“No, I am putting my foot down on this one. No. No. No . . .You are not allowed to eat them.”
What do you mean? Wait. Are you telling me what I can and cannot eat? I replied in disbelief. You don’t understand. I think there is something important in all of this, and, I don’t feel right even having a discussion about the importance of eating insects in prehistoric diets if neither the students nor I had ever eaten any. Plus, how can I ask the students to try them if I had never tried them?
This was part of the heated discussion between Christina and me almost 15 years ago – at least the part I can remember.
Earlier that day I had received in the mail, and excitedly opened, a package containing all sorts of edible bugs! This package had come all the way from Thailand, in fact the name of the company that sold them was “Thailand Unique.” This package was a big deal for Christina and me for several reasons.
- First, it was full of edible insects – certainly a first for both of us. Christina and I were young, on our own and graduate students who were pushing limits and learning about ourselves and one another in the process. Every time we pushed our own limits the other was becoming keenly aware of what and who they actually married! A box of edible insects, along with all of the other limits I was pushing at the time seemed to have struck a nerve.
- Second, it was the first package I had ever received from overseas. It floored me that in order to obtain insects suitable and legal for human consumption, at least anything more substantive than a gag or dare gift of scorpions in lollypops or chocolate covered ants, I had to order something from so far away.
- And finally, we were two graduate students living on our own trying to make financial ends meet. My adjunct position at the time paid a criminally low amount and we had very little. The cost of these edible insects along with shipping fees was a substantial amount of money for us and certainly must have added to Christina’s anger.
But, I firmly believed in my approach to teaching, immersing them using all of their senses, and the importance of taking students outside of their comfort zone in order for them to really learn.
I had been waiting on this arrival of edible insects to launch a new lesson I had been working on – one focused on modern issues of human diet and health and food security and sustainability within the context of ancestral diets. I wanted to take my modern western 20-something year old students out of their comfort zone and have them experience what it would be like to consciously eat insects during this lesson – to get over the “yuck” factor – and then be able to discuss with at least some experience entomophagy in the diets of their ancestors and also their contemporaries in other parts of the world. After all, how could I expect people who had never had any experience with eating insects to engage in a meaningful dialogue about it? This was my motive and this was what I was trying to get across to Christina.
And, eventually I accomplished both and, by doing so I learned a great deal about this approach to teaching and learning.
Its all about creating context . . .
and a place where students can safely be taken out of their comfort zone,
and think about something that is not easy, not familiar.
This is where real learning takes place and this is where real innovation takes place. We need both in order to address the real issues of human diet and health and sustainability. And, it turns out, everyone really gets a lot out of eating insects!
Insects Become Woven into my Teaching
I served insects at the party after I defended my dissertation. I organized student-led annual insect bake sales at Washington College for 10 years now and strived every year to create the correct the proper context for maximum results. That context requires not only a safe place but also one that is informed and focused on the important aspects of insects as food… NOT a dare or FEAR FACTOR type situation.
And, is needs to be in the right setting so that it just simply “feels” right. It took years, but after much persistence we finally accomplished it. For years we were stuck beneath the steps leading up to the dining hall. We could not get permission to serve insects in the dining hall for fear that doing so would compromise the commercial kitchen status of the college’s food facility.
Every year I would call the county’s board of health department and try to get permission and each year the best they could do was to tell me that as long as it was to a closed audience and there was not actually any money exchanged and that we were not in the college’s “real” cooking or dining facilities then I could do it. This meant that I was not allowed to advertise to spread the important message of insects as food to a larger audience. However, most problematic was the fact that I was not allowed to serve insects . . . food that has been in our diet for probably at least 7 million years . . . where the students actually ate. This ruined the setting and sent the exact opposite message than I was trying to send. . . How was I supposed to have the students think of this as real food if everyone in authority was saying that they were not allowed to eat it where real food was prepared or served?
A Breakthrough . . .
Finally, it happened and it was brilliant!
A few years ago, when the director of the food safety inspector for our county realized that I was not going away and I was not going to stop searching for straight answers about insects as food and whether or not they can be prepared in commercial kitchens and served in licensed dining facilities. And, it turns out that insects fall under the G.R.A.S. classification – this means Generally Recognized as Safe. It actually is at the same level as salt and pepper and we could, in fact serve them in the dining hall!
So, with an army of amazing students and staff at the college we built a makeshift “food truck” out of cardboard, created traditional Oaxacan tacos entirely from scratch, and served tacos in the dining hall.
To make the entire experience even more rewarding we invited Pat Crowley from Chapul Bars to interact and speak to the students. Pat is the owner of Chapul, a company that makes protein bars from cricket flour (dried, roasted, and ground up crickets). We set up a station on the side of the dining hall where students could create their own power bars from scratch on the spot and Pat, the very guy who does this for a living, was there to help them.
We even had one of our students, Kathy Thornton, dress up in a cow outfit and wear a sign that read, “Eat More Crickets.” It was a great success and resulted in an even bigger event last year, Bugs: They’re What’s for Dinner where we actually took over one of the food stations in the dining hall for dinner and insect tacos were offered as a genuine option for dinner!
We organized a series of events that led up to this dinner that included a screening of two documentaries on entomophagy, Bugs: A Gastronomic Adventure with the Nordic Food Lab and Bugs on the Menu. The highlight of the entomophagy series was a lecture by Jarrod Goldin, co-founder of Entomo Farms, a farm in Canada that organically produces insects for human consumption. To promote the event I appeared on WBAL – the Baltimore News station where I prepared insect tacos live with Jennifer Franciotti.
The Missing Link: Creating the Context
The importance of both insects as food as well as the message behind it is a powerful one and I wanted to learn more about how people really traditionally incorporate insects in their diets in other parts of the world. I had read everything I could find written about entomophagy, viewed everything I could from the internet and even experimented on my own. But, what I was lacking was the background…the context. In order to make insects a real part of our diet again I needed to experience what is it like to actually have it be a part of the diet from people who actually consume insects still today. I am tired of superficial patches we put on addressing food issues – we hide behind key phrases that are trending in the modern food world, but do not really make real progress to change anything. Even though intentions are usually good, part of the problem is because we don’t fully comprehend the scope of what we are trying to do. Traditional societies still practicing traditional forms of food processing and consumption are incredibly rich sources of information in this regard.
Insects are going to be a real part of the Eastern Shore Food Lab we are building and, as a result it has always been on the “bucket list” for the Food Evolutions project. The question was…where to go…and where better to go than where it all started for me? Thailand!!!! I just needed to figure out where to go and what to do… This was not an easy task and after months of trying to plan the research trip, I finally caught a break – and everything about it was unexpected!
Finally, a contact . . .
Christina and I walked past the peat fire slowly to absorb as much of the warmth as possible on this frigid and damp Northern Ireland winter night. We had just entered the Bushmills Inn on an unexpected “date night” and quickly located a table in a dimly lit corner of their beautiful dining room. The kids were exhausted from exploring Northern Ireland. Just an hour earlier we checked into our AirBnB and, once they entered they didn’t want to leave. Christina and I were ready to get a bite to eat and, since town was within walking distance, a much needed drink after our busy day. The kids, on the other hand, were in awe of the high water pressure in the shower and fast internet service – two “luxuries” we did not have back in our house in Dublin. A dream evening to them, they explained, was a hot shower, catching up with their friends on social media, and doing a little research on our upcoming research trip to Thailand. So, they urged us to have a date night and simply asked us to stop at the “chipper” on the way home for them to pick up fish & chips. Christina and I quickly took them up on the offer.
The kids were safe and Christina and I were out on a date! The only thing important enough to interrupt holding Christina’s hands across the table was when the waitress arrived with two glasses of Bushmills whisky. We picked up the glasses, looked in each others eyes, toasted with a full-blown Irish, “Sláinte”, and, as we were bringing the glasses to our lips for our first taste of the whiskey my phone buzzed with a text from Billy that simply read,
“I just found your new best friend.”
I quickly messaged him back informing him that his mother and I were enjoying a quiet, device free moment, but I also let him know that I was eager to learn what he found when we got back. As soon as we walked in the door, Billy was so excited to show me what he had found - a restaurant in Bangkok called “Insects in the Backyard.” The chef, Mai Thitiwat (who Billy thought would be my new best friend) had created a restaurant that showcased insects in dishes that were both inspiring in taste and presentation. I immediately emailed the restaurant and explained what I was looking for in this research trip and asked if there was anyone there that could help me make the contacts I necessary to make it all happen.
The next day I received an email from Regan who not only worked at the restaurant, but is also a member of the AFFIA (the Asian Food and Feed Insect Association). She couldn’t help me directly, but was willing to put me in contact with someone that could, Nathan Preteseille, the coordinator the AFFIA. As it turns out, Nathan and the AFFIA were willing and able to help – and help they did. After numerous emails and Skype calls, Nathan and the AFFIA organized an agenda that satisfied all three components I was looking for in the research trip:
- Experience insect consumption at a fine dining establishment
- Experience insects as food at a local market in Bangkok
- Experience insect production, harvest, preparation and consumption at a traditional level with a traditional group
NOTE: The AFFIA set up all the contacts, a translator, meetings and reservations. I cannot say enough about how professional they were in every aspect of the planning and execution of this trip. It would not have been possible without them.
Our first full night in Bangkok we were scheduled to experience a meal at Insects in the Backyard, but, first, we had to go to the Unicorn Café! I had made a deal a few weeks earlier with my 10-year old daughter, Alyssa that if she promised to try all of the insects while we were in Thailand we would take her the one place in Thailand she wanted to go – the Unicorn Café. This café is fully focused on Unicorns – the décor the food and even the Onesies you can rent and wear at the table are themed, Unicorn! Everything has rainbow swirls, glitter and usually has some sort of a “cone” representing a unicorn’s horn stuck in it. She was in unicorn heaven and I had absolutely no problem making this deal because I knew it would be equally magical for her to experience traditional entomophagy with an open mind.
Insects in the Backyard
That evening, with the Unicorn Café under our belt, we got a real taste of what it is like to fuse modern cuisine with a Stone Age diet…through a meal focused on insects!! We joined Nathan Preteseille, the coordinator of the AFFIA and an innovator in insect product development inside the Chang Chui Bangkok Plane Night Market for dinner at chef Mai Thitiwat’s restaurant, Insects in the Backyard, for an incredible meal filled with several different varieties of crickets, bamboo worms, silk worm pupae, ant and ant larvae! Chef Mai did not attempt to “hide” the insects in the food, but instead found incredible ways to highlight their uniqe flavors and textures in delicious and beautiful dishes. The insects were front and center of each and every meal, but in an artistic and well-planned and executed way. It was obvious as we looked and and tried these dishes the amount of planning, executing and skill it took to create them.
The entire meal was an amazing way to experience what it possible when you transform the nutrient dense food of our ancestors in ways that exceed the expectations of taste, texture, and presentation of the modern western palate! And, Chef Mai’s approach is an extremely important one – it is not enough to just believe in the nutrient density of the food you are serving. Biologically, that approach makes complete sense, however, culturally we have expectations and needs that require a calculated approach. Chef Mai, through his work with insects, was able to create dishes that exceeded my expectations of flavor, texture and presentation. I learned a ton, even through this experience of one multi-course meal, that I cannot wait to use in the Eastern Shore Food Lab when we launch!
After expressing our gratitude and thanks to Chef Mai we took a few pictures and said goodnight. The night ended with a walk through the Chatuchak Night Market – a complete sensory overload experience where the kids got their first taste of Dragon Breath Candy - a well deserved treat after the insect eating (see video)! We explored the market until fully exhausted and took a tuk tuk taxi back to the hotel. Christina fell asleep on the couch and I crashed while the kids attended to their social media. I had a hard time falling asleep because I was so excited for the two full days of entomophagy immersion that was about to take place!
A Food Market Like No Other & Bugsolutely
The next morning we woke early, or, at least early for us, and scrambled downstairs to throw down some of the hotel’s breakfast before the taxi arrived to take us on the next stop on our agenda. The plan was to meet Massimo Reverberi and David Pattison of Bugsolutely for a tour of the Khlong Toei Market with a focus on the edible insects that were for sale and then to return to his house and the head office of Bugsolutely to sample his company’s Cricket Pasta and to talk about his approach to entomophagy.
The tour through the market was incredible and Massimo did an excellent job of pointing out and explaining all of the aspects of the market that may seem strange to Westerners like us. We passed the live chickens in the woven basket cages that were located adjacent to their butchered colleagues on cutting boards cut in half and displaying golden orange orbs - their unlaid eggs (a nutrient-dense delicacy) intact!
We passed piles of skinned rats that were being sold as food and fish slithering across tables, jumping out of buckets and even trying to escape on the floor! We passed mesh bags full of live bull frogs that the vendors were happy to kill and clean for you on the spot. We passed countless pigs and cows in various states of butchering and corresponding buckets full of all the offal – from hearts to intestines – all for sale for food. Nothing went to waste.
The sights and odors and state of the floor were strange and sometimes off-putting to our Western senses. But, there was something beautiful and visceral about the entire thing. There was no question where the food was coming from and who grew/raised/harvested it. There was a direct connection between the producer and consumer. During each and every transaction – the producer and consumer saw one another, spoke to one another, and inadvertently touched hands when they passed payment of bags from seller to buyer. You cannot put a price tag on that.
There were no hand washing stations, the ground was filthy and there was no refrigeration – to our Western standards this may seem like a dangerous place from which to obtain our food. But, I would argue the exact opposite! I believe, save for directly acquiring your own food, it may be one of the safest and healthiest food systems on the planet! Nothing is hidden from the consumer. Much of what they are buying is alive and killed in front of them. There is no doubt about the freshness. The producers get the chance to see their consumers and their families who they will be feeding with their food purchase and there is an inherent sense of responsibility that is not present in the anonymous and disconnected industrialized food system.
But, we were there to see the bugs! After weaving through what seemed liked endless aisles of different foods we came to the section where insects were for sale. There were four different types of crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo worms, silkworm pupae (they came from China and are a by-product of the silk industry), water beetles and mounds of weaver ant eggs. We watched for awhile as people came and purchased insects and observed the interactions. Even though I didn’t speak Thai it was obvious that the people purchasing the insects to take home to cook were not doing it for “survival” or because they couldn’t afford anything else. In fact, many of them came to the insects stalls with bags overflowing with other food they had purchased at the market. No, they were purchasing the insects for food because many of them grew up eating insects and it was a traditional food source for them complete with all of the memories associated with a food that is that ingrained in a culture. I couldn’t wait for my family and me to experience what that sort of a tradition was really like. I only had to wait one more day…
When we were finished Massimo brought us back to his home and Busgsolutely office where we sat down for a thorough discussion about his approach to providing his customer’s with nutrient dense insects. His approach is different than Chef Mai’s. Massimo believes that he can reach a lot more people, especially Westerners, more quickly and effectively by using cricket flour to enhance the nutritive properties of foods with which we are already comfortable. Perhaps it is his Italian heritage, but Massimo accomplishes his goal be creating pasta made with cricket flour, essentially ground, dry roasted crickets.
Massimo is not trying to hide the fact that there are crickets in the pasta. The fact that he calls his company Bugsolutely and calls his product “Cricket Pasta” supports this. However, he doesn’t believe in foods that stick the insects directly in your face either. He is concerned that doing so elicits a “dare” type mentality where insects are seen as a pawn a game of dare instead of a nutrient dense and sustainable source of food. He also believes that his product – pasta with a familiar taste and shape, albeit a slightly darker hue as a result of the cricket flour, is a much more accessible way to deliver good nutrition to his customer base.
He then brought a large pot of water to a boil and dumped in a couple boxes of his cricket pasta to cook. A few minutes later my family and I sat down and enjoyed a delicious meal of cricket pasta with pesto with the Italian owner of Bugsolutely. It was a great experience and another opportunity to experience a completely different approach to entomphagy – exactly what I was looking to do!
The Traditional Experience
In order to make the most of this incredible opportunity in Thailand, I wanted for me and my family to experience as many different aspects of entomophagy as possible during our stay! To me this meant not only a fine dining experience focused on entomophagy, a tour of a city market filled with edible insects, and pasta made with cricket flour, but, also an immersive opportunity to experience every part of the “culture” surrounding the processes of traditional entomophagy that are typically hidden from interlopers like us. I wanted us to participate in the harvesting, cooking and consumption of the insects with people that do it as a regular part of their lives.
That is exactly why we took a 40 minutes flight from Bangkok to Phitsanulok and stayed the night in the Factory 8 hostel. In the morning we were greeted in the hotel lobby by Nikki Patspon who would serve as our translator for the day. We jumped in the van and, after an hour long drive arrived at the Boonchoo Weaver Ant Egg Farm. As we turned off the dirt road and headed up the lane that led to his house, the jungle around became dominated by mango trees. And, all of the trees seemed to be connected by thin red pieces of twine that made geometric designs in the landscape. I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at.
Boonchoo Kitsantria, the ant egg farmer quickly came out to welcome us. He was a thin, sinewy man and was dressed in a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and tall rubber boots. At the time it seemed strange to me that he was covered in so many clothes in the hot day, but his attire would soon make sense…to all of us. His also donned an ear-to-ear smile, which suggested he was genuinely excited to have us. We piled out of the van and, through the translator introduced ourselves to him.
Wasting no time, he handed us all different bits of equipment ranging from a bottle of Hele’s Bluboy (a sweet red syrup), a bottle of M-150, a plate with bits of leftover cooked fish and rice, a long bamboo pole with a large bag on the end, and a large dish. Laden with our supplies he ushered us into the mango grove and stopped at a pole with a plastic crate on top
It was here that he, through our translator, began to explain how he came to be a full-time weaver ant egg farmer. He used to be a mango farmer, but when he realized that the eggs of the weaver ants that inhabit the mango trees would be more productive for him to harvest and sell he made the switch. Ant eggs have always been a traditional part of his and his fellow villager’s diets so the switch was not a drastic one.He then began to explain the farming and harvesting process to us. These ants are called “weaver” ants because they weave intricate homes out of the leaves of the mango trees. It is in their woven homes that they lay copious amounts of eggs this time of year. In fact, the weaver ant egg harvest season is approximately two months. His job is to ensure the ants are well feed so that they produce as many eggs as possible and then to harvest the eggs when the time is right.
In between clumps of trees he has placed posts topped with plastic crates. In these crates he places whatever leftover food they have from the previous night’s meal – it could be rice, or fish, or rat, or frog, or any combination. The red lines I observed from the van extend from the mango trees to these posts topped with plastic crates and serve as easily maneuverable paths for the ants to collect the food in the crates and bring it back to the houses to feed the queen’s who are laying the eggs. When we looked close we couldn’t believe the shear number of ants that were walking on the lines nor the size of the food they were carrying backs to their nests! In many cases they were working together to transport large pieces of foods on these wires. He then had all of us taking turns feeding the ants with the leftover cooked fish and rice we brought out.
He then showed us bottles affixed to the sides of the posts which he filled with sugar-rich red liquid for the ants. There were red lines that extended to these bottles as well. Each bottle also contained a stick that extended out of the liquid and acted like a ladder for the ants to easily get down into the bottle and drink the liquid. He had us mix up a sugary Hele’s Bluboy with M-150, an energy drink very similar to Red Bull – both of which originated in Thailand and we filled the bottles. He explained that the M-150 was there to make the ants “extra active!” Once we finished feeding the ants he handed me the large dish and he grabbed the long pole with the bag on the end and brought us deeper into the mango grove.
As we walked he pointed out the weaver ant nests in the trees to us. We were early in the ant egg harvesting season so he was searching for one that looked ready and full of eggs. Finally, he found one that looked appropriate and reached his log pole up into the tree and used the end of the stick to shake the ants and eggs out of the nest. The idea was that they would all fall into the bag below – and, most of them did. However, we quickly realized why he was dressed in the manner he was!
The ants that missed the bag and fell onto the ground were extremely agitated by the disturbance and were looking for vengeance! Weaver ants are known for an extremely painful bite and within seconds we were all getting attacked by them.
It must have been a comical sight - Boonchoo was busy harvesting ant eggs from the mango tree with his pole and bag while a family of American’s in short pants and shore sleeved shirts were dancing around withering in pain trying to brush off the ants that were attacking us!
Finally, he had a bag full of ants and eggs which he dumped into the large dishes and proceeded to “winnow” it using the breeze to cast the ants aside leaving only the smaller, denser eggs behind.
When we were finished he brought us to his the patio behind his house where many members of the village were waiting for us to show us how to prepare the ant eggs traditionally. The tables were covered with food and, all of it except for one of the fruits came from Boonchoo Weaver Ant Farm property! They had all done an incredible amount of work preparing for our visit. Bonchoo caught and cooked a snake head fish from his pond where he raises them. There were vegetables, and fruits, and rice and leaves and a bowl full of weaver ant eggs waiting for us to learn how to transform into a meal.
The women from the village sprang into action and began to show us how to prepare ant egg omelets and ant egg salad. The kids cracked the eggs, mixed the ingredients, and cooked the ant egg omelets while Christina and I helped to prepare and mix the ant egg salad, Yam Kai Mot Daeng.
We all learned how to fold Betel leaves around the ant egg salad in a traditional manner to use as a both an edible utensil and bowl. Once wrapped in the leaf the idea is to pop the entire morsel into your mouth at once. The bitter flavors of the leaf explode in your mouth the same moment you begin to taste the flavors of the salad which, of course, includes the rich fatty flavors of the ant eggs. It is well known around the world that bitter and fat work well together and probably accounts for the combination here as well. It certainly works. The textural difference between the tough leaf and the soft salad is equally as unique. I can honestly say that eating this traditional food is more than just fulfilling a nutritional need, but rather an experience. The omelets the kids prepared with the help of the villagers were equally as delicious and complex. It was a thick omelet that contained copious amounts of ant eggs.
In addition to these dishes there were roasted crickets for us to snack on and tons of fruit including mangoes and rose apples and bananas. There was grilled snake head fish. There was rice and spices and tons of vegetables. And, for desert, there were steamed sticky rice cakes with bananas wrapped in banana leaves.
Each and every component of every food we consumed was ripe, delicious, made by hand, steeped in tradition and was nutrient dense.
With the exception of the bananas, each and every ingredient came from the ant farmer’s property. This was a meal rich in tradition and was a meaningful, magical experience.
Next Stop - Cricket Farm!
After leaving the ant egg farmer we headed off to visit Miss Pat to see her cricket farm and had the opportunity to tour the farm and harvest crickets. Her crickets take 45 days to grow to the point they can be harvested at which point she boils them for 10 minutes and sells them to a processing plant where they are vacuum packed and put into cold storage. From there they are distributed where they can then be cooked in any numbers of ways which can include roasting and grinding to make flour such as that used by Massimo in his cricket pasta.
Our entomophagy experiences in Thailand were powerful and diverse – exactly what I was looking for. It wasn’t about eating insects – I have been doing that for years. I wanted to get to know more about the different approaches and the “cultures” surrounding all aspects of entomophagy. And, I wanted to experience it not just through my eyes – the eyes of a 45-year-old Western man, but also an adult woman, a high school girl, a middle school boy and an elementary school girl. Just like most other people involved in entomophagy I am looking to find ways to take this nutrient dense, sustainable food source that our ancestors have relied upon for millions of years acceptable and relevant to the Modern Western Diet. Experiencing all of these different approaches with different members of my family is an excellent way to do this.
There were so many “take-aways” from these insect-eating experiences, but I will leave you an anecdote about how my 10-year old daughter Alyssa responded to the different insects eating experiences. Even the Unicorn Café trip and the expertly prepared and beautifully plated dishes at Insects in the Backyard were not enough for her to try the dishes. She did a little better with the cricket pasta with Massimo, but even then only ate one piece. I held up my end of the bargain and was even willing to put on the unicorn onesie if she wanted me to, but she simply would not eat the bugs – it was too foreign and strange to her. That is, until we were immersed in the context with people and traditions that use insects as a real component of their diet. It was that experience with the ant egg farmer, his family, and the villagers harvesting and cooking beside them, that created an experience magical and meaningful enough to break down the barriers modern western lifestyles have created for Alyssa and she ate the ant egg omelet, she at the ant egg salad and she ate the crickets.
This shows me that there is no substitute for real, meaningful, honest interaction between people around food. The connections and context and understanding that these interactions can create between us and our food are exactly what is needed to create and maintain meaningful changes to our modern diets.