South of Minneapolis, not far from the banks of the Minnesota River, we're standing at the frontier of food, on the fringe of fine dining. Actually, we're standing in a field full of clover and goldenrod and thousands—or tens of thousands—of grasshoppers. The insects are what we seek.
With me is Kiah Brasch, one of Minnesota's few entomophagists, or people who knowingly, enthusiastically, eat insects.
"We go back and forth on what to call the practice," Brasch says. "If you call it entomophagy, it sounds clinical and unapproachable. If you say edible insects, it sounds like they're barely edible. It doesn't sound delicious. So I've ended up using insect cuisine."
What, then, to call people like Brasch? Insect cuisine eaters? Bug biters? So entomophagists it is.
We're on land owned by a friend of hers. We arrived here early, while the air was cool and the grasshoppers were slow. We started in a stand of tall grasses that was full of fat, huge differential grasshoppers, one of Minnesota's largest grasshopper species. They sat still as we picked them up and put them in our net. Soon, though, the sun came up and they got faster. When we reached for them, they would jump away or drop into the grass below and disappear.
Out in the field Brasch puts me to shame with her speed and agility. She has a preternatural ability to catch grasshoppers with her bare hands. She spies them, crouches, waits, then shoots her hand out like a chameleon's tongue.
Slowly our net begins to fill. Brasch is unstoppable, her hand darting like the Karate Kid. As the sun rises, we walk to another area still in shade. There we find grasshoppers that are different, smaller.
"What's this?" I ask, pointing to one.
"That's a katydid," she says. "It's got the cone-shaped head and those really long ovipositors off the back."
In it goes. But soon these too are getting faster, along with all of their grasshopper cousins in the insect order Orthoptera: differential, red-legged, two-lined. Most Orthoptera are considered edible, though some are better than others. As we move into the empty lot, I come up with my own system, which involves swiping my net through the grass wherever I see one, then plucking it out of the net before it knows what happened.
Once we've caught at least 50 bugs, we go over to the house on the property, where Brasch's friend lives. In the kitchen Brasch pulls out some previously frozen grasshoppers she'd caught earlier, and she proceeds to fry them with chili powder for grasshopper tacos.
"What do people say when you tell them you eat bugs?" I ask as she rolls up the tacos.
"Usually they think it's on a dare," she says. "But once they taste them, they get it."
I take a bite. The insects are firm, even crunchy, but not tough. They have a pleasant, distinct flavor—fresh, meaty, earthy, and rich.
Finally, I get it.
Tips for Entomophagists
- Be mindful where you collect. Avoid areas that may be treated with pesticides, which insects can concentrate in their bodies.
- The DNR has no specific rules regarding harvest of insects, though state and federally protected species cannot be collected. See the DNR's list of state protected species at mndnr.gov/rsg. See federally protected species at go.usa.gov/xQYam. Collecting in scientific and natural areas is not allowed.
- Steer clear of colorful insects. Bright colors often serve as a warning of unpleasant flavors or toxins.
A Joke No More.
Until a few years ago, edible insects were a joke in our country. You could buy scorpion suckers and novelty boxes of flavored crickets. But nothing serious, as in Thailand, where entire industries revolve around collecting ant eggs. Nothing like in Uganda, where a swarm of grasshoppers can cause traffic jams. Nothing like in Oaxaca, Mexico, where street vendor stalls are filled with the bright red grasshoppers known there as chapulines.
No, the only bugs being eaten in the United States were the ones the Food and Drug Administration allowed in your food (which, by the way, is estimated to be 1 pound per person per year). But not long after 2008, when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a report called "Forest Insects as Food: Humans Bite Back," the winds started to shift. Suddenly, it seemed, people in the West realized that certain insects could not only be eaten, but could be eaten well.
"We've definitely seen a lot more interest," says Pat Crowley, who founded Utah-based Chapul Cricket Bars in 2012. (By chance, Crowley spent last summer visiting family in Minnesota, where he said the grasshoppers taste "greener," or more like alfalfa, than the desert variety in Utah.)
"When we started we were the very first company in the U.S. to launch a food product promoting the nutritional value," he says. "It was so foreign to people at the time. It's been incredible how much growth there has been as a category." Now at least 30 companies sell similar products, and you can buy chapulines at the concession stand at Safeco Field in Seattle.
One of the key players in this revolution was Daniella Martin, who lives in Bloomington and who wrote Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, one of the first books on eating insects around the globe and at home. Martin, who grew up in California, was an anthropology student studying traditional diets in Mexico when she came across her first insect eaters. She was working in a community in the jungle outside Playa del Carmen, Mexico, when a friend plucked a curled leaf off the windshield of his truck, unfolded it, shouted, "Ah, escamoles!" ("Oh, ant eggs!") and tipped them into his mouth.
"I'd read about early pre-Columbian insect consumption," Martin recalls. "But then here's this guy. He was a friend, and I really looked up to him. I was just stunned." Not long after that, her friend also spotted a tarantula running around the farm. He sharpened a stick, speared it, roasted it over a fire, and ate it.
Curious, she thought. Back in the United States, Martin found herself telling these stories over and over and remembering her own experiences eating insects in Oaxaca and elsewhere. Of all the pre-Columbian dietary holdovers she'd found, bugs were the one that had captured her imagination. And she couldn't help wondering: Why did we stop eating insects?
Bugs as Brain Food.
Soon Martin went from wondering to ordering wax worms, putting them into a freezer, sauteéing them, and making tacos. Next she started a blog called Girl Meets Bug, and before long she was writing her book, which has become a kind of bible for newly minted entomophagists. In it she travels around the planet looking at how different insects are eaten different ways, but also back in time, in prehistory.
For instance, our ancestors used some of the first bone tools to harvest insects—termites—and this food source likely played a key role in our evolution. We needed a supply of long-chain essential fatty acids, meaning omegas 3, 6, and 9, for the development of our outsized brains. Some of these fatty acids can be found in plants. More of them are in seafood. Another excellent source is insects.
Martin was one of several guests at the premiere of an insightful documentary about the edible insect industry called The Gateway Bug, which screened at the Twin Cities Film festival in April 2017. The film casts its net into the future, to a time when there will be 10 billion people in the world and a variety of ways the food supply system can collapse. Martin appears in The Gateway Bug along with Minnesota's other high-profile entomophagist, celebrity chef/foodie Andrew Zimmern.
Before the film we were given small cups of roasted wax worms, fried crickets, and a Chapul cricket bar. Afterward, Martin, Zimmern, and the filmmakers answered questions about how insects can help feed 10 billion people. Then those of us who were really interested retired to Gyst, a swanky "fermentation bar," for a banquet at which people involved with the film would be present. The food was superb, the wine and beer pairings were excellent, and the bugs, from a Canadian producer, were delectable.
Still, I couldn't help yearning for something a little more homegrown. After all, Minnesota has a wealth of potential insect cuisine. In addition to the millions (billions?) of grasshoppers, there are ants (and their eggs), crickets, dragonflies, and cicadas, to name a few. We also have giant water bugs, a delicacy in some cultures, living in our lakes. And according to the Survival Guide to Edible Insects, in a pinch—a tight one—we could also eat earthworms, slugs, snails, pill bugs, aphids, and more.
On the Menu
Here are some of the Minnesota insects you can eat:
Grasshoppers. One of humans' oldest and surest food sources. The Bible and the Torah advise, "Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind."
Crickets. Put a box out at night with a small hole at ground level, with oats inside. Freeze and fry the crickets you catch.
Giant water bug. Watch your fingers when you're collecting these insects. They have a needle-like mouthpart that can give a painful poke. The insect, one of North America's largest, is delicious and commonly eaten in parts of Asia.
Dragonflies. Hard to capture, but high in fat and mighty tasty too. A few species are protected, so check the state list at mndnr.gov/rsg.
Cicadas. Rich in fats, so much so that certain varieties taste like bacon. Since they sit in the ground for 17 years, you might want to collect these from an area where pesticides are not in use.
Ants. "A lot of ants taste like lemon drops," says Pat Crowley of Chapul, who eats them live. "Because they're really high in formic acid, they taste citrusy. You just pinch the head off and pop it in. The only reason you cut the head off is sometimes they bite you on the way down."
Try This at Home.
I wasn't trying to survive by eating insects. But I did want to broaden my palate, which is why I tracked down Brasch and had her show me how it's done. From our foray, I came home with about 60 grasshoppers, a few odd katydids, one dragonfly, and a decent method of catching them.
I put the bugs in my freezer to die in the same manner as those that would survive outdoors until November, and left them there for a few hours. Then, seeking to supplement my take, I took my net down into the field behind my family's house. I swung it back and forth through the grass and caught bug after bug. It was late in the season and they were huge. I even managed to net a few dragonflies. Then, after a rainstorm, I found several barely living cicadas twitching on the sidewalk and threw them into the freezer. I had no idea there was so much food right out my back door!
The next day I pulled the legs and wings off their frozen carcasses. Then my wife and I made salsa and guacamole and set out small tortillas. I put some oil into a pan, dumped the grasshoppers in, and watched them all turn red. (Like lobsters and shrimp, grasshoppers redden when cooked because they have a powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin.) I cooked the cicadas and dragonflies in a separate pan.
When everything was ready, we put the word out to the neighborhood kids that insects were on the menu. At first, no one showed up except a friend we strong-armed into coming over. But then a few kids trickled in, ate some bugs, and ran back outside. Word spread, and soon every kid—and many of their parents—were crowded into our kitchen.
"There are the bugs," my wife explained. "You can either make yourself a taco or eat them plain."
The tacos went fast, and the bugs went faster.
"These tacos are delicious!" said one kid.
"The bigger ones have more flavor!" another remarked.
"Are there dragonflies?" another asked.
"There were, but they all got eaten," I said. He looked deflated. "There's a cicada left."
He popped it into his mouth, smiled, and ran out.
When the bugs were gone, so were the kids. All that was left in the pan were a few lonely legs. The kitchen looked like a cornfield devoured by locusts, and the kids were back outside running around. I heard some of them telling the story about eating bugs. Others were trying to catch more. But all of them, I hope, left our house with a little bigger appetite for what the world around them has to offer.