Here's Why You Should Eat Bugs
An orange light illuminated the inside of the oven, and through the oven window I could see hundreds of wriggling mealworm bodies. I tried to look away before the image got burned into my mind, but it was too late; you can’t really forget something like that, especially when you know that in a few minutes, you’ll be eating those mealworms, currently being cooked alive.
Rosanna Yau of MiniLivestock invited me to her Lower Haight apartment to help her prepare mealworm granola bars, a recipe she was testing for a class project on branding at California College of the Arts. The 27-year-old artist wanted to see how branding can be used as a tool to redefine a feared practice like entomophagy, or insect eating. For part of this project, she will provide several students with kits to rear, harvest, and eventually prepare and eat mealworms.
But she realizes that even the best branding will not convince everyone to take a bite of something creepy and crawly. For some, she’ll create kits with prepared mealworm flour, and for the most squeamish-at-heart, she’ll provide pre-made and packaged mealworm granola bars. Lucky for me, Rosanna will show me how to prepare the protein-packed granola treats from start to finish.
MiniLivestock began as a project about personal sustainability for a class on contemporary issues at CCA. Rosanna decided to try entomophagy as a means of reducing her own carbon footprint. Because raising insects takes up fewer resources and land than usual livestock, many cultures around the world eat insects as part of their regular diet. As the world grows, resources become scarcer, and people become interested in knowing about the origins of their food, Rosanna sees entomophagy as something more of us should consider.
During the class duration, she ate everything from macaroni and cheese with diced mealworms to Chex mix peppered with whole superworms (a larger type of Darkling beetle larvae) to chocolate “chirp” cookies made with crickets. After the class ended, she decided to keep going with the project and to try to change people’s perceptions about bugs as food. At MiniLivestock events that were hosted at the Randall Museum and the San Francisco Zoo, some of her most willing participants were young children – not surprising, I guess, for a crowd also known to eat boogers.
I wasn’t sure how I was feeling as I stood in Rosanna’s kitchen. I had just been staring at 20,000 of them crawling around in plastic bins filled with oats in Rosanna’s room. I tried to reassure myself it would be OK; after all, mealworms are not actually worms, but the larvae of the Darkling Beetle. And these particular mealworms weren’t just bugs she wrangled up from her backyard, but were raised by Rainbow Farms, a mealworm farm in Compton, California.
Rosanna also gets her livestock from local pet stores, like The Animal Company in Noe Valley and The Animal Connection in the Outer Sunset. Promptly after they were shipped, Rosanna fed them fresh apples, potatoes, or carrots for a day, and then fasted them for another day, to clean out their systems. These larvae were as clean as they could get.
Before we threw them in the oven, we had to prepare the little buggers. Rosanna had me bring over a bin of mealworms that had been separated from the oats and place it into the freezer. This step is for the mealworms’ sake – it puts them out of their misery in a more humane way than just throwing them into the oven alive.
Rosanna said that although mealworms that are cooked alive tend to taste better, she feels bad about putting her livestock through unnecessary hardship or pain. Normally, 15 minutes in the freezer is sufficient to make sure the mealworms will not suffer, but unfortunately, the batch we were about to cook were an exceptionally virile batch.
When I dumped the motionless worms into the strainer over her kitchen sink, everything seemed OK, but as I started to wash them with cold water, some of the worms gradually began to revive. I was starting to feel a little queasy as I transferred them into a bowl, especially when I had to brush off a few of the stragglers that clung to the strainer. I patted the mealworms dry with a dishtowel, lined a baking sheet with foil, sprayed it with some cooking spray, and sprinkled the mealworms evenly onto it.
By this time, several more worms had woken up from their cold slumber, but we hoped that it would only be a few in the batch that would be awake for their final trip into the 200 degree oven. It wasn’t to be. Rosanna felt terrible about the suffering, but by the time we realized what was happening, there wasn’t anything we could’ve done. Fortunately, within a couple of minutes, the mad wriggling stopped.
We had about an hour of cooking time to go before the mealworms were ready, so Rosanna made me some tea and showed me her bug food collection. Among the delicacies were a freezer full of superworms, butterworms, wax worms (supposedly the best tasting of them all), and cockroaches; a plastic jar of lime and salt-flavored chapurrines (grasshoppers); shiny silver packages of silkworm larvae, bamboo worms, weaver ants, grasshoppers, and scorpions that resemble packs of astronaut food, and a variety of candy-coated bugs like chocolate covered ants and crickets suspended in lollipops.
As I browsed her bug booty, I noticed an uncanny odor was beginning to permeate the kitchen that was unlike any smell I can describe. When I mentioned it, Rosanna said that her roommates can now distinguish the aroma of baking mealworms from baking superworms.
I’m not sure why, but by the time the mealworms were finished roasting, I wasn’t so squeamish anymore. I asked Rosanna if I could try one of the freshly baked worms, and without hesitation, I picked one up and ate it. The crispy larva tasted like a whole wheat cracker, not at all squishy or meaty tasting. I popped a couple more mealworms just to see if I could detect any other distinct flavors, but for the most part, I just tasted a nutty roasted flavor. With a little salt, I could see these making a good bar snack.
Rosanna had me transfer some of the baked mealworms into a mortar and pestle. It was strangely satisfying to ground the worms into a fine dust that resembled wheat germ. I had a wicked thought that one could easily replace the contents of a wheat germ package with mealworm flour and none would be the wiser if they didn’t see you doing it.
Next, we combined the standard granola bar ingredients in a large bowl: quick oats, whole rolled oats, flax seeds, sesame seeds, sliced almonds, raisins, and cranberries. To that, we added the insect flour, water, vegetable oil, and agave nectar.
We packed the mixture into a greased pan and baked it for about 20 minutes. The finished result tasted like a regular granola bar. I couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary, but then again, baked mealworms have a flavor profile that easily blends with all of those nuts and fruits.
Rosanna asked me if I wanted to take any of the granola bars home. I declined, knowing that this day would probably be my last foray into eating bugs, at least knowingly and willingly. But I could be wrong. If Rosanna and other entomophagists succeed at changing our views about eating bugs, one of these days, we’ll all be raving about the hot new bug joint in the city.
For more information on how to prepare and cook insects and bugs and future bug-eating events, get more info at Rosanna’s website, MiniLivestock. If you’d like to make mealworm granola bars, get a batch of worms from The Animal Company in Noe Valley or The Animal Connection in the Outer Sunset. Other entomophagy resources include the Bay Area Bug Eating Society, Small Stock, and David George Gordon’s site.
Here’s Rosanna’s recipe for Mealworm Granola Bars.
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 cup large-flake oats
½ mealworm flour
½ cup agave nectar or other liquid sweetener
½ cup chopped, dried fruit
¼ cup whole flax seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
¼ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup apple cider or water
¼ cup vegetable oil
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Lightly grease a 9x9 inch baking pan and set aside.
3. Combine all dry ingredients into a large bowl and mix well.
4. Pour wet ingredients into the large bowl until all ingredients are mixed well.
5. Spoon mixture into lightly greased baking pan and press down evenly into pan.
6. Bake 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Leave to cool completely on sheet before cutting.
7. Cut into bars. Place in a container and store at room temperature, or in the refrigerator to last longer.
All photos from MiniLivestock