The last time I ate cricket it was topping a colorful Thai salad at Xiao Bao Biscuit. A touch shrimpy and more than a little crunchy, the bugs — though startling at first glance — weren't altogether terrible. In fact, in the hands of XBB's Josh Walker, I'd say they were pretty damn good. But crickets haven't been in any of the restaurant's dishes since, and we don't expect you'll find them there any time soon either. Walker was a willing participant in an experiment I tested for my 2014 feature "Bugs, They're What's for Dinner." In it I suggested that if anyone could get people to eat the controversial critters, it would be Charleston's chefs. But since then the trend hasn't exactly taken off. In fact, I hadn't heard a peep, or should I say chirp, about crickets or any other bugs hitting Charleston menus since. That is until City Paper's editorial assistant Connelly Hardaway stopped by the Charleston Pour House's Sunday Brunch Farmers Market opening weekend and met Gabby Barons.
Gabby, and her sisters Alex and Victoria have started Charleston's first cricket flour company, Jiminy Co. And it's about time. As Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods said in my story, "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."
Why avoid feedlots? Well their environmental impact is more than alarming. We're taxing our land, water, and air supply. Take for instance beef. Beyond the fact that livestock is responsible for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, according to Dutch economist Herman Wijffels, for every two pounds of beef it requires 10,600 gallons of water. That's an amount he says that's not sustainable. Meanwhile, there are 1,900 edible insect species on Earth. We're largely ignoring our greatest edible resource, and one we may need to seriously tap into sooner rather than later.
But finding bugs in the U.S. is still tough to come by. In researching for my story, the closest cricket purveyor I could find was WorldEnto, a business based out of Texas. And don't even get me started on meal worms. I inevitably bought them at Petco. But thanks to the Barons sisters, the Lowcountry now has a cricket connection. Sourcing dried and roasted crickets from Entema Farms in Canada and grinding them into a fine powder at a DHEC-approved kitchen on Johns Island, the Barons sell both cricket flour and cricket cookies.
"Our family is from Panama and Central America, and we've traveled there since we were tiny babies. It's the norm there to eat crickets and meal worms," says Gabby. But even with a bug-friendly upbringing, it wasn't until a few years ago that she started to question why Americans don't eat them too.
"It wasn't until doing more research about it that I saw the need to find a more sustainable source of protein," she says. So the University of South Carolina public health grad bought some crickets, got her sisters on board, and starting playing with recipes.
"We've been at it for a year and experimented with just the cricket flour and nutribars and mixed it and replaced with flaxseed and made certain power bars and we couldn't find the right consistency," says Gabby. After a lot of recipe testing, the sisters landed on chocolate chip and breakfast oatmeal cookies they feel they can stand behind. They sell both cookies at four for $5. But ultimately the cookies are there to serve as a gateway to the flour which they sell for $20 a bag.
"We want to overcome that ick factor," says Gabby. The goal for the Barons is to encourage not only farmers market shoppers to pick up a bag of the flour, but to reach local bakers as well. "If they'd like to sell an alternative source of protein, that would be amazing," says Gabby, adding that she'd like to see professional bakers take Jiminy Co.'s product farther than the sisters kitchen know-how will allow. "It could be used for breads and muffins and other things," she says.
Right now Jiminy Co.'s flour is 20 percent cricket. "We feel that's the best ratio," says Gabby. "You can do more, but in cooking recipes won't come out."
So how does it taste? Well, chocolate tends to do the heavy lifting in any baked good, but beyond that the only real difference between a Jiminy Co. chocolate chip cookie and your average is texture. There's just the slightest hint of crunch. A thorax mouth-feel if you will. That said, if I'd done a blind tasting, I doubt I'd have noticed. These are good cookies. And you know what they say? If you give a mouse a cookie... he's going to want to start eating crickets all the time.