STORY, PHOTOS, AND RECIPE BY
MELISSA FAIRCHILD CLARK
As this readership possesses the inherently open-minded nature of an innovative society, and this writer is vehemently against bait-and-switch, allow me to be entirely transparent: I’m here to talk about eating bugs. On purpose. For a purpose.
It’s probably not a stretch for me to assume that some background might be required as to why we should eat bugs. That California is in a historic drought comes as news to no one, and that our food system needs to shift its focus towards more sustainable practices is also old hat. But we sometimes take things that are old hat for granted and forget the hard-hitting statistics, so here is some surprising background:
California provides a third of the vegetables, two-thirds of the fruits and nuts, and 90% of the wine grown and produced in the United States, a staggering output for a single state, made even more miraculous considering it’s a state with three deserts.
Agriculture is sucking down 80% of the state’s water, 10% of which is consumed by the almond industry, requiring a daunting one-gallon-per-nut. Of the remaining 70%, the protein industry shows alarming numbers. Producing a single pound of beef requires 2,500 gallons of water. In human terms, that means ten hamburgers require as much water as we use to shower in an entire year. (This fact was a devastating blow to this lady who, no matter what she just ate, would have rather had a cheeseburger.)
If we continue down this path-of-protein, producing a single pound of pork requires 800 gallons; chicken, 567; an egg, 53. All together, livestock is responsible for consuming between 100 and 250 million gallons of water each day.
Vegetarians and vegans aren’t off the hook either: A pound of soy requires 216 gallons of water to produce. Even the least impactful of our current sources of protein, the egg, takes 155% more water to produce than a human is recommended to use in a single day (34 gallons). That’s without considering that said egg needed to come from a grown chicken (water required).
What then do we do with this conundrum? For countless cooks like me, along with legions of start-up entrepreneurs, food scientists, and environmental activists, the situation looks like a truly exciting opportunity for innovation within the food community and a revolution within the eaters’ world, as we introduce edible insects to U.S. and European markets. To begin activating this sustainable protein economy, companies like Bitty Foods, Exo, and Chapul are looking where 80% of the world has been looking for centuries: the cricket. Cousins of our beloved shrimp, our coveted crab, our revered lobster, crickets are, as Bitty co-founder Leslie Ziegler describes, “nutritionally complete, contain[ing] fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and a slew of other important vitamins and minerals. They take up just 2 square feet of pasture per pound versus beef’s 200 square feet. They emit zero greenhouse gases. And pertinent to this conversation, they require only 1 gallon of water for every 1 pound grown. Even the United Nations put out a report calling edible insects a ‘key to global food security.’”
Go ahead, read that again. I read it three or four times to let the impact of that statement sink in.
Now, we all eat with our eyes first, so before you begin picturing eating a whole cricket, allow me to put your mind at ease and say that cricket protein sources on the U.S. market now are taking on innocuous, familiar, and enticing shapes such as protein bars and even cookies. The companies tackling this challenge have endeavored to make the world’s most abundant and sustainable protein source not just palatable, but delicious.
With both top-down support from chefs like René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen and Tyler Florence of Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco and bottom-up support from such cultures as Thai, Mexican, and Chinese, we are facing both gourmet and traditional arguments for discovering the abundant, exciting flavor combinations that involve insects. Does an ant that tastes like lemongrass sound exciting? René Redzepi found it does. And does a pan-fried cricket with garlic and lime sound like an awesome alternative to nuts as a bar snack? Oaxacans have been crunching on those for years.
Chapul and Exo make gourmet energy bars from their house-made cricket powder, Chapul importing flavor inspiration from cultures that have been happily eating crickets for centuries—try their Aztec bar with chocolate, coffee, and cayenne or the Thai bar with coconut, ginger, and lime. Exo creates more Americanized flavors like peanut butter and jelly or apple cinnamon. Bitty specifically dry roasts crickets that have been humanely euthanized and takes the toasted, nutty flavored hoppers to a mill, where they are ground into a superfine, high-protein powder. The powder is then mixed with other gluten- and grain-free flours to form a paleo-friendly cup-for-cup flour replacement with vastly higher and more diverse nutritional benefits than our familiar all-purpose flour. They sell this flour to home cooks and also use it in their cookies, which come in aromatic flavors like orange ginger, cocoa spice, and chocolate chip.
As someone who has eaten crickets and other bugs before (in fact, so have you, knowingly or not, since the average pound of all-purpose flour has about eight insects in it), tried all of these products multiple times, eats the cookies, bakes with the flour regularly (as a contracted baker, recipe tester, and recipe developer with Bitty Foods), and holds flavor and texture in the highest regard, I can confidently say that the most “cricket flavor” you get is a nuttiness from the roasting process. If no one told me, I would never know that I was getting a concentrated boost of protein in my delicious snack. Instead, I’m more likely to notice how much fun it is to enjoy such treats while helping shift our food economy towards a sustainable protein source.
Important note: Crickets are essentially “land shrimp” (the chitin in their exoskeleton is the same as that of shrimp and other shellfish), so eating them is not recommended for those with shellfish allergies.
Curious about other edible insects that live in the Bay Area? Besides crickets, carpenter ants and dragonflies are worth a try. Many human cultures regard bee larvae as a valuable food, due to the baby bees’ rich diet of honey, pollen, and royal jelly; however, they are surely troublesome to harvest and it’s not recommended to do so for the sustainability of this fragile species.
ZUCCHINI, SWEET POTATO, APPLE SPICE CRICKET BREAD
If cookies and energy bars aren’t your thing but you want to experiment with the flour, try this zucchini bread recipe, one of my favorites:
2 cups Bitty flour (purchase from Bitty Foods online)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground dried ginger
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
¾ cup vegetable or grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup shredded apple (about 1 apple)
1½ cups shredded zucchini (about 2 medium zucchini)
1½ cups peeled and shredded sweet potato (I used leftover cooked sweet potato for one trial which worked well too)
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350º and butter a 9×5 loaf pan.
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, leaving the sugar out. Combine the sugar, eggs, oil, and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. When the sugar looks well combined into the wet ingredients, add the shredded zucchini, sweet potato, and apple until evenly distributed. Add the combined dry ingredients, ½ cup at a time until everything is well incorporated.
Once combined, pour the batter in, spreading evenly into the corners.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool before serving.
Cricket flour is available for online purchase from Bitty:
The Market at 1355 Market St, San Francisco will be carrying Cricket Flour sometime in September 2015.