“What I hope will happen is people will become connoisseurs and they’ll be able to say, ‘Well, I like these grasshoppers but they’re a little overcooked, or they’re dried out, or…'”
You read that right. That’s self-proclaimed Bug Chef David George Gordon’s vision of the future. It’s a future that is closer that it appears, but more importantly, it’s a future that the world desperately needs.
Bugs are a surprising answer that could change the world as we know it, from world hunger to climate change. The Bug Chef goes on to express the benefits of eating bugs on your personal health as well as the drastic effect it could have on women, children, and global living as a whole.
Now, groups as far as the UN have endorsed eating bugs. Why? It’s simple… bugs can save the world.
Tell me about yourself. How does somebody become a bug chef?
Well, it’s funny, I’m actually a professional science writer. I worked for 15 years at the University of Washington as a writer for a program called the Washington Sea Grant. But for years before that, I tried to make a living as a freelance writer for myself. I wrote a lot of travel stories for inflight magazines and things like that.
I’ve actually written a ton of books too, like twenty books. Some of them are kids books and are skinny and others are big, fat adult books. I was writing one book for a publisher called The Complete Cockroach. It was everything you could possibly want to know about cockroaches, like why do we sing “La Cucaracha”? Or what movies are they in? That kind of stuff — more than just biology.
As a result, there’s a section about how to eat and why people eat cockroaches and where they do it, which was all news to me at the time. This was in ’94 or ’96 when I was writing it.
But, it opened my eyes to the fact that, you know, the statistic of 80% of the world’s cultures eat insects. It was kind of sobering when I saw that. I was like, “Well, why don’t we eat insects?”
So, I started collecting articles. I spent a lot of time at the library mostly looking at anthropology journals — like how they eat bugs in Indonesia and things like that. And the idea dawned on me that instead of writing a scholarly text, I should do a cookbook! The people at Ten Speed Press were interested in the cookbook, and that came out in 1998. It just went out of print this season, but prior to that it was in print for 22 years.
So, I didn’t start out as a chef, but I liked to cook and did a lot of cooking at home. At this point, I’m probably one of the leaders of the pack in terms of bug cooking. I’d say I’m a bug chef, to be honest. I’m not like a classically trained chef. That’s my thing — The Bug Chef.
So what kinds of cultures already eat bugs and how do they do it?
It would actually be easier to say which cultures don’t, which is mostly Northern European and its descendants, like North Americans. Most of the places throughout Asia, Africa, South America, Mexico. It turns out Mexico is the leader in eating the world’s largest number of different kinds of bugs. After Mexico, it’s probably Southeast Asia and China, where people routinely eat things like silkworms. They don’t even think of them as an insect. Other places, like Africa, eat bugs too.
In Mexico, what’s interesting is it’s mostly wild harvesting. In Mexico, they eat these things, little grasshoppers, called chapulines. You could probably find them for sale in Mexican grocery stores right there in Denver.
It’s a food people have been eating since before the arrival of Columbus. And, I think it was probably a very smart way of keeping pests down if you’re trying to grow crops like corn. Instead of what we do, spraying everything with stuff, you can actually get two crops from one field.
So, when was the first time you ate an insect here in the States?
I think the first time I actually ate one was probably right before I got started on my cookbook. And I went to, I don’t even know what you would call it, like an Arbor Day Fair. There was a group there from the University of Washington and they were serving free samples of Chex Mix… with crickets in it.
So that was kind of an eye opener. Now, I’m not one of those “I’ll eat anything” ones, but I do have a pretty broad palette. I used to buy snack mixes from Japan, and in there they have little dried fish for a salty component. The idea of eating little dry crickets wasn’t that different.
After that, in earnest I started trying all kinds of different stuff. I think there’s 33 recipes in the original cookbook and 40 in the revised book. I wanted to make sure I had everything from termites and ants all the way up to tarantula spiders. Because there’s lots of different bugs — dragonflies, locusts, grasshoppers, caterpillars. It took me about a year and a half to write the whole thing. Writing recipes is harder than you think, because everything has to be just right in all the units of measurement and all that.
So did your house go through a lot of bugs when you were testing recipes?
Yeah, and my youngest daughter, who is now fully grown, but at the time she was like 10 years old. She was an ethical vegetarian. She didn’t like the idea that I was killing animals. I’d be working on a recipe in the kitchen, and she’d come in afterwards and go “You missed an antennae here!”
The funniest thing was later when she was a full-blown teenager, there was a contest in Seattle on the radio. If you could do an outrageous stunt, you could win admission to a brunch hosted by Radiohead. She was totally into Radiohead at the time, and I woke up one morning and I heard her talking on the phone, “Well, I could eat a scorpion.”
I thought I must be dreaming, because she was totally opposed to this project. But for Radiohead, she’ll eat a grasshopper. And she did meet Radiohead!
The thing that is funny, I think people basically like food that their parents or their grandparents gave them. If it wasn’t introduced to them through family members or whatever, it’s not a comfort food. So, people, unless they’ve come from other countries, are not likely to have bugs. Grilled cheese sandwiches, maybe, but not bugs. If you came from Oaxaca, Mexico, you would at least know about chapulines or ants or things like that.
So, how do we get more Americans to start eating bugs?
The biggest problem is a deep one. Most people in North America don’t like insects. Period. They’re creepy. And of course, if we didn’t have insects, the planet wouldn’t work. If we didn’t have them, the planet, it’s predicted, could only go for about a month before it had serious die-offs.
But people don’t like bugs. I’ve actually gone and done programs at insect fairs, like the Museum of Natural History in LA that has an enormous bug fair every May. One of the times when I was there, there was like 13,000 people there over a weekend. There was a guy selling chapulines, but he was the only person manning his booth. I felt sorry for him, so I said, “Let me take a stint, and you can have a lunch break or something.”
I did that for a while, and as a result, I was kind of in hand-to-hand combat with people over whether they should eat bugs or not. And we’re talking about something that’s maybe half the size of a Cheeto. But even the people at an insect fair were like, “No way!”
They couldn’t bring themselves to try one, even with my teasing them. Your dislike of insects is that strong, even at an insect fair? But that’s really kind of a truth. Even people who study bugs have a distaste for them. So, until we can get over that, I don’t think it’s possible.
It’s kind of like if somebody asked if I wanted to eat snake for breakfast. I don’t like snakes. I mean, I know they’re good for the planet, but it’s not something I would go, “Oh, yeah! Yummy!”
So there’s a lot more groundwork that needs to be done, and it needs to be more that it’s just good for the planet, or it’s got all the vitamins. We need to overcome that aversion to eating insects.
For me at least, there’s something about the texture. Is there a way to get around that?
Well, you know, what’s become very popular and more acceptable is taking crickets, then roasting them like coffee, and then grinding them and making a cricket flour. You can mix that in with all sorts of other things, everything from blueberry muffins, or breads, but also like smoothies. It’s basically an additive — like a protein powder!
It’s a really amazing one, it has all of the essential amino acids, it has vitamin B12, which you would not get unless you were getting some sort of animal. Vegetarians are oftentimes B12 short and they sometimes have to get injections. It even has fatty acids that you normally get in salmon. Those are great antioxidants.
Okay, but why even eat bugs? We have steak and pork, what’s the point?
Well, nutritionally they’re really superior to most foods. But also, there’s the cost of raising them, and the environmental cost as well, and just the pure scale of the economy.
It’s amazing. It takes almost 2,000 gallons of water to get one pound of steak. And fresh water is a real finite quantity on our planet. So, we need to be able to find a way to produce the same amount of protein with way, way less than that. I think it takes about a pound and a half of feed to raise a pound of insect meat. Whereas, it takes about sixteen pounds to get a pound of meat from cattle. And insects have more nutrients and less fat per pound.
Also, you need way less space. You don’t need acreage. You don’t need as much water, of course. And the end product, cattle produce greenhouse gasses both through their manure and also their farts. They’re very gassy little guys. Cows actually produce more greenhouse gasses than all of the cars and trucks and motorcycles in the world.
It’s amazing. If you really want to read a quick summary, go online and a branch of the UN put out a report back in 2013 talking about insects as the food of the future. And that is very detailed, that’s where I got a lot of my information about the greenhouse gasses from that report. It’s called the Food & Agriculture Organization. So, I would recommend at least browsing through the executive summary.
And, the final thing I like to tell people is that cattle and others like sheep and pig, they’re warm-blooded mammals. It’s possible to get diseases from them. Swine flu, for example, which killed 20,000 during an outbreak in the ’90s. And it’s because they’re raising these animals in very condensed circumstances in feedlots where they’re shoulder to shoulder. Mad cow disease is the other one I think of. Whereas, because insects are a completely different genus, and species, and family… and they’re cold-blooded. It’s unlikely that diseases and parasites would go from insects to people. So that’s another advantage right there, you can raise them in densities and not worry about a new virus coming out of it. Some theories say that the current virus, the coronavirus, came from people eating bats.
Speaking of raising them, how does this play into world hunger? What difference could raising insects make in places of famine?
I personally believe that in terms of making a difference in the world, we need to work with countries that already eat insects instead of coddling well-fed Americans. In the Congo, they eat lots of different kinds of bugs. There’s a woman, I think she lives in Fort Collins, somewhere out in Colorado, she has a company that’s called Farms for Orphans. She works with orphanages in the capital city of the Congo. And they raise these palm beetles, they’re about the size of a little pork sausage. They’re the larvae of a certain kind of bug that eats the wood in palm trees. So, they can raise them in these plantation settings. They [the orphans] can eat them and get good nutrition. And, they can also sell them in the marketplace and make money for the orphanage — like Girl Scout cookies!
If you’ve ever seen pictures of people in the Congo, they have all sorts of health issues, because they’re just underprivileged people. And we tend to turn our backs on them and hope that it will solve themselves. But this program, Farms for Orphans, is actually a real beneficial program.
For somebody in Western society that has gotten past the stigma and is ready to start eating bugs, where do they start?
People say crickets are the gateway bug. They’re easy and for some reason we don’t get as offended seeing a cricket, they’re kind of cute. So it’s easier to eat a cricket, particularly if it’s been processed or turned into powder. So, I would recommend that people try crickets first, or mealworms. They’re easy to get, you can literally go to PetCo and buy a carton of 50 mealworms if you want. Or, 100 crickets, or whatever.
Anything that I obtain, the first thing I do is freeze it so I’m not working with live animals. Overnight, they’re frozen solid so they won’t spring to life again when they thaw. And, you’re good to go! You can stir-fry them. I was going to say earlier, when I started writing the book, I think I spent like a month just trying crickets. I had a whole bunch of little experiments. What do wild caught crickets taste like versus farm-raised crickets? So I worked on all that sort of stuff. And I would really encourage people to experiment.
I have a recipe in my book, and you can find it online too because NatGeo ran it once, it’s a recipe for cricket nymph and orzo pasta. It’s really delicious. I’ve had people come back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths.
Where does the world go from here? In 20, 30, 40 years time, what’s an ideal world for you?
Well, I think the whole thing of normalizing insects so that people don’t immediately go, “Ew, squish it!”
It drives me crazy, even my own kid relatives, my grandkids, they’re pretty openminded about these things but they don’t like bugs. So, thats a prejudice that comes out very early in our culture. That’s step one I think. Nothing in nature is truly gross and disgusting. That’s me prophesying there.
Once we get to that point, we’ll also develop enough of a market that it will be inexpensive. My wife bought a box of Rice Krispies because she wanted to make Rice Krispie Treats for our grandkids. That’s $1.99 and it was an enormous box. On the other hand, if you go and buy dried crickets or cricket powder, it would cost you like $30 for the same quantity. It’s a question of scale. There’s not a billion people buying bugs like there are buying Rice Krispies. So, I’m hoping that there will be enough of a demand that the scale becomes significant and the prices go way, way down and they become readily available.
Right now, it’s not like you can go down to the neighborhood cricket farm. But, I would hope at some point, you will be able to. Partly, if nothing else, it means you don’t have to ship things thousands of miles. There’ll be a cricket farm every ten miles or whatever. Or, you can grow them yourself! So, I think thats the real thing. My real desire in life, and it’s really become obvious as the pandemic goes on, there needs to be equity. All people need to have access to good quality food, and housing, and the basics of life. So that’s what I would hope, is that this would be one tool in the big toolkit that would kind of equalize people and give them all the same chances.
David George Gordon’s Eat-a-Bug Cookbook is available anywhere books are sold.
Like David has emphasized, bugs are not the food of the future — bugs are already here. They’re ready to use, they’re ready to eat, and they have the potential to truly help the world. You might not be ready to put crickets on your plate, but at the very least, help others to do so.
According to the Mercy Corps, there are 821 million people globally that do not have enough food to eat in order to live an active, healthy, normal life. 20 million of those people are in South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, where desert climates and arid land can make food production difficult. Neither of those things are issues for bug farms.
A cricket farm can cost just hundreds to set up, and it creates a valuable food source. It’s also a new commodity that people can sell to support themselves financially. As David said, bugs are a part of our toolbox. Let’s use them.
Below are resources you can use to support bugs and put an end to world hunger.
- Farms for Orphans – Based in Northern Colorado, Farms for Orphans works to build and provide infrastructure and sustainable farming throughout the world. Get involved or donate through the link.
- David George Gordon – Want to get started cooking bugs in your home? David’s website is a great place to get started with recipes and tips.
- How Eating Insects Empowers Women – From Vice, find out how eating and selling insects has become a lifeline for women in the developing world.
All images have been used with permission from David George Gordon and The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook. Please contact us if your image has been used without permission.