ENTOMOPHAGY IS THE scientific name for eating insects, and it seems that people are doin' it, doin' it, swattin' it, chewin' it. Bug-eating has joined hip-hop, fruitarianism, and swing dance as yet another alternative on our endless list of lifestyle choices. Such at least is my impression after encountering Port Townsend natural history writer David George Gordon, author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook—a highly readable cookbook filled with recipes for dishes like "3-Bee Salad" and tips on entertaining with larvae. Gordon has authored books about slugs, cockroaches, whales, Sasquatches, and geoducks, and his ABCnews.com column proves that he has wide-ranging interests other than eating the unspeakable. But he's best known as the guy who put the pest in pesto, and he does little to discourage that impression, doing insects-as-food demos on national TV and at culinary shrines like Archie McPhee.
This is why I find myself one morning at Rover's, a restaurant hallowed both for its innovation and the talent and charm of its nationally honored chef, Thierry Rautureau, who for some reason agreed to take part in my consciousness-raising session with Gordon. We are joined by Thierry's family—his wife Kathy, and sons Ryan, 10, and Adrian, four.
At David's direction, Thierry begins by removing the stinger segments from a half-dozen dead scorpions with a little knife. They're ivory colored, four inches long, and fresh in from the Sonorran Desert. Thierry dusts them with flour and flops a pan down on a gas burner. Till now, he's been curious, skeptical, whimsical; a father, a mensch. His demeanor changes, however, when he addresses the stove. His manner takes on authority and presence. He heats up a saut頰an. "Not too hot," he says (as if he's cooked arachnids all his life). Then he pours in some olive oil and lays each scorpion in the pan, legs up. They sizzle a bit, little legs and pincers waving.
David, meanwhile, is telling Thierry that he has many banana slugs among his circle of friends and would never eat one because they're too personable.
My eyes are fixed anxiously on the critters in the saut頰an as the chef finishes them with cumin oil and fresh parsley. "A table!" I cry, trying to sound hearty. I do not feel hearty. I sit down at a table with flowers and real crystal in Rover's pretty dining room and look down at the pestilence before me. David gently guides me. "Don't eat the midsection with the stomach," he says, "just the tail and the pincers. . . ."
So . . . I just do it. There is no taste, really, just the chitonous texture of the shell—sort of like eating a prawn tail. The flavor is all in Thierry's sauce, aromatic and fabulous. Now I am feeling bolder. "Bring on the grasshoppers," I say with a sweeping gesture.
David had brought some eastern lubber grasshoppers, North America's largest species, and they're spectacular: three inches long, black, with a Jiminy Cricket smile and legs like drumsticks. They're eaten worldwide because they're protein-rich and plentiful. And, I'm told, no less an authority than Leviticus has declared them kosher—oddly reassuring to this non-Jew. Thierry marinates them in basil oil, Dijon mustard, and garlic. On advice from David, he saut鳠them gently to keep them from exploding (bad form in insect cookery), then he arranges them on a white plate with the eye and touch he's known for. The presentation is perfect: fat, luscious grasshoppers looking ready to pounce on your laburnum but circling instead around a dab of pungent aioli. The sauce is green from the basil oil; Thierry garnishes with his trademark sweet red pepper puree. Soigne! We're back at the table.
Again, the sauce provides most of the flavor, and again, it's fabulous. The grasshoppers are a real mouthful, the texture like a wet shuttlecock—but, as the French would say, La sauce c'est tous! There's an uncomfortable PC moment when David makes a joke about how froggy I look eating a bug; we take in the insensitivity of making frog jokes in a French joint, but Thierry takes it in stride and picks up his pan again.
NEXT, AND LAST, are crickets—half-inch long nymphs, skinny, wingless, the color of human skin that's really, really white. They're prized because they're young and tender like veal. Thierry saut鳠garlic and shallots in olive oil and throws in the crickets. They make a popping sound as they cook. Thierry flips them expertly, adding a little salt and white pepper. Inspired, he throws in some fresh English peas. He makes a brilliant red puddle of beet coulis on a plate and dishes the crickets. It's beautiful. I gobble with gusto. The tiny bugs have a seafood flavor enhanced by the shallots and rounded out with the earthiness of the beets. This dish has both elements of food—texture and flavor. I almost forget I'm eating thoraxes instead of breasts.
After the last bite is taken, we slap each other's backs; Thierry is complimented for his cooking, I'm congratulated for the way I put it away. David Gordon looks on beneficently, like a mentor with his supplicants. Thierry's sons, Ryan and Adrian, wild with the very idea of what we've done, play with the leftovers. We're all relieved it's over, but don't say so. Thierry's wife, Kathy, a bemused observer, just smiles and shakes her head. I guess it's a guy thing.
Web sites for the entomophage
Warning: Although many insects are edible, entomophagy poses some risks. If you are allergic to shrimp, shellfish, dust, or chocolate, never eat an insect. Even the nonallergic, unless in a survival situation, should never eat a raw insect. Certain insects store compounds that make people sick; some are poisonous; others may be carcinogenic. Be as cautious with insects as you would be if you were gathering mushrooms. Know your insects!
Bug-Eating Page by Zachary Huang
Zachary wouldn't eat his broccoli. It's come to this.
Dr. Frog's Recipe Page
He's not a frog or a doctor, but his recipes are to croak for.
The Paleolithic Diet Page
Cybercampsite for the postmodern hunting-gathering set.
Food Insects Newsletter
What's chewed and who's chewin' it.
University of Florida Book of Insect Records
World records: Fastest flier, most spectacular mating, least specific sucker of vertebrate blood—they're all here and many, many more.
Cultural Entomology Digest
Bugs in food, art, music, religion, and history.
Mad or Rad?
David George Gordon's excellent natural history columns.
HotLix Candy Co
Processed verminous sweets and snacks for sale: Crickit-Lickits,scorpions in toffee, worms in suckers, or crispy snacks. Online or call 1-800-EATWORM.