Chew on this: by 2050 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts 70 percent more food will be needed to sustain the world's population. Real talk: we don't have 70 percent more land to meet that demand. This isn't a joke. For the first time in human history we're facing the predicament of exhausting our natural resources. Worse, this food fight is not a foreign problem. It's right here in Charleston where low commodity prices forecast a more difficult time for local family farms, according to the Natural Estuarine Research Reserve System, an organization that works to find solutions to issues facing America's coasts. But while there are no swift or simple answers to increasing our resources, there is one possible solution crawling its way to the top. Here's a clue: there are six million species of them on Earth and 1,900 of those are edible. Bugs — the plat du jour.
Now take control of your gag reflex right there and hear us out. The bug repulsion phenomenon is only a reality in the West. While North Americans and Europeans generally wince at the thought of ingesting six- (or eight- or 10-) legged creatures, from Cambodia to Mexico, Malawi to Peru, it's a steady part of the diets of two billion people. And a team of Dutch researchers recently published a book that should help Americans put down their cans of Raid. The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet argues that not only are insects an alternative source of protein but a delicious one at that. The trick is simply a matter of making them approachable and palatable.
And who better to take up that challenge than Charleston's chefs? They've turned trash fish, once the pariahs of the deep, into menu must-haves and transformed offal from taboo organ bits to sought-after charcuterie. And besides it's not as if at least one Charleston staple isn't a pest already.
Consider shrimp. A Lowcountry classic, the little buggers are a close relative to insects — all part of the phylum arthropoda. Next time you're chomping into a bowl of shrimp and grits consider that those decapods are just an evolutionary heartbeat away from cockroaches.
And cockroaches, by God! If farmed like some do with the Madagascar hissing roach — a delicacy said to taste like greasy chicken — our infestation could become the state dish. In fact, the I-26 of the future could be covered in billboards reading "The Birthplace of Barbecued Palmetto Bug."
But as we all know, to make it work you gotta make it hip. And to make it hip you gotta make it good. So we turned to a trio of culinary whizzes and bugged them to do just that.
By the time we reach FIG's kitchen on a hot May day, Executive Chef Jason Stanhope is already arm-deep in a lump of dim sum dough. On a stainless steel table are all the necessary wonton ingredients — sesame seeds, soy sauce, ginger, and shallots. The only component missing is in my hand, one tablespoon of squirming mealworms.
"I didn't realize they'd be alive," the chef says peering into the plastic carton.
Stanhope signed on for this insect project a month prior, responding to an email proposal titled "Odd question" with a resounding "Hell yes!" Evidently, Stanhope doesn't scare easily. In fact, he says there are really only two things that gross him out — gels, favored by the late molecular gastronomy movement, and cutting the faces off of soft-shell crabs. "I realized we did 140 soft-shells plates one night. That's 240 faces," he says shuddering.
- Jonathan Boncek
- Chef Jason Stanhope of FIG mixes mealworms with coconut rice before folding them into wontons
But mealworms? Meh. With a flip of his wrist, Stanhope tosses the tiny critters into a saute pan. Co-conspirators Jed Portman, Garden & Gun's assistant editor and pastry chef Sarah Malphrus, of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen, look on.
"I'd say crabs are easily just as gross as grasshoppers," says Portman. "It's just that we're used to them."
Portman is no stranger to bug eating, having snacked on chapulines — toasted grasshoppers coated in garlic, lime juice, and salt. "I was dating a girl from Mexico," he explains. "Her uncle gave me some, and I said I liked them, so he gave me a big bag. I mean I had to be nice and finish them."
- Jonathan Boncek
- Mealworm wontons by FIG's Jason Stanhope
Of course, polite critter consumption for the sake of one's significant other is one thing. Selecting to dine on them is quite another. It all comes down to the flavor.
Using the same exactitude he applies to all his dishes, Stanhope perfectly prepares two mealworm dim sum pouches for each of us. Dressed with ramps and fresh asparagus, they look Bon Appetit photo shoot-ready. But the taste? Honestly, pretty damn good. No really. Due to Stanhope's coconut rice tucked into a crunchy fried shell, the worms only add a hint of texture — a chewier bite in an already chewy dish. "I'll eat anything if it's fried and crunchy," Stanhope says, as we polish off his exquisitely plated meal. But the question remains, given the secret ingredient, would we have ordered it?
Malphrus is open to it. "As a pastry chef constantly thinking about how I can manipulate different products into dishes that are both appealing to the eye and the stomach, I would say I'm a little more open to the thought of incorporating bugs into one's diet — especially on a socio-ecological level," she says. "I mean if you have nothing else to consume, why not just go for it?"
Portman isn't so positive. "I wouldn't not order it because of the mealworms," Portman adds. "But I also don't think they added enough flavor or even texture to justify their inclusion. I sure wouldn't pay extra for them, unless I were desperate for protein."
It's true, due to the minimal amount of wormage, The Insect Cookbook's dim sum recipe is a debatable argument for protein substitution. According to the Center for Disease Control, a woman should have 46 grams of protein a day and a man 56. The recipe only called for a tablespoon — roughly 3.56 grams of wormy protein for each of us. But did Stanhope prove he can make anything, even beetle larvae, taste fantastic? Hell yes. Conclusion: A laudable execution, but until we're facing extinction, not enough to ditch FIG's Keegan-Filion Farms chicken liver pâté for all the bug du jours in the world.
It's one thing to ask a chef to make a cricket salad, it's quite another to acquire said crickets. When Chef Josh Walker of Xiao Bao Biscuit volunteers to whip up the cookbook's "Thai salad," we say, "No problemo. We'll just get some bugs and holler when they arrive." Luckily, The Insect Cookbook told us where to find them. WorldEnto.com, an Austin-based bug biz, sells mealworms, recipe-ready adult crickets, and pre-packaged bug snacks online. So we place an order hopping to see a sealed package of creatures in mail. But we don't ... for like a week.
- Jonathan Boncek
- Everything's in place at XBB
A looming deadline leads to desperation and while picking up dog food late one night we find ourselves eyeing the lizard feed area at PetCo.
"Are these, uh, these safe for human consumption?" we side-eye the store manager. (It should be noted here that at the time of questioning we are in a dirty oversize T-shirt sans makeup toting a 30 pound bag of Eukenuba on one shoulder — essentially a missing tooth away from looking meth-head level crazy.)
Slowly removing the box of live crickets from our hand, the attendant quietly responds, "Ma'am, you really don't want to eat that."
So it is a great relief when WorldEnto's founder answers our call the next day.
"I'm so sorry for the delay," Harman Johar responds. "I'll get the bugs out to you today." Turns out WorldEnto harvests twice a week, so only the freshest of chirpers get delivered. Their crop is GMO-free and harvested via "Good-Karma-Culling methods" wherein the bugs are lulled into stasis and frozen. They experience "no fear, pain, or panic" — which is a relief. I don't know about you, but I prefer my meadow-to-table meals anxiety-free. Even better, like any good online retailer, Johar swiftly reimburses the order and overnights the insects. Welcome to cuisine 2.0.
Back at the Biscuit, Chef Walker is ready and waiting.
"I hope you don't mind, I took some liberties with the recipe," he says standing at the bar. Next to him sits a series of Asian bowls filled with carrots, papaya, cilantro, green beans, and pickled onion. In another bowl is the sauce, a Thai-inspired blend of lime juice, ginger, raw palm sugar, tamarind, Thai chilies, and fish sauce. And in the tiniest dish of all, the karmically deceased crickets.
- Jonathan Boncek
- XBB's Walker says that if someone started a local cricket farm he'd consider adding them to the menu
Walker quickly grabs the bowl, tossing the creatures — legs, wings, and all — into a saute pan with oil, garlic, and ginger. "They're so small, the antennae are gonna fry up and disappear," Walker says matter of factly. They're cooked in seconds.
Pouring all the vegetables into a large mortar and pestle, he grinds them together. Then plating it, he sprinkles the crisped critters on top, adding a dash more sauce. With the exception of a few wayward legs, the salad really looks quite stunning.
"This is how my wife and I like to eat," he says pointing to the ingredients. "You're having a little bit of protein with a lot of fresh vegetables." Incidentally, Walker normally tops this kind of dish at XBB with some peanuts or a little bit of shallots as garnish. This time he doesn't have to. "This is like a cricket crouton," Paul Bowers pipes up helpfully. (City Paper's staff writer tagged along for taste-testing support.) After summoning our courage, we dive in and the flavor is, well, shrimpy.
- Jonathan Boncek
- Xiao Bao Biscuit's Chef Josh Walker's Thai cricket salad
"Hmm, it does have a shrimpy taste. Like the thorax part," Bowers says chewing thoughtfully. Surprisingly that thorax flavor is rather good.
"I would put this on the menu," says Walker. "Honestly, that's really cool. It's not just the crunch, it's that shrimp flavor."
- Jonathan Boncek
- CP staff writer Paul Bowers chomps down on a "cricket crouton," as he put it
Walker even agrees that if someone opened a local cricket farm he would consider using them regularly. "It's fun to push the boundaries in an acceptable kind of way, not just for show, but to open up minds to eating other things," he says. Given the rapport he's built with his customers, we expect the idea — like those little antennae — would catch fire fast.
We snap some pictures and head to the door leaving a hungry Bowers to finish the salad. "What? I haven't eaten lunch," he says as we depart.
For our third and final taste-test, we arrive at Charleston Grill a few hours before service, and the staff is already on hand ironing tablecloths with the kind of precision typically reserved for cardiac surgery. Chef Michelle Weaver, the grande dame of this uni-lobster-topped palace of hedonistic delight, enters. In her hand is a plate of cookies so fragrant with sugar, butter, and chocolate, it'd make the Keebler Elves blush. That is until closer inspection. Having brought a cookie to eye-level, we discover a fat cricket protruding from each sweet. Although the chef typically dishes up caviar and foie gras, that doesn't mean she's not game to experiment. This is a woman who's prepared ostrich eggs, frog legs, and snake for some of her most experimental guests. Nothing freaks her out, including whipping up a batch of chocolate chirp cookies.
- Jonathan Boncek
- The fixins for Charleston Grill's chocolate chirp cookies
"One of the dish washers came in and said, 'Did you mean to do that?" Weaver says with a smirk. "I put crickets in them, but thought they'd make a nice topping, too."
And this is when our stomach begins to churn. Sure we'd made it through crunchy bites of a cricket Thai salad and nibbled mealworms, hardly noticing the burst of their chubby bodies against our tongue. But chomping into arguably one of the most decadent chocolate chip cookies ever and instead coming back with a big ol' gob of hind wing and jumping leg, well the thing that parents warn children to never, ever, EVER do happens: I projectile spit my food onto the crisp white tablecloth of one of the city's finest restaurants.
"Whoa, what just happened?" photographer Jonathan Boncek asks in horror.
Something about the appendage surprise was too much. Luckily, Weaver just laughs. "See, that's what I like about this. It's more about a texture than a flavor. Kinda like dried fruit," says Weaver. "Plus, insects really do have a lot of health benefits, like iron. Then again when you add two cups of sugar and 12 ounces of chocolate chips, they kinda lose that."
- Jonathan Boncek
- While chocolate chirp cookies could be a hit with some folks, Charleston Grill's Chef Michelle Weaver isn't sure fine diners are ready for them
Still collecting myself, a server approaches grabbing a cookie and casually throwing it back.
"What kind are these?" she asks mouth full.
"Chocolate chirp," Weaver says.
"What?" the staffer says.
"Chocolate chirp. They're bug cookies," she responds.
"Oh," the server says, shrugging and polishing off the treat. My spit-take now looks all the more absurd. Obviously, some Charlestonians are more than ready to hop on the entomophagy trend.
As for Weaver? While she believes in the environmental benefits, she's not sure the fine dining world is ready to accept a cricket amuse bouche followed by a seasonal selection of seared cicada.
"I don't know that we're there yet," she says. "It would be off-putting to a lot of people if they saw it on a regular menu, thinking bugs are being prepared in the same kitchen as their ribeye."
Then again, when a staffer suggested Weaver do an all-insect dinner several years ago she asked him if he'd lost his mind. But after whipping up this buggy baker's dozen, she says. "I might."
Cut the Cute
So, three courses later, can Charleston chefs make bugs delicious? Clearly. Is that enough though to make entomaphogy catch on in the Holy City? Possibly, but experts say, bugs can't be treated as a shock snack.
"If enough chefs treat it seriously people will see that these are amazingly delicious foods," says Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods. Essentially the poster boy for freaky eating, we tracked down the TV personality to gain insight into the realities of adding creepy crawlies to the Western palate. Turns out Zimmern thinks it's doable, but not if insects are used as a culinary gimmick.
"I call it the scorpion lollipop problem," he says. "When I see people candying them and deep frying them and throwing them on ice cream — they're covering up the benefits of eating them. What makes me think that we won't be successful is when we do a five-course bug dinner, they're putting bugs into dishes to be cute." And cute ain't gonna cut it. What Zimmern thinks Westerners need is an entomaphogy education.
"Thomas Keller taught me 25 years ago that there is a right way and wrong way to cook something," says Zimmern. "And the same is true in bugs. Giant flying ants are delicious toasted in a wok. Coconut grubs need to be eviscerated and then they are best crisped up in a saute pan or ideally grilled — in all the other preparations they pale in comparison." Until we learn how native bug eaters have perfected the best ways to prepare them, Zimmern believes we won't get very far.
But the ultimate lesson the bizarre foodie wishes Americans would acknowledge is the reality of our diminishing resources. "Last time I checked the poverty line kept moving north in this country," he says. "Twenty percent of children are going to be hungry tonight. Not sure how much more of a wake up call we need to expand what regular food items are."
That said, his solution isn't overly dramatic. "I don't think we should eat bugs every day, we're not living in the grasslands. One bug-based meal a month — the same way we go veg, the same way we eat rabbits, frog, and game birds — if we did that we'd eliminate 25 percent of our reliance on feedlot animals," he says. Those are feedlots where livestock are responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. When you also consider that 55 pounds of feed is needed to produce 2.2 pounds of beef while 4.6 pounds of feed is required to produce 2.2 pounds of crickets, insect-eating seems like a small sacrifice to make.
And given the surprisingly delicious results from our survey sample of chefs (projectile cookies and all), it's an idea worth exploring. As to who will be the first local chef to make it happen? If we had to put money on it, we'd guess our culinary cub scout Sean Brock might give it a go with his new Mexican restaurant Minero opening this year. All we're saying is, Brock, how about some chalupines?