 12 years in the making that examines the “spiritual aspects” of evolution and ecology.

“Problem-solving in its essence is what drives human endeavor,” he says.

“For me, the problems have to do with food production, but much more fundamentally with the connection between humans and the natural world.”

But for all the inspiring images and hopeful language, Gracer is cynical about the impact of his passion.

“It’s probably too late for humans anyway,” he says. “This is just deck chairs on the Titanic.”